Public Housing and a Teaspoon of Ethics

Quinta da Malagueira. Alvaro Siza

‘Buildings’ in their bare essence can be seen as no different to any other technology when considering John Ruskin’s statement:
“We require from buildings two kinds of goodness: first, the doing their practical duty well: then that they be graceful and pleasing in doing it.”

In Patrik Schumacher’s writings on The Societal Function of Architecture, he poses a series of questions, questioning this meek view of architecture:

If the primary role of buildings were to provide shelter and give some form of protection against the elements, would it then require an academic discourse? Or should the ‘architect’ be reduced to an artist, with main role to merely ‘beautify’ buildings and spaces, taking ownership of the aesthetics?
Perhaps we have already fallen into the trap of trying to become engineers, creating efficient and well functioning buildings, (not with modernist Corbusian convictions), but rather because we have allowed our role to be shifted towards property brokers lobbying for ROI, and in turn… paying jobs.

Quinta da Malagueira. Alvaro Siza

Unfortunately this uncertainty of responsibility has lead to several monocultural residential developments devoid of civic or cultural life (as described by Phineus Harper). This is but part of the “Housing Crises” we find ourselves in. Especially as shortage need not innovate when the already high demand exists. Harper continues to state that the term  “housing crises” is anything but a crises, and should rather be seen as the carefully planned and orchestrated delivering of intended economic and social conditions, making a select few quite a lot of money in the process.

It is not an uncommon sight for luxury apartments, the one we continually design, to stand unoccupied, being wealth stores for investors, while homelessness continually spirals. The New Urbanist theory of Live, Work and Play might have a limited lifespan as no-one is ever immune against the gentrification and marginalization in years to come.

Quinta da Malagueira. Alvaro Siza

Schumacher’s stance that a Laissez-faire economic system should be adopted for architecture, (the selling of public space, elimination of social housing and privatization of our cities), will exacerbate the problem of freedom, whether it be movement or even existence.

If the case for privatization of public space is rooted in untapped potential, desperately needing the incentive to improve, maintain, conserve and innovate, the opposite will also be true: If one, or a few, takes ownership of a great number of resources, it is very easy to exploit those who have not enough, because of their necessity and desperation.

So perhaps these conversations are exactly what need to happen now.

Schumacher describes the common building as a way to keep existing tradition alive, reproducing what has already survived a test of time. This is done on a regular basis. The status quo often goes unchallenged and heed to simple requests of developers and clients. If his (Schumacher’s) notion of Architecture, being rooted in academic theory and most importantly has a future oriented vision, we might actually become innovative.

Nemauses. Jean Nouvel

So if crises’ are based on unforeseeable circumstances and consequences of stagnation as populations grow, can we prevent these through good architecture? Maybe we need some form of Autopoeisis – architecture as a self-regulating discourse with no authority governing it as Schumacher claims.

However, in light of entertaining such a thought, we should not completely disregard lessons already learnt by those who came before us:

Jean Nouvel – Nemauses 1 (1985-1988)

Nemauses. Jean Nouvel

A good apartment is an apartment, which is as big as possible, flexible and changeable. It should be inexpensive, and need not intend to shock or be radical for it’s own sake. Spatial stimulation achieved through multi-storey dwellings, and the understanding of materiality and its appropriation in context can truly serve the needs of people

Alvaro Siza – Quinta da Malagueira (1977-1998)

Quinta da Malagueira. Alvaro Siza

Successful housing should have a high degree of architectural variety within a uniform larger collective, all the while being contextually integrated with its surrounds. It is important to allow for autonomy, allowing residents to personalize, enlarge and change their space without undermining the communal aspect of the integrated buildings.

Densification in our cities is taking place on a much larger scale than ever before and will therefore continually require more social and public spaces. Privatization of all space, especially in a developing country such as South Africa, will give rise to more inequality.

Successful designers, in whatever form you would want it to be, are replicators, innovators and visionaries. The debate where we should be continually finding expression, lays in the balance of these three.