October 5, 2010  |  Collection & Exhibitions
Introducing Small Scale, Big Change

Elemental. Quinta Monroy Housing Project. Iquique, Chile. 2003–05. Image: Cristobal Palma

When I proposed the Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement exhibition in the fall of 2008, the housing crisis in the U.S. had just reached its peak. This crisis started from speculation on housing and developed into the biggest economic crisis in the U.S. in a long time, spreading out to many other countries and forcing millions into unemployment, a large number into poverty, and many even into homelessness. To work on an architecture exhibition that would present low-cost and sustainable solutions seemed to be very timely. But with this exhibition proposal, I was not looking for direct reactions to this crisis now—I was interested in showing contemporary architects that have designed projects to have a lasting impact on underserved communities. The message is: good design is not a privilege for the few who can afford it; it can and should reach to all levels of society.

Anna Heringer. METI – Handmade School. Rudrapur, Bangladesh. 2004–06. Image: Kurt Hörbst

The eleven architects presented in Small Scale, Big Change start with the given conditions of their sites. They begin designing with pragmatism and a deep knowledge of local conditions. They commit themselves to these projects, often for a very long time. And if they don’t work directly in the areas of need, they organize new solutions by connecting existing knowledge and experience via Internet-based platforms. Together, these architects don’t form a group or a style, but they have one common vision: to improve the human condition through practical solutions and good design.

Curatorial Assistant Margot Weller and I will use this blog to post comments and the as-yet-untold stories around the wonderful architecture and discourse presented in Small Scale, Big Change. We also want to use the blog as a platform for the architects involved and to give a voice to outside participants in the field. I hope that you return to Inside/Out to find related posts over the next three months.

Estudio Teddy Cruz. Concept diagram for Casa Familiar: Living Rooms at the Border and Senior Housing with Childcare. San Ysidro, California. 2001–present. Image: Estudio Teddy Cruz

To set the stage, here is a quote from Teddy Cruz, one of the participating architects, drawn from a statement made in preparation for the exhibit: “Ultimately, it does not matter whether contemporary architecture is wrapped by the latest morphogenetic skin, neoclassical prop, or LEED-certified photovoltaic panels if all approaches continue to camouflage the most pressing problems of urbanization today.”


“to improve the human condition through practical solutions and good design”
“Good design” seems an awful relative thing to apply to most people living under the conditions they are trying to improve. Even such concepts as necessity and practicality are hard to standardize, let alone aesthetics, on population living in these areas.

It is interesting to note that two of the exemplars of improving “the human condition through practical solutions and good design”, Ann Heringer and Diébédo Francis Kéré, are recipients of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture (although this is not mentioned).

Yo uare doing a fantastic job!! This is a remarkable initiative. Keep it up and lets keep improving and enhancing lifestyles and lives, one design at a time.

I also loved the exhibit. There is one thing that I would add, though, for the whole planning/architecture community. The concept of projects are all quite traditional in that they are all linear (research–plan–implement). I believe that we should move towards a different idea of development/planning that is more cyclical/dynamic. The models (approximating these specific communities) that these architects/planners are working from inevitably will not represent the “true” reality of the residents and sometimes, this shortcoming means the project is a complete failure. Although I do not imagine any of these will be “complete failures,” my suggestion still stands. Bare with me as I use this silly hypothetical situation to illustrate my point. What if, for example, it turns out the residents of Manguinhos, now being much more mobile, start to work 18 hrs/day and have no time to spend in the park. The park falls into disrepair and disuse within 3 years. What I suggest, therefore, is that architects create projects that contain social architecture for community participation, real-time feedback loops between residents and planners/architects/governments that are also able to enact changes and transformations of the plans as they are necessary. Cities and communities are not static and nor should be their plans. I’d love to see some sustainable solutions that are as creative in in their “social architecture” and they are in their physical. What do you think?

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