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Particularly in English-speaking countries, architects have a much reduced role in housing, through indifference or lack of opportunity. But for human and environmental reasons, architectural imagination in housing is urgently needed.

Housing is the stuff of cities. It takes up more land in urban areas than any other use and, of course, it is even more prevalent in the suburbs. It forms the matrix within which other uses are set. So it is surprising that there has been so little fresh thought about housing, either within the architectural profession or from its related disciplines.

Some years ago, Thomas Markus argued that the profession had decided to 'exclude, ignore, neglect and wash its hands of housing as the major architectural problem'. [1] He thought that architects tend to select formal features from individual housing projects 'as a "quarry" of building form from which the "practice" can benefit'. [2] He believed that 'the marriage between architecture and housing at the earlier stages of the modern movement ended in divorce, suggesting that for some it was a marriage of convenience from the start'. [3] This is perhaps a harsh judgement of people like the Tauts, Oud, Scharoun, Lubetkin and other idealists of the '20s and '30s, but it was made from a British point of view during the long night of Thatcherism, when social housing provision was being put under the screws, and there seemed to be no hope of dawn. [4]

Professional role in housing?

Both Markus and the Thatcherite system he was criticizing were reacting to the obvious failure of so many of the large publicly run, industrially built housing schemes of the '50s and '60s. The idealism of the early modern movement had been compromised in a pact with bureaucracy and big construction business in an attempt to fulfil ambitious production targets set by politicians for (on the whole) rather noble reasons. Causes of failure were undoubtedly manifold - as much housing management muddle, cost limits that expected too much for too little and excessive contractual optimism, as errors of judgement by architects and planners. But clearly there were professional errors - to name but a few: monofunctional residential developments that were far too big, lack of understanding of the cultural and economic needs of inhabitants, misplaced belief in primitive industrialized methods and indifference to topographical and social surroundings.

The fact that the profession made mistakes has often been taken to mean that it has little or nothing to offer in creating housing any more. On the right, the commercial lobby argues that architectural input is fundamentally unnecessary, and that the volume house builders can sort out the problems with minimum intervention by designers (and certainly no design initiatives - after all look what happened last time). On the left, there are those that argue, with Markus, that architectural input is often a 'mask, designed to hide societal problems; a form of packaging to make the products superficially attractive'. [5]

But both sides ignore the fact that buildings do not just happen. They draw on precedent, and precedents are set by innovative designers. For instance, the suburban products of mass housing developers mostly still follow - at many removes - the work of distinguished early twentieth-century house architects. The argument that architecture is merely camouflage for malevolent underlying power structures has to come to terms with the fact that spatial structures do have important, often profound, influences on people's lives, and spatial structures also draw on precedents set by architects and urban designers.

What we need at the moment are more precedents, not fewer. Precedents perhaps on smaller scale than the ones of the grandiose post Second World War schemes, but scale is partly dependent on need. Countries like China for instance must perforce work to very large measures. But does China have to make such huge travesties of late '80s American PoMo, that already travestied style? Instead of making a mask to cover the reality of minimalist dwelling sizes, no real public realm and shoddy construction, Chinese architects ought to be given opportunities to experiment to improve the quality of urban dwelling and living, rather than always being required to cosmeticize tired though clearly easily replicable building systems. As Wu Liangyong has shown (AR February 2000), lessons from traditional Chinese urban housing design can be derived to make low-rise developments which can compare to the high-rise ones in density, yet at the same time are infinitely richer in social and personal terms.

Housing criteria

How should we judge architectural innovation in housing? Of course, there are many criteria, but I suggest that three should be overriding at the moment: density, mix and individuality. Clearly, it is vital in rich countries particularly, that housing density should be increased, or else suburbs will endlessly devour agricultural land and even the wilderness, with results for the planet that are becoming only too clear. It is possible to generate developments which offer all the advantages of living in a suburb (individual green space, privacy, close contact to nature and so on) while making journey times shorter, increasing transfer of waste energy from one property to another, and ensuring much lower land take. Similar considerations apply to urban housing. What architects need to do is to demonstrate that dense geometries are possible to attain and can offer richness of human life.

Mix of functions is plainly vital. We have seen the social problems of large uni-functional housing developments with no local shops, pubs, or other meeting places. Mix of age is clearly important too: the great postwar housing estates tended to be overwhelmingly populated by young families; they, and their children have grown old together in age-ghettos, the fabric of which has often become elderly with its inhabitants, and has suffered the attentions of a glut of teenagers. Mix of tenure can be a factor in making successful housing, but tenure type is perhaps less important than was thought a decade or two ago. [6]

Individuality in housing, the ability to form, or at least acquire, one's own particular dwelling is surely an important element in achieving housing satisfaction. Curiously, the very poor achieve individuality within an overall economic and technical framework. The Aga Khan awards have found numerous examples, from the Grameen Bank programme (AR November 1989) to Kampong Kali Cho-de in Yogyakarta, Indonesia (AR October 1992) in which individuals are given empowerment to create their own dwellings by imaginative technical and economic systems which draw heavily on liberal architectural imagination. Similar initiatives are possible in developed countries, as the work of architects like Sam Mockbee in the American states of Alabama and Mississippi shows (AR March 2001).

Experiment and innovation

Other radical proposals for generating individuality in housing are largely untested as yet. Open Building seems to be one of the most promising approaches. It owes much to the thinking of N. J. Habraken, [7] who suggested that within overall support structures, individuals would be able to make dwellings to their own designs using industrially made elements. The thinking pervades some of the best and more humane parts of contemporary Dutch theory (Koolhaas and his disciples). [8] Open Building is somewhat similar to the political ideal of subsidiarity, which is supposed to inform the workings of the European Community, and perhaps really does make the United States work as it does. Under this principle, decisions are taken at the most appropriate human level: city design would be the responsibility of city authorities, block design that of local authorities, dwelling design in the hands of individual households, independent of their neighbours. Each level of decision making should leave maximum freedom for m anoeuvre further down the organizational hierarchy. Experimental Open Building schemes have been launched in Japan, and a competition is promised in Finland.

Open Building and similar experiments show that architectural invention still has much to contribute to making decent housing. The profession should not lose heart, but try to find clients (public or private) who are prepared to back experiment and innovation. The national architectural institutes, which often seem indifferent to other than inward-turned debates, surely have a role here.

(1.) Markus, Thomas A. 'The pathology of housing discourse' in Rehumanizing Housing, ed Markus et al, Butterworths, London 1988, p29.

(2.) Idem,

(3.) Ibid, p28.

(4.) Not that things are much brighter in Britain now, but perhaps there is some hope, particularly in work sponsored by bodies like the Peabody Trust, which has supported work like that of Bill Dunster (p74 of this issue) and Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AR November 1999).

(5.) Carter John, 'Private Answers to Public Questions', in Rehumanizing Hoasing, op cit, p168.

(6.) Particularly by analysts like Alice Coleman in, for instance, Utopia on Trial (1985), where she argued that publicly funded housing should as far as possible be made to resemble the products of the private mass housing developers. Many Anglo-Saxon housing policy makers have argued that the private ownership model is preferable to forms of rental tenure. But rental housing is common in for instance Germany and France, Singapore has a compulsory ownership system, Hong Kong relies on rental from the amazing, housing authority, yet the two economies and cultures are similar in many ways.

(7.) See Habraken's Supports (1962) and Housing for the Millions, John Habraken and the SAR (1960-2000), ed Koos Bosma, reviewed AR May 2001, p101.

(8.) Though not so much in practice.
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Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 1, 2001
Previous Article:Themes and variations.

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