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MoMA's Small Scale, Big Change

The exhibition "Small Scale, Big Change" opens at the Museum of Modern Art in New York this Sunday. Curious to hear more about the show—which sadly I won't have the chance to see in person—I got curator Andres Lepik on the phone to talk about the exhibition, which focuses on 11 architectural projects in underserved communities around the world.

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The show examines the ways architects can engage with social, economic, and political circumstances to develop positive architectural interventions that begin with an understanding and deference to a community.
 

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Can you tell me a bit about the genesis of the exhibition?
I was inspired by the 2000 architectural biennale in Venice, which had the title "less aesthetics, more ethics." It convinced me that architecture has relevance beyond just designing beautiful buildings and skyscrapers in Dubai. I started collecting images from magazines, checking out other architectural biennales and exhibitions, looking for examples of architecture made for the 95% of people who have no political voice and no economic means to afford architecture.
Is there a precedent for this kind of show at the MoMA?
Looking back into the history of architecture exhibitions at MoMA, early modernism was very interested in creating a better society through architecture. But since the 1940's, there hasn't been as much interest in the social aspect. So I thought it would be interesting—in this particular moment—to present examples from around the world that show the social aspects of architecture, the examples of 'less aesthetics, more ethics' in action.
What does the show say about the role of the architect in society?
It shows that architects can take responsibility, do research, work with locals, and create projects from inside communities, instead of imposed on communities from the outside. It says that good design is not only a privilege for the happy few who can afford it.
Do you have a favorite project you've included in the show?
Well, the Handmade School in Bangladesh [above, bottom photo] is convincing people to stay in their village rather than move to cities. The Manguinhos Complex in Rio de Janeiro is helping connect illegal, informal favelas with the greater city. But to my mind, the Diébédo Francis Kéré school in Gando, Burkina Faso [above, top three photos] is one of the most important projects in this show. Burkina Faso is a very poor country—the average income is $1 a day, and illiteracy is 80%. The school was built by Kéré, an architect born in a poor village in the country. He was the only one from his family who was sent to school, and he went on to get a fellowship to study architecture in Germany. He then returned to Burkina Faso, wanting to do something for his community. He brought back knowledge, and was able to develop architecture based on local knowledge and needs. The project was not only ecologically sustainable, but also socially sustainable. To build a school means to bring hope for the future.
What was the impact of the school on the larger community?
When the school was completed, they got three times more applicants than they could accommodate. So when Kéré won an award from Aga Khan, he put the money into building an extension for the school and houses for the teachers. Next he's planning to build a library. This is what I want to show with this exhibition: it's not just about one single project that has a big impact, but about the whole community. When kids get a school and a library, everything changes. The whole thing is kind of a miracle that happened there, and it sets an important example about the potential of architecture.
You sound very inspired yourself—did putting together this show affect you strongly?
Yes—it convinced me that in the future I need to go in this direction more and more. People are improving the world through their architecture, but as a curator I can participate, too, and give architects an opportunity to present their work and show what architecture can do for underserved communities.

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