Real-Life Design: Erecting Solutions to Social Problems
Published: October 14, 2010
Architecture is rediscovering its social conscience. That’s the message behind “Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement,” an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
The show, which looks at 11 projects around the world that have had major social impacts despite modest budgets and sizes, is a rebuttal to the familiar complaint that the profession is too focused on aesthetic experimentation and not enough on the lives of ordinary people. Not incidentally, it is also part of a philosophical shift in the museum’s architecture and design department, which, for most of the eight decades since its founding by Philip Johnson, famously championed architecture’s artistic merits over its social value.
Given that, the big surprise of the show is that so many of the projects are actually good. Organized by Andres Lepik and Margot Weller, the exhibition makes a powerful case that it is possible to create work that is both socially uplifting and architecturally compelling. It’s a notion that dominated architectural thought for much of the first half of the 20th century but that seems so out of keeping with the ethos of the practice today, particularly in New York, that it’s almost jarring.
The show opens with a subtle but clear political message. A wall in the first gallery is dominated by a big photograph of a mud-brick primary school shaded by a cluster of trees in an otherwise barren landscape in Burkina Faso. Designed by Diébédo Francis Kéré and completed in 2001, it’s an appealing building, with a wood truss roof that has the lightness of a tree canopy. But the first impression is of something precariously close to a cliché of socially committed architecture.
Immediately to the left is an aerial photograph of Michael Maltzan’s Inner-City Arts complex, housing a children’s arts program, whose bright white angles look tiny in the vast colorless matrix of the abandoned warehouses and decrepit S.R.O.’s of Skid Row in Los Angeles. A broad street carves straight up the center of the image before dead-ending in the corporate towers, museums and concert halls at the top of the downtown Bunker Hill, a graphic metaphor for the insurmountable distance that often separates the city’s haves from the have-nots.
The juxtaposition of the two images — one in an obscure African village, the other less than mile from Los Angeles’s cultural acropolis — underscore one of the show’s central themes: that architecture’s potential as an agent of social healing is not restricted to the developing world.
One of the most thoughtful and potentially far-reaching projects in this regard is the nearly complete renovation of a low-income Modernist apartment tower by Frédéric Druot, Anne Lacaton and Jean Philippe Vassal. The tower is part of the dense ring of generic postwar developments for poor and working-class residents around Paris’s historic center that periodically erupt in racial violence, though it could be anywhere. A video shows a soulless brick monolith with rows of identical windows.
Rather than demolish it, the architects essentially carved up the tower, a floor at a time. Facades were ripped off and replaced with floor-to-ceiling windows and prefabricated greenhouselike balconies. Interior walls were torn out to create more open living areas.
The cut-and-paste approach was part of a carefully considered strategy: by renovating the building one floor at a time, the architects avoided the social disruption typically caused by wholesale demolition. And it reflected an attentiveness to the ecological costs of tearing something down and rebuilding from scratch.
But it also had symbolic meaning: The act of ripping off the facades is a reaction against our tendency to keep the poor and their problems hidden away. The balconies are a visible means of pushing back against the escalating costs of urban space.
An even more heartening project is Urban-Think Tank’s Metro Cable in Caracas, Venezuela, which opened this year. It began as an effort to come to terms with the extreme isolation of one of the city’s most notorious barrios. Built on a steep hillside and cut off from the city by a freeway, the area is an almost impenetrable maze of jerry-built houses made of discarded concrete blocks, bricks, plywood and corrugated metal. (Each brick, a curator pointed out, had to be carried up on someone’s shoulder.)
Several years ago the government suggested plowing streets through the ghetto, which would have displaced thousands. Urban-Think Tank’s proposal, which was eventually embraced by the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, was to thread a cable car system through the barrio’s existing fabric.
The beauty of this approach is easy to miss. First and most obvious, only a few houses would have to be demolished to connect a virtually inaccessible neighborhood to the city center, where many of its inhabitants work. But beyond that, the barrio would remain car free, preserving one of its few positive urban qualities. And the cable car stations could become spaces for public programs. (The first to be built will include a recreation center.)
This appreciation for the value of life as it’s lived in existing communities, no matter how poor or derelict, is apparent throughout the show. Alejandro Aravena’s 2005 housing block for a neighborhood of squatters in northern Chile was conceived as a standardized concrete framework that tenants (with the help of government subsidies) could then fill in: interior walls, doors, plumbing fixtures — even the apartments’ facades, so that the housing project’s exterior becomes a lively pastiche of conflicting tastes, styles and desires. In a similar vein the high-density, low-rise organization of Estudio Teddy Cruz’s apartment complex in San Ysidro, Calif., in the works since 2001, is modeled on the ad hoc housing that has grown up along the Tijuana border.
If only there were more of this. Besides the 11 projects in the show, the curators found about a dozen others that might have been worthy of inclusion, they said, during two years of research. In the whole world. That’s a meager number given the scale of the problems we’re talking about, mostly because philanthropic groups and governments still tend to be wary of this kind of investment. Even if the architectural conscience is evolving, it will take more than architects for that to matter.