Eight Buildings That Change Lives and Solve Social Ills

A new show at MoMA proves architecture can be a tool for social change.

The Museum of Modern Art’s upcoming Small Scale, Big Change exhibition shows that it’s possible to have gorgeous, museum-quality architecture, even in the most underserved communities. The exhibition features 11 projects on five continents that provide uplifting housing, institutions and public spaces for residents around the world who are often forgotten.


The show, which debuts next month, will be chock full of beautiful images. But here’s a taste of the projects that will be on view:

Primary School, Gando, Burkina Faso
Diébédo Francis Kéré

The need for a new primary school in this village allowed architect Kéré to introduce the small community to new building practices. Instead of the high-impact practice of bringing steel and concrete to the remote community, Kéré re-engaged with the traditional material of mud, yet modernized it with a machine that produced the compressed earth bricks.


Kéré also introduced green building elements like a large open roof to increase circulation and prevent heat gain. The community worked together to build the school and learn the new techniques. Attendance immediately increased at the school, and Kéré went on to build an annex and housing for teachers.

Quinta Monroy Housing, Iquique, Chile

This housing project in the desert of northern Chile needed to house 100 families for only $7,500 per unit. The architects used a row house model that left an empty area alongside each completed unit, meaning that residents could move in immediately, yet expand into the flexible spaces, customizing them as budget and time allowed.


The reinforced concrete homes are safe, affordable and large for the price — at 750 square feet, almost double what the same amount would buy in a conventionally-built home. Elemental has now installed 1000 units throughout Latin America and has an additional 1000 units in development.

METI Handmade School, Rudrapur, Bangladesh
Anna Heringer

As an architecture student, Heringer designed a school for Bangladesh as part of her master’s thesis, then, after graduation, located there to build it. The thick earth walls on the sheltered ground floor include a playground made of caves, and the second story has a more open-air environment with a canopy of bamboo.


Like many structures in the area, the building is made from earth, clay, sand, and straw, yet Heringer was able to add modern structural improvements like a brick foundation and a moisture barrier. Heringer worked with local residents to teach them new building techniques.

Red Location Museum of Struggle, Port Elizabeth, South Africa
Noero Wolff Architects

Originally a segregated community for black workers, Red Location was the heart of social change in South Africa as home to some of the first anti-apartheid protests. This museum celebrating equal rights was designed as part of a larger urban renewal program, using affordable materials like concrete and steel and employing local residents in the construction process.


Housing for the Fishermen of Tyre, Tyre, Lebanon
Hashim Sarkis

In 1984, this small Mediterranean fishing village was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, meaning new development was severely limited close to the water. Sarkis designed this housing project to give the local fisherman an affordable place to live and therefore buoy Tyre’s weak economy.

A group of fisherman banded together to create a housing collective and recruited Sarkis as architect to help them build a new community. The nine-block system acknowledges traditional Lebanese housing but fosters new interaction due to the balance between private and public spaces.


Inner-City Arts, Los Angeles, California
Michael Maltzan Architecture

L.A.’s Skid Row neighborhood is one of the most economically depressed parts of the city, and a place that Maltzan has focused his work to complete several stunning projects for marginalized communities. Inner-City Arts represents over a decade of work to convert an abandoned garage into an educational oasis for local students.

The one-acre campus includes multiple buildings connected by various outdoor spaces designed for creative expression and collaboration, including a man-made arroyo that runs through the center of the school. The complex is ringed by stucco walls in abstract shapes, each painted in blinding white, which shows the school’s defiant attitude towards taggers and vandals.


$20K House VIII (Dave’s House), Newbern, Alabama
Rural Studio, Auburn University

Since 1993 the Rural Studio has built 120 homes and public buildings for the residents of Hale County, Alabama. Due to the strictly limited budgets of their clients, the school embarked upon a research project to design and build houses for $20,000 — the magic number that a federal housing loan will allow. This 600 square-foot home was built by a local contractor in 2009 to test the viability of a reproducible model for affordable housing.

Metro Cable, Caracas, Venezuela
Urban-Think Tank

The hillside barrios around Caracas are home to burgeoning populations, yet they are completely severed from the rest of the city when it comes to services. In 2003, a team of architects at Urban-Think Tank proposed a cable car that would help link two of those neighborhoods to the city’s public transit system.


Besides providing an elegant and peaceful method of transportation, the idea has spread throughout the city as a perfect fit for Caracas’s steep, hilly streets, since it treads lightly: Existing residences didn’t need to be demolished like they are in many rail and bus projects.


About the author

Alissa is a design writer for publications like Fast Company, GOOD and Dwell who can most often be found in Los Angeles. She likes to walk, ride the bus, and eat gelato