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Housing/ Not Housing:

Re-thinking the Architecture of the City

Alison Brooks Architects

Housing/ Not Housing:
By Alison Brooks -

Much has already been said about the age of global urbanization; from academic forums to city policy reviews, to national strategies and international conferences. Distilled in the research of the London School of Economics Urban Age project, this discourse has produced critically important analyses alerting economists, geographers, sociologists, environmentalists, architects and urban policy-makers to the problems of intense urban growth. How should society, the institutions responsible for urban governance and the real-estate market respond to this ever-increasing population influx? But another question is critical for this debate: What is the role of architecture in formulating responses to this challenge, and how can architects bring new perspective and agency to the tasks at hand? Accelerating urbanization is captured by the media and fixed in our collective imagination by the term “The Housing Crisis”. This is a catch-all phrase for the lack of affordable, accessible and beautiful new urban housing for local working populations in rapidly growing cities. Paradoxically, this issue is not a crisis of housing per se. It is a symptom of macro-economic forces such as national fiscal policy, taxation policy, monetary policy, currency markets and their relationship to local urban governance in the form of land use designation and urban planning policy. In the past 30 years, these forces have combined to directly impact and exponentially inflate land values in the world’s most desirable cities. High land values necessitate a development business model of high density or FAR (floor area ratio). Costly to build and maintain, capital-intensive high density developments must be structured to generate a high investment return for investors and funders (often international pension funds). This model therefore relies on achieving the highest possible sales values for every unit sold on the market. Built in to this transaction, in cities like London, is the impact of decades of inadequate taxation and fiscal policies that have led to government austerity. This has forced municipal governments to offload the cost of needed public infrastructure to the market in the form of levies on new development. In order to win planning consent, developers must fund nearby transport hubs, public realm improvements, or contribute to the building and running hospitals, schools, and libraries. The cost of development levies are inevitably added to the sales values of new homes making the prospect of “affordability” in new developments ever further out of reach for first-time buyers (who are no longer “young”…). We can see that the housing crisis lies at the intersection of land economics, planning policy, social policy and daily quality of life. There are, however, signs of light in this picture. For example, the London Plan enforces all new housing schemes to include a minimum of 30% social affordable housing. These dwellings are built at-cost by the developer through a joint venture agreement with the municipality. Planning regulations stipulate that there must be no distinction in design, scale or appearance between “social rent” and “private sale” buildings, ensuring all new developments are mixed income and tenure-blind. This is an example of enlightened urban governance that enforces an equitable distribution of urban housing amongst diverse social classes. It is a policy that entrusts housing architecture to physically and visibly embody social inclusion. The "Achilles heel" of this model is that the cost of delivering both public infrastructure and the affordable, subsidized dwellings is ‘cross-subsidized’ by the sales value generated by dwellings sold at market rates. The privately-financed supply of social housing subsequently inflates the sales value of the ‘market sale’ dwelling. The result is that in London there are no ‘affordable’ new dwellings for market sale; there are only unaffordable market sale apartments, unaffordable unregulated private rental units, and subsidized rental units available only to very low-income households. This formula for supplying new housing reveals a truism: the market-led urban development model is not structured to supply public infrastructure and affordable housing, i.e. housing sold at a reasonable price relative to the mean income of a local urban population. Nor can it supply new housing quickly: this would flood the market and depress sales values. It is clear that endless political entreaties and directives by national and city governments to increase the housing supply to relieve the crisis are directly at odds with the law of free market: keep demand high and supply low or maintain the crisis. This situation presents an uncomfortable reality: socially motivated architects working to produce the most critical form of architecture for the city find ourselves designing in the service of transient global wealth, off-shore pension funds and build-to-rent investors rather than the long-term local “communities” we, our clients and government bodies all wish to serve. In this context, we must fundamentally rethink the relationship between socio-economic forces and outdated policies that engender an increasingly precarious condition of contemporary urban life. It is time to reconsider the uses, spaces and meanings of housing architecture within a new communication, technology and workplace paradigm. This task is critically important in the context of contemporary urbanization. Housing as urban architecture acts to frame the collective space of our civic commons: the street, the square, the neighborhood. It also frames the intimate spaces of private dwelling. It is architecture that negotiates the relationship between the individual and the collective. But is it time for housing to do more? How can architecture manifest an ethos of humanism and open new perspectives on our urban reality? Collective housing in the early 20th Century has enduring relevance as the territory of social and architectural idealism and tectonic experimentation. There was a direct connection between a social value system and architectural form, typology and syntax. By operating within a declared ideological framework, the housing architect had the ability to produce work that was simultaneously pragmatic, experimental, idiosyncratic and mysterious. In this way, radical advances in the configuration and uses of housing architecture also challenged society’s perception of reality. London’s Barbican Centre by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon represents an ideal of urban co-habitation, embedding concert halls, art galleries, transport infrastructure and landscape within superplastic housing mega-quadrangles. Once seen as a place of unmanageable, hostile brutalism, the Barbican is now appreciated for its optimistic strangeness, its texture, its heroic theatricality and its offering of unmistakable identity. Every visit to the Barbican is a memorable experience. The origins of housing utopias like the Barbican lie in the 18th and 19th Centuries, when architecture was deployed by philanthropic industrialists as formal, socio-economic models integrating co-living with production to create self-sufficient communities. Claude-Nicolas Ledoux’s monarchic commission for La Saline Royale at Arc-et-Senans, or more relevant today, Charles Fournier’s privately financed Phalanstère incorporated workspace, leisure, tourism within an ideology of gender equality. During the industrial revolution, the large scale shift from “cottage industries” to mills and then factories gradually segregated production from dwelling. In spite of attempts by industrial entrepreneurs to create ideal settlements such as Port Sunlight, since the mid 19th Century there has been an oppositional relationship between housing and places of production. This is starkly represented by mass produced urban terraced housing of 19th Century Britain. These two story, single family house typologies evolved into high density multi-family tenements that accommodated working class urban populations in Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester and Dublin. In parallel to the great 19th Century migrations from Britain to North America, these typologies migrated and adapted to become the higher density tenements of East Coast cities. But as we know, the 20th Century saw more radical experimentation in communal urban housing in Europe, one of the most well-known examples being the 1934 Isokon Flats in London by Wells Coates. Here, 270 sq. ft. studio flats had no separate bedroom, like the early Scottish tenements that had neither bedrooms nor bathrooms, but here the flats were served by a large communal kitchen and the famous Isokon Bar. Post-WW2 the building was purchased by the local council, fell into disrepair, was abandoned and stood empty for 30 years until its restoration in 2014. Today, it is a Grade 1 listed building with a cult following and exhibition space. On the open market, a 270 sq. ft. studio flat sells for £500,000. Today, the reality is that the only “affordable” housing left in metropolitan contexts such as London are the experimental housing projects of the 1960s and 70s. These remain as monuments to post-war land use policies combining an overtly scientific approach to social policy and experimental modular construction. Here, the well-intentioned project of scientific rationalization resulted in extreme architectural monocultures and a persistent condition of segregation: not only of use but of form, material, dwelling type, demographics and social class. Finding its way into contemporary urban subcultures, YouTube videos by British grime and French drill artists consistently feature the architecture of the modernist social housing project as context and protagonist, symbolizing not only territorial allegiance, but also the social isolation and brutalism of gang culture. Radical propositions in art usually precede those of architecture by half a century. Edward Hopper’s 1953 painting, Office in a Small City, suggested that we are poised at a point where we must confront and question the relationship between the individual and his/her work, the historic city and the project of modernity. Harnessing this critique, we can now discover fundamental new properties of urban housing as places of adaptive potential,

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