The Cooper-Hewitt is now staging a sequel, Design With the Other 90%: Cities, organized by Cynthia Smith, its curator of socially responsible design. The show’s title alone signals that Smith and her team have taken the next leap in thinking about socially responsible design: eschewing “design for” in favor of the more democratic “design with.” With the Cooper-Hewitt’s stately home undergoing a multiyear renovation, the institution has found a fitting venue for the new exhibition in the visitors’ lobby of the United Nations Headquarters, where it will be on view through January 9, 2012.
The subtle name change is immediately reflected in dozens of large-scale photographs of urban dwellers huddled around drawings and models—reshaping their world side by side with design professionals. The images serve as a moving backdrop for the 60 projects and technologies showcased in the exhibition, ranging from urban plans to houses, schools, building materials, and economic and transportation systems.
The breadth of this show greatly eclipses that of its predecessor, with roughly twice as many projects on view. The first of eight thick wall panels—each surrounded by models and other objects—features a striking map that illustrates the magnitude of the global housing crisis; the map charts informal settlements where people are living with limited access to clean water, electricity, and proper sanitation. These slums—on every continent, yet particularly abundant in Africa, Asia, and South America—account for nearly 1 billion people; according to the UN, that number is projected to double by 2030. The “Informal Settlement World Map” was designed by Christian Werthmann with colleagues from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. It is one of only two U.S. contributions in the exhibition (the other is a camera suspended from balloons for aerial mapping, developed by the MIT Media Lab).
Several of the projects featured in the show have earned acclaim in recent years, particularly the Praça Cantão favela painting project in Rio de Janeiro, launched in 2007 by Dutch artists Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn (known as Haas&Hahn). The two employed local youth to paint brightly colored murals on buildings and staircases, reinvigorating the city’s slums. The show also includes work by TED Prize winner JR in Nairobi, who mounts enormous photographic prints of local residents on walls, rooftops, stairways, train cars, and elsewhere.
Solutions for meeting basic human needs, such as providing shelter, are on view, as well. One example is a $7,000 housing structure, constructed of sandbags and timber framing and built by local laborers in Cape Town, South Africa; the system was designed by architect Luyanda Mpahlwa for the advocacy organization Design Indaba. Another housing system, also in South Africa and designed and manufactured by Moladi, utilizes a recyclable plastic formwork, which is then filled with concrete.
In many cases, the pieces featured in the show are credited to both the designers and the communities where they work. Yet the voices and stories of the people affected by these design interventions are noticeably absent. Did the colored walls in Rio de Janeiro make the residents feel safer or happier? What was it like for a Nairobi woman who had never owned a camera nor seen her image on celluloid to have her likeness unfurled on the side of a building? Do people enjoy living in the low-tech homes in South Africa? Without these testimonies, we’re only getting half the story, or less.
Moreover, the actual presentation of the exhibition’s 2-D material sadly reinforces the lack of refinement often associated with socially responsible design. Oversaturated prints are affixed to wall panels with staples in most cases. If this was an aesthetic choice, it was a poor one, as it compromises the message and importance of the projects at hand.
Still, the show is influential. Down a flight of stairs, deeper into the bowels of the UN, I sought out the exhibition catalog in the building’s expansive bookstore. There, I found shelf after shelf containing innumerable books on education, health, immigration, poverty, and other vital global issues. Save for the exhibition catalog, there were no books explicitly related to architecture or design. This underscored the significance and foresight of the Cooper-Hewitt in presenting Design With the Other 90%: Cities at the UN. The show has its flaws, but it commendably brings design to the forefront in a place where global decisions are made.
John Cary is the editor of PublicInterestDesign.org and author of “The Power of Pro Bono: 40 Stories about Design for the Public Good by Architects and Their Clients.” He writes and speaks widely on architecture, design, public service, and social justice.