"Small Scale, Big Architecture" at MoMA
Primary school in Burkina Faso by Diébédo Francis Kéré. Photo by Siméon Duchoud/Aga Khan Trust for Culture, courtesy MoMa.
You still have two weeks to see the wonderful exhibition "Small Scale, Big Change," at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It closes on Jan. 3, but if you miss it (or don’t want to pay the $20 it takes to get into that temple of Modernism), no worries: The point of the show is its content, which is fully available on the Web. The only reasons to go see the exhibition are if you are fetishistic about architects’ sketches; if you think you can only understand a building by seeing a three-dimensional model; or if you feel something is only really important if it is enshrined by an institution such as MoMA.
"Small Scale, Big Change" points out that the problem with putting architecture exhibitions in art museums—a problem I have wrestled with as an organizer of over a hundred of such shows for more than a decade. To put it simply: The stuff will always look weak if there is a Picasso in the next gallery. If you are reading this blog, you probably also can read a plan or a section, but that makes you a very distinct minority among the museum-going crowds. It also means that you might as well see the plan on paper or on a screen, and the people who encounter it without understanding it will not have any better insights because they see the drawing in a museum. They will, however, pay more attention to the project, and that might be worth the whole framing rigamarole of such endeavors.
In this case, you will get to see 11 projects that each have two important characteristics: They make a difference in the lives of the people who use them; and they look good doing so. The latter might sound trivial, but I think it is important that these designs do not wear their do-gooder nature so much on their sleeve that, as in the case of almost all the designs in the horrid Cooper-Hewitt "Triennial" still dragging on a mile or two uptown, they make you believe that users have to accept meanness, ugliness, and clunkiness along with poverty, hunger, and ignorance. These objects ennoble, to use a very old-fashioned word, their surroundings and their function. They bring light, often literally, as in the case of the Inner City Arts Building, by Michael Maltzan, in Los Angeles, into the life of kids. They give more space to people, and give views of even more space, as in Lacaton and Vassal’s Tour Bois-el-Pretre project. They are anchors in their communities, as are the Metro Cable Stations, by Urban Think Tank in Caracas, Venezuela. They use architecture to turn an important, even vital task into a big, attractive, incontrovertible fact of life.
METI-Handmade School in Bangladesh, India, by Anna Heringer. Photo by Kurt Hörbst, courtesy of MoMa.
These are all good projects, but some, such as the METI-Handmade School in Bangladesh, India, designed by Anna Heringer, or the Rural Studio houses in Alabama, are especially poignant because they achieve so much with such humble means. And if you want a real aw-shucks moment, check out (in the exhibit or online) the little movie that Wyatt Troll, Matthew J. Lloyd, John Gold, Matt Murphy, and Nathan Funk (with a little help from video artist Doug Aitkin) made on Inner City Arts. It features a red-eyed rabbit, some nice classrooms, and some truly good and useful public space. The poor beast does not look happy when he has to leave at night.
An exhibit like "Small Scale, Big Change" gives me hope that architecture can be good and do good. I am grateful to curator Andres Lepik, who has unfortunately already left MoMA, for sending it out into the world. And I am grateful for MoMA’s excellent website for making the exhibition available to all of us.