If there is an upside to the doom and gloom of the current economy it is perhaps that architecture is shedding its 'look at me' focus for one that endeavours to make a difference. At New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) the current exhibition Small Scale Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement takes up this charge in a big way, presenting eleven building projects on five continents that bring innovative architecture and inspired thinking in small doses to under-served communities with impressive results.
While the projects on show are specific, the broader message of the show is that architecture has once again taken up the social call of the early Modernist programme as espoused by such organisations as Congrès internationaux d'architecture moderne (CIAM) in the late 1920s which spoke not of cities and communities that would work better, but cities and communities that would work for everyone.
But unlike the visionary proposals of the architects of that era, such as Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin (1925) and Frank Lloyd Wright’s comprehensive Broadacre City (1932) which were unrealisable in part due to their massive scale, the projects presented here reject the notion of sweeping change in favour of an 'acupunctural' or chiropractic approach where modest changes yield big results. Such an approach is not only appropriate in the current time, where communities are strapped for cash and resources, but the show's call for ‘incrementalism’ as a general approach that can work anywhere makes sense for a whole host of reasons.
Within its message of ‘architect as do-gooder’, beauty is still on the table if not acting as an end goal for many of the projects, most notably the show’s opener; a primary school in the West African nation of Burkina Fasto designed by local architect Diébédo Francis Kéré, whose simple forms and materials have been brought together with a clarity, structural honesty and artistic competence (more akin to high art than vernacular) that belies the project’s humble intentions. Which leads to another point of the show, which is that beauty need not be forgotten in architecture’s call to service.
Without sacrificing aesthetics, these 11 projects – situated in the United States, Venezuela, Brazil, France, Burkina Faso, South Africa Bangladesh and Lebanon - represent wide-ranging architectural solutions that have in common a commitment to sustained research into local conditions and close collaboration with communities.
From a housing project in Paris that is a 'fix of a fix', an intervention into an idealistic yet failed modernist housing block that expands living and communal space while delivering more light and air to the individual units in lieu of tearing the building down, to a cable car in Caracas that links the people in the barrios, which are 60% of the population, to urban transportation to eliminate long and arduous commutes for basic services in lieu of constructing a road that would destroy communities, these projects are remarkable for their sensitivity to place and local conditions and for the dramatic results they achieve from modest measures. Moreover, they signal a change in the long-standing dialogue between architecture and its environs and between architects and those they serve.
While the exhibition presents a selection of materials on each project including models drawings, videos, and large-scale photographs and sketchbooks, its scope is intended to be far reaching as evidenced by the inclusion of three internet-based networks - the 1%, Open Architecture Network and urbaninform - that extend the exhibition’s scope to include stakeholders in various areas of practice around the world. These networks serve as forums in which community leaders, architects and non-governmental organisations share information and experience.
The projects presented in Small Scale Big Change are but a sampling of a large number of similar initiatives taking place in cities and villages around the globe that demonstrate the degree to which architects can make a difference by prioritising work that has social merit and that balances the very real concerns of cost, program and aesthetics.
The lesson of the exhibition may be instructive to cities like Detroit and New Orleans where an approach of wholesale transformation by big government is no longer practical or desirable and where grass-roots initiatives such as community arts programs, temporary-to-permanent housing and sustainable farming are proving to make a difference and, in doing so, may offer a more promising and productive route to a full blown comeback.Sharon McHugh