Photo courtesy Siméon Duchoud/Aga Khan Trust for Culture
Primary School by Diébédo Francis Kéré in Gando, Burkina Faso.
Metro Cable by Urban-Think Tank in Caracas, Venezuela.

Among the various trends in architectural practice that emerged in the past decade, two occupied polar sides of the spectrum. On one end, designers capitalized on the once-booming economy, conceiving grandiose towers for burgeoning cities like Dubai and Shanghai. On the other end, they turned their attention to humanitarian work, using their skills to create pragmatic buildings for those in need, from hurricane victims to slum dwellers.

The latter is the focus of a noteworthy exhibition now on view at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Organized by curator Andres Lepik and curatorial assistant Margot Weller, Small Scale, Big Change: New Architecture of Social Engagement showcases 11 examples of contemporary, do-good design across five continents. The featured projects range in purpose and size, from a series of housing blocks designed by Hashim Sarkis for fishermen in Lebanon to a small primary school that architect Diébédo Francis Kéré built for his native village in Burkina Faso. The show, which runs through January 3, also includes three Internet-based networks (The 1%, Open Architecture Network, and urbaninform) that facilitate socially conscious design. 

MoMA’s architecture and design department has presented several blockbuster shows in recent years, such as Bauhaus 1919–1933 (2009) and Home Delivery (2008). In comparison, Small Scale, Big Change is relatively low-key. But its small scale, so to speak, does not diminish its importance. Through drawings, models, videos, and photographs, the show engages viewers in a field of design not often put on display. Moreover, it incorporates something not often seen in architecture exhibitions: people. We watch villagers making and laying bricks for Kéré’s simple yet elegant school. We see students attending Michael Maltzan’s Inner-City Arts center, a bold, white complex in Los Angeles’s Skid Row. We meet David Thornton, the Alabama man residing in a $20,000, 600-square-foot house by Rural Studio. Each project underscores the fact that architecture is more than the fulfillment of an artistic vision: Good design can empower marginalized communities and transform lives.

The timing of Small Scale, Big Change seems right. While architects have long been involved in social causes, a number of design-oriented nonprofit groups have cropped up in recent years. The most eminent, Architecture for Humanity, launched in 1999 and today has more than 70 chapters around the world. In 2002, John Peterson founded Public Architecture and later started The 1% Program, which encourages firms to contribute 1 percent of their working hours to pro-bono projects. Other groups have sprung from natural disasters: flooding in northern France in 2001 prompted the establishment of the Emergency Architects Foundation; the 2004 Indian tsunami led to the creation of UK-based Article 25; and Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, spawned the Brad Pitt-backed Make It Right organization, among others. 

While some might assume the MoMA show is connected to the recent recession, Lepik emphasizes this is not the case. “We’re not looking into the reaction to the actual crisis,” he says. Rather, the goal is to examine a full-fledged, global movement and to question the role of the designer in the 21st century.

So have we reached a point where architects are no longer seduced by the chance to design glitzy skyscrapers for clients with deep pockets? It’s unlikely. These projects do pay the bills, after all. But the slumped economy has halted the big-building extravaganza, allowing the spotlight to shift to more altruistic undertakings. As Small Scale, Big Change confirms, modest projects for underserved areas can yield great rewards, for both the architect and the community.

Small Scale, Big Change runs through January 3.  For more information, visit

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on October 18, 2010.