Community

The problem is much the same around the world, whether Barcelona, Dubai or Crested Butte. Short-term rentals for holiday lets are changing the way people think about where they live.

“Destroying local communities” is a fairly emotive term but so is the flipside, “Local residents sell out!” Rather than question whether the sense of community is really as strong as thought, it’s easier to shift blame to outsider profiteerers [1]The word “community” is used to define the unwanted. Outsider profiteerers do exist but the market is still mainly driven by people renting out places of residence as if they were hotels, and the bulk of friction with neighbours occuring when those places are treated as one. Those renting out properties aren’t those who have to live with the consequences. Renting involves a tenancy contract between tenant/guest and owner/landlord but no social contract exists between the short-term renters and their neighbours.     

It takes many people to create a community and residents are usually thought the most important. The adjective local implies a community that thinks of itself as self-reliant and self-contained. Short-term rentals introduce strangers into this system that is now no longer self-reliant nor self contained. The fact airbnb’s – I use the word generically now – are taking over the world suggests local communities were never as local, as self-contained or as community as they liked to think they were. The word community evokes a false nostalgia.

It’s not a new notion. Seaside Florida was designed to be a pseudo-community of short-term rentals. Its walkability and screened porches within “howdy pseudo-neighbour!” hollering distance of the sidewalk was intended to simulate the experience of folksier times past for those who’d never experienced them. Community as theme park, Disneyworld for grownups, Westworld for the fainthearted. [c.f. Architecture Myths #18: Popular Culture]

“community”

The town of Celebration, (Fl.) was Disney’s attempt to roll the dream out on a larger scale. The strength of the dreamworks became apparent in 2010 when people were unable to comprehend how a brutal murder could occur in a community developed by Disney.

No studies exist to prove if Seaside or Celebration ever achieved sustainable levels of pseudo-neighbourliness. Two two years ago I wrote

You can make your booking here. “There’s something to suit every budget.”

Seaside Florida has its own bookings website. We now have many more that aren’t location-specific. VBRO is the one mentioned in the article above.

Since May 2016 regulations controlling the rental of short-term holiday accommodation have been relaxed here in Dubai.

“This comes shortly after DTCM issued new regulations at the end of April that govern the leasing of holiday homes in Dubai. The new regulations ask that private homeowners apply for a holiday home license without the need to go through an approved Dubai Tourism operator, provided they meet certain criteria. Moreover, tenants renting a property can also lease their accommodation as a holiday home with a short-term permit, provided that they first obtain a “no objection” certificate from their landlord and meet all DTCM requirements.”

It’s a fact of life everywhere now, and our buildings aren’t keeping pace. The apartment building I currently live in is all-rental and managed directly by the owner’s management company. At least eleven apartments are now being managed as short-term rentals and the apartment building is in the process of becoming a short-term let hotel. The five-star hotel next door manages another eighteen as hotel-apartments. Tenants rent by the year and “guests” by the week or day but it’s sufficient to generate an airb’n’b effect similar to that experienced by the residents of Crested Butte, Colorado.

Guests have no long-term investment in their temporary accommodation and, through either ignorance or nonchalance, don’t respect the rules. In an apartment building, this means treating the place as a hotel, not saying hello to people in the elevator, and perhaps making too much noise in the corridor. The building lobby becomes a place to re-pack luggage, or perhaps let the children sleep until the agent arrives to check them in. This is all standard hotel stuff.

Dubai is not Paris, Barcelona or Venice but this article describes what I’m experiencing as a side-effect of city-centre tourism concentrated on specific activities and sights.

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I’ve no problem with any of this. There’s no danger the corridor outside my door will turn into Les Champs Elysées, Las Ramblas or the Grand Canal. I’ve always championed co-housing and shared facilities but this is not co-housing where people live together because they share the same values. Much might actually be shared but the difference of tenure duration is sufficient to place these two types of tenant in opposition. Neither’s permanent but the longer-term contract at the very least implies a different level of financial commitment.

One: We need buildings that are up to the task.

Architecturally, the problem becomes how to reconfigure buildings to allow for more than one type of tenancy in a way not detrimental to anyone. We need to figure out which parts of our buildings aren’t up to these new ways of being filled with people. First, I suggest we accept we’re all temporary tenants in whatever accommodation we have, even if we own it. I don’t mean to come across all existential but buildings generally outlast people. Our patterns of urban living are changing and, whether we like how it is changing or not, there might be ways that buildings can change to make our adapting to other changes less fractious. This is to neither champion nor criticise the political, social or economic conditions that brought about those changes. It’s just that the role of the architect is to suggest solutions to changing realities yet not pandering to the forces that brought them about – much like Moisei Ginzburg et. al did in the 1920’s Soviet Union with their “social condensers” for the anticipated new society that, in the end, didn’t happen as planned.

Nor did society change to validate streets in the sky as proposed by The Smithsons, perhaps because theirs were merely called “streets” without providing any of their real advantages. People on their way home will always have the capacity to annoy, whether it’s a street, a street-in-the-sky, an access gallery, or a corridor. One suggestion I have to to make apartment corridors more like shared communal space. [c.f. The Landscape Within (July 2017)] This might encourage longer-term residents to feel less territorial and shorter-term residents to feel more responsible.

[Note to self: Investigate whether these principles can be applied to a slab typology.]  

Two: Community-driven, handmade, pop-up architecture

This array of keywords comes from the same place as the “architecture, ad-hoc, handmade, community-driven” tags mentioned in the last post. What could possibly be wrong with pop-up architecture? After all, it uses idle land or buildings, costs little to make and build, is a good thing for assemblages of people with maybe an architectural education to do, and it benefits others.

It costs little to make and build.  Great. Let’s put the idea in people’s heads that if they want to live in a house of their own then they should stop their complaining and instead use a bit of imagination, sequester materials and labour for nothing and just get on and build themselves one. Bingo – housing crisis solved! Teach a man to fish and he won’t ask you for one.

It’s a known method. “In 1962 Soviet armed functionaries brutally suppressed local food riots in the event known as the Novocherkassk massacre. Instead of increasing food production in response, the government inaugurated a system for gifting people land close to where they lived, effectively making them responsible for feeding themselves. [c.f. The Dacha (Apr. 2016)]

It uses idle land or buildings. The spin here is that a pop-up cinema brings some joy to a street that a derelict petrol station no longer provides. The “structures” are generally small, low-cost, often display and ingenious use of materials and their sourcing, and provide a temporary source of entertainment or diversion for locals and passersby. The word community is often invoked but customers or market is more accurate.

It’s a good thing for assemblages of people (perhaps with an architectural education) to do. For graduate architecture students yet to enter the workforce and work for the man, pop-up architecture is an opportunity to let potential clients know that they understand that 1) architecture is all about adding value to land, 2) they are adept at sourcing low-cost materials and labour, 3) they display knowledge of how social media can create instant buzz for little or no outlay, 4) creating the appearance of community benefit is a selling point. None of these are new. The only innovation is that it can all take place outside the triad of academia, practice and media.

The traditional career trajectory used to be work for a company, design a house for a relative, design another one, start one’s own practice, gain recogntion with perhaps an art gallery, land a large commission that turns out to be seminal, and then sell out. For those without a job or wealthy relatives, pop-up architecture is the new substitute. Commissions will follow not because of any innate talent, but because clients like architects that understand the food chain and are open for business. The same principles that starchitects have successfully applied over the past forty years have now been shown to work for architects less stellar. Interesting times ahead. 

It benefits others. Ad-hoc, handmade and pop-up structures are now being used by large-scale property developers to indicate how small-scale and hip they are. Why spend a fortune on marble-floored malls when people will pay good money to sit on packing crates inside shipping containers? Win-win. The perception is that these places must be inexpensive because they look cheaply constructed. Not so. This is the legacy of Post Modernism and the representation of a thing (as inexpensive) being the primary experience and more important than the reality (expensive). Ad-hoc, handmade and pop-up have been monetized and assimilated into the commercial mainstream. That pop-up vodka bar or whatever in Shoreditch in 1995 was the thin end of a different but same wedge.

Three: We should think more about how the word community is used

We automatically think anything to which the word “Nature” is attached is good. The word “Community” is getting the same treatment, mostly to denote goodness and positive feelings towards services that until modern times were performed at local-government level. The message is: “Sort yourselves out! Do it yourselves! Don’t expect any help from us!” The glamorization of ad-hoc, handmade, community-driven architecture is a sign of the times. It’s not a sign of faith that centralized government will do the right thing by its citizens. Ad-hoc, handmade, community-driven architecture is especially irksome when it’s performed by people who can afford to work voluntarily and who enlist unpaid labour under the guise of “self-help” or “empowerment”.

Community initiative
Community health
Community centre
Community-funded
Community service [not what it used to mean]
Community outreach
Community participation

I don’t know if it still does, but the Holcim Awards used to have a category called Community Engagement or similar. The upcoming Venice Bienalle made me think of Alejandro Aravena for the first time in a long time. Last I heard was he went off to be consultant for Holcim, delivering sustainable solutions to conflict zones worldwide. This sounds like a worthwhile endeavour, but then so too did ad-hoc, handmade, pop-up and community-driven. 

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[1] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/feb/12/profiteers-killing-airbnb-erode-communities

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