In one of Africa’s most remote places, a three-room school rises from a hot, dry plain. The metal roof arches over spidery steel rods and mud-brick walls. It’s stark, gorgeous, simple.
We are looking at hope in the tiny village of Gando, Burkina Faso, West Africa, one of the exhibits in “Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement” at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art.
After making good as an architect, the designer returned to build the school his poor village so desperately needed.
At another school in Rudrapur, Bangladesh, fabrics in vibrant blue, red and lavender flutter from the doorways and cover the ceiling. Inspired by local adobe traditions, Bavarian architect Anna Heringer used thick walls to deflect the searing sun. Local residents framed an upper level in lightweight bamboo poles lashed together.
The result is an environment in which any kid would be happy to learn.
MoMA showcases just 11 projects. Several are of surpassing beauty, like Heringer’s. Others show marvelous inventiveness, like a ski-resort aerial tram used to connect an isolated slum in Caracas with the jobs and opportunities of the central city.
Social improvement was a central tenet in the rise of modern 20th-century architecture in Europe, though today’s practitioners approach the globe’s massive poverty without grand, city-obliterating heroic gestures -- such as Le Corbusier’s proposal to bulldoze a large swath of Paris. Their work demands cultural sensitivity and the patience to survive exasperating politics.
I met the architect of the Gando school, Diebedo Francis Kere, at the exhibition. Connecting villages with talent is hard, he said: “There’s no way to know what anyone else is doing in Africa.”
Teaching in Europe, he could get the word out, and his school won a prestigious Aga Khan award. That drew attention to the school’s low-cost potential to expand both education and useful building skills. Now Kere is working in Niger and Lagos and designing an instructional museum of clay buildings.
Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena builds houses to turn slum dwellers into homeowners in his country’s northeastern city of Iquique.
“Housing should be an investment, not a social expense,” he told me.
Aravena built rows of skinny masonry towers, leaving platforms to one side of each for families to build themselves low-tech additions, like bedrooms or a workshop. In this way Aravena could deliver houses, on the meager $7,500 per dwelling subsidy provided by the state, close to where people lived.
The alternative, he said, “is to build on cheap land two hours away, where there are no jobs and no transportation. That severs extended family relationships, so people lose income and the housing loses value. Ours gains in value.”
Teddy Cruz, of San Diego, who is something of a rock star in social-architecture circles, has long worked with San Ysidro, California. Low-income immigrant populations exuberantly undermine the tidiness of suburban subdivisions by mixing commerce and living. Rather than clean up this messy vitality, Cruz has designed zoning that legalizes it.
Though the displayed projects are tiny forays into massive problems, they raise sticky questions. Do they bandage slums rather than eliminate them? Do such projects work in the long term, and are they replicable?
The closest MoMA gets to these issues is a display of interactive tools that help spread news of the best work. Architecture for Humanity developed the Open Architecture Network, now an iPad app, so collaborators and funders can see progress on projects in real time.
It’s a smart way to help committed architects and their partners navigate the perplexing maze of foreign aid, philanthropy, United Nations programs and nongovernmental organizations.
A show like this one at a museum associated with progressive design, helps worthy projects get cash and clout -- important weapons against problems often so horrifying that we too readily turn away.
“Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement” runs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York until Jan. 3, 2011. For more information: http://www.moma.org
(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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