If ever architecture needed a shot of altruism, it does now. The boom seduced many excellent architects into turning out ever-pricier baubles and feats of vertiginous engineering, but the world requires modest spaces that, in their meticulous simplicity, can lend difficult lives a little more grace.
New York might seem like infertile ground for humanitarian architecture, partly because the earnest dreamers who covered vast swaths of the city with high-rise housing projects gave social engagement a bad name. But their successors operate on a much tinier scale. Common Ground, a group that builds shelter for the homeless, recently opened the Brook, an ingeniously elegant hive of studio apartments in the Bronx designed by Alexander Gorlin. Also in the South Bronx, Via Verde, the long-planned, hyper-green affordable-housing complex that was designed by two firms, Grimshaw and Dattner, has finally begun construction.
Still, a city teeming with the needy and eager architects should be doing a better job of bringing the two groups together. An exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art offers a fresh flare of inspiration in the form of real buildings that have improved actual lives. For “Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement” (opening October 3), curator Andres Lepik surveyed the planet and selected projects by designers who, rather than wait for the phone to ring, see needs in places where most architects fear to tread, and spend enough time there to understand what people will embrace. They scare up funds, bully bureaucrats, soothe suspicions, train workers, and supervise construction. Their crucial assets are doggedness, patience, and the ability to wring good design from bare budgets.
The best work in the show is truly fine architecture, not just what you can expect under the circumstances. The Austrian Anna Heringer went to Bangladesh and figured out how to improve on the ancient technique of compressing earth in order to build a simple but inventive village school. The Guatemalan-American Teddy Cruz persuaded local officials in the border city of San Ysidro, California, to mold zoning rules to the chaotic realities of immigration. The firm Urban-Think Tank put up a cable lift to link some hillside shantytowns above Caracas to the city below. What makes MoMA’s show especially trenchant in an environment as ornery and pragmatic as New York’s is that it shies away from grandiose arguments or rhetorical generalizations. The slum-clearance campaign of half a century ago merely created new forms of the squalor it was supposed to end. By contrast, MoMA presents projects that solve narrow problems, partially, provisionally, and only for a few. A new school does not educate children by itself. A community center that offers a haven does nothing about the crime outside its walls. Local successes can’t easily be repackaged elsewhere.
Yet those caveats don’t diminish the power of Lepik’s argument: Design can help people take ownership of the spaces that exist to serve them. Sure, the homeless can find refuge in miserable shelters, and children can learn to read in dingy cinderblock boxes. But good architects can give people places they want to go—places where they can belong.