alexandralange

Hosted By:

Alexandra Lange

Writer

Oct 25

2010

The new Museum of Modern Art exhibition "Small Scale, Big Change" offers a survey of eleven projects on five continents that respond to the needs of under-served communities, all of which combine local involvement, new materials, and a high level of design. A number of critics have praised the museum for encapsulating a new movement in architecture, and showing that good works can still be good looking. Others (myself included) have questioned whether it goes far enough. Is socially responsible architecture really new? Should good works be held to the same standards as what we might now call socially irresponsible architecture?

Is it too soon to criticize social architecture?


joshdannenberg

Josh Dannenberg

Architect

I appreciate your critique and would like to “join the conversation”! Although I haven’t seen the show yet, I am intrigued by your final question. I don’t think it is soon soon to critique social architecture, depending on the audience of course. As long as the problem is clearly stated and the methods for resolving that problem are equally clear, while also being inspiring and beautiful and clever etc., audience and critique should not be a problem – even at an institution like MoMA, where the audience is sometimes so large and unpredictable that we can’t imagine a proper or consistent critique ever taking place. More importantly, I would like to ask why MoMA seems to have gravitated towards ‘objects’ of social architecture rather than ‘systems’ or ‘strategies.’ I agree that the pudding-proof of social architecture is often to be found in the objects that are manufactured by systems and strategies. But I also think that the topic’s most fascinating content is to be found in the decisions and policies (the structure of logic, associations and ideas) that precedes the making of anything architectural.

Wednesday, October 27 at 8:45am

Agree 2 Replies

Disagree 11 Replies

sarahcloonan

Sarah Cloonan

Graduate Student

Wow! This week’s format depends upon an bold positioning of responses. As one who tends to vacillate quite a bit, I find it difficult to categorize my response. Small Scale Big Change at MoMA even in its title reflects the duality, and more likely janus-faced nature of the exhibition. Curators Andres Lepik and Margot Weller cast a wide net in the eleven projects selected – representing a variety of programmatic uses, climates and scales (not all are diminutive in footprint nor social impact.) However, to say that this is the first time The Museum is commenting on social architecture seems a bit twenty-first century centric. Barry Bergdoll, in his Introduction to the Small Scale Big Change publication, even references the impact of public housing on earlier generations of Architecture and Design exhibitions at The Museum of Modern Art.
As long as architecture is a profession – and there is quite a bit of fear among young practitioners similar to that of the early nineties building bust that it is a shrinking one – there remains an ongoing need to renovate, rebuild, restructure and rethink the built environment. Small Scale Big Change and the eleven works presented are a microcosm of the architecture profession. To harken back to an earlier discussion on the glasshouseconversations blog, which discussed how many seats there are at the table of design, I believe that we must scoot over and make room for the projects exhibited at MoMA and perhaps some (maybe just a few) will even give up their comfy seat.

Monday, October 25 at 12:14pm


marklamster

Mark Lamster

writer on arts and culture

i don’t know what column to be in here, but to say that no architecture is above criticism. (see the voisin plan, or urban renewal of the 60s, for architectural do-gooder ideas that warranted criticism). a lack of criticism is probably a dangerous thing. that said, i thought the moma exhibition was very smart, even if i was not sold on every project.

Monday, October 25 at 11:38pm


Thank you, Sarah and Mark, for starting the conversation. I am afraid that having to take a side is giving everyone pause. If you are lurking, feel free to enter the discussion on either side. Write [ON THE FENCE] in brackets if that helps.

More important is to talk about the ways in which social architecture (whether or not it is a movement, and, as Sarah points out, whether or not it is new) might change the critical atmosphere. As Mark says, architecture without criticism can be dangerous.

But what might need to “scoot over” to give social architecture a seat at the table? The MoMA show wants it both ways, good works and good design, but this can’t always be the case. In Nicolai Ouroussoff’s positive review of SSBC (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/15/arts/design/15change.html?_r=1&ref=nicolai_ouroussoff) he says the curators found only two dozen projects to consider. I really wanted to hear more about what wasn’t MoMA-worthy…

Tuesday, October 26 at 4:00pm


joshdannenberg

Josh Dannenberg

Architect

Josh gave the Final Word

I appreciate your critique and would like to “join the conversation”! Although I haven’t seen the show yet, I am intrigued by your final question. I don’t think it is soon soon to critique social architecture, depending on the audience of course. As long as the problem is clearly stated and the methods for resolving that problem are equally clear, while also being inspiring and beautiful and clever etc., audience and critique should not be a problem – even at an institution like MoMA, where the audience is sometimes so large and unpredictable that we can’t imagine a proper or consistent critique ever taking place. More importantly, I would like to ask why MoMA seems to have gravitated towards ‘objects’ of social architecture rather than ‘systems’ or ‘strategies.’ I agree that the pudding-proof of social architecture is often to be found in the objects that are manufactured by systems and strategies. But I also think that the topic’s most fascinating content is to be found in the decisions and policies (the structure of logic, associations and ideas) that precedes the making of anything architectural.

Wednesday, October 27 at 8:45am


mimizeiger

Mimi Zeiger

critic/ journalist

I don’t think it’s too soon for critique, especially since a setting like MoMA puts a dozen or so project on the table for discussion. But what is yet to be determined is the criteria for that critique.

How do we or even should we separate out the “social” from the “architecture”? The social goodness and thoughtful intentions of each of the projects seemed to woo a number of critics (Ouroussoff included), leaving the architecture as an afterthought. Whereas to pick at individual designs is just mean spirited.

Wednesday, October 27 at 10:01am


emilyaxtman

Emily Axtman

Design Corps Fellow

As Mimi mentioned : “What is yet to be determined is the criteria for that critique.”

I don’t think it’s ever too soon to critique, not necessarily criticize social architecture.

A useful and upcoming tool for making that critique is a tool called the SEED Evaluator- (Social, Economic, Environmental, Design). Similar to LEED, this tool goes beyond measuring the environmental aspect of a building and assesses the social and economic impact the of the design projects we build.

http://www.seed-network.org

I would encourage everyone to join if you are on the boat with this “movement”.

Wednesday, October 27 at 5:15pm


quilianriano

Quilian Riano

designer/writer

It is not too soon to critique ‘social’ (not sure what this means but let’s use it anyway) architecture. Critique is there to make architecture better and if ‘social’ design is to mature it needs a good amount of it. Also, fair and timely critique ultimately will end up helping the communities these architects are trying to serve.

The problem, as Mimi says, is that everyone is having a hard time agreeing what to critique. If we critique the object it seems pointless – as Josh points out. Yet if we critique the system we run the risk of losing many designers along the way.

Perhaps it would be good to start by grounding the conversation in historical context. As Alexandra points out in the question these concerns are not new to architecture. So it may be helpful to start by understanding the way social issues have been turned into form by different figures from Le Corbusier to John Turner to the Smithsons to Christopher Alexander to the many that have toiled outside the limelight. Such survey may begin to provide the language to understand what we mean by ‘social’ today and how to critique it.

Thursday, October 28 at 12:09pm


anamarialeon

ana maría león

phd student, htc@mit

i think it’s important to critique the process–without loosing sight of the object as part of that process: that is what i felt was lacking in the show. how does the formal solution address the problems of the community? (more clear in some projects in the show, less so in others) how do these projects engage local economies? how much they cost is not as relevant as how are these costs covered. this is not to say that ‘social’ architecture should become an exercise in economics, but rather that it should be critiqued as architecture period: not solely in terms of the aesthetics of the object, but as a set of operations that are mobilized through it.

quilian, i agree the historical context is key, and would add ernst may to your list.

Thursday, October 28 at 1:45pm


maxcohen

Max Fowler Cohen

Executive Director, Parley Creative Group

Given that the qualitative aspects of cultural criticism are what make it more or less appropriate (on-topic, off-topic, informed, uninformed) and given that “social architecture” as a discrete idea, referred to by name, is still in its infancy- and indeed an infantile idea, in its linguistic preimplication that previous architecture was somehow asocial- it, as a discipline, is not yet ready for criticism. It’s like kicking a small dog or child, or pulling up a half-sprouted plant. Time will tell whether ‘social’ is just a principle that is playing out more and more in architecture, just as in the rest of contemporary society, or whether this is a serious discipline, with its own traditions and boundaries, and until it really knows what it is itself, it doesn’t do to tell it what to be. MoMA’s website employs the more accurately pluralistic term “architectures of social engagement”, and I think that by truncating the concept of the medium to “social architecture”, we’re doing socially-motivated architectures an existential disservice, by treating them as a discrete movement, rather than as a phenomenon of parallel emergences that spring more from the social character of our time rather than from the confines of an architectural “movement”. Perhaps emergence and movement are the same thing; I’m agnostic about their difference, but let’s say that, in fact, they are not. Is it too soon to criticize social architecture? Sure it is, because we probably couldn’t define “social architecture” as unique from the rest of architecture if we wanted to, and I find it to be of marginal utility, if any, to critique an empty concept.

Thursday, October 28 at 2:15pm


enriqueramirez

Enrique Ramirez

PhD Candidate in Architecture at Princeton University

It’s a great question, but let me parse it a little. When architectural projects are displayed in a museum, we assume that they are used to instrumentalize curatorial intent. That intent may take several forms, of course. The various models, drawings, and displays in the SSBC exhibition could very well affirm a curatorial vision, but if they stir debate (much in the way that it seems to be doing on this board), then, in a way, the curatorial intent has also been affirmed.

But then again, I would like to think that by putting such architecture on display in a museum, such projects are immediately open to critical scrutiny. So is it too soon to criticize? It seems that as soon as the exhibit opens, that question becomes nugatory. Thus, as Ana María suggests, the issue is much more about subjecting the curatorial vision to scrutiny while keeping its objects, literally, in mind (architecture should never be sacrosanct). What, then, exactly is the role of a cultural institution in showcasing such work? What does this have to say about the role of connoisseurship vis-à-vis such work? What does it mean when such architecture is displayed in a cultural institution of MoMA’s caliber? Should socially architecture be subject to cultural stewardship? What happens when it is?

Thursday, October 28 at 2:17pm


verasacchetti

Vera Sacchetti

Designer, Writer

I don’t think it is ever too soon to start reflecting about (and criticizing) “social” architecture. And the fact that an institution such as MoMA is helping to legitimize the field with an exhibition, is, as has been stated here, an invitation to scrutiny.

The critic can help this field grow and evolve. As Christopher Hawthorne stated earlier this week, “pre-emptive” criticism can shape the outcome of a given project. With “social” architecture dealing with complex issues of context, scale, and ethics, it is more important than ever to criticize and reflect upon it as it goes along.

That said, I am not sure any of the projects included in SSBC achieve the “big impact” the exhibition proclaims. Are these projects being given importance because they can be labeled as “social”? Architecturally, are they anything new? (Maybe the METI school in Bangladesh by Anna Heringer, but how about the others?) And again, the question of measuring the scale and importance of impact – Andres Lepik said he travelled to all the projects and “made sure” they were successful. But as Alexandra stated in her review of the show, what really defines success? Being so distant from the happy kids smiling in the pictures, are we supposed to take that smile as a proof of successful implementation? Because we are not given any other data to believe that claim.

In a field that wants to be connected to important things like social justice and social engagement, we must proceed with caution. There are many layers of complexity in these matters, and criticizing and reflecting about “social” architecture can make the field better.

But what about the standards, some of you have asked. Well, as always, architecture is a process, a discussion, a relationship. We can use the same standards we’ve been using so far. The important thing, I believe, is to add as many voices we can to the conversation.

Friday, October 29 at 1:52pm


Too soon?!? We’ve left it off too late!

The first thing to criticise is the idea that “Social Architecture” is a completely a new thing. The imperatives that drive it have always been around, and there is a history of architecture with a social mission. There’s the modernist city planner ranks, led by Corbusier, and the “alternative” “third-world” models offered by Hasan Fathy and Laurie Baker.

It is the fault of the architecture criticism tradition, for failing to adequately deal with these developments when they unfolded. We were too caught up in fighting about Philip Johnson and Post Modernism at the time. So if there were models and criteria by which the works of Hasan Fathy were critiqued intelligently, it is time to dust them off, and see how they apply to the new work being done.

Instead, we persist in applying the more mainstream models of criticism to social architecture. This results in two things.

One, everything that is done seems wonderful and new. There is way too much talk of “NEW social engagement” and “replicable models” and “alternative models” and “scalability.” Are these even necessary or desirable qualities in social architecture? Can the “model” of a housing project in Chile be applied to housing projects in India?

Two, we are so used to judging skyscrapers by slick renderings that we have started to judge social architecture by images as well. Smiling Brown Children? Thoughtful Black gentleman enjoying his new home? Smiling Venezualan children in their new metro station? YAY!!

We pretty much ignored social architecture in its golden age, when socialism still seemed a viable ideology, and there was a growing interest in reviving indigenous architectures. The Aga Khan Award has been around for 23 years! How were those projects chosen? What work has already been done?

Now, when agendas and motivations are so easily obscured by images like the ones at MoMA, we can’t afford to not be critical!

Friday, October 29 at 2:18pm


In the context of the MOMA exhibit, I disagree, since the projects represented all work on a variety of social levels and are realized. They are the best examples of social motivated architectural proposals and portray an authenticity often lacking in “global” architectural initiatives, academic rhetoric and similarly inaccessible material.

Friday, October 29 at 5:36pm