October 26, 2010
by: Jessica Sheridan Assoc. AIA LEED AP

The “Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art claims to present “radically pragmatic, ‘acupunctural’ projects — limited interventions with wide-reaching effects.” It is refreshing to see that Curator of Contemporary Architecture Andres Lepik is embracing a more socially responsible approach to exhibiting architecture at the MoMA, and many of the selected projects are stunning examples of exactly how small projects can have major impacts on communities. In Gando, Burkina Faso, West Africa, community members were trained in construction techniques at the Primary School by architect Diébédo Francis Kéré, for example. In a move to revitalize a Modern apartment complex in Paris, Frédéric Druot, Anne Lacaton, and Jean Philippe Vassal are transforming the Tour Bois-le-Prêtre by expanding the units and replacing a dull brick façade with large windows and prefabricated porches.

However, not all of the projects are successful. The Manguinhos Complex in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, by Jorge Mario Jáuregui / Metrópolis Porjectos Urbanos elevates a train to create a pedestrian underpass. Even if the dark spaces that this will create are activated with program, the project does not address (or relocate) the major highway adjacent to the train tracks. I cannot see how this project will successfully bring together communities by creating a long corridor adjacent to a major traffic artery.

Also, while Michael Maltzan Architecture created Inner-City Arts in Los Angeles, inserting an outlet for children to create art and play in an oasis of a courtyard, the exterior façade of the building is a long, blank, windowless wall. Buses and cars drive to the parking lot on the roof of the building, so visitors need not go out into the Skid Row community. It is an enclosed space that does not physically open itself to the community. Instead, it turns its back to it creating a monolith on the block.

Finally, I was taken aback by the Housing for the Fishermen of Tyre in Tyre, Lebanon, by Hashim Sarkis A.L.U.D. A quote on the wall by the designer reads that the community “did not want to be involved. They trusted our ‘expertise’…. It helped expand the definition of what architects do rather than make a specialty out of social engagement.” The housing complex is a cul-de-sac with brightly painted units. For a community of fishermen who live in poverty and have been prevented from fishing by the conflict with Israel, what kind of message does it send to give them an enclosed complex that culminates at a dead end? To read that the residents did not want to be involved in the process only emphasizes why it is so important to engage them in the process so they may take ownership of their environment and create a vibrant, sustainable community.

I like the metaphor that the projects in the exhibition are “acupunctural” — the idea being that small projects have the capacity to heal large communities. And while the exhibition is worth visiting, it is important to view it with a critical eye.


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