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Humanitarian design rises in MoMA's upcoming 'Small Scale, Big Change'

The exhibition will bring attention to the developing practice, with featured work by Michael Maltzan, Rural Studio and more.

September 12, 2010|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic

Has architecture rediscovered its conscience? Or is it just critics and curators who have had a reawakening, suddenly paying attention to design work that has been going on steadily, and right under our noses, for years?

Those are among the compelling questions hovering around "Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement," which opens Oct. 3 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The exhibition is only the latest in a string this year of museum shows to explore so-called humanitarian design, an approach to architectural practice that instead of splashy new skyscrapers or private villas concentrates on disaster relief, anti-poverty programs and affordable housing.

Such work was prominently included in this year's Design Triennial at the Cooper-Hewitt in New York, as well as the California Design Biennial at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, which runs through Oct. 31 and this year includes an architecture category for the first time. And it will dominate "Small Scale, Big Change."

Curated by Andres Lepik, MoMA's curator of contemporary architecture, and Margot Weller, the show highlights 11 projects on five continents, including housing by Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, a school in Burkina Faso by Diébédo Francis Kéré and Michael Maltzan's Inner-City Arts, a campus of buildings on the edge of skid row in downtown Los Angeles. There are also designs in the show from the Rural Studio, a well-known offshoot of Auburn University's architecture department, and by Teddy Cruz, a 47-year-old architect who often works along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Certainly it would be tough to argue with the idea that a major generational shift, the kind of turn toward social responsibility that seems to emerge in the profession every four or five decades, is well underway. Architects in their 20s, 30s and 40s, even as they are highly literate in computer-aided digital design, are far more likely to be engaged in socially or ecologically conscious work than their older colleagues, or to reject a quest for celebrity in favor of experiments in communal design. In the kinds of careers they hope to shape for themselves, they are also responding — directly or indirectly — to the architectural excesses of the last 10 years, and to the sense that as top architects grew more famous, and their projects exploded in scale, they found themselves with less political power than they had before those commissions came along, not more.

These official stamps of recognition from the art world, though, come at a time when humanitarian design is experiencing more than a few internal rifts. To begin with, many of its most committed practitioners wonder if their work belongs to a larger architectural movement at all; once out in the field, some find they have more in common with international aid workers or micro-finance lenders than with other architects. Others worry that receiving sanction from MoMA and other institutions will mean an increasing — and perhaps distracting — focus on the aesthetics of humanitarian architecture at the expense of its social mission.

As Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of the San Francisco-based nonprofit group Architecture for Humanity, which is featured in "Small Scale, Big Change," puts it, "There's often a moment when you say [about your clients], 'They just need some damn water — it doesn't matter if it's an uplifting space.'"

Lepik himself echoes that point in an essay for the show's catalogue. "To increase the social relevance of architecture at the beginning of the 21st century," he argues, "architects must no longer think of themselves simply as designers of buildings, but rather as moderators of change."

Still, it seems foolish to ignore the fact that the humanitarian projects that have had the widest impact — notably a whole series of houses and community centers by the Rural Studio, which was founded in 1993 — are the ones that have managed to fold a social message into photogenic buildings with real formal appeal.

And aesthetic questions are hardly the only ones splintering the humanitarian design effort into competing factions. In July, the design writer Bruce Nussbaum raised hackles with an online essay headlined "Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?"

One of the young designers the article called out by name, 27-year-old Emily Pilloton, who lives and works in rural North Carolina as the co-founder of Project H Design, responded by writing that Nussbaum's piece "greatly oversimplifies the serendipitous chaos that is humanitarian design. It draws a line, mostly defined by the developed and developing worlds, and says, 'If you're here, and you work there, you're an imperialist.'"

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