Anna Heringer and Eike Roswag, METI—Handmade School, Rudrapur, Bangladesh (2006)
Kurt Hoerbst Anna Heringer and Eike Roswag, METI—Handmade School, Rudrapur, Bangladesh (2006)

The latest exhibition organized by the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) Department of Architecture and Design, “Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement,” opened in early October. The show, featuring 11 projects designed to improve conditions in underserved communities around the world, comes at a time when the discipline is particularly abuzz about socially conscious architecture and design: John Cary and Public Architecture’s book The Power of Pro Bono just hit shelves, and Design Like You Give A Damn Vol. 2, the follow-up to Architecture for Humanity’s seminal primer, is in the works. And over the summer, just as the blogosphere was getting riled up over Bruce Nussbaum’s charges of design “imperialism” in a post on Fast Company’s website, the government of Haiti, with guidance from British architecture firm John McAslan + Partners, initiated the Building Back Better Communities program and is planning a prototype housing expo to take place in Port-au-Prince this fall.

So why is “Small Scale, Big Change” such a letdown?

The 11 projects on display are not at fault. Nor are three Web-based works included in the show: The 1%, Public Architecture’s pro bono service website; the Open Architecture Network, an open-source, community-based platform; and Urbaninform, a collection of informal development best practices.

Take, for instance, the METI (Modern Education and Training Institute) Handmade School in Rudrapur, Bangladesh, by Anna Heringer and Eike Roswag. Completed in 2006, the earth, straw, and bamboo building exemplifies participatory design: Heringer studied the region while a university student in Linz, Austria; determined a school was needed there; liaisoned with NGOs; fundraised; improved upon indigenous building techniques; and trained local unskilled laborers. From the photographs presented, it looks great: smiling students, industrious workers, even a stray cow.

Hashim Sarkis A.L.U.D., Housing for the Fishermen of Tyre, Tyre, Lebanon (2008)
Joumana Jamhouri Hashim Sarkis A.L.U.D., Housing for the Fishermen of Tyre, Tyre, Lebanon (2008)

Likewise, Housing for the Fishermen of Tyre, Lebanon, by Hashim Sarkis A.L.U.D., represents more than brightly hued housing units spread over nine residential blocks. Ten years in the making, the project relies not only on design, but also on the strength and vision of the Al Baqaa Housing Cooperative (founded by the fishermen in 1998), a donation of a parcel of land from the Greek Orthodox Church, and funding from individual families and local and international NGOs. The architecture itself, a complex of single- and double-unit apartments around a central outdoor community space painted in shades of blue, yellow, and orange, is probably the least complicated part of the puzzle. The designs in “Small Scale, Big Change” vary not only in location (Alabama, South Africa, Brazil), but also in program and size (house, housing, urban infrastructure). It seems that identification of a needy client or problematic societal condition binds these projects together. But it’s hard to say whether this constitutes the making of an architectural movement or simply a groundswell of activist practice. In his wall text, exhibit curator Andres Lepik acknowledges his narrow selection from a broad pool, writing, “These projects have been selected from an increasingly large number of similar initiatives around the world because they exemplify the degree to which architects can orchestrate change, prioritizing work that has social impact but also balances very real concerns of cost, program, and aesthetics.”

Uneasiness around the process of selection haunts the show and the catalog. The answer may boil down to the last point on Lepik’s list, aesthetics. Or, rather, architecture that looks like architecture. With few exceptions, the designs represented are good-looking and comply with our notions of contemporary architecture: bright colors, strong formal gestures, and clean lines (even when rendered in adobe brick).

There is also an attempt to position “Small Scale, Big Change” within MoMA’s history. In his introduction to the catalog, Barry Bergdoll, the museum’s chief curator of architecture and design, revisits the grand, socially transformative visions of Modernism as put forth by the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne in the 1933 Athens Charter. “[T]hat influential document epitomizes the modernist ideal of the architect as the designer not of individual structures but of the whole framework of life,” reminds Bergdoll.

Contributing editor Mimi Zeiger is a writer in Brooklyn, N.Y., and the founder of the zine loud paper. She has contributed to The New York Times and Metropolis, and her most recent book is Tiny Houses (Rizzoli).
Contributing editor Mimi Zeiger is a writer in Brooklyn, N.Y., and the founder of the zine loud paper. She has contributed to The New York Times and Metropolis, and her most recent book is Tiny Houses (Rizzoli).

If an architecture of social engagement is a recovered memory, it comes with some gory mid-century planning mistakes. While the idea that the architect can exhibit some kind of transformative power still holds a spectral place in the profession, it’s hard to say that today’s social architects want to cling to a role model only Ayn Rand could love. The reworking of modernist public-housing blocks is the focus of one of the few unbuilt designs in the show, Transformation of Tour Bois-le-Prêtre in Paris, by Frédéric Druot, Anne Lacaton, and Jean-Philippe Vassal. The winning entry to a 2005 competition sponsored by the City of Paris, the scheme calls for prefabricated modules to be applied to the façade of low-income high-rises, expanding the apartment footprint and maximizing interior light and air in the process.

Returning to Bergdoll’s introductory remarks, he discusses Bernard Rudofsky’s famous 1964 MoMA exhibition, “Architecture Without Architects,” which featured a global selection of vernacular architecture. Here Bergdoll cites the critique most levied at the modern movement, “the hubris of heroic authorship.” And with that he defines what is wrong with “Small Scale, Big Change”: It can’t shake the hero complex.

In addition to the photographs, models, drawings, and multimedia displays, the gallery is filled with large vitrines displaying the architects’ sketches. Michael Maltzan’s design for the Los Angeles nonprofit Inner-City Arts uses sculptural geometries and landscaped outdoor spaces to create a safe and welcoming campus—but do we really need to see his sketchbooks in the gallery? According to the wall text, Inner-City Arts was in development from 1993 to 2008, so we’re way past the gestural concept. Wittingly or not, these sketches propagate a myth of singular authorship that runs counter to the altruistic, collaborative, community-driven nature of these projects.