Alexandra Lange | Essays

Join the Conversation!

I am hosting this week's Glass House Conversations, inspired by the comments (on and off the blogosphere) in reaction to my negative review of the Museum of Modern Art's "Small Scale, Big Change" exhibition.

Here's what I said:
This is the museum's second foray into the world of social and sustainable design, after last winter's successful "Rising Currents." While it contains a number of worthy (if occasionally over-exposed) projects, the inability of "Small Scale" curator Andres Lepik to define his terms means the exhibition fails to move the conversation forward, offering no sense of where these 11 projects find common ground, and hence which small architectural interventions are likely to be effective elsewhere. It isn't scalable, which means Lepik defaults to MoMA's historical agenda, aesthetics. Not one of these projects, but for Rural Studio's gable-roofed $20K House VIII, would be out of place in an exhibition on new schools, new urban infrastructures, new low-cost housing.

In listing those three categories, I think I've identified the exhibition's main conceptual problem: the diversity of type creates a lack of cohesion and, ultimately, conclusion.
Here's what Nicolai said:
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.

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.
Here's my big question:
The new Museum of Modern Art exhibition "Small Scale, Big Change" offers a survey of eleven projects on five continents that respond to the needs of under-served communities, all of which combine local involvement, new materials, and a high level of design. A number of critics have praised the museum for encapsulating a new movement in architecture, and showing that good works can still be good looking. Others (myself included) have questioned whether it goes far enough. Is socially responsible architecture really new? Should good works be held to the same standards as what we might now call socially irresponsible architecture?

Is it too soon to criticize social architecture?
Please opine here.

Posted in: Architecture, Arts + Culture

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