New Architectures of Social Engagement

Small Scale, Big Change
explores 11 new architectural projects redressing the social responsibilities of architecture and debunking grand manifestos, it calls for a shift in reshaping the long-standing dialogue between architecture and society.

Gaston Bachelard once argued: “All really inhabited space bears the notion of home.” It is a belief that cannot really be disputed. As Bachelard would argue, our memories are localised in space, not in time as such, but in the spaces surrounding us at that specific moment. The edifices and buildings that comprise our environment have a profound effect, psychologically and physically, on our behaviour. This is precisely why, especially in under-served and under-developed areas, affordable, efficient, and comfortable housing is needed. Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement, opening at MoMA this October, brings together 11 projects that embrace the social aspects of architecture – of how it can serve and provide for the communities where it is situated whilst embracing more ecologically sustainable methods of construct­ion. The projects, which are based around the world, from Burkina Faso to the United States, were selected for their ability to stimulate social change, whether it be the construction of a public transport system to connect the informal barrios of Caracas to the city centre, or the construction of affordable public housing for the residents of Hale County, Alabama.

The aesthetic mask of a building, once the driving force behind a building’s desirability (look at Frank Gehry’s Bilbao), has taken a back seat to functionality, affordability, and ease of maintenance. Andres Lepik (curator of the exhibition, in conjunction with Margot Weller at MoMA) argues that the future of architecture has changed in this regard. Whereas 20 years ago the idea of ecological sustainability was at the forefront of discussion (and, to be fair, still is), it is this idea of social sustainability married with ecological sustainability that has become the focus of architects and critics. Lepik pinpoints Diébédo Francis Kéré’s design for a primary school in Gando, Burkino Faso (1999-2001), as exemplary of this fusion of concerns. Kéré, a Berlin-based architect, grew up in Gando (a village of around 2,500) and, as the first person from his village to study abroad, has advocated the importance of education in the community’s improvement. Kéré designed the school building as a basic structure of unbaked mud bricks with a large roof, utilising traditional methods of construction combined with modern ecological building techniques with an emphasis on climatic conditions. The community of Gando not only supported the project, but also participated in its construction, and for them this building has become part of their identity: they have taken ownership and control of its continued maintenance as it represents the future of their community. For these reasons, Lepik argues that it is “exceptionally sustainable in materials and in the use of energy, but at the same time, 100% a social project – working and building the school with the community.”

Anna Heringer’s Handmade School project (Rudrapur, Bangladesh) echoes the same emphasis on traditional techniques combined with community support ­­– not surprisingly both projects have been awarded the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, and are included in the exhibition. Handmade School, like the school in Gando, arose from a desire to create and uphold a sense of identity within the community. Heringer’s design uses traditional building materials – earth, sand, straw and bamboo, but improves them for greater durability and endurance. The building is not just a shelter and structure for learning, but one that embodies the village’s vision and hope for the future. The 11 projects selected by Lepik for the exhibition all exhibit this quality of hope, belief in the power of architecture and constructed space to provide for and increase a community’s survival.

The future of architecture is intrinsically linked to urban planning and development, although the term “planning” is loosely applied to the organic development of highly-populated areas, as it is rarely controlled or planned. The shift from rural to urban has been rapidly increasing due to numerous economic and social factors and, as Lepik points out, 50% of the world’s population is now living in cities. This rapid influx of population is concurrent with an increase in informal shanty-towns, favelas, and squats. The architecture of these communities is spawned out of necessity and affordability, and not efficiency of construction or desirability. Cities, like Caracas, in which 60% of the 5 million inhabitants live in impoverished barrios have grown organically from basic need. As such, a system of public transport and a basic infrastructure of design was never established to sustain the communities. The modern-day architect has to be aware of this change in the future of urban planning, as it is no longer the responsibility of the patron or client to approach them and commission a new structure, instead they are being called upon to be inventive and pro-active. Their role has been revised and reconsidered and Lepik says: “Architects can no longer wait for the commissions to come in, they have to do research, and they have to proactively find solutions for these developments.” Those that do, such as Michael Maltzan, are opening up new areas and communities to possibilities of advancement and improvement.

Maltzan’s Inner-City Arts (1993-2008), based on Skid Row in Los Angeles, is situated in an area that is run-down and impoverished – an area typically ignored by developers and architects. It was specifically for this reason that Maltzan chose the area, opening up the local community to structures and edifices normally reserved for the elite and developed areas of a city. As Lepik would argue, projects like Inner-City Arts “bring back social peace to the city, because then these communities don’t feel segregated from the other parts of the city. Architecture is not only building with a singular function, but it also has a broader impact; a cultural institution, like the ICA, gives something back to the community that is normally reserved for the elite.” Maltzan’s design for the campus, which was built on a one-acre site in three stages, demands respect and commitment from the local community – not only for his choice of colour for the façade (a startling white which is the perfect canvas for graffiti artists and vandals) but in his creation of a collective human space that requires the community’s involvement and participation. The centre is based on Maltzan’s knowledge and understanding of the area it is located in and provides a space for at-risk youth to participate in art classes and activities. Maltzan designed the campus in conjunction with garden designer, Nancy Goslee Power, creating not just an aesthetically pleasing building, but one that reflects upon this idea of the city as a “concrete jungle” and creates collective spaces for the students to interact within. As do the other projects included in the exhibition, Maltzan utilises materials “native” to the environment: for Skid Row, this is stucco, concrete, and construction grade wood.

The improvement of a neighbourhood through the structures and buildings that comprise it is similarly echoed in Frédéric Druot, Anne Lacaton and Jean Philippe Vassal’s transformation of Tour Bois-le-Prêtre, Paris. The project began as a result of an architectural competition staged by the City of Paris in 2005 (the competition called for architects to remodel a public-housing high-rise located on the ring road surrounding Paris) of which Druot, Lacaton & Vassal won. The 16-story housing block was originally designed by Raymond Lopez in 1957 and had fallen into such a state of disrepair that it was meant to be demolished prior to the competition. The firm’s winning design, which maintains the basic structure of the building, increases and individualises the living spaces of each apartment. The monotonous façade was redesigned with a complete new exterior shell surrounding the existing walls. This revitalisation of historic and existing buildings is the future of inner-city building, and an important tool for the upkeep and maintenance of affordable urban housing. The historians, Maarten Hajer & Arnold Reijndorp, argue: “Inner-cities have to safeguard their economic and socio-cultural future in the coming years and by recognising historic artefacts as assets, the historic centres make a strength of what used to be seen as a weakness.” The strength of Tour Bois-le-Prêtre lies in its adaptation of the historic extant structure, because of its response to layout and design for the residents.

Affordable low-income social housing is becoming a major problem, and Paris is just one project selected by Lepik to illustrate this. The Quinta Monroy Housing Project in Iquique, Chile, also arose from the need for affordable housing in the city. Iquique is located in the Chilean desert, thus the architectural requirements of construction necessitated an understanding on the part of Elemental (the design firm) of the physical environment and of the long-term economic feasibility of the units. Each unit, which was completed on a limited budget of $7,500, was intentionally left incomplete. Elemental provided the basics – plumbing (but no fittings), doorways (but no doors), and electric fittings (but no lights). Residents were left to their own devices to adapt the space to their needs, requirements, and incomes – some taking months to be able to afford the required fittings. Each unit is therefore similar in basic structure but completely individual and tailored to the owners within; the building becomes an exterior aesthetic expression for the individual residents.

The middle-classes will, and historically have, tried to segregate themselves from areas of urban disarray and crime. Hajer & Reijndorp argue that this attempt at social segregation through urban planning will fail, because it produces a restrained, almost prison-like society: “If the modern city can be best understood as a collection of landscapes, and if the citizen is constantly occupied in keeping his own small network intact with as little friction with other groups as possible, then that does seem to mean the death of the public domain.” The interaction between different cultural and social communities is what makes a city interesting, both for the inhabitants as well as visitors. The amoebic, slightly chaotic, quality of large, informal cities provide an attraction for tourists of the developed world: antithetical to the grid-like urban development of cities like New York, these cities are the metropolis unrestrained. Some critics, such as Harri Veivo, argue that the historical idea of the “city” is no longer valid: “The city is disintegrating, becoming depopulated, swelling beyond its shape and merging with the countryside, communication technology is making urban populations redundant, cities are usurped by danger that drives people into gated communities, tourists are making the life of ordinary citizens intolerable, gentrification is wiping out the working class and destroying the city’s heterogeneity.”

The 20th century city brought together people in a way that had never been seen before: as the physical proximity between people and their houses decreased, social and political problems increased. For Lepik, this show marks an important point of departure for both MoMA and architectural theory, as it shifts the emphasis away from the building purely as a structure, and towards an interest in the building as a conduit for social change. Specifically, he argues that the show illustrates the realisation that the study of architecture is “no longer only about design, style, or intellectual models – now it is also a platform to discuss ideas that lead into the future, not only for the happy few, but also for the other 90% of the world’s population.” Hopefully, the exhibition will succeed in calling the public’s attention to the new requirements of architecture – social change and improvement.

Small Scale, Big Change ran from 3 October until 3 January 2011, at MoMA in New York City.

Niamh Coghlan