The Queen of Hearts and the social housing Designer’s head
For some architects it represents a worthy challenge. For many others it’s just an inextricable, recurring nightmare. Indeed, from any perspective we may assume, it would always be undeniable the wretched stigma that characterizes the never appreciated enough world of social housing.
Because, no matter what, you can be sure that while dealing with it, something will go wrong. Not being 100% perfect will even be enough. To do what? To mercilessly blame the architect, of course, and have a Red Queen screaming: off with their heads!
This is not intended to be the expression of a personal, too long drowned frustration, since I never had the opportunity to build such a thing. Or any thing, indeed (but hey, if you have any offer, I’m up for everything!). But it is assumed as the natural reaction towards the umpteenth debate over the few credits and the countless faults the architects are accountable for when involved with a social housing intervention.
The causus belli: a Guardian’s article over Centre Village, the new 25-units housing complex design by 5468796 Architecture and Cohlmeyer Limited in Winnipeg, Canada. The claim: the “ascertained” failure of the social housing designer as perceived by the writing journalist, on duty Queen of Hearts. What is new in this story: Alice the Architect disagrees, and reacts bouncing back the allegations and making some subtle accusation in return.
Slum in London, illustration by Gustave Doré
Dealing with social housing can be as complex as disarming a thermonuclear bomb. We’re talking indeed of something with a quite intricate and specific origin, something that started as a private “philanthropic action” against the dramatic squalor of the working class slums rising within the cities of the Industrial Revolution. Something deeply linked with the lack of sufficient human living conditions, and thus the need for alternative, more decent accommodation than the slum itself.
To be clear, it was never considered as a dwelling typology, but a matter of housing tenure, being the richer (the philanthropist, the industrialist, the State) the rightful developer and owner of the tenement, conceived as “minimum budget investment”, in order to provide at least the basics of a sufficient or affordable rental housing solution for the low-income. There was no architectural reasoning: just politics, and the rise of the first social welfares. But of course this was not enough.
The Arts and Crafts anti-industrial philosophy, the claim for social and economic reforms… Well, we could enumerate hundreds of triggering factors, but for the sake of this article, I’ll be brief: let’s just assume that one day, one guy, named Ebenezer Howard (The shorthand writer? The founder of one of the first urban movement? The Garden City guy? Yes, yes, yes, that guy), “all of a sudden” questioned the effective quality achieved by this first generation of construction schemes, proposing an all new attention on the matter of the quality of life. Not just basics, primary needs to be satisfied, but a larger plethora of broader requisites to be achieved, in the perspective of the real reform towards a real slumless city.
And here we are: the moment of the trick. Because back in this spontaneously genuine, logical, human declaration of intent we can trace the root of all our contemporary evils. Because what Howard was suggesting was not only a healthier city scheme, but truly a new social approach or strategy, based on the compromise of responsabilities.
The architects, as immediate intermediaries, in that precise moment were asked to become more than designers, we were required to broaden the limits of our profession, to embrace a complexity unknown before, we were demanded to become anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, all in order to effectively decode that new social enigmatic universe capable to free the city from the slums, while realizing the best living conditions for the state owned houses destined to the forming working class, the former low-income farmers, the new urban poor, the disadvantaged. And in this, we have been left with the buck.
If the intellectuals, the writers and the philanthropists were successful in modelling an architectural awareness and a new caring consideration for the rising category of the social housing, indeed the same result was not scored with the politics, the state institutions, the bureaucratic juggernaut, the owners and developers. And where a synergy of forces was required to effectively cope with the growing demographic emergency, the architects were requested but left alone to dream pioneering clever solutions, partially praised, sought but finally ignored by the sponsoring greedy and uninterested counterpart.
So? I’ll try to make it clear with an example: the infamous case of Le vele in Scampia. Something widely recognized as the architectural, tangible expression of decay and social corruption, and now worldwide known with the Neapolitan based film and TV crime drama Gomorrah. Something so bad, that everyone is just wishing to see the whole place razed to the ground, to the point that nowadays only four buildings out of the originally seven are still standing on the site. The failure of the social housing designer! But is this true?
Indeed, Le Vele in their earliest years were rather the symbol of a new, innovative housing project for the Northern outskirt of Naples. A model of urbanity where everything was intended to adhere to the local lifestyle, triggering sociality and creating community, from the arrangement of the dwellings, the park, to all the accessory services envisaged. The architect, Franz di Salvo, will present the Vele as an organism made of large, luminous apartments facing a system of hanging accessing galleries, first “nucleus of socialization and integration”. A space, or a concept, to be carried out and reinforced by the Municipality with other collective facilities, playgrounds and civic centres.
What happened then? First, the State never implemented those basic nucleuses. Exhausted the first aspect of the complex with the construction of the dwellings, it just left the scheme uncompleted. Even the primary services were intentionally “forgotten”: to see the first police station the neighbourhood would have to wait for other 20 years. In the meanwhile, a small city and its architect were being left to itself.
But the catastrophe was just going to happen. The Irpina Earthquake in 1980, and hundreds of thousands people left homeless. People who decided to illegally occupy, in order to obtain a shelter, in a rising climax of abusiveness and abuses tolerated and ignored by the government. A process characterised by that general indifference where even criminals and later drug dealers were able to carve out their spot, transforming the original Vele in the degenerated ghetto we know today.
So, therefore, in the game of responsibilities, who was to blame? The individual architect, for his no longer suitable intervention and inability to foresee the future, or the faceless, disinterested politics, for its upheaval and inaction? You’re starting to see the point. Blame the architect. Off with his head! But maybe not.
Back to the present, the situation looks undoubtedly different. At least in some countries. The architectural online platforms nowadays are overflowing with gleaming social housing projects, and top ten of the best become the order of the day.
Surely we may say that the collectivity and even the politics developed a more caring sensibility towards this complex world, preferring thoughtful, comprehensive interventions than partial, potentially disastrous solutions. A responsiveness thus translated by assuming their share of responsibility, deploying good-budget developments, researching for the “coolest” architects, aiming for state-of-the-art projects. But would this be enough to calm down the Red Queen’ storm raging over Architecture?
Winnipeg Centre Village teach us the answer is no. And here the facts.
Centre Village enters with full rights in the restricted elite of “unusual, striking” designs capable to deliver qualitatively reliable and affordable dwellings while impressing public opinion with outstanding architecture. Intended to face the incoming waves of immigrants and refugees, a public housing corporation was solicited by local pastor Bill Millar in order to specifically cope with the local limited supply of affordable dwellings and meet the needs of the unreferenced, larger newcomers’ families, in a way that conventional social housing was not able to achieve.
Successively, the team of 5468796 Architecture is engaged to design a micro village of 25 three-storey units in a Central Park abandoned lot. The result: an astonishing project, with almost a “surreal quality”. The designers were able to deliver a high density complex with a heterogeneity of dwellings ranging from 35 up to 91 square meters, spread over three levels, starting with one up to four bedrooms. And all openings (windows + entrance) oriented and face the inner community space, as a mean to foster encounters and socialization through casual surveillance and collective autoregulation.
The focus on the public space, then, become the cherry on top: as the cluster is “animated” by two shared courtyards, and everything is landscaped in order to offer a safe space for children to play and an informal, calm place for adult dwellers to meet and know each other, framed by the interesting shapes of the building and the colourful profiles of the facing windows.
An architectural success, a triumph in the shape of affordable, low income housing, a victory for the new generations of low-income migrants that started even to interest curious outsiders and professionals: and among them, our Queen of Hearts, the aforementioned reporter of the Guardian.
The journalist, former fellow in architecture, surprisingly remains quite shocked by her personal experience of Centre Village. Quoting her article: “the windows blinds are closed on the windows that face into the courtyard” and “litter is scattered across the ground”. And from here, the whole dream so describe apparently falls apart.
Citing the executive director of the Pritker Prize Martha Thorne over the widespread naivety and conceptual arrogance in contemporary architecture, the writer builds a story where the architect is not directly charged of any blame, but covertly openly accused. The architects “enjoyed rave reviews” much to become “fearless”; they didn’t spend any effort in “understanding the context”, so that the design results made of “small box and magnet spaces for drinking and drug taking”, and with the courtyards unused, the whole “project badly affected by crime” and families left “in cramped and unsuitable conditions”. Finally: “the failure of the social housing designer” (ok she was not that subtle with this one).
Run, Alice! But is Centre Village truly a living memory of the London slums that terrified Howard? A bursting return of Naples’ Vele? Of course not, and it’s difficult to understand such a vitriol attack against an award-winning housing and its architects, moreover when it comes from somebody somehow involved with the architectural world.
Indeed, most of the accusations have been proven to be ridiculous, “at best anecdotal”, based on suppositions and “generalization”. Because, quoting 5468796 ‘s disagreeing reaction to the article, the architects spent more than two years in researches and consultations with both the stakeholders and potential future users (at the beginning mostly Somaly), before even starting the design. Ended, by the way, with a model needlessly tested in advance, few blocks away, with successful outcomes. And delivered to low income families 90 sqm qualitative dwellings at a way lower prices than the free market would grant.
The truth is, once again, the unnecessary, “unrealistic” expectations we can expect from Architecture. Turning white roses into red ones. It’s not possible to blame the architect for the endemic issues affecting the neighbourhood before his involvement: not even for not abruptly solving all of them.
Design is design: it has to be aware, informed, responding, but cannot be accountable for broader systemic problems. It plays a role, it has to be responsible for its limited shares, but it’s not a panacea for all the evils. Once again, as the 5468796 team claims, “rather social services, demographic policies and long term strategies” should be implemented to ensure an effective, long-lasting breakthrough.
At the end of the day we’re architects and it cannot be expected from our discipline to “prop up the field to something larger than what its impacts can be”. It’s like blaming the chef because yeah, dinner was really good, cheap, organic and healthy, but did it solve world hunger? Ohh… too bad… then, you’ve failed.
I acknowledge that this may sounds a bit like: “yeah, fuck it, i’m gonna do it in my way, don’t even dare to correct me, if it fails it’s your fault dudes”. But truly, it’s really not. It doesn’t mean to avoid responsibility or deny the social consequences of Architecture as something needed to be studied and faced. But simply it researches a possible way out from this deadly mechanism of absolutist complaints that are slaughtering the practice. It just wants to be an attempt in claiming the need for a recognition of the limits in our practice, and the pragmatic necessity of re-establishing borders. It’s a quest for a new, restored balance. A way to escape the “calling for the architect’s head” game in the social housing design.
Something maybe already achieved by Alvaro Siza in 1988 with its Dutch debut, the Punt en Komma housing, in Schilderswijk, Den Haag. A smart entrance, where the renowned Portuguese architect adopts a different, antithetical strategy from the ones out here expressed. But not for this less concerned or effective.
Punt en Komma, Alvaro Siza, Den Haah © Peter de Ruig
Instead of undertaking the perilous path of the innovative, striking shining project tackling all the issue of society, Siza sticks the whole design to a simple, basic notion: the multicultural, unpredictable mix that is going to inhabit the future building. He images a complex fitting in the Dutch housing tradition but suitable for different, diverging cultural backgrounds. How? Through monotony and standardized flexibility. This is the key: to provide a single type of apartment, anonymous in its way, that defines a basic, neutral common ground valid for a broader target group, and in its neutrality leaves room for customization, personal adaptation, appropriation.
The social housing envisioned by Siza focuses on standardization in order to avoid any specific connection to a particular culturally defined occupant; it suggests “various and numerous forms of habitation within certain fixed, physical constraints. Before even pondering over the sense of community, it creates within the social housing a broader sense of ownership that enable the architects to deliver places to call “home” while designing just houses. He brings the practice back to the basic, to its former detachement. And in its humility of intent and own limitation of expectation, he carefully avoids the thunderous failure while letting to the project the potentiality of greatly succeeding.
The ball is openly given back in the hands of each inhabitant. The responability is reassigned. The Architect has done his job, and Alice manages to keep his head on, silently fooling her, the Red Queen of Hearts.
Author: Simone Costa