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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

Such disagreements are probably to be expected as an emerging school of architectural thought begins to examine and define itself. And they are nothing compared to the brutal turf battles that marked the maturation of the modern movement in architecture. Indeed, given that both Nussbaum's essay and Pilloton's response appeared on the website of Fast Company magazine, it was easy to dismiss the exchange as something of a manufactured controversy, as much about chasing clicks as soul-searching.

Perhaps more interesting is what "Small Scale, Big Change" says about changing priorities at the Museum of Modern Art — and museum architecture departments more broadly. Though MoMA has occasionally mounted important exhibitions on regional and vernacular architecture — Bernard Rudofsky's 1964 show "Architecture Without Architects" comes to mind — Lepik's effort stands in stark contrast to the celebrations of the architectural avant-garde for which the museum has been famous since Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock organized a landmark survey of modern architecture in 1932. Indeed, for many architectural historians, it was precisely that 1932 show that severed modern architecture from its European roots as a politically and socially conscious movement and set it on a course, as it matured in America, in the direction of pure style.

The recent shift in focus is largely attributable to the arrival at the museum of Barry Bergdoll, an architectural historian who replaced Terence Riley as the head of the architecture and design department in 2007. (Riley gained as much notice for helping to oversee the star-studded competition that selected Yoshio Taniguchi to design a $425-million extension to the museum as for the exhibitions he curated.) That Bergdoll is a respected scholar seems to have given him the credibility and cover to produce shows thick with social and ecological themes. With the engineer Guy Nordenson, he organized "Rising Currents: Projects for New York's Waterfront," an exhibition running at the museum until Oct. 11 that asked teams of designers to grapple with the sea-level rise that is expected to be a byproduct of global warming.

To be sure, museums as large and established as MoMA are often slow to recognize shifts in architectural practice like the one being examined in "Small Scale, Big Change." Many young architects would tell you that they have been engaged in this kind of work for years without much outside attention and that it is only because the money for the architecture of spectacle has disappeared since the 2008 economic collapse that they are suddenly finding themselves in the spotlight.

But these moments of official recognition are hardly irrelevant. For one thing, they expose innovative work to foundations, public agencies and other potential funders, who play a far bigger role in humanitarian design than they do in architecture commissioned by deep-pocketed clients.

And it's important to remember that for most visitors to the MoMA show — oblivious to the design world's internecine battles — the work on the walls, and the approach to architectural practice it represents, will be entirely new. For a group of architects dedicated to a decidedly populist view of the world, that is no small thing.

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