Smart Move at Small Scale, Big Change

Smart Move at Small Scale, Big Change

Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
New York, New York
Through January 3, 2011

Timing is everything in the exhibition world. With the October 2 opening of MoMA’s Small Scale, Big Change show, the curators got it right. In the past, this hallowed institution has been chastised by the art world’s cutting edge for its too little/too late endorsement of emerging trends. As evidence, MoMA’s sometimes imperious cultural arbiters have tended to remain on safer ground by repeatedly staging epochal art and design surveys, primarily gleaned from the stellar permanent collections for which the museum is globally famous. This propensity for prudence has been a rather embarrassing confirmation of Gertrude Stein’s prophetic assessment of MoMA’s mission, when she turned down founding director Alfred Barr’s request for her art collection: “You can be a museum, or you can be modern, but you can’t be both.”

Stein’s critique was challenged during the museum’s heady years under American Art curator Dorothy Miller, who from the 1940s through the 1960s was acclaimed for her passionate progressivism and advocacy of seminal new talent. Since then, unfortunately, there has been a discernible aura of detachment from the untidy turbulence of the avant-garde. As a consequence, MoMA’s curatorial elite has often been content to mine the past for aesthetic content and avoid controversy by cautiously back-peddling its way through the contemporary art scene. This has resulted in the showcasing of a peculiar “if-you-please” brand of new work, which circuitously (but often too feebly) reflects the museum’s modernist foundations. The tendency has been particularly characteristic of architecture and design shows, which have continued to confirm a formalist bias and MoMA’s unwavering commitment to its modernist, Cubist, and Constructivist origins.

In terms of social/environmental principles and theoretical relevance, curators Andres Lepik and Margot Weller have pulled together a brilliant exhibition that contributively folds into the current flow of advanced architectural thinking. Any overview of student drafting tables and computer desktops in leading design schools over the past five years reveals a highly motivated generation, with a strong commitment to more socially, economically, and ecologically aware building agendas. In fact, for a vast and growing number of young designers, the preceding generation’s proclivity for sculptural bombast, exaltation of toxic materials, waste of fossil fuels, and break-the-bank budgets is pure anathema. At the same time—and citing an even more reviled chapter of recent history—this new generation rejects the fading postmodernist tradition, as embodied in those rather cloying pastiches of regional/ historical style. In particular, their targets of disdain include Disneyland main streets and travelogue Vegas casinos, as well as New Urbanism’s decorous offspring in Celebration and Seaside, Florida.

While the Small Scale, Big Change exhibition reveals its fair share of design clichés and modernist-derived formal strategies, the fundamental dedication to economy of means and social concern is commendable in the extreme. This being said, the most difficult task in designing for politically oppressed, racially segregated, and economically challenged communities is understanding the inhabitants’ day-to-day realities. For example, when disenfranchised people at the poverty level create their own habitat—especially that highly inventive garbage housing so often cited for praise by the design world—their gut-level vitality and enterprising invention is based on a radical state of urgency. It is a condition of basic survival and expediency that, in all probability, is rarely understood by those “socially responsible” architects who have been conditioned by the comfort zones of economic security and haute conception sensibilities. While expressing compassion and understanding, their imported solutions for destitute neighborhoods are too often conceived from a combination of Harvard/Yale aesthetic, alien social sensibility, and naïve idealism.

The best works in Small Scale, Big Change have confronted and worked successfully with these complex problems of contextual response. The METI/Anna Heringer Handmade School in Rudrapur, Bangladesh demonstrates a sensitive awareness of regional scale, materials, and construction processes. The architect knew and deeply understood the community’s standards and aspirations from her long-term residence. Also, by choosing a school environment, she enabled a building type that everyone could enthusiastically endorse from the outset as a necessary, unifying force in the township. Furthermore, by engaging local labor and materials, her final work achieves that rare integration of high aesthetic, appropriate technology, and communicative imagery. Masterfully conceived, the completed structure seems like it has always been there.

The main virtues of Diébédo Francis Kéré’s Primary School in the West African village of Gando are its careful attention to sustainable values and regionally available materials. Over nine years, the structure has proven to be not only a successful educational institution in terms of spatial organization and air circulation, but also extraordinarily durable in spite of consistent and punishing occupancy. At the same time, the highly formalized design resolution seems to have come more from the architect’s education in Berlin than from his inherent sensitivity to local ambience and the more imaginative ideas that might have been extracted from West Africa’s richly varied psychological and cultural sources.

Moving on through the exhibition, Hashim Sarkis’ Housing for Fishermen in Lebanon demonstrates a great deal of sympathy for inside/ outside living accommodations and response to climate and efficient planning issues. The final resolution, however, in terms of form and color, seems to have popped out of some academic institution’s regional design manual, as opposed to being a deeply researched and creatively orchestrated extension of Middle Eastern housing over the centuries. Michael Maltzan’s Inner City Arts complex in Los Angeles ended up a little too sanitized for the constituency it is intended to serve. Given the idiosyncratic character of this Skid Row community, it would seem that rather than pristine white walls, the surroundings should offer myriad surfaces for spontaneous wall paintings, stages for nascent rap groups, automobile  enhancement shops, and meeting places full of neighborhood-related artifacts. It is always a mistake for critical writers to offer design input; but in this case, it does seem that a rough and tumble collage of local participation might have been the better choice.

Dave’s House by Rural Studio, consistent with the imaginative productions of this Alabama-based educational ensemble, is admirably simple, economical, and green. It also possesses a faintly perverse character, because it seems like the exact replica of a dumb habitat, elevated to art status by its subtle interventions. Reminiscent of numerable regional house styles ranging from New Orleans to the Southwest, this archetypal dwelling achieves a special brand of aesthetic nobility, which becomes simultaneously acceptable to any local user and applauded by a MoMA curator. The only regrettable legacy of Rural Studio’s founder, Sam Mockbee, is his widespread influence on architectural education across the U.S. What has emerged is a kind of “frugal ideal” kit of parts—now endlessly appropriated by any faculty member or student who aspires to socially conscious design. The frugality part is great, but the assimilation of Sam’s stylistic influence is fast becoming an academy in itself.


Some of the projects included in the exhibition are well-designed solutions for less-than-urgent situations. The compelling community need, culturally responsive habitat, and minimum cost exigencies that seem to have shaped the primary objective of the exhibit also tend to marginalize certain endeavors. In this context, some structures seem more passively contributive to the collective ambitions of the show. The works include Elemental’s Quinta Monroy Housing in Iquique, Chile, where the issues of density and low-cost dwelling space have been very successfully resolved within a previously depressed area of the city. Similarly, the Druot/ Lacaton/Vassal transformation of Tour Bois-le-Prêtre in Paris represents the reinvention of a dreary housing block into a masterfully orchestrated symphony of delicately wrought balconies and spatially enhanced apartment extensions.

The work of Estudio Teddy Cruz has long been admired in the design world for its social conscience and edgy imagination. The firm’s Casa Familiar housing in San Ysidro, California contains all of the deft formal means identified with Cruz. Still, the project seems to lack the insouciant wit, cultural absorption, and social advocacy characteristic of his best work. There is a satisfying choice of formal interaction among the collective “Living Rooms,” yet the ensemble effect is somehow too proper and politically correct to reinforce Cruz’s oft-stated anti-establishment mission.

One of the more frustrating contributions to the show is the Urban-Think Tank’s Metro Cable in Caracas. Here was the pinnacle opportunity to bring mass transport to a previously isolated, garbage-housed section of the city, capping off the whole endeavor with a truly site-specific architectural response. Regrettably, the architects chose to ignore the veritable mountain of imaginative collage construction directly underneath the metro station, and instead impose a high-tech, starship-like facility on top of this wealth of gritty source material. In some ways, a number of the projects in this show suffer from a similar lack of “pushing the envelope,” in terms of contextual inclusion.

Any nitpicking is not intended to diminish the vast importance of the show. The bottom line here is the fact that the MoMA team of Lepik and Weller has assembled a cohesive and beautifully mounted exhibition, while contributing significantly to the ultimate 21st-century discourse on human habitat. Smaller scale, economic imperatives, environmental initiatives, and the ability to transform frugality itself into art, are the new raw materials of progressive design. In the end, this soul-searching challenge is just as much about aesthetic innovation as it is about socially responsible action.

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