Karl Sharro







In defence of scale: Think big in architecture

MoMA: Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement



MoMA’s new exhibition Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement illustrates how pervasive the ‘small is beautiful’ creed has become. The exhibition presents eleven architectural projects on five continents, and according to the blurb:


“These innovative designs signal a renewed sense of commitment, shared by many of today’s practitioners, to the social responsibilities of architecture. Though this stance echoes socially engaged movements of the past, the architects highlighted here are not interested in grand manifestos or utopian theories. Instead, their commitment to a radical pragmatism can be seen in the projects they have realized.”


Some of the projects incorporated in the exhibition are definitely innovative and of very high quality. But it’s wrong to suggest that these disparate small-scale interventions should be seen as the way forward for architecture. The large-scale rapid urbanisation taking place in emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil requires solutions that can be replicated cheaply and easily not a craft-based approach. Architects risk being left behind if they don’t gear up to face the urbanisation challenge, the process will happen with or without them.


Furthermore, everyone’s aware today of the need for architecture to become more efficient in its use of energy and resources. I wouldn’t personally frame this need through sustainability or the response to climate change, but I would still advocate innovative thinking and experimentation to produce more efficient buildings and construction methods. Efficiency means we can build more, and we can build faster and cheaper. We need lots of clean and cheap energy for that. It doesn’t take facing human extinction to recognise that cleaner energy is a desirable thing. 


If we are serious about responding to those challenges, we won’t be able to provide the solutions through individually crafted buildings and small-scale interventions. We need to think big. China and India are not going to sit around and wait for us while we self-indulgently turn architecture into a medium of collective therapy, as the MoMA text suggests: “these undertakings not only offer practical solutions to known needs, but also aim to have a broader effect on the communities in which they work, using design as a tool.”


Five of the projects on display deal with housing in one way or another: Elemental’s Quinta Monroy Housing, Hashim Sarkis’ Housing for the fishermen of Tyre, Rural Studio’s $20k House VIII, Estudio Teddy Cruz’s Casa Familiar and Frédéric Druot, Anne Lacaton, and Jean Philippe Vassal’s Transformation of Tour Bois-le-Prêtre. The quality varies widely from the elegantly simple to the unnecessarily complicated. The strength and clarity of Tyre’s fishermen’s housing stands in sharp contrast to the self-indulgent and self-congratulatory Casa Familiar.


The strength of Sarkis’ design for the fishermen housing stems from its bold re-imagining of the basic housing typology in Lebanon. Whereas the prevalent typology, driven by antiquated building codes, treats open space as a left-over; Sarkis re-introduced the courtyard with a modern interpretation that produces far more useful and pleasant open space. The common feature of all successful housing typologies, the British terraced house, the Paris apartment building, is replicability. The fishermen’s housing certainly has the potential to transform the way housing is designed and built in Lebanon. It’s ironic that the project most modest in its claims is the most successful.


It’s very flattering for architects to think that design should be concerned with creating communities and playing a social role beyond the physical contribution to the built environment. But this is both a delusion and a distraction, architects are not qualified to address those issues and the limitations of architecture mean that at best such attempts represent superfluous justifications. Architects should focus on what they know best, the design of buildings, and users can take it from there. 


This new-found modesty in architecture, the obsession with small-scale, may sound like a virtue but in fact it’s a form of intellectual cowardice. The impressive pace of change in places like China still relies on old models of designing cities that are nearly a century old. New Chinese cities are scaled-up versions of the Modernist city, and ultimately they risk reproducing many of its problems if new ways of tackling housing, transport and work are not devised. If there’s an element of social responsibility in architecture it should manifest itself in accepting and not shying away from this historic challenge.


Ultimately, ‘radical pragmatism’ is an oxymoron. There’s an inherent contradiction between the radical worldview and its visionary nature and the pragmatic worldview which seeks to work within the limitations of the present. The MoMA exhibition is showcasing projects that represent a withdrawal from the challenges facing architecture and urbanism in the coming century. The radical dimension is yet to be found.


Karl Sharro 2010


First published in Blueprint Magazine December 2010