In 1989, Martha Rosler erected a Spectacolor screen with the words “Housing is a Human Right” blinking in orange in Times Square. The sign was part of a Public Art Fund series, Messages to the Public, which also included Anne Turyn’s message, “What if everyone had a home”. In that same year, Internationale Bauausstellung (IBA) Emscher Park was held in the Ruhr region of Germany, a program that explored and showcased revitalization and development strategies for the region’s changing post-industrial landscape. It included an investigation of architectural and urbanistic ideas for new forms of housing. A conference on the pressing issue of housing was not unusual for the IBA, then at its third edition - the first two being in 1957 and 1979 - since it had always addressed a range of different political, economic and social challenges.
Previously, in 1976, the United Nations had hosted Habitat I, the first world conference on human settlements, held in Vancouver. The conference addressed what had previously been established as a universal right: the right to adequate housing was sanctioned as a Human Right in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the UN General Assembly in 1948.
The IBA conference brought together the global north and south to acknowledge the growing housing crisis caused by global urbanization. It recognized the difficulties of expanding cities to create dignified settlements fast enough for low-income and disadvantaged populations, placing a problem on the global table that still remains unsolved today.
Article 4 of the Mexican Constitution of 1917 establishes the right of every citizen to dignified and decent housing. This was the basis for the construction all over the country of modern cities that included plans for worker housing. The period of development in the 1970s and 80s saw not only a collaboration of policymakers and NGOs, it also opened the door to architectural experimentation. Large scale projects by Mario Pani, Teodoro González de León, and Pedro Ramírez Vázquez tackled the house as an independent unit but also continued an urban planning legacy that addressed the individual, the community, services and access to green spaces.
Galvanized by Habitat I, the Mexican government established the Ministry of Human Settlements and Public Works, followed by the 1979 National Housing Program, which promoted construction and loan-based housing schemes.
However, the 20th-Century movement of populations from rural to urban areas has not slowed and the demand for housing solutions has not eased. With a population of 126 million but only 35,600,000 houses, Mexico is estimated to still need 9 million more homes. The “Mexican miracle” era of federal-led housing construction shifted under the presidency of Vicente Fox. Housing development became a numbers game, quantity trumping quality and diversity. 2,350,000 houses were built in six years. Low cost and developer-imposed uniformity drove this impressive number, resulting in endless sprawls of drab identical single-family homes blanketing the edges of cities. The monotony produced a sense of placelessness, while services like schools, parks and retail were difficult to access. The failure of the one-house-fits-all approach was confirmed when the cookie-cutter boxes started to be abandoned.
At the turn of the first decade of the 21st Century, the country was disfigured by vast housing estates - some as large as 100,000 homes - and isolated urban centers with abandonment rates as high as 30%. It was at this point that Mexico started the search for more humanizing housing solutions. Government entities like INFONAVIT and FOVISSSTE (Mexican Federal Institute for Worker Housing) funded projects to bring in architects and other players to help develop location-specific solutions to low cost housing needs.
Our studio began raising awareness of the country’s housing crisis. We were interested in exploring ways of substantially improving housing development on an architectural scale to replace the models that had proved so dysfunctional.
We entered the field and started to understand how we could influence not only policy-making but also get spatial solutions accepted that would address the issues described above.
In 2013, we were asked to submit a prototype for the government’s “Vivienda Popular” social housing program, a scheme that allowed families to build their own home with easy-term loans. The program targeted the lowest income population segment in the country. Our project aimed to include sensitivity to materials, climate and future residents, all on a very low budget. We also decided that rather than prepare a prototype, we needed to generate a strategy for the houses to be built. With this in mind, we held several on-site interviews and workshops to determine the wants and needs of the future inhabitants. As a result, the design of Vivienda Popular - originally considered a prototype - included multiple aspects of flexibility, implementing a strategy to allow variation. The house included two bedrooms, bathroom, kitchen and a double-height dining/living room. The core of the house was designed to adapt to any material available in the area where it was to be built, allowing for the use of local materials (blocks, bricks, adobe bricks, or wood), thereby supporting the local economy. We tried to keep in mind different types of household dynamics, doing exercises to imagine variable arrangements, such as multigenerational families, or smaller nuclear families. As a result, each house was made up of wooden pallet modules, allowing it to be extended in the future while immediately giving the impression of a completed house. The design was intended to be applicable to both rural and suburban settings. We built three of these houses in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, painted in bright colors and nestled in a forested rural area. Later, this same house was built at a 1:1 scale at the 2015 Chicago Biennial.
Shortly after completing the social housing project in Chiapas, we were given another opportunity to deploy our modular housing strategy but under different circumstances. On May 25, 2015, a tornado struck Ciudad Acuña, in the northern state of Coahuila, Mexico. The natural disaster damaged over 3,000 houses. We worked with INFONAVIT to help in the rebuilding effort. The project includes 16 houses, as well as a master plan including multifunctional sport areas, children’s playgrounds, an outdoor gym, a grandstand, green spaces, plazas, planted slopes/terraces, an open-air forum, dry fountains, paths, lighting, and urban furniture.
With this iteration of our adaptable modular strategy we were able to respond not only to the different climate conditions of the area but also the economic precariousness caused by the tornado. Built of cinder block with brick celosia (screens) for ventilation, the houses allowed for internal modification, turning the double-height spaces into extra rooms as needed. The urban setting and socio-cultural habits of Acuña favored car ownership, so each house had an ample outdoor multiple-use space. The public spaces between the houses allowed for community gatherings and sports in open shaded areas.
When revisiting the project a few years after construction, we were able to see how the inhabitants had adapted the space to their needs. One resident had turned his ground floor into an ice cream shop, selling out of his window. Another used the outdoor space as a car-repair area. Floors or walls had been added inside to diversify available space using cheap and readily available materials. The houses were a backdrop against which the needs and desires of their residents were enacted. The public spaces were used by children and adults alike, and members of the neighborhood gathered to collectively tend the greenspaces.
Not only a satisfying exercise, these first projects were also an opportunity for us to self-critique our approach to social housing. While it is easy to argue that a precisely designed house is the solution to bulk housing, this approach is just a step away from the monotonous one-house-fits-all agenda we criticized. And while we attempted to use flexibility in material and spatial organization, we nonetheless imposed our vision of ways of living. We learned that the prototype-approach would not suffice, and that we needed to work more closely with inhabitants to ensure their empowerment and individuality as participants in the broader community.
Ocoyoacac / Apan
In 2017, we began a new social housing project, “Vivienda Minima Ocoyoacac”. This was subsequently invited by NY architecture practice MOS to be included in the “Apan Housing Project”, a collection of 32 housing prototypes constructed to create a social housing laboratory supported by INFONAVIT.
The Vivienda Minima Ocoyoacac housing project took a different approach to our previous houses that had been individual structures clearly identifiable as a house. This project deconstructed the domestic elements into bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, and living room, arranging them in various ways around a central outdoor space, or hub. Modules can be added or subtracted according to the needs of the household. Arranging the housing units together, additional outdoor courtyards are shared by neighbors, stitching together the community and offering moments of invention and interaction. The project produces a gradient from the personal and private, to the family, and then to the public sphere.
Vivienda Minima Ocoyoacac was an exciting opportunity to think of ways to disrupt the traditional house so as to offer agency to the residents to decide how to organize their domestic lives. The project provided us with ideas and concepts, however, we are aware that it cannot be built in all climate conditions. By participating in the Apan housing project we were also able to see how collaboration with other architects and institutions allows for variability in solutions - which is much more productive than single-designer solutions. The most creative and comprehensive ideas to solve the housing problem will be a collaborative effort.
Following the 7.1 magnitude earthquake in 2017, thousands of households were made homeless. The Natural Disaster Fund provided the families affected with funds to rebuild their homes, but nothing more. In the face of the extensive reconstruction needed, families did not have the resources to afford professional building services. In this situation, construction was informal and sometimes unskilled, jeopardizing the safety of the new homes. NGOs and architects joined the effort to provide building and technical skills to subsidize the resources given by the government.
Tatiana Bilbao Estudio participated in this program as a consultant. Under the direction of Soledad Rodriguez, members of the office worked with families in the town of San Simona el Alto in the Malinalco municipality to help them design and construct their new homes. Percibald Garcia from our office moved there to work directly with the community. The architect’s role was to provide technical knowledge and suggest how the families could achieve the home they wanted. Sometimes the desires of the inhabitants contrasted with the views of the architects. In fact, the project proved a critical learning experience, a period in which we learned to step back and listen, and understand that our expertise was also based on pre-conceived ideas.
Looking forward, we hope to continue our work in social housing. As we write this, we are at home during the Covid-19 quarantine. This has made us more critically aware of the importance of dignified, well designed homes and that this is a right every individual deserves. In Mexico, however, overcrowding and the lack of access to resources increase the strain on the housing market. We see even more clearly how important meeting the spatial needs of families is. In response to unexpected demands, we need to reimagine how we live. We must promote the unquantifiable aspects of cities to encourage a sense of belonging and connection with each other.
Collective forms of living overturn the traditional idea of the household, but at the same time provide mutual economic support, creating opportunities to share domestic labor, and pool resources to empower and aid residents. In this vision, we as architects, are contributors to community building through the domestic realm. The social and urban landscape has been forever changed, and we consider the role of architecture to be a participant in this change. We can give and share the skills that we have to help build safe and collaborative communities.
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