Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The catalyst function of architecture

Maybe it was because of Architecture for Humanity, whenever people say "architects' social responsibilities," I always assume they only refer to providing low-cost shelter and reducing poverty. When I went to MoMA for the new exhibition "Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement," I was glad to see the type of projects ranged from museum in South Africa to housing tower refurbishment in Paris, from an art school in LA to an urban cable car system in Venezuela. But at the same time, I still felt something inadequate about it... Aren't these projects still primarily talking about underserved areas? Building a school out of mud certainly sets a good example in Bangladesh. But is that all architects can do to be "socially engaged"? Then there's a second question: to what degree are the social changes result of architecture? We are talking about bringing changes to society, but how many architects actually started with a social concern rather than saying "Oh great, I can build an art school!"?

METI - Handmade School in Rudrapur, Bangladesh
Transformation of Tour Bois-le-Prêtre in Paris, a new layer of balconies was added.
Inner-City Arts in LA, by Michael Maltzan
Metro Cable in Caracas, Venezuela
Community Living Room / Senior Housing in San Ysidro, CA, by Teddy Cruz

Rem told us, you also need to take on social responsibilities when working in places like Dubai. How to maintain the village-like lifestyle on the other side of the city? What's the significance of a Dubai project in the global political/economic/cultural/architectural context? When Le Corbusier envisioned the revolution of architecture, he always kept in mind architecture's social missions. (Happy Birthday, Corb!) A material and structural system to build efficiently in the new age, a lifestyle to reflect the zeitgeist, a city to live in harmony with nature... Issues of society are always diverse and complex, so the concept of social engagement must be broad and inclusive. It can be involvement in disaster relief as well as precaution of potential negative impacts. We should fight poverty as well as improve quality of life in general.

When I strolled down to the "Counter Space" exhibition, I saw the Frankfurt Kitchen. I saw the perfect answer to both of my questions right in front of my eyes! Designed in 1926–27 by Grete Schütte-Lihotzky, this compact and ergonomic space reflects a commitment to reshape the lives of ordinary (not just poor) people in a transforming society. The design addressed the notion of modernity in the domestic sphere, based rationally on new theories about efficiency, hygiene, and workflow. Its social agenda was to reform domestic labor through the reorganization of space, injecting a groundbreaking agency in the reconstruction of women's role in society. As Schütte-Lihotzky said, "Women’s struggle for economic independence and personal development meant that the rationalization of housework was an absolute necessity."

Frankfurt Kitchen in MoMA

Compared to the projects in the "Small Scale, Big Change" exhibition, nothing looks particularly fancy in the Frankfurt Kitchen. No intricate tectonics, no funny geometries, no wavy roofs. Perhaps a design doesn't really need to be "Architecture with a capital A" to perform as a social catalyst.

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