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Architecture with a conscience

September 11, 2010 |  8:00 am


Even before the economic collapse of 2008, architects -- and young architects in particular -- had turned away from designing splashy new icons and toward anti-poverty projects, disaster relief and other kinds of community-minded work. Now that financing for the architecture of spectacle has all but disappeared, that alternative grassroots approach, broadly known as "humanitarian design," has found itself in an increasingly bright spotlight. It will get even brighter on Oct. 3 when the Museum of Modern Art in New York opens an exhibition called "Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement."

The fact that the title of the show is includes the word "architectures," plural, is a clue, however, that this rising movement is hardly a unified or coherent one. Some of the architects doing this kind of work don't think of themselves as belonging to any larger school of thought. Others find, once they get out into the field, that they have more in common with aid workers than other architects, or worry that a string of museum shows on their work will begin to sharpen the focus on the aesthetics of humanitarian design at the expense of its social mission.

For more on humanitarian design, its promise and its discontents, see my Critic's Notebook.

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Photo: A primary school in Gando, Burkina Faso, by the architect Diébédo Francis Kéré is among the projects featured in the Museum of Modern Art's upcoming exhibition "Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement."  Credit: Siméon Duchoud / Aga Khan Trust for Culture.