7:12 am Oct. 4, 2010
The walls of the gallery in which the Museum of Modern Art has staged a new show, titled "Small Scale, Big Changes: New Architecture of Social Engagement," are robin's-egg blue, and the floor laid with warm honey-colored wood. The space is divided by four white walls, maybe 10 feet high and twice as long, that provide a surface for photographs and diagrams, and give the installations something closer to their own space, with the view of the other projects blocked off.
The exhibit is meant to show architecture “as a powerful means of for improving social conditions,” according to the press kit.
Eleven different projects—in varying stages of completion, though none are just theoretical—by 11 different teams are on display. There are sketches and models and photographs and video, but most of the text is devoted to describing the social benefits of these efforts.
Some of the installations—about building a village for fishermen in Lebanon, or elevating a railroad to open up space for parks in Rio de Janeiro—include testimonies from the beneficiaries; in the walkway that leads to the gallery, large grey panels on the walls give statistics: “0 families were forced to move during the project, the footprint of each apartment is increasing by roughly 15%”; “45,000 people live in barrio San Agustin. The majority commutes to the city for work. A ride on Metro Cable is up to 9 TIMES FASTER than climbing the 39-story hill.”
This humane architecture, like “green” building, is designed to serve a principle. Ranging from building a school in Burkina Faso to refurbishing modernist housing projects in Paris, all the plans included are supposed to in some way improve quality of life in the place where they are built; it would be hard to argue that any of the 11 do not.
The "radical pragmatism" of some, like building environmentally sound schools using local materials and labor in underserved regions (two of the 11 projects fit this description) sound like projects the viewer suspects are going on already all over the world at the behest of organizations like The Peace Corps. The majority, however, are innovative—and more likely to teach us something new.
For example, the design firm Urban-Think Tank installed a system of cable cars running from the dense, poor, illegal neighborhoods in the hills to the center of Caracas, Venezuela. Putting in roads would be massively invasive from an ecological point of view, so it’s a way to incorporate those neighborhoods into the public transportation system, de-isolate those neighborhoods, and, according to the release, “contribute to gradual changes in Caracas’s social structure.”
Or Rural Studio in Newbern, Ala., a program that has been run by Auburn College since 1993. The project shown at MoMA was the “$20K House III (Dave’s House)” the latest in the series of homes built by students every year, and the one to reach the goal of a design that could be built for $20,000. That number was chosen because in Alabama's Hale County, where the houses would be built, most residents are eligible for federal housing loans, but can afford a mortgage no larger that $20,000. Many of them live in trailers, which depreciate in value. Local contractors build the houses and the materials are bought locally, and the residents themselves pay for the house. If they can get to the point of turning out houses every three weeks, which is the goal, it will contribute to the Hale County economy, which is weak.
In other words, it’s only sort of charity, and it fills needs and provides the basis for a certain self-sufficiency.
Then there are projects like “Meti - Handmade School,” which originated with a group of Austrian architecture students conducting a study of "civic and economic opportunities for villagers" in Rudrapur, Bangladesh. Their study found a lack of educational opportunities fro villagers, and one of them, Anna Heringer, designed a school for her thesis work. After presenting it to some existing non-governmental organizations and raising money for a year, Heringer brought in an Austrian architect to manage the construction, which had its own idiosyncratic building technique in which local unskilled laborers were trained, using traditional building materials but making a number of "improvements upon local building traditions." The school building is exceptional, but one is left wondering whether construction is a growth industry in Rudrapur, and whether learning these construction methods will persist as a useful skill to the locals.
“Red Location Museum of Struggle,” by Noero Wolff Architects, was commissioned by the south African city of Port Elizabeth, one of the oldest townships in the country and one of the centers of the anti-Apartheid movement. The city wanted to memorialize the area’s history, and the museum presented a certain aesthetic challenge as well: since blacks were not allowed to go to museums under Apartheid, it was a requirement that the design make "resistance an integral part of the experience” for museum-goers.
There was a problem with the local people.
“From the outset, the main issue in the planning of the museum was future acceptance of the institution within its neighborhood,” according to the catalogue. The community association was suspicious of these outsiders coming in to build, and so the project required weekly community meetings and a system of rotating workers—three months in, then they had to make room for someone else to spread the work around. At the moment, the museum provides “A broad entrance portico with a timber pergola” that “serves as a transition space between the surrounding shacks and the museum.” It is “an inviting gathering place for the people of the neighborhood.” There is also a 2,500-seat outdoor movie theater. Construction of the art museum and the archive are underway.
There’s something about the sound of “surrounding shacks” and “art museum” that suggest there may be other projects that the Red Location residents would appreciate, and whether the problem lies with the city for commissioning the object or not, its placement in this exhibit of the "radically pragmatic" is a bit puzzling.
In the end, all the projects are physical manifestations of an architectural theory, or at the very least an architect’s idea of what would change a given community for the better. There’s something a bit uncomfortable about imposing high-concept architecture on what the press materials call “underserved communities.” Specificity of place is one of the characteristics touted as a theme of the show, but ultimately none of these place-specific projects seems to actually originate with the communities in which they are built; they each ultimately test an architectural premise concocted elsewhere. All of the projects, seemingly, have certain benefits and the plaques and the materials are full of words like fabric, community, integration, collaboration, flexibility, amenity. Well-intended themes and concepts that sometimes but not always appear to be a priority for underserved communities.
None of these are necessarily the wrong choices, but the show might have more impact if only the strongest, say, eight of these projects were displayed. When the majority of the projects are truly fascinating, it seems like a waste to muddy the waters with concepts and designs we have all seen before, and that have the feel of architecture in its moments of noblesse oblige.
More by this author:
- How 'The New York Times' controls architecture criticism in America, whoever its critic may be
- American Girl: The Wallis Simpson story, told differently