In January of this year, the highest honor for a living architect was awarded to 41-year-old Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena. In an official announcement, the Pritzker Prize jury lauded Aravena for producing work that “gives economic opportunity to the less privileged, mitigates the effects of natural disasters, reduces energy consumption, and provides welcoming public space.” While Aravena was shocked into tears, others seemed only slightly less stunned. Many were unfamiliar with the prizewinner’s work. And just like that, the most established award in the industry professed one of architecture’s most urgent tasks: to clean up the ravages brought on by modernization, globalization, and the other -izations that have evidently left the world in social, economic, and ecological disarray.
Indeed, the world has been in a dire state of late. For the privileged few who can observe our present-day perils from a safe distance, hardly a day goes by without consuming some anesthetizing dose of the images, headlines, statistics, and doomsday predictions that make up contemporary current events. To feel unaffected is no longer possible. So what is architecture to do in the face of relentless upheaval and suffering? And, dare we ask — what is the architecture exhibition to do?
This fall the Museum of Modern Art opened Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter, a show that contends with this existential crisis rippling through the arts. Produced by architecture and design curator Sean Anderson with assistant curator Arièle Dionne-Krosnick, the exhibition gathers an array of items — from emergency medical supplies to digital storytelling platforms — to explore notions of shelter in response to decades of compulsory migration and sustained border disputes.
Set against a backdrop of slate gray walls and occasional, muted siren wails, Insecurities demands active engagement from the start. Near the entrance, a textured rubber doormat emblazoned with the greeting “Welcome” is laid on the floor beneath a black-and-white photograph, framed and isolated on a wall. The two create a peculiarly domestic scene that beckons closer examination: the mat is the work of Do Ho Suh, its uniform thicket of rubber tines revealing, upon squatted inspection, an army of individual figures standing with arms raised; the photograph is the work of Dorothea Lange, its classical composition of a migrant mother and child, lit by the California sun, instantly evoking Depression-era American history. With surprising efficacy, these objects grab at the museumgoer, Suh’s welcome mat whispering of an anonymity that includes all subjects, and Lange’s 1937 image representing the displaced as a fair-skinned madonna and child.
The two objects announce what Insecurities is decidedly not — a showcase of the latest works of architecture and design to champion “social good.” That said, adjacent to Suh’s sculpture and Lange’s photo is an object with this pedigree: a plastic band devised by the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders to measure arm circumferences. A pair of them lies flat on a pedestal, the sculptural presentation underscoring the objects’ tactility. Placed in the same aesthetic space as sanctioned works of art, the portable plastic strips do not so much exemplify innovative design as they do prompt awareness of the body, again emphasizing that this exhibition is not just about the estimated 65 million people suspended in an indeterminate period of transition, but about everyone — all the bodies that can briefly slip in and out of these readymade measuring devices.
On the whole, Insecurities is light on nods to the architecture and design world, shying away from narratives of technological breakthrough or material discovery. Of course, there is the centerpiece of the show — a steel-framed, polymer-plastic-enclosed emergency shelter, fully assembled in the middle of the gallery. Hauled out from the MoMA permanent collection, the gabled structure by Swedish organization Better Shelter showcases thoughtful space-making for those in need of basic refuge. Visitors are invited to walk through it and imagine daily life for a family of five. In this context, as with the arm-measuring bands, the object appeals to empathy more than technical curiosity. Rather than seeing it as a prototypical triumph of design, museumgoers experience the space with the knowledge that millions of others might sit within an identical set of polymer walls.
It is this reframing of design — the move away from its conception as a practice of problem-solving — that makes Insecurities an exhibition of its time. Much of the show calls attention to the ephemerality of our built environment, to the fragility of constructed spaces and boundaries, and to the compelling strength of imagined ones. In one installation, artist Thamotharampillai Shanaathanan shares a series of stories from Tamil refugees displaced by civil war. The interviewees were asked to draw from memory the floor plans of their temporary and abandoned houses, which the artist then overlaid with trace paper inscribed with straight-lined architectural plans made to approximate the sketches. Obscured yet still visible, the raw, hand-drawn diagrams suggest that, just as space can be effortlessly erased, it can also be intuitively preserved.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, photographs and renderings of shelters — from wispy cloth canopies to wood and metal enclosures — convey expressions of the temporary. Arranged in series or grids, the images beckon viewers to assess the habitability of each unit. From this serial scanning, a curious insight emerges: while good shelter design is often characterized by safety, durability, and easy reproducibility, these same qualities often fail to guarantee a good shelter. In some instances, they counteract this very effort: a fabric tent may falter in extreme weather, but one is harder pressed to find the humanity in an enclosed metal box, repeated endlessly.
As the introductory text to the show riddles: “Shelter, in these unforgiving contexts, is both a noun and verb.” Insecurities certainly explores the ways in which shelters and camps can save lives; but its agenda is to do that while contending with the ways in which sheltering can place lives on indefinite hold. Between the noun and the verb, it seems, is a vast, muddy terrain, in which notions of safety, sanctuary, and the humanitarian spirit jostle alongside those of security, control, and xenophobic self-preservation. These days, to shelter can mean to rob people of the means to produce culture, claim identities, and forge personally significant lives.
This critical self-questioning of the design world is reflected in the show’s appeal to art over architecture and design proper. Admittedly, the exhibition’s heterogeneity can be disorienting. Insecurities demands from its visitors the kind of mental gear-shifting often required by biennials or expos. But rather than offer a neat typology or chronology of design achievements in response to piling international crises, Insecurities asks how architecture and design can (and cannot) help us make sense of the contemporary moment, when crisis is the rule rather than the exception. Blooming on the back wall of the exhibition, Reena Saini Kallat’s “Woven Chronicle” (2015) depicts a map of the world sculpted out of colored electrical cables painstakingly gathered and pinned into place (here too is the source of the trancelike siren that forms the soundscape of Insecurities). In our interconnected world, as Kallat implies, no one can claim isolation from events at large. To acknowledge the present in its intricate, sometimes-tangled entirety becomes an urgent task.
Part of this task involves seeking out the perspectives of the displaced, which the exhibition strains to do. Hanging on a solemn, slate-gray wall is a wool tapestry, woven by members of the National Union of Sahrawi Women. It depicts a map of a Western Saharan refugee camp, honoring the sense of place produced by its longstanding residents, though the gallery context casts a pall on the plush textile. Projected on the floor is another map of a Syrian refugee city-camp, rendered in the style of a contemporary illustration by a group of Dutch artists. Detailed labels and observations scatter across the graphic like scribbled notes, and an accompanying interactive documentary stitches together videos and illustrations to portray an environment rich with stories. Here, the show appeals to our smartphone-primed abilities to summon engagement at will, a skill still far from universal.
The message of these maps is still clear: deciding how and when our world will change, how its borders will shift, where migrants will settle, is no longer the prerogative of the established few. Change is already happening — it has already happened — and our only recourse is to face it. No longer is it a surprise for a MoMA exhibition or a Pritzker Prize to acknowledge the darkest trials of our contemporary moment. The error would be to believe that outward acknowledgement is enough. With elections and referenda reflecting feelings of nativist outrage throughout the world, it is crucial to ensure that we all make room for pressing dialogues, be they about local injustices or global concerns. No individual or institution is exempt from these discussions. Nor should we limit the purview of what is relevant. At MoMA, for instance, the reevaluation of history remains vitally important. While Insecurities wades through the chaos of the present, another architecture and design show on the museum’s third floor surveys modern interiors from the 1920s to the ‘50s. With its focus on female practitioners and their convictions in designing for a liberated, modern subject, it too has important things to say about how we can live together.