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New York, USA – The Museum of Modern Art reveals its sensitive side

MoMA reveals its humanitarian credentials with a show of problem solvers

I can’t help but wonder what Philip Johnson might have thought of Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement, the exhibition of humanitarian design that opened last month at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Johnson, the founding director of the museum’s architecture department, had scant interest in what he called ‘do-gooder’ architecture. However, he was the first to latch onto whatever was fashionable in the field, and today design for social change is undeniably au courant. 

The show is perhaps not as great a departure for MoMA as you might think. Even the museum’s inaugural 1932 exhibition of modern architecture – the so-called ‘international style’ show that stripped modernism of its political agenda – had a significant housing component. The most obvious precedent is Bernard Rudofsky’s landmark 1964 MoMA exhibition of vernacular building, Architecture without Architects. 

Small Scale, Big Change is 
of a piece with Rudofsky’s show, and otherwise consistent with Johnson’s aversion to the utopian dreams of the early modernists. With few exceptions, the architects reflect a more modest and pragmatic world view: that social ills are not to be resolved by design alone. Instead, the show offers what curator Andres Lepik describes as ‘well designed solutions to localised problems’.

The exhibition opens with a dramatic wall graphic situating each project and a lush documentary film by Harun Farocki that compares brick-making techniques across cultures. To follow are 11 projects, each clearly presented with large photographs, models and drawings. You sense a concerted effort to avoid the didacticism endemic in shows
on humanitarian design. To its credit, Small Scale, Big Change never feels like homework.

The projects are remarkable for their variety, though a pair of school buildings for Bangladesh and Burkina Faso, designed respectively by Anna Heringer and Diébédo Francis Kéré, look like they might have come off the same drawing board. Judged on their appearance alone, MoMA’s latest international style is defined by pitched timber roofing, masonry block and louvred windows. 

Michael Maltzan’s complex of cubic buildings for inner-city Los Angeles is the most conventionally modern of the bunch, though the decision to leave its walls chalk white as a statement about the facility’s ‘commitment to continued maintenance and upkeep’ seems at best naive, especially as it’s an arts centre for children. (Why not let the kids decorate it?) Other projects include a housing estate for fishermen in Tyre, Lebanon; a ribbon of a park for Rio de Janeiro; and a cable-car system for Caracas, Venezuela. 

Two projects in particular can be read as renunciations of modernism’s outsized ambitions of years past. Rather than imposing a vision of urban harmony, Alejandro Aravena’s Quinta Monroy townhouses for Iquique, Chile, are designed to be tailored and expanded by the low-income families that call them home. More dramatic, perhaps, is the renovation, by Frédéric Druot, Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, of a 16-storey concrete apartment block on the edge of Paris into an elegant glass tower that would make even Richard Meier proud – a job completed without displacing the occupants, no less.

Taken together, the works in the exhibition suggest design does have transformative potential when practised with a degree of humility. If not an entirely original concept, it is nonetheless important to see it advertised at a place where humanitarian design has long taken a back seat. The show is indicative of the new direction of MoMA’s architecture department under chief curator Barry Bergdoll: rigorous scholarship and a sensitivity to the social impact of design, without rejecting the museum’s traditional commitment to aesthetics. Big change, indeed. 

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