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Outrage: ‘Architects are complicit in the commodification of UK housing’

Frei otto okohaus

Freedom for ‘generation rent’ from the tyranny of ownership could help recover the social ambitions of architecture from the rapacious callousness of the real-estate market

Designers and architects have for too long been complicit in a real-estate market that exacerbates social inequality. The commodification of our cities, unchecked by a profession profiting from it, is destroying their role as places of public life. No more so is this the case than in London, where property is more grossly overvalued than any other city worldwide. Here these problems are particularly acute, and their solutions particularly necessary.

Taking the stage at a recent event dedicated to Colin Ward, director of the Architecture Foundation Ellis Woodman suggested  the popularity of Ward and his generation was partly due to many of today’s young practitioners looking to their grandparents for inspiration. This might in part be due to cyclical changes in our politics, but perhaps it might also be due to a similarity in our economic situations?

‘There is an opportunity to be seized by generation rent. Perhaps they should try to establish alternative models of housing that seek to move towards freedom from the tyranny of ownership’

Consider ‘generation rent’, so-named for the fact that only a minority will ever own property or take on a mortgage. This contrasts with their baby-boomer parents, for whom ownership has been the norm – but broadly aligns with the ownership patterns of their grandparents. Fewer than half of people currently in their 90s were homeowners, or had a mortgage, by the time they were in their 50s.

At this year’s Conservative party conference David Cameron promised to transform ‘generation rent into generation buy’. By introducing a housing bill that will include starter homes that fit within the definition of the affordable housing be provided by S106 agreements, he is proposing to squeeze out social rented housing in favour of private ownership.

According to the British Social Attitudes survey, 86% of people in England and Wales would like to buy their own home; the Conservative administration has clearly considered this to be evidence enough for its strategies to increase home ownership, but what if they considered the alternative? Might we consider that it is not only unlikely that generation rent will return to a property-owning majority, but also undesirable?

There is an opportunity here, to be seized by generation rent. They should campaign for rent regulation, yes, but perhaps more critically, they should try to establish alternative models of housing that seek to move towards freedom from the tyranny of ownership. This idea was picked up by Pier Vittorio Aureli recently in an essay on Hannes Meyer’s Co-op Interieur project, which accompanied the Wohnungsfrage exhibition in Berlin.

The exhibition – which roughly translates as ‘the housing problem’ – was an ambitious interrogation of housing of a kind that would be good to see in the UK. Aureli’s piece posited that architecture and architects are complicit in the appropriation and domination of real estate. In opposition to this he gives the example of the manner of living undertaken by Franciscan monks, who forwent ownership in order to live ‘in common’, together.

‘Accommodation should be designed to suit the ways in which it is used rather than to suit the requirements of the accretion of capital’ 

One of the curators of the exhibition, Jesko Fezer, along with Heide & Von Beckerath, recently designed a co-housing block, which they built and funded as Baugruppen. This was a distinctive form of funding that allowed all prospective residents to pool their resources to pay for the construction costs of an innovative housing block with generous shared amenities.

The designers of generation rent in the UK have an obligation to their contemporaries. They should be exploring new housing types that facilitate ways of living that reject the ownership patterns of their parents in favour of living in common. This is not to say that only the much-vaunted solution of co-housing is the answer, it is merely one tactic among many that seeks to redress the balance between individual ownership and collective use. It is a matter of designing residential accommodation to suit the ways in which it is used, as a social environment for living, rather than simply to suit the requirements of the accretion of capital.

Where might we look for further precedents for how this project should be undertaken? Perhaps as Woodman suggested, we should look to our grandparent’s generation. They might have employed different tools – it seems unlikely, for example, that we will be re-establishing a state-operated social housing system, but it is in their ideas and ethics that we can find inspiration.

The aspirations of architects as disparate as Frei Otto and Walter Segal shared the idea that everyone not only had a right to shelter, but also to a form of social shelter: the kind of housing that makes a good city. This can be seen in Neave Brown’s small co-housing scheme, Winscombe Street, in north London. A collective of five family houses, it learns from the terraced house in its employment of a repetitious form to suit differing needs. And in providing a common model, which together form a collective whole, it creates a built community.

The same idea can also be seen in Walter Segal’s self-build method, and particularly the way in which it was employed to build the 13 houses at Walters Way in Lewisham. The sense of community established by the collective endeavour of a group of families housing themselves continues to inform the feeling of the street, long after construction ended.

Further examples could come from Frei Otto’s Ökohaus project in Berlin, built by a community of prospective residents, with the architect providing the communal infrastructure. Or from Lucien Kroll’s Mémé, an extraordinary housing complex shaped by the efforts of collective endeavour.

‘The housing models of architects like Ward, Segal, Otto, Brown and Kroll show us how we can design for collective use, as opposed to personal gain’

Best of all we might look to Ward: a fitting grandfather figure for generation rent. His gentle anarchism was founded on a wealth of studies into alternative forms of housing that opposed traditional forms of ownership. In particular, his interest lay with the phenomenon of the ’one-night house’ – a dwelling built by an individual or community, overnight, which if roofed by morning could remain on the common land on which it was built.

Some of the most powerful stories about this somewhat mythical tradition, are the ones in which the involvement of the wider community is critical to the completion of the house – for example, a village coming together to house a newlywed couple. It is exactly this relationship between the rights of an individual and our collective responsibility toward them that should shape the way in which we design and commission housing.

The housing models of these architects show us how we can design for collective use, as opposed to personal gain. They show the virtue of rejecting traditional models that focus on making ownership concrete, in favour of developing alternative strategies for occupying and building shelter that help establish, and are defined by, a common interest.

In order to regain their social purpose in the face of an increasingly powerful real-estate market, today’s emerging architects could do worse than to look to such ideas and ideals, rejecting the orthodoxies of ownership in favour of good housing for all, together.

Lead Image: Frei Otto’s Ökohaus