Early in the 20th century, leading architects were fluent in the language — the practice — of social change. Trailblazing figures like Le Corbusier, Gropius and Mies were preoccupied, even obsessed, with deploying technological advances to make cities healthier and housing more affordable, and they relentlessly advanced their agendas not only through building projects but also in books like The Radiant City and Towards a New Architecture, in prototype exhibitions like the Weissenhofsiedlung, in institutions like the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne and at schools like the Bauhaus. By the end of the 20th century, that fluency was long gone. Too many of the large aspirations remained unfulfilled, and what once seemed heroic had come to look hubristic, even naive. By the time I entered architecture school, earlier in this decade, it was clear that the rhetoric of social responsibility had been marginalized, crowded out of the mainstream by the heady opportunities for signature design during the long boom.
With “Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement,” the Museum of Modern Art in New York City is attempting to reengage — to relearn and reteach — the language of the social. Curated by Andres Lepik, the exhibition, which opened on October 3 and runs through January 3, focuses on eleven recent projects that, in the words of the exhibition wall text, “bring innovative architecture to underserved communities.” The text acknowledges the precedent of the early modernists even as it negotiates a strategic distance. “The renewed commitment of these architects and many of their colleagues to socially responsible architecture is reminiscent of the ideals of the twentieth-century masters, but these designers eschew their predecessors’ utopian, wholesale blueprints for change imposed from above.” In contrast, the projects on view are all “radically pragmatic, ‘acupunctural’ projects — limited interventions with wide-ranging effects.”
This is unquestionably big-spirited, and, following closely on “Rising Currents,” this latest exhibition reinforces MoMA’s increasing focus on social and environmental issues, on the topical and political rather than the formal and aesthetic. And yet “Small Scale, Big Change” suggests also the extent to which the field is struggling to regain command of a once familiar set of skills, a language long ignored, for the message of the exhibition seems diffuse, even unclear.
To a significant degree this results from the sheer variety of the works on display. The eleven projects span five continents (only Australia and Antarctica go unrepresented) and more than a decade. They are by different designers, working with different programs, with different construction technologies and material palettes, in different cultural contexts and — despite the unifying title — at different scales. As Alexandra Lange noted last week, on Change Observer, this kind of diversity “creates a lack of cohesion and, ultimately, conclusion.”
It is hard, for instance, to trace a strong connection between a project like METI – Handmade School, by Anna Heringer and Eike Roswag, and the Transformation of the Tour Bois-le-Prêtre, by Frédéric Druot, Anne Lacaton and Jean Philippe Vassal. Located in a Bangladeshi village, the Handmade School, which originated as Heringer’s master’s thesis, makes ingenious use of traditional local materials such as earth, clay, sand, straw and bamboo to create a small two-story school, with classrooms and play caves. In contrast, the Tour Bois-le-Prêtre is a renovated public housing high-rise; the prominent French firm Lacaton & Vassal, which won a competition sponsored by the City of Paris, has proposed extending the units’ floor slabs and attaching prefabricated modular pods to give tenants more space and light. Both Handmade and Bois-le-Prêtre are innovative; but is that enough to bridge the gap in client, budget, program, technology and scale?
Other projects range widely as well. Metro Cable, by Urban-Think Tank, is a politically complex intervention, a new cable car line linking the barrios of Caracas with the city’s official transit system; after years of development, and with the support of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, the line began service earlier this year. Surely the impact of this infrastructure-scale project will be more extensive than that of the Red Location Museum, located in a black township in Port Elizabeth, South Africa; the museum, designed by Noero Wolff Architects, and dedicated to the struggle against apartheid, is a sophisticated but singular institution, whose effects will inevitably be indirect.
A further complication of “Small Scale, Big Change” is the fact the some projects are built, while others remain unrealized. In the latter category are the Manguinhos Complex, by Jorge Mario Jáuregui/Metrópolis Projetos Urbanos, which will comprise elevating a rail line and creating a linear park just below, for a district of favelas in Rio de Janeiro; and Casa Familiar: Living Rooms at the Border and Senior Housing with Childcare, by Estudio Teddy Cruz, a pilot housing project in San Ysidro, California, just north of the U.S.-Mexican border near Tijuana. (In the spirit of disclosure: I have been working with Teddy Cruz on a project in Central America.) In both of these projects the architects have been focusing not just on built results; they are using the process of designing and producing architecture as an opportunity to spur social change. Jáuregui/MPU conducted extensive meetings and interviews with the local community to assure that the projects met local needs with minimum demolition and cultural disruption. Estudio Teddy Cruz set up a similarly participatory process, and used the project to lobby for new density and land-use regulations in San Ysidro, to better reflect the realities of immigrant life. It is unfortunate that the exhibition, which is packed with objects and drawings, has not found a way to reflect these dynamic and engaging methods.
In the case of built works, too, the exhibition puts more emphasis on well-crafted models and beautiful drawings than on the less imageable criteria and metrics that would allow us to evaluate the actual impact of the works. To be sure, it is not hard to believe that these projects are highly positive for their communities. $20K House VIII (Dave’s House), by the Rural Studio at Auburn University, marks the Studio’s efforts to develop a repeatable model for affordable housing in Hale County, Alabama — to move beyond the provision of individual houses for particular families. The Quinta Monroy Housing, by Elemental, consists of almost 100 units of bare-bones housing in Iquique, Chile, intended to be customizable through the sweat equity of the low-income tenants. The Primary School, a project launched by architect Diébédo Francis Kéré, traces the renovation of a decrepit school in Kéré’s hometown of Gando, Burkina Faso. Another education project, Inner-City Arts, by Michael Maltzan Architeture, occupies a one-acre campus in Skid Row in Los Angeles, where impoverished kids can take art classes. Housing for the Fishermen of Tyre, by Hashim Sarkis A.L.U.D., culminates a decade-long effort to provide decent living quarters for Lebanese workers whose industry has been hurt by years of war and political conflict.
All of the projects in the exhibition thrive on their own ingenuity. Yet it would have been illuminating to learn more about how exactly they are driving “big change.” The exhibition never really defines what it means by change, however, and so we are left wondering, from project to project, and scale to scale: Change from what? To what purpose? And we might wonder as well: What is the role of architecture in bringing about change? To what extent does the quality of a design make a difference? Do the architectural achievements of the Primary School or the Handmade School or Inner-City Arts matter as much as the skill and dedication of the educational non-profits they house?
These aren’t easy questions. If architects could quantify the impact of their designs, the discipline would be much more powerful — and questions of social change would occupy the main line of the profession and the academy. Ultimately “Small Scale, Big Change” is best understood as evidence of the disciplinary resolve to start up an old conversation — to move into the mainstream a movement long consigned to the edges, to the thankless realm of the “alterative.” As is almost always the case at a major museum, the exhibition is more retrospective than projective; all of the projects have been published in the professional and academic literature and will be familiar within the field. But for a wider public this exhibition should serve as a timely introduction to more than a decade of work that signals a resurgent movement. Let’s hope that MoMA and similar institutions remain focused, and help it to grow and mature. The Indonesian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti, the floods in Pakistan, the BP oil spill, the global recession, the looming dislocations of global warming — there is no shortage of need for designs that can leverage small means to bring about big change.