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

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.’”

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.