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MoMA Shines a Spotlight on Architecture of Social Ambition and Outreach

Small Scale, Big Change hopes to start a new dialogue in architecture

By John Gendall

MoMA makes canons. In 1932, the Museum of Modern Art in New York defined the International Style with an exhibition by that name. A generation of utopian architecture landed in the U.S. with the 1972 exhibition, Italy: The New Domestic Landscape. And a generation of architects who wrangled with Derrida texts in school saw the 1988 show Deconstructivist Architecture bring their ideas about formally adventurous meta-architecture to the masses. But now, the tenure of Barry Bergdoll is poised, it seems, to move beyond aesthetics to define an architecture of social engagement. He opened his chief curatorship with a show touting prefabrication, and is just wrapping up an exhibition that tackled rising sea levels in New York. Now, curator Andres Lepik is turning his attention to contemporary architecture projects that address specific social inequities. Opening on October 3, Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement will run through January 3, 2011.

Organized by architecture curator Andres Lepik and curatorial assistant Margot Weller, the exhibition features 11 projects from around the world, hailing from the U.S., Chile, Venezuela, Brazil, France, Burkina Faso, South Africa, Bangladesh, and Lebanon.

Lepik is quick to point out that architecture has been an explicit social art since Modernism, and even before. “The history of early Modern architecture was so concerned with social impact,” Lepik explains. “Low cost housing—good quality, low budget—was a problem for all those early Modern architects—Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius.”

Though the subject has been long and widely neglected, the notion of architecture tackling social issues is part of MoMA’s institutional DNA. In the exhibition catalogue, museum director Glenn Lowry concedes that the museum has been “bound up with a sometimes reductively interpreted notion of an aestheticizing search for Modern style.” This exhibition, he says, “invites an aspect of architecture back to MoMA’s exhibition program that was inextricably linked with the development of early modern architecture: social relevance.”

Scales of activism

The current economic crisis provides a dramatic backdrop for the exhibition, giving it a timely and urgent tenor. The recession has prompted architects and critics to reconsider the values and objectives of architecture, and this exhibition picks up on that theme. “After the economic crisis, which really started as a housing crisis,” explains Lepik, “it is important to consider these issues—low-cost housing, and what the architect can do in this situation.”

Lepik includes three American projects: Michael Maltzan’s, FAIA, Inner-City Arts complex, in the Skid Row neighborhood of Los Angeles; Teddy Cruz’s Casa Familiar, a housing project in California’s Mexican border area; and Rural Studio’s $20K House, in Alabama.

Each of them addresses different sets of concerns at different scales. Casa Familiar, for example, operates at perhaps the most dire and urgent level of necessity of the American projects. It takes on the housing, economic, and social needs of a large population of low-income immigrants. In a different cultural setting, Rural Studio’s project provides inexpensive housing in sparsely populated and chronically impoverished western Alabama. For the Inner-City Arts program, on the other hand, Maltzan called for an arts school in an economically depressed area of Los Angeles that lacks public funds for arts education, yet is surrounded by one of the most economically vibrant and important cities in the nation. Now, 10,000 kids go through the school each year.

Maltzan’s project highlights one of Lepik’s main objectives, which is to address the different organizational approaches to taking on socially-driven commissions. “It’s not that an architect should just run to the favelas and to do good for the poor,” he says. “You can also take on these projects in your office while you’re doing your other work. For Maltzan,” Lepik continues, “he still works on [and] designs projects with big budgets, but he also does these social projects. It’s about taking your knowledge and your skills and offering it not only to people who can afford it, but also to people who may not be able to afford it.”

No parachutes

Lepik isn’t interested in projects that are designed in isolation, presented as superficial gifts, and shipped across the work by well-meaning architects. He endeavors to exhibit architects whose design process engages communities in substantive ways. The most successful projects, he found, are ones where the architect is closely involved. “It’s not parachuting a project into some remote place and then running away,” he says. With the Primary School in Burkina Faso, for example, architect Diébédo Francis Kéré called for bricks made on site by local community members. In this way, not only does the design provide a critically important education program, it also engages the community in a building project. “Each of the bricks has gone through many hands before it was placed in the wall,” explains Lepik. “Now, seven years later, there isn’t any damage to the building because the community knows exactly what went into it to make it.”

Other international projects include a mid-century Modernist housing development retrofit in Paris, conceived by Frédéric Druot, Anne Lacaton, and Jean Philippe Vassal; the Metro Cable project in Caracas, Venezuela, designed by Urban-Think Tank; Noero Wolff’s Red Location Museum of Struggle in South Africa; and an urban design proposal for Rio de Janeiro’s informal settlements. The exhibition includes drawings, photographs, models, videos and Internet-based media. Computer terminals will provide access to three online projects: Public Architecture’s The 1% (a non-profit that urges architectural pro bono work), the Open Architecture Network, and urbaninform.

Throughout its history, MoMA has demonstrated the ability to nearly define the destiny and evolution of architectural styles and movements. It was the midwife to American Modernism, and it launched the careers of so many contemporary architecture giants with its Deconstructivist exhibition just over 20 years ago. As such, this exhibition is as likely to mark a significant turning point in the architectural conversation as any, moving from a culture of celebrity to social engagement. “I didn’t want to do a show just about star architects,” Lepik says. “With the economic crisis, everyone felt like this was the right time for the social engagement of architecture.”


Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement. Image courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art.

Inner-City Arts in Los Angeles, designed by Michael Maltzan Architecture. Image courtesy of Iwan Baan.

A primary school in Gando, Burkina Faso designed by Diébédo Francis Kéré. Image courtesy of Siméon Duchoud/Aga Khan Trust for Culture.


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