Small Scale, Big Change! In the Museum of Modern Art showcases exceptional architectural projects that have risen in unlikely places under difficult circumstances. In the early 1990s, when the projects on display were being developed, there was a worldwide boom in the construction industry. Houses, office towers, and museums seemed to be getting bigger and bigger, and in some cases their architects elevated to rock-star status. Meanwhile, as if on another planet, a small, but growing number of architects was experimenting with alternative forms of building, in which interdisciplinary collaboration takes precedence over individual celebrity and disadvantaged people deliberately preferred to socially privileged, wealthy clients.
It is a shame that it has taken MoMA many years to acknowledge a revitalized commitment to socially committed architectural projects. It is also unfortunate that information about the budgets that were available is only provided for two of the buildings, and that the definition "small" is hard to comprehend given the considerable range of scales represented. Nonetheless, the eleven works on view deserve attention. Many are known to the design cognoscenti, including Estudio Teddy Cruz's fantastic Casa Familiar senior housing in San Ysidro, California, and Rural Studio's $20K House VIII in Newbern, Alabama, but few will be known to the general public. In this respect the show at MoMA plays an important role. It sends a message that architecture is more than shiny buildings for those with deep pockets.
In terms of their theoretical and formal qualities, the architects whose works are featured cannot be categorized together, they had a common goal to improve living conditions: They are, according to the introductory wall text: "radically pragmatic." In his catalog essay, curator Andres Lepik, who organized the exhibition with Margot Weller, wrote: "To increase the social relevance of architecture at the beginning of the twenty-first century, architects must no longer think of themselves simply as designers of buildings, but rather as moderators of change." As such mere master builders become initiators and advocates.
Two examples: The Austrian architect Anna Heringer's commitment to the 1,500 residents of Rudrapur, Bangladesh, began during her time there as a student volunteer. As short time later for her masters thesis she designed what is now the METI - Handmade School, a two-storey, five-classroom building. She proposed the concept to an NGO working in the village, which went ahead with the project. It was built by local laborers, who took away new construction skills, using local materials-a mixture of clay, earth, sand, straw, and water, as well as bamboo. Berlin architect Eike Roswag served as construction manager.
In a different kind of community-based process, the interdisciplinary group Elemental was commissioned by the Chilean government to draw up a housing project for low-income families in the desert city of Iquique. The budget for Quinta Monroy Housing was $7,500 per unit, including land, infrastructure, and construction. The houses were meant to be particularly seismically stable. 93 households received an enclosed living space, with plumbing. Though the houses had no fittings, an empty area next to them meant they could be expanded in the future. Residents complete and expand their new homes as time and personal finances allowed. The project in Iquique was so successful that Elemental has now built 1,000-plus of these units throughout Latin America.
Given the currently troubled state of affairs around the globe, change agents of the architectural kind, like the architects in the MoMA show, are serving a remarkably important role. They are rock stars of an altogether different breed.
Small Scale, Big Change: New Architecture of Social Engagement
October 3, 2010 till January 3, 2011
Museum of Modern Art
New York, NY