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Review> Neat Necessity
Design with the Other 90%: Cities explores socially conscious urban interventions.
Early morning market, Durban, South Africa.
Courtesy Itrump

Design with the Other 90%: Cities
Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum at the United Nations
405 East 42nd Street
Through January 9, 2012

Visitors to Design with the Other 90%: Cities, the important, imperfect survey of socially conscious urban interventions organized by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum but on view at the United Nations Visitors Lobby, are greeted with a barrage of maps, colors, grainy photos, information graphics, crude models, and blinking video screens. This messy assemblage is, for those of us who are used to tidier design exhibitions, initially off-putting, a bit like taking necessary medicine. Pushing past this resistance offers great rewards, however. While not groundbreaking, Design with the Other 90% is a heartening testament to the problem-solving powers of design and a bracing reminder of the stakes of rapid urbanization around the world.

Though covering much of the same thematic territory as MoMA’s recent show Small Scale, Big Change, Design with the Other 90% is a show devoted to practical solutions, not high design. What prevents the show from being too dreary—and elevates it above better-looking exhibitions—are the voices of the residents and end-users dispersed throughout. In Bangladesh, a simple bamboo platform built over the edge of a lake and a new garden in a formerly garbage-choked patch of land became a community recreation and education space. They have inspired others in the slum to take up gardening, and a group of young girls expound on their love of the spaces and describe how the sheltered platform has allowed them to set up a library in their impoverished community. One of them speaks of now wanting to be an architect when she grows up. Their optimism is infectious.

Bang Bua Canal Community, Bangkok, Thailand.
Courtesy ACRH

Other projects present a similarly humble nobility. Also in Bangladesh, Floating Community Lifeboats, designed by architect Mohammed Rezwan, serve as schools, libraries, and health clinics. These boats have a straightforward elegance that acknowledges vernacular precedents while addressing contemporary needs. With their whitewashed bamboo walls and column-free spans, they are dignified settings for providing social services. They also reflect an understanding of the waterlogged country’s fragility in the face of rising tides and climate change.

The show includes many examples that integrate economic issues with the informal, slum settlements and planned development. Solutions like the Integral Urban Project in Caracas create community gathering spaces and improved drainage by paving and enlarging the jagged footpaths and staircases that thread throughout the favelas. In Durban, South Africa, the rebuilt Warwick Junction market provides a safe and sanitary environment for small-scale food vendors, with precast concrete cooking cubicles and steel serving tables. Both projects upgrade existing conditions rather than trying to will them away.

In addition to the visual barrage, and perhaps due to it, the exhibition feels somewhat dislocated. Bouncing around the world from one project to the next is oddly leveling, and the various places covered begin to blur. Informal settlements are not the same around the world, however, and cleaner exhibition design and a different organization strategy could have helped viewers differentiate and distill the vast quantity of information presented.

Many of the projects in Design With the Other 90% are modest in their scope but could be replicated at very low cost on a much larger scale. The designers and community groups included in the show have demonstrated the initiative to create these intelligent solutions. Cooper-Hewitt deserves credit for engaging a new public and institutional audience. On a recent visit, the exhibition was crowded with viewers, many more so than at a typical show at the museum’s currently shuttered Carnegie Mansion. Let’s hope some of those viewers are decision-makers from the General Assembly. Smart policy could carry these projects forward and vastly improve conditions for the millions flocking to cities around the world every year.

Alan G. Brake

Alan G. Brake is AN's Midwest editor.