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The architect as a moderator of change
von Abby Bussel | 10/31/2010

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

www.moma.org

Anna Heringer and Eike Roswag. METI – Handmade School. Rudrapur, Bangladesh. 2004-06, Foto: Kurt Hörbst
Anna Heringer. METI – Handmade School. Rudrapur, Bangladesh. 2004-06 Foto: Kurt Hörbst
Anna Heringer and Eike Roswag. METI – Handmade School. Rudrapur, Bangladesh. 2004-06 Foto: Kurt Hörbst
Installation photo at MoMA. Elemental. Quinta Monroy Housing Project. Iquique, Chile. 2003-05 Foto: Jason Mandella
Hashim Sarkis A.L.U.D. Color study for Housing for the Fishermen of Tyre. Tyre, Lebanon. 1998-2008 Foto: Hashim Sarkis A.L.U.D.
Hashim Sarkis A.L.U.D. Housing for the Fishermen of Tyre. Tyre, Lebanon. 1998-2008 Foto: Joumana Jamhouri
Hashim Sarkis A.L.U.D. Housing for the Fishermen of Tyre. Tyre, Lebanon. 1998-2008 Foto: Joumana Jamhouri
Frédéric Druot, Anne Lacaton, Jean Philippe Vassal. Rendering for Transformation of Bois-le-Prêtre Tower. Paris, France. 2006-11 Foto: Druot, Lacaton & Vassal
Installation photo at MoMA. Anna Heringer and Eike Roswag. METI – Handmade School. Rudrapur, Bangladesh. 2004-06 Image: Jason Mandella
Noero Wolff Architects. Section sketch for Red Location Museum of Struggle. Port Elizabeth, South Africa. 1998-2005 Foto: Jo Noero, Noero Wolff Architects
Noero Wolff Architects. Red Location Museum of Struggle. Port Elizabeth, South Africa. 1998-2005 Foto: Iwan Baan
Noero Wolff Architects. Red Location Museum of Struggle. Port Elizabeth, South Africa. 1998-2005 Foto: Iwan Baan
Installation photo at MoMA. Noero Wolff Architects. Red Location Museum of Struggle. Port Elizabeth, South Africa. 1998-2005 Foto: Jason Mandella
Urban-Think Tank. Metro Cable. Caracas, Venezuela. 2007-10 Foto: Iwan Baan
Urban-Think Tank. Metro Cable. Caracas, Venezuela. 2007-10 Foto: Iwan Baan
Urban-Think Tank. Transit diagram for Metro Cable. Caracas, Venezuela. 2007-10 Foto: Urban-Think Tank
Installation photo at MoMA. Urban-Think Tank. Metro Cable. Caracas, Venezuela. 2007-10 Foto: Jason Mandella
Elemental. Quinta Monroy Housing Project. Iquique, Chile. 2003-05, Foto: Cristobal Palma
Elemental. Quinta Monroy Housing Project. Iquique, Chile. 2003-05 Foto: Cristobal Palma
Elemental. Quinta Monroy Housing Project. Iquique, Chile. 2003-05 Foto: Tadeuz Jalocha
Installation photo at MoMA. Estudio Teddy Cruz. Casa Familiar: Living Rooms at the Border and Senior Housing with Childcare. San Ysidro, California. 2001-present Foto: Jason Mandella
Diébédo Francis Kéré. Primary School. Gando, Burkina Faso. 1999-2001 Foto: Siméon Duchoud/Aga Khan Trust for Culture
Diébédo Francis Kéré. Primary School. Gando, Burkina Faso. 1999-2001 Foto: Siméon Duchoud/Aga Khan Trust for Culture
Diébédo Francis Kéré. Primary School. Gando, Burkina Faso. 1999-2001 Foto: Siméon Duchoud/Aga Khan Trust for Culture
Jorge Mario Jáuregui. Diagram of intervention area for Manguinhos Complex. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 2006-10 Foto: Jorge Mario Jáuregui
Jorge Mario Jáuregui. Construction photograph for Manguinhos Complex. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 2006-2010 Foto: Gabriel Jáuregui
Michael Maltzan Architecture. Inner-City Arts. Los Angeles, California. 1993-2008 Foto: Iwan Baan
Michael Maltzan Architecture. Inner-City Arts. Los Angeles, California. 1993-2008 Foto: Iwan Baan
Rural Studio, Auburn University, $20K House VIII. Newbern, Alabama. 2009 Foto: Timothy Hursley
Rural Studio, Auburn University. $20K House VIII (Dave’s House). Newbern, Alabama. 2009 Foto: Rural Studio, Auburn University
Rural Studio, Auburn University. $20K House VIII (Dave’s House). Hale County, Alabama. 2009 Foto: Timothy Hursley
Estudio Teddy Cruz. Drawing for Casa Familiar: Living Rooms at the Border and Senior Housing with Childcare. San Ysidro, California. 2001-present Foto: Estudio Teddy Cruz
Estudio Teddy Cruz. Concept diagram for Casa Familiar: Living Rooms at the Border and Senior Housing with Childcare. San Ysidro, California. 2001-present Foto: Estudio Teddy Cruz
Estudio Teddy Cruz. Diagram for Casa Familiar: Living Rooms at the Border and Senior Housing with Childcare. San Ysidro, California. 2001-present Foto: Estudio Teddy Cruz
Cover of the publication Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement, published by The Museum of Modern Art.