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Housing for Everyone: pipe dream or target?

Calais Jungle

As WAF 2016 moves to Berlin to tacke the issue of housing, Paul Finch explores architecture’s role in tackling radical inequality

The spectrum of architecture associated with housing is extraordinarily wide. At one end is today’s equivalent of the primitive hut: basic provision of shelter from the elements, mainly associated with emergency housing produced in response to natural or man-made disasters, in which the idea of architecture plays second fiddle (if at all) to efficiency of delivery and ease of assembly. This is, not surprisingly, more associated with the world of engineering, materials and logistics than with the architectural profession, but it is nevertheless a significant part of the housing story worldwide, and architectural engagement in emergency provision is not uncommon.

A different version, and not quite the same thing, is the housing provided for refugees: those whose life is turned upside down not by the arbitrary outcomes of natural events, but by deliberate acts of war, terrorism or occupation. The creation of accommodation for people in a desperate plight raises a series of difficulties for all those who may be responsible for unpredictable outcomes.

‘Designers charged with creating accommodation will be reliant on public funding, and their own humanity as (one hopes) a guiding light for what might emerge’

As is often the case with architectural production, there is a disjunction – in this case a massive one – between the formal client and the user. Almost inevitably, the client is national or local government, while the users are a set of random individuals and families with little or no collective voice. Designers charged with creating accommodation, or adapting existing buildings, will be reliant on public funding for the project context, and their own humanity as (one hopes) a guiding light for what might emerge.

The dilemma goes beyond the question of emergency accommodation, because there is not necessarily any prospect of an early return to the area or country left behind; it is not like people going back to their homes, towns and villages after a flood – there is no knowing whether the housing condition will be temporary or semi-permanent. The better the accommodation, the more likely it is that there will be a natural desire to stay put; but what sort of policy would suggest that accommodation should be created of a low standard to encourage people to move on? Actually this happens more than it should (the migrant camp at Calais springs to mind), but it only coincidentally has architectural overtones.

It is also the case that temporary-looking informal housing, the favelas in many South American cities for example, requires little to make it semi-permanent, generating its own social structures and support systems that sit alongside conventional environments. This is a subject all of its own.

Moving further along that spectrum of design and construction, we come to low-cost housing. At this point architectural input becomes more significant because it takes place within a condition of stability rather than desperation. The history of Modernism and its offshoots has been intimately engaged with the desire to provide decent housing for the poor as well as the wealthy, with aspirations summed up by the émigré Georgian architect Berthold Lubetkin: ‘Nothing is too good for ordinary people.’ His own work on housing estates in poorer parts of London was proof that it was possible to combine architecture and delivery in ways that would stand the test of time, even though the budgets for ‘social’ housing would generally be significantly lower than for private-sector homes, which in British context generally meant – and means – houses rather than apartments.

‘Architects working in Singapore have proved that public-housing programmes can prompt architectural thinking of a high order’

The idealistic strand of thinking that informed social housing production across Europe, and eventually across the world, continues to this day. In particular, architects working in Singapore have proved that public-housing programmes can prompt architectural thinking of a high order, creating units that can be significantly better than their private-sector equivalents. This is not only a tribute to the architects themselves, but to the context that national government has created, in which dense, high-rise blocks are not immediately associated with a monoculture of dependency and unemployment. This is the sorry case in much of the world – to the point where we experience outbreaks of criticism from politicians who have discovered architectural determinism: that is to say that anti-social behaviour is attributed to the architecture of the estate.

This is the other side of the coin from the view of those who claim that good architecture will make you a better person, without any qualifying proposition about social, economic and political contexts. There is a limit to what architecture should be expected to achieve.

If there is another distinguishing factor about low-cost housing, it might be thought to be its longevity. Surely, the assumption goes, it is not built to last. Well, not necessarily, at least in the sense of its being designed to fail after a set period. Also, although it is designed for the poorer members of society and to last for perhaps a single generation, the motives of the providers may involve a very different time perspective. For example, there is plenty of housing provided by organisations such as Peabody in the UK or Lefrak in the United States where the economics of initial construction versus the cost of maintenance have resulted in very robust structures and services that are capable of lasting for many generations, given reasonable budgets for upkeep.

In this respect housing design is on a different wavelength to commercial architecture, where lease structures assume a short, rather than long, life (extreme examples being the endless demolition and replacement of towers in Hong Kong). People who buy leases or freeholds expect their property to outlast them, suggesting an inherent sustainability of housing projects. These buildings are expected to last, up to a point, whether they are for the poor or the wealthy.

Priory Green estates

Priory Green estates

The Peabody Priory Green Estate in King’s Cross, London

Which is where we move along our housing spectrum: housing for the comfortably off. Given unlimited funds, the wealthy prefer the detached house with grounds, and preferably in the country. But they also want a life in the city and, if that is not for permanent occupation, the apartment is the answer. It is then either the biggest house in the best location possible, or the most generous unit in a ‘luxury’ block somewhere fashionable.

Naturally architects are heavily involved in the production of houses and housing of these sorts; the examples are to be seen in fashion and lifestyle media under what might be a generic description: ‘Homes to Die For’, with no refugees on the horizon. The interesting thing is the extent to which these sorts of dwellings are different in kind from social housing. The units are not necessarily better planned, although they will almost certainly be bigger. They may have tiny kitchens (particularly in central urban locations) because there is an assumption that the occupants will eat out or hire a caterer. 

At an architectural and financial extreme, although physical disconnection is softened by ubiquitous social media and the internet, the occupant of an 84th-floor 360-degree apartment in a ‘needle tower’ in Manhattan, or its equivalent in the Burj, is simultaneously truly urban and truly isolated.

‘Architecture needs to be for everyone, and housing architecture in particular’

A house is not a home, as they say, and successful housing involves the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. A good example of this was last year’s World Building of the Year, the Interlace housing development in Singapore by OMA and Ole Scheeren. Towards the expensive end of the spectrum, it nevertheless provides a welcome community atmosphere, along with combination of building, landscape and amenity in a design that is a precedent worthy of repetition.

But this was not the only housing project that won prizes at the World Architecture Festival 2015. A notable contrast was the Walumba Elders Centre in Western Australia by Iredale Pedersen Hook. Here, it was not a question of ‘fine architecture’; instead the design sprang from an architectural approach based on empathy with a very particular community and engaged with everyday life and cultural history – and with the architectural implications of its inhabitants’ longevity.

Architecture needs to be for everyone, and housing architecture in particular. It can and should be aspirational, and it would be a welcome sign were the global profession to focus on this fundamental requirement.

World Architecture Festival 2016

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