by Jacob Moore*
The exhibition Small Scale, Big Change was on view at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) from October 3, 2010 through January 3, 2011. Curated by Andres Lepik, the show brought together 11 projects from five continents – each with different programs, scales, sites, and institutional contexts – all under the rubric of “Architectures of Social Engagement.”  According to Lepik’s introduction to the exhibition catalogue, the show focused on exhibiting current trends in the discipline that shifted the design emphasis away from big budget, formal experiments towards engaged actions functioning more as integrated, entrepreneurial bricolage than as autonomous, bureaucratic production. For MoMA’s director Glenn Lowry, the show’s value was its inscription of architecture’s modernist desire for social relevance back into the museum’s exhibition program. As some critics have recognized, the relevance of the show itself within contemporary architectural culture – dealing with issues of sustainability, institutional constraint, and engagement with some sort of broader community was, in and of itself, a feat.  Given MoMA’s tendency to rely on the canonical weight of its own collection in order to avoid the problematics of quickly forcing a more ‘relevant’ show through its dense bureaucracy, simply having images on the museum walls that could have feasibly been pinned on a graduate student’s desk was surprising and, yes, perhaps commendable.
Given all of the above, the true surprise, for New York Times Architecture Critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, was that so many of these “heartening” projects were “actually good.” Though patronizing, Ouroussoff’s surprise is useful, as it productively positions the exhibition back in the realm of the museum proper. After all, as is often the case with exhibitions about architecture, it is not simply the ideas as presented by the curators that are on display. These eleven projects were selected from very real circumstances where they contended with very real problems and were subsequently placed next to one another in the very white, very cubic Special Exhibitions Gallery on the museum’s third floor. Lepik’s choices and the consequential coherence that he attempted to give them require further study, especially in light of the exhibition’s supposed relevance outside of the museum walls.
Though they won’t all be directly addressed here, it is worth mentioning that the group of 11 projects in the exhibition included:
– Three schools, located in Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, and California, respectively;
– one museum, located in South Africa;
– six housing projects located in Lebanon, Alabama, Chile, California, France and Brazil, respectively; and
– one infrastructure project located in Venezuela.
Concurrently, some of the phrases and concepts that reoccurred consistently throughout the catalogue’s framing of the projects were:
– Underserved Communities – Modesty
– Pragmatism – Equality
– Participatory or Collaborative Design – Individuality
– Access – Empowerment
– Income – Effectiveness
While comparison or juxtaposition is a fundamental and often usefully productive tool for exhibition makers, is there anything elided or misrepresented by the strategies used to draw curators’ connections? Exhibitions, like the projects they exhibit, are produced in a certain time, place, and institutional context. In this review and case study, a comparison of the jargon surrounding one of the housing projects included in Small Scale, Big Change will be made with that used to market a project not included in the exhibition specifically Columbia University’s impending campus expansion, and will explore the dangerous slippages that the convergence of certain terminologies, and the absence of others, promotes. The comparison will also explore the similarly constructed framing of each project as a carrier of necessary institutional agendas which are driven by forces far-removed from the ideologies that the familiar lexicons initially suggest, and as a result will question the possibilities for more honest communication.
Formulas for Success
The Quinta Monroy Housing project was designed by the architecture firm Elemental, headed by Alejandro Aravena and Andrés Iacobelli, and constructed from 2003 – 2005 in Iquique, Chile. Filtered through the perspective of the Small Scale, Big Change curators, a summary of the details surrounding the project might sound something like this: Elemental’s unique collaboration with the Chilean government, a major Chilean oil company, and a large Catholic university was central to this unique and pragmatically innovative design for nearly 100 units of low-income housing in northern Chile. Perhaps more important to the project’s extraordinary success than this fiscal and managerial collaboration was the integration of community participation into the design and planning processes. With a limited budget, the designers, together with the community for which the housing was intended, imagined a formula based on the traditional row house that could be expanded and modified with time, according to each family’s individually changing needs and fluctuating incomes. By creating an adaptable solution under tight fiscal constraints, the project serves as proof that innovation in the discipline can and should mean much more than formal, properly ‘architectural’ experimentation. Though factually correct, concepts generalized as such can be applied to many projects operating at changing scales and serving different ends. In an architectural context, with its inscribed bodies of users reframed instead as ‘communities,’ the built environment can be used as a tool through which unity, however illusory, may be readily articulated and even monumentalized.
Similar strategies, especially collaboration between ‘communities’ often characterized by certain commonplace descriptors, were central for another New York project, this one not associated with the MoMA exhibition: Columbia University’s ongoing campaign to expand its campus into the Manhattanville neighborhood of West Harlem. Having had a long, fraught relationship with its neighbors to the north, outreach was an essential step on the part of the University of both convincing the soon-to-be-displaced residents that it was in their best interest to leave and of marketing to the greater public. The 6.8 million square foot proposal, which would include designs from Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, Diller + Scofidio and Renfro, and Renzo Piano, necessarily had a much more visible public face than the small housing project in northern Chile. Nevertheless, like MoMA’s description of Quinta Monroy, target communities’ participation and empowerment have been key themes for Columbia throughout this nearly decade-long process. In New York, the process eventually lead to Columbia’s successful acquisition of all desired property, even though it ultimately required invocation of eminent domain in another ‘unconventional alignment’ of sorts between public and private authorities, similar to the celebrated collaboration in Iquique between the public, religious, and private sectors.
Contributing to the public good, in addition to being the official justification for state-endorsed seizure of private property, can also be seen as part of Columbia’s design strategy. Integration of non-institutional retail spaces, open traffic and pedestrian flows, and a consistent emphasis on transparency in material choice are framed by the expansion’s marketers as various ways in which Manhattanville residents, displaced though they might be, will in fact be assisted and indeed empowered by the project once it is complete. Economically the expansion is touted as providing 6,000 new jobs and an unknowable amount of further opportunities related to tangential development in the neighborhood that will result from the university’s move. Seeing the project from this perspective, as do Columbia’s planners, positions it squarely within the terms laid out by Weller in her text for the Quinta Monroy housing project – realistic, collaborative, and empowering.
In spite of these seemingly positives descriptors, over the last several years the residents of Manhattanville have vigorously fought back against Columbia’s expansion. Indeed, the University produced much of the material attempting to explain the expansion as a direct response to active opposition. This resistance quickly spread throughout the city, and the debate, which eventually involved the city government, religious and labor organizations, and student groups, gained enormous public visibility. This visibility is something that would have never normally been available to a project of Quinta Monroy’s size, but of course this doesn’t preclude something of a similar level of complexity from having occurred outside of the spotlight, which is precisely why Lepik’s selection and subsequential framing of the project is worthy of investigation.
The obvious disconnect between the content of a Chilean housing project and an private American university’s expansion is important here, as it is the tone and topography of both projects as presented that is under examination, for MoMA’s public in one case and New York residents in another. The question at stake is not only how is it possible that such similar strategies could be used to describe such distinct projects, but also: why are these strategies successful? Before examining the specific family of shared descriptors, it is necessary to understand the process facilitating the dilution of these complicated contexts.
Exhibition by Analogy
Just as was the case with Small Scale, Big Change, every exhibition curator must somehow draw connections and make his/her exhibition’s object(s) speak to its intended audience. Even if the exhibition content is intentionally abstruse, mystifying, or banal, effective facilitation of those desired responses is part of the curator’s task. Methodologies for eliciting these results are varied, but in one way or another most curators draw connections through shared understanding of past human experience, or more simply stated – through history.
Mahmood Mamdani, both a historian and one of the preeminent scholars working to comprehend methods of history-making in the postcolonial era, describes what he calls “history by analogy” when analyzing the different approaches to understanding and historicizing the postcolonial condition in Africa. Beginning by tracing dialectical forms of structuralist critique such as Marxism and dependency theory to poststructural critiques of those forms’ predefined unilinearity and their concurrently limited possibility, he problematizes the poststructuralist response as nevertheless unwilling to escape the very structure it critiques. Instead, according to Mamdani, in seeking resistance through the ‘banalization’ of African history and its folding it into a kind Deleuzian universal map, poststructuralism is exposed and “abstract universalism and intimate particularism turn out to be two sides of the same coin: both see in the specificity of experience nothing but its idiosyncrasy.” From here Mamdani arrives at the form of history to which he posits most strains of postcolonial African studies have fallen victim by stating: “The central tendency of such a [Eurocentrist] orientation is to lift a phenomenon out of its context and process. The result is a history by analogy.” Convincingly explained as comparable to the moments during the beginning stages of learning a new language where every word must be translated back into the native tongue in order to be understood; the persistent irony is that, due to the process, actual understanding becomes impossible.
How can one think, then, about this mode of history making in terms of contemporary exhibition making? As a practice that responds to many of the same postmodern conditions against which Mamdani places his argument, exhibition making’s ability to express context and process is particularly at stake in architecture. Additionally, it should be acknowledged that as exhibition practice has become a received mode of dissemination for architectural ideas within the discipline, once codified exhibitions are modes of history making in and of themselves – albeit ones with their own contextual, procedural, and historical specificities. So, if one could translate Mamdani’s “history by analogy” into “exhibition by analogy,” and if for him Eurocentrism was the native language for those trying to translate the African experience into understandable terms, what is the native language for the curators of Small Scale, Big Change?
Pragmatics at Work
Towards the beginning of the essay, I identified a list of terms or themes as recurrent throughout all of the MoMA exhibition’s project descriptions as well as throughout the marketing of the not-exhibited Columbia project, many of which were further ill-defined via associations with unclear notions of stakeholder ‘communities.’ Of those, I’d like to focus here on three of the most broadly applied: pragmatism, participation, and empowerment. As was the case specifically with the Quinta Monroy Housing Project in Chile, all of those themes used to frame the Small Scale, Big Change exhibition and connect its projects can be generally understood by way of these three familiar ideas.
The tone of this lexicon, centering on pragmatism, participation, and empowerment, is recognizable enough to any follower of politics in the United States. ‘Grassroots activism,’ which efficiently merges the positivist language of environmental sustainability with notions of outside-the-box radicals fed up with the status quo, along with both of their easily mobilized ambiguity, has been totally co-opted by the country’s mainstream political parties. Part of the election-season call-to-arms is always an invocation of the country’s innate Protestant work ethic. Americans are famous (at least amongst Americans) for doing ‘what had to be done.’ Of course, what it is that has to be done is always up for debate, but the entrepreneurial, individualist spirit imbued in this idea of pragmatism is assumed to be present in contemporary American society and is assuredly peppered throughout the language of “Small Scale, Big Change.”
These contemporary political undertones become even more apparent in the application of the theme of participation. Whether celebrating the collaboration between designers and businesses in the forging of innovative funding structures, ‘community’ participation in the design process, or the minimal participation of governmental bodies in both, a certain understanding of a depoliticized, neoliberal democracy runs throughout all 11 project descriptions yet is only evident when the language is broken down, as were the Eurocentric language and structures Mamdani identified buried within postcolonial African history.
Finally, one of the strongest connections forged between the 11 projects is that which posits that architecture, as embodied in the show, can empower its users. The implication is simultaneously that the designer has a hand in augmenting possibilities for his/her client, and that the viewers of the exhibition themselves might learn ways that they could subsequently bestow agency, choice, and access upon those “deprived” and “underprivileged” people who need it most. Even if we can put aside longstanding disagreements over architecture’s ability to provoke, as opposed to reflect, change in the world, the insistence in Small Scale, Big Change on empowerment built within both the projects’ processes as well as their outcomes still promotes the very outdated modernist mode of patriarchal bestowal that the exhibition’s organizers purport to reject. Concurrently, adopting a language of service or generosity displaces any conversations of responsibility for or complicity with the problems to which these designs react. Also widened through this language’s usage is the epistemological divide between the subjects and objects of the exhibition’s projects, or as the curators would probably have framed it: the haves and the have-nots.
It’s these same kind of depoliticized notions of engagement in Small Scale, Big Change, facilitating the use of pragmatism, participation, and empowerment to convey the idea of architecture in the name of the good, that also allow for unilateral military aggression in the name of ‘democracy spreading.’ Sadly, that’s the native tongue of the majority of the audience, and was resultantly the most pragmatic way for Lowry to regain the museum’s “social relevance.” In one’s own language, it’s possible to become an expert – but learning 11 new tongues in one afternoon at the museum isn’t easy.
For precursors to this type of institutional double-speak, one need not look any further than 1960s New York. Just as Jane Jacobs’s small-business centered, bottom-up approach to urban preservation was gaining traction against the top-down, government-sponsored modernist urban aggression of Robert Moses, MoMA was picking up on similar trends. Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture without Architects, which opened at MoMA in November, 1964, capitalized on disillusionment with Moses-esque modernism in order to tout the ancient architectural wisdom of the “vernacular, anonymous, spontaneous, indigenous, [and] rural.” Though Rudofsky’s self-deprecation and constant usage of the first-person plural pulled the institution at large into his pseudo-apology, at the same time the exhibition unabashedly celebrated the work of the modern masters – pompous though it may have been – as simply having built upon a larger body of masterpieces than was previously thought. Also implied was a confessional search for forgiveness, as Rudofsky’s exhibition was bookended by two exhibitions featuring the modernist par excellence, Le Corbusier.
Similar transitions were happening outside of the architectural field as well. Postmodernism in architecture and urbanism was rejecting the universal, top-down approach just as some in international development were beginning to push for more locally generated intervention in place of state-sponsored methods. Of course, in practice this meant private and religious development, just as Jacobs-inspired rejections of Moses have served as cookie-cutter precursors for the New Urbanists’ privately developed, upper class community schemes that are popular today.
I must emphasize that this isn’t to say that the modernists were right, or that Jane Jacobs was wrong; that government-sponsored development works and faith-based initiatives fail. The intention is simply to express that the carriers of their messages often had alternate agendas or motivating forces, at times consciously hidden and at others not, which were not always in line with the content of the original message as it was publicly understood. At least in the case of Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion, the contention was more visibly counterposed to the official propaganda due to the project’s scale and site. But how is a reader of the Small Scale, Big Change catalogue supposed to know what really happened at Quinta Monroy? That doesn’t seem to actually be a part of the intended message. As long as one realizes that architecture, and by extension the Museum of Modern Art, is good again (conveyed through contemporary neoliberal parlance), attempting to comprehend the political specificities of each project isn’t really necessary.
The End of Analogy
So what then, might be a positive way to exhibit and discuss a complex group of projects such as these? Isn’t everything within museum walls necessarily framed, and shouldn’t that framing necessarily be in a language legible to that particular museum’s audience? One could argue that visibility for these projects and their contexts, no matter the limited extent to which they’re covered in the show, is positive. After all, conversation between motivated individuals could lead to further research and any number of possible interventions could result. The danger comes, though, when the discourse created around these projects precludes further dialogue through flattening of the issues’ complexities and false framing of the projects’ intersections via exhibition by analogy.
The slippage in question is reminiscent of the clichéd architectural problem of reconciling representation with reality. In his book, Politics of Nature, sociologist and theorist Bruno Latour works, in a similar vein, towards reconciling a productive, individualistic sense of political possibility with the traditionally isolated and idealized realm of ecology. Thinking back to Plato’s cave, one of the most famous analogous relationships in philosophical history, Latour reminds the reader that the only occupant of the cave allowed to come and go as he/she pleased was the philosopher-scientist. Subsequently, a “double rupture” was established wherein ontology was firmly separated from epistemology (outside vs. inside the cave), but those who authored ontological law outside the cave traded freely within and originated from the epistemological interior of the cave. Latour’s proposal then, is for everyone to break his or her chains and step out of the cave. In doing so, the point is not to bathe in the light of pure, ontological, or natural truth – but rather to declare the “end of nature.” Use the analogy to destroy the analogy. In doing this, humanity can begin to operate in a realm that acknowledges a smooth, continuous (though necessarily contentious) plane of existence for all beings, within which we may negotiate everything in the most political way possible. For Latour, this is the space of a true political ecology. That is to say that science as we know it is merged with politics, and debate is the only way to arrive at solutions to problems, with each one given its appropriate due process.
Taking this destruction of the analogy back to the museum, and particularly back to the space of Small Scale, Big Change, one can being to imagine instead a show where the curators attempt to invest more direct energy in exploring the specificities of one project, or one problem within one project, so that the effort of the viewers is spent less in drawing connections as it is to the unfortunately yet helpfully analogous learning of a new language. Maybe this isn’t possible in exhibitions, in which case a whole new paradigm of show and tell should be considered. In the meantime, I’m going to pick a language and start practicing my vocabulary.
Bernard Rudofsky. Architecture Without Architects: An Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1964.
Bruno Latour. Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.
Coalition to Preserve Community. Stopcolumbia.org. “Stopcolumbia.org: a website of the Coalition to Preserve Community.” http://www.stopcolumbia.org/
Columbia University. “Manhattanville in West Harlem.” Columbia University, http://www.neighbors.columbia.edu/pages/manplanning/index.html
James Wines. “Smart Move at Small Scale, Big Change,” New York: The Architect’s Newspaper, November 12, 2012. http://archpaper.com/news/articles.asp?id=4995
Libby Hruska, ed. “Small Scale Big Change; New Architectures of Social Engagement,” Exhibition catalogue. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2010.
Mahmood Mamdani. “Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism.” Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
Museum of Modern Art. “MoMA: Exhibition History List.” New York. http://www.moma.org/learn/resources/archives/archives_exhibition_history_list
Nicolai Ouroussoff. “Real-life Design: Erecting Solutions to Social Problems.” New York Times, October 15, 2010, Section C, 25.
Samuel Hickey and Giles Mohan, eds. Participation: From Tyranny to Transformation? New York: Zed Books, 2004.
Stefan M. Bradley. Harlem vs. Columbia University: Black Student Power in the Late 1960s. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009.
Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification, “Columbia’s West Harlem Expansion: A Look at the Issues,” New York: Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification (SCEG), 2007.
*Jacob Moore is a second year student in the MA Program in Critical, Curatorial and Conceptual Practices in Architecture at The Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation.