The frontline of British architecture today is not just a housing crisis, it is a crisis of our entire form of life, writes curator Jack Self
Every two years the Venice Architecture Biennale selects an individual architect to curate the exhibition and asks them to set an overall theme for the national pavilions. In the past, the nature of this theme has varied enormously. Kazuyo Sejima opted for the straightforward observation ‘people meet in architecture’, while David Chipperfield sought a general ‘common ground’. Most recently, Rem Koolhaas chose the rather precise historical theme of ‘absorbing modernity, 1914–2014’.
This year Chilean architect (and recent Pritzker Prize laureate) Alejandro Aravena has challenged the world of architecture to ‘report from the front’ – calling on each country to define its own ‘frontline of architecture’. While this might seem less prescriptive (and perhaps more methodological) than Koolhaas, Aravena is, in fact, executing a complex ideological turn.
‘Aravena is subtly pivoting the entire subject of the biennale from a study of architecture in society to the humanitarian role of the architect as a social figure’
Aravena is subtly pivoting the entire subject of the biennale from a study of architecture in society to the humanitarian role of the architect as a social figure. At the same time, he is dissolving the ideal of a universal condition for architecture and arguing that an accurate world-view assessment can only stem from precise regionalism. The militant and activist overtones of the brief recall the old protest slogan ‘think global, act local’.
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As a curator of the British Pavilion, this dramatic – and paradigmatic – shift in approach presented a real mixed basket of potentially contradictory conditions. Where and what is the ‘front line’ in Britain today? What is its relationship to architecture? More precisely, what agency does architecture have in this theatre? The term ‘front line’ is highly emotive; it eschews problems and questions in favour of enemies. As a metaphor, it begins to get tricky when we follow the military logic to its extreme conclusion: problems have solutions and questions have responses but enemies simply have to be defeated. At the same time, an insistence on reportage, not rampage, directs us away from battle and towards a kind of show and tell, or perhaps a precise survey of the lay of the land. This passive territorial exploration sits somewhat at odds with the simultaneous command to ‘enter the fray’. All this begs the question: what is architecture actually good for?
Undoubtedly, the front line in Britain today is our societal failure to provide sufficient housing. This is primarily a product of sweeping reforms in the early 1980s by precisely those forces Aravena says he resists: the promotion of private gain over common prosperity (Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy programme in particular). However, from an architectural perspective it is not enough to simply define the British front line as an economic problem of supply shortfall. This dearth has been caused by a confluence of toxic ideology mixed with regulatory and financial oversight. But without understanding how the politics of the family home has shaped this condition, we only have half the picture after all, inasmuch as Thatcher met the nation’s demand for home ownership, she was also instrumental in creating that demand in the first place.
‘Over the last two decades our patterns of life have changed so profoundly that architecture has struggled to keep apace’
The front line of architecture in Britain today is not just a housing crisis, it is a crisis of the home. Over the last two decades our patterns of life have changed so profoundly that architecture has struggled to keep apace. Gender roles in society and power roles in the family have changed, affecting the size and formation of our households. Cheap international travel and the European Union have made short and medium-term relocation accessible, and most of us will live in at least two cities besides our birthplace before we are 25 (whether as a student for a few years, or on a business contract for a few months).
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Perhaps more importantly than budget airlines, the rise in ubiquitous mobile telephony has facilitated and acclerated this mass migration and movement. Twenty years ago the world wide web was a renegade place, dominated by Napster, chat rooms and low-res gifs. Today it is controlled by a few colossal walled gardens (Google, Apple, Facebook), whose silos nonetheless permit remote work and connectivity on a historically unprecedented scale (even while their constant alerts compel you to never unplug).
In economic terms, the return on investment has consistently outpaced wage growth, producing a less equal and more polarised society. This means greater wealth disparity between classes (the 99% versus 1%) as well as greater inequality between generations. Our parents’ homes have risen quite a lot in value since the 1970s but their children’s wages haven’t increased in relative terms at all; after adjusting for inflation, buying a home is considerably more expensive today. Who is going to cover this gap? Well, the money to do that will most likely come from the bank of mum and dad – for those lucky enough to have such a thing.
For those who do not have access to intergenerational wealth, there is no prospect for improving their situation. We can continue to struggle and believe that hard work will one day pay off, but that is not going to happen. Since Aravena asked us to face reality, I will say this: the way many young adults are living now – most probably in cramped, overpriced and over-occupied urban housing – is how they are likely to live until their early 40s. We must seriously explore alternatives to the traditional mortgage and the British dream of home ownership.
‘As far as we are aware, it is the first exhibition on architecture to be curated through time in the home’
As a subject, home economics is the science of the household. It is an especially British one in many ways and, for decades, was a core course in schools. It concerns how to boil an egg as much as how to apply for a mortgage, decorate a living room, mend a shirt or balance a shopping budget. It is the study of ergonomics, economics and econometrics in the domestic realm. For this reason, the curatorial team for the British Pavilion (myself, Shumi Bose and Finn Williams) felt this subject was an appropriate framework for understanding the crisis of contemporary living.
Home Economics as an exhibition proposes five new models for domestic life, curated through time of domestic occupancy. Through five distinct periods – hours, days, months, years and decades – it argues that by designing first with time, as opposed to space, we can overturn the functionalist perspective in western architecture and reinstate a rationalist understanding of dwelling. As far as we are aware, it is also the first exhibition on architecture to be curated through time in the home. Each of these five models addresses a different facet of our frontline crisis of living, from how to prevent speculation and exploitation in real-estate markets to how sharing can be a form of luxury, rather than a compromise.
Each model has been developed in an intensely pragmatic and totalising way, by harnessing the expertise of diverse advisors and collaborators ranging from developers and financial institutions to engineers, architects, artists, fashion designers, photographers and filmmakers. Not only has Home Economics produced a wealth of research, artistic and cultural output, but some of its collaborations may result in new kinds of built work. This focus on reality, and a dedication to sincerely improving the lot for the British, is extremely important.
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In my mind, to reply directly to Aravena’s interrogation of architecture’s agency means asking: what can architects actually do to alter the base structure of society? I would say this: ideology never exists in the abstract. It is not a noun in this sense, but a verb. Ideology happens. Or, more precisely, ideology takes place (an expression that properly describes its dual temporal and spatial qualities). Friedrich Engels, in his text The Housing Question, says socialism cannot exist within the structure of capitalist real estate. He argues that first we must incite the proletariat revolution, and only then will communist housing be possible. For Engels, the utopian endpoint is prefigured by violence.
My position is the complete opposite. The house is not a home. That is what we would like to think – that infrastructure does not directly equate with family life. This argument suggests the forces shaping housing – economic policy, the involvement of the state in land management and tenure models, as well as the technology of construction and service provision – are not the same as those that make a home, which is the traditional, non-commercial space for groups bound by blood and love, where domestic bliss and familial unity can take refuge from the pressures of public life. In fact, the home and the house are the same thing: the family is as much a design object as the electricity pylon. The precise arrangement of rooms, their decoration and use prescribe patterns of thought and movement in the home. Further, they enforce and reinforce social power and gender structures, patterns of work, reproduction and production.
A violent revolution is neither desirable nor realistic. Since the birth of modernity half a millennium ago, Britain has been pursuing an iterative and evolutionary approach to housing that constantly reflects the progression of social values; the last 40 years have been an unfortunate diversion to this project. Consequently, we must first concentrate on designing and building homes that permit and promote equality, inclusivity, the liberation of the individual from debt, as well as providing security and the protection of rights for their inhabitants.
Home Economics is the British Pavilion exhibition for the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, commissioned by the British Council and curated by Shumi Bose, Jack Self and Finn Williams