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Editorial: palaces for people

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Combining the winners of the AR House awards 2019 and an array of social housing projects in one double issue provides rich opportunity to explore the places we live now and the responsibilities in designing them

There are the houses that architects designed for themselves. Originally an extension, the Santa Monica house not only spearheaded Frank Gehry’s career, many argue it was also his first statement on Deconstructivism. Only a few kilometres away, the Eameses built the house – the one house – that encapsulates their way of thinking, seeing, and being in the world. There are also the houses that architects designed for others. Le Corbusier’s top-heavy Villa Savoye is a built manifesto, the physical embodiment of his Five Points of Architecture, while Rem Koolhaas/OMA’s Maison à Bordeaux is a more literal ‘machine for living’. Designed as three houses in one, each stacked on top of the other, sliding floors and moving walls are brought to life on screen with Guadalupe Acedo’s cleaning routine.

Throughout history, the house has been the standard-bearer of quite radical innovation that presages deeper evolutionary currents in architecture and society, constantly pushing the boundaries of how we live. Designing people’s homes is the essence of architectural practice; the type and the tool through which we think about the spaces where we sleep, the ways we interact with our neighbours, and the patterns of everyday life.

‘Beyond the need for architectural solutions, designing the spaces where we live has emerged as an urgent challenge for both the civic and social imagination’

When designing for the poorest in society, the challenge and sense of duty only intensifies. With their mantra of always doing the most with the least, Lacaton & Vassal advocate creating the ‘maximum’. The simplicity, in both idea and design, of their winter garden extensions makes them effortlessly appropriated by residents. By sticking them on the facades of dilapidated housing blocks (an obvious move now that it has been done), they also prove that ideas born out of conversations with specific clients can grow and benefit the masses. Tested and approved at Maison Latapie, their very first project, the premise of ‘luxury in simplicity’ has gained resonance once realised at scale – and it has not yet fulfilled its true potential.

Social housing, in all its complexities and contradictions, is a difficult subject. There’s a short blip in history, that fleeting episode on the 20th-century timeline where ‘social housing’, as a term, as an idea, and as a right, was charged with meaning; when governments recognised the priority to provide homes for those most in need. Today, the concept has been muddied. There is no strict definition, especially not on a global scale. In this issue, we have chosen projects and practices as case studies to help us understand the broader ideas, from the funding models that have made them possible, the innovations they are seeking to promote. A recently completed building on the small island of Formentera enthusiastically proves, with the incongruous use of Posidonia seagrass, that even on very small budgets, architecture can act as incubator of ideas to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Here in London there is the ‘proper old-fashioned council housing’ that Peter Barber is so attached to, so proud (and quite rightly) to be resurrecting, slowly populating London boroughs with reinvented vernacular archetypes in characteristic brick, ranging from soft yellow to ivory. Despite this timid re-emergence of social housing, his portfolio charts the ubiquitous shift from housing as a right to housing as a commodity. Both in the UK and around the world, the home has become a tool of financial speculation bereft of its social function. Beyond the need for architectural solutions, designing the spaces where we live has emerged as an urgent challenge for both the civic and social imagination.



Lead image, and above, by Peter Barber Architects – Coldbath Town in London’s Clerkenwell is a publicly funded scheme that provides inexpensive property for around 100 businesses and accommodation for some 2,500 people on a low income. Featuring stepped rooftop sun terraces, oriel windows, balconies and colourful front doors, it forms a beautiful urban neighbourhood.

This piece is featured in the AR July/August issue on AR House + Social housing – click here to purchase your copy today