Curating with a Conscience
Upon entering Small Scale Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement‚ the latest exhibition from MoMA's Architecture and Design department‚ the tone of the exhibition is immediately set by a graphic of critical demographic statistics from each of the communities where the projects are built: 80 percent of the population in Port Elizabeth, South Africa are unemployed; fishermen in Tyre, Lebanon earn $15 a day in the high season. The exhibition, organized by curator Andres Lepik (who Dwell editor Jaime Gross interviewed last week for a Q&A) and curatorial assistant Margot Weller, is the most recent in a string of proactive exhibitions from the A+D department. Like Rising Currents: Projects for New York's Waterfront and Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling, Small Scale Big Change sparks new ways of thinking about global issues like sustainability, community development, public policy, housing, poverty, and inequity, among others.
From Rio's favelas and South Africa's townships, to Paris's Périphérique, the architecture shown in this exhibition grapples with the ethical side of architecture. Facets of architecture that frequently garner attention are visionary, experimental programs, and big-budget commissions with even bigger names attached to them‚ which certainly have their places and merits‚ but the 95 percent of the world who can't afford a Gehry or a Pelli is who's targeted in Small Scale Big Change.
Over the last decade or so, architects have largely been disengaged with the social aspect of their field, and this exhibition aims to redefine the roles and responsibilities of 21st century architects. Instead of enumerating academic theories or manifestoes, the projects presented in the exhibition are pragmatic applications of architecture grounded in issues unique to each situation and place. Though the immediate circumstances surrounding each project are different, the resulting architecture validates a single supposition: design is not necessarily a privilege of the few and the powerful.
Lepik proposed the project in 2008 in the midst of the economic and housing crisis, but had been thinking of the subject since the 2000 Venice Biennale, themed‚ "less aesthetics, more ethics."
The projects are not a group or style; they improve human condition through good design, he says. All of the projects are currently built‚ some finished nearly 10 years ago‚ or are nearing completion, a conscious decision made to convey the message that progress is possible, and architects have the power to make it a reality.
What's interesting about some of the projects‚ particularly those in third-world nations‚ is that the architects aren't relying on the latest technologies or engineering techniques. When it comes to creating a project that truly integrates with a community‚ "it's important to work from the bottom up, not from the top down," says Lepik. "It's about [real world] knowledge, not high-technology learned in architecture schools."
For many of these projects the most important thing constructed built isn't the actual structure, but rather the community around it‚ the "social" aspect of sustainability. For example, Diébédo Francis Kéré, a Burkina Faso-born, German-educated architect, needed to rally an entire community to help build a primary school in Gando. The people came away from the project with a new school along the know-how and capability to reproduce the structure in surrounding communities.
Employing community members to complete a project was also critical to Noero Wolff Architects's project in Port Elizabeth's Red Location, one of the oldest townships in South Africa, and the center of the anti-apartheid movement in the 1940's and 1950's. The architecture firm, headed by Jo Noero, designed a master plan for the area, including housing, a library, school, museum, and public space, all of which aimed to reverse de facto segregation that still exists in the area. One of the most interesting aspects of the project was the decision to hire exclusively unskilled workers from the community. For three months, a group would work on the project, gaining employment and job skills; after their three-month tenure was over, another group of unemployed, unskilled workers would be hired.
Though third-world countries are featured prominently, the exhibition also grapples with issues‚ namely in housing‚ present in so-called "first-world" cities, like Paris, San Ysidro, and Los Angeles.
Designed as a "creative refuge" for at-risk children in Los Angeles' skid row Inner-City Arts seeks to contribute a community that's been virtually ignored in terms of public services. The Michael Maltzan Architecture project provides a new structure for the non-profit, which occupied temporary spaces for several years. Maltzan wanted the bright white building to be a source of pride for the neighborhood, and for it to feel like a special place for the people in the community. In an area where 70 percent of residents live under the poverty line and there are 7,000 homeless, Inner-City Arts acts as a positive binding force for the 10,600 children who participate in its arts education programs each year. "You place something special into the neighborhood, and it becomes a part of its identity," says Lepik.
The exhibition shows that‚ "think locally, act globally‚" does indeed make an impact. I hope that more people push for this type of construction, and more architects start making ethically- and socially-driven work a priority so that in time, these projects aren't rare exceptions in the architectural climate. While Kere's compressed-earth building may not be applicable all around the world, and Rural Studio's $20k house in Alabama might sound like an exorbitant budget for a home in Africa, the exhibition brings these ideas to mainstream attention, and that's a hefty part of the battle.