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‘The laws of real estate inexorably limit any building component or type’

House housing

Architects are increasingly addressing the problematics of the 21st century, exemplified by House Housing which tackles inequality full on

Architecture is the most thoughtful and considerate of all the design fields. A contentious statement perhaps, and no doubt a crowd pleaser with this readership, but I have good reason to think this is truly the case. Even a mediocre presentation by a thoroughly average student of architecture will demonstrate an expansive range of analytical tools very rarely deployed in other design fields. At its best, the study for a single building will encompass a vast spread of geographical, cultural, historical, psychological and physiognomic contexts and data. It will zoom out to the scale of a continent, and zoom in to the material and ergonomic qualities of a staircase; precedents will reach back to the Roman Empire and push forward into the end of civilisation; it will break down global demographics while building up visions of communities from the street or neighbourhood.

However, I have never heard an architect present an analysis that cross-compares these conditions with financial concerns. This is because factors like land prices, models of tenure and mortgage rates are viewed as belonging to the world of the developer. Architects understand their role as those who defend and promote cultural aims, struggling against schemes initiated by our capitalist overlords. To achieve social good in a project often requires as much stealth as sneaking wooden horses into Troy.

‘Architects who challenge this division tend to be viewed with some suspicion: more often than not they end up as developer-architects’

Architects who challenge this division tend to be viewed with some suspicion: more often than not they end up as developer-architects, and rather more the former than the latter. They do not reframe architectural practice through a developer’s data sets. For example, one rarely hears an architect interrogating how racial discrimination influences land costs, or whether government housing policy is making society more or less equal, or how the price of oil affects building detail complexity.

There is a perception that finance and politics are related to architecture, but somehow not intrinsically implicated in the discipline. It is precisely this mindset that the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia University seeks to overturn. Buell’s long-term project, House Housing, has been running since last year and already has several major exhibitions, events and a diverse range of publications (from pamphlets to books) to show for its efforts. The aim of the project is to demonstrate that the dichotomy of architectural form and financial means is fallacious, and House Housing is both admirably ambitious and academically rigorous. As Director Reinhold Martin has said, ‘… in architecture, economic fundamentals begin from the ground up. The laws of real estate, relating to the acquisition of land, the financing of construction, the cost of building maintenance and services, profit from rent or resale, the value of equity, or the price of credit, inexorably constrain any building component (like a window) or any building type (like a house)’.

The 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale is marked by the fact that several of the most important exhibitions were unsolicited, taking place outside the officialdom of Koolhaas’s Fundamentals. One was the Airbnb Pavilion (whose authors are now called ÅYR, after the apartment-sharing company pursued legal avenues) and the other was House Housing: An Untimely History of Architecture and Real Estate in Nineteen Episodes. This ‘open house’ installation occupied a third floor flat in the Casa Muraro and featured an intricate stage set of historical and narrative artefacts. Each ‘episode’ captured an underappreciated moment in the history of American housing, whose significance is only revealed through the passage of time (2012: racial violence in a gated community; 1933, president promotes saving as civic responsibility; 1986, low-income tax credits approved; 1949, Life holds roundtable on how to produce cheaper housing, etc). Accompanying each episode was a contextual time capsule used to display the media: a Soviet magazine article written by Frank Lloyd Wright; a New Deal era vacuum-tube radio decrying excess; a Mac desktop playing Obama’s speeches …

Life Housing Roundtable

Life Housing Roundtable

Life’s incredibly undiverse 1949 roundtable on housing

This intriguing and alluring show has been quickly followed by a large volume of truly incredible original research. With Martin, House Housing’s programme coordinator Jacob Moore and lead researcher Susanne Schindler have edited The Art of Inequality: Architecture, Housing, and Real Estate, a book concentrating on the ethics of property and material resource distribution (fittingly provided for free online). It takes a topical subject that everyone seems to have an opinion on (yet no one really seems to understand), and tirelessly picks it apart; unravelling a complex urban reality of divergent opportunities, segregation and disadvantage. Starting from the most basic principles of ownership and equality it extrapolates to the scale of the global economy (largely typified by the American condition). The Art of Inequality is a fascinating read and the new yardstick for research methodology in the built environment.

A blitzkrieg of shows are currently under way, with House Housing exhibiting simultaneously at the Chicago Architecture Biennial (in collaboration with the National Public Housing Museum) and as part of the Wohnungsfrage exhibition at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin (an extensive exploration of ‘the housing question’ conceived by noted architects Jesko Fezer and Nikolaus Hirsch and including full-scale housing prototypes by progressive firms like Dogma and Assemble). There is a further exhibition planned for April 2016 at the MAK Center in Los Angeles.

House housing chicago biennale

House housing chicago biennale

House Housing at the Chicago Architecture Biennial

House Housing is impressive for its prolific output, but it is truly remarkable for its radical agenda, which profoundly challenges the social purpose of the architect and convincingly argues for an inclusive and expansive definition of architecture. As a contribution to the field, House Housing is of course not alone – academics like Keller Easterling and Peggy Deamer have been pursuing similar, often parallel, lines of research to Martin, Moore and Schindler for many years – however it is the most comprehensive and pioneering attempt to bring these concerns to the fore in architectural discourse today.

Its timely emergence could also be seen as symptomatic of a broader American renaissance, for a discourse that since Peter Eisenman has often tended to pursue disciplinary autonomy. House Housing is thus indicative of a growing wave of architects eschewing older theory and firmly rooting themselves in the problematics of the 21st century.

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