Just like any multinational with a product to shift, Architecture has always adapted to expand its market downwards as growth at the top end slows. When the market for palaces faltered, Palladio was there with his palazzo product. And when the market for stately homes dried up, Webb and Voysey came along and the suburban home is suddenly Architecture. The beginning of the nineteenth century saw architecture embrace lowly commerce and the beginning of this one has it eyeing various forms of multiple occupation.
The notion of the architect as ornament explains much of what happens at the higher end of the market where perception management operates strongest but people at the lower end are not unaware If one third of the planet’s population now owns a smartphone then probably one more third wants one, and whether they have mobile reception or not. In the same way purveyors of cigarettes, alcohol, smartphones and social media platforms move downwardly into untapped markets not to expand but to survive, architecture is the ornament that adds value to property and raw materials. If we run with this analogy of architecture acting like a multinational in an ethics-free zone, then the globalisation of upmarket architecture wasn’t a positive thing. It’s not like there’s a resultant surge of contentment in the world. The populations of countries importing architecture received nothing except some fuzzy feeling their country could afford something other countries couldn’t and all the populations of the exporting countries received was a fuzzy feeling their country was producing something others wanted.
Admiring some new bauble for what it is [or isn’t] isn’t much different from admiring favelas as slum–porn. Both only serve to distract us from what’s happening in our own countries. Never has the need to house people at home and the lack of ideas for how to do it been so great. Increasingly, fewer people expect to own a detached house like their grandparents in the 1950s assumed they would and probably did.
We’re now seeing not only alternative building typologies but alternative forms of tenure as well as a rise in single-person and other non-conventional households and types of occupancy. Our housing isn’t adapting quickly enough to meet these changes and, even if it did, it would have to be provided at increasingly lower cost for it to satisfy the same need.
Architecture won’t save us. It’s traditionally been thought of as something different from building and it is. All Buildings require money, land and the right to build in order to exist. To this, Architecture adds the representation of wealth, property and power. There’s little hope some amazing new typology will arrive to fix things. The slab block and the tower block are both mature tyopologies and, whatever one may think of them as Architecture, they’re still bound by the fundamental building constraints of land, materials and labour. One or more of them has to give.
Lower Costs: Affordable housing attempts to cut costs for all three yet still maintain social and municipal norms for construction and spatial standards. The same cannot always be said for the private sector but IKEA, Kazuhiko Namba and MUJI have been doing their best on all three fronts. [c.f. The Catalogue House, Architecture Misfit #32: Kazuhiko Namba, The MUJI House]
Increasing Density: This works to lower land costs and at the same time achieve economies of scale for construction and labour. Again, we can’t expect much new on this front. We cannot continue to assume any economies gained will be re-invested in further production in some win-win feedback loop.
Lower-priced land: This is what outer suburbs are. About the time of the Case Study Houses, architects eyed land that was lower-priced because it was difficult to build on (but still had great views). Similarly, architectural invention has been said to occur on land next to railway tracks, or under high-voltage lines.
Suddenly, architecture is silent when it comes to innovative ideas to build on flood plains and low-lying coastal areas in the paths of hurricanes.
Prefabrication: These next two mid-twentieth century proposals danced around the idea of prefabrication as a way of reducing production costs. The proposal on the left from 1969 by the then Richard Rogers accommodates residual functional division by folding internal partitions (sometimes known as doors) and the one on the right from 1950 accommodates it using an amorphous shape. We were duly amused. Neither came to pass.
Until the mid-1960s, economies gained from cheaper production methods were more likely to be returned to society in the form of more available and more affordable housing. People may deride the Soviet prefabricated apartment blocks of the Khruschev era as ugly and by Postmodern wordplay ‘inhumane’ but, in 1975 every Soviet citizen had a place to live. Postmodernism cannot claim that success, but it did succeed in destroying the will to do it again. In 2015, Sir Richard Rogers was either being obtuse or disingenuous by continuing to believe prefabrication would save the world.
Humans obviously have the capability to prefabricate things but the fact prefabrication hasn’t delivered its promised benefits is not the fault of the process but of overpromising its “benefits” to people who were never going to be the ones to “benefit” from them. [Can someone please write the Das Kapital of architecture?]
Shrinkage: Attempting to lower costs (a.k.a maintain profit margins) by making dwellings smaller only forestalls the time when land, materials and labour become prohibitively expensive again. Smaller rooms in smaller houses on smaller sites mean less resources are required to build houses with equivalent functionality. The single-family house has been more tenacious as an architectural typology than the single families they’re supposed to house but, largely due to the Japanese, houses occupying 100% of their sites are now accepted as architecture.
In Western societies, tiny houses are presented and understood as a whimsical upmarket diversion rather than as a solution to a downmarket housing problem but even communities of tiny houses or RVs require land to be privately or collectively purchased or leased.
Cities don’t have the land for that. It’s not difficult to find and see images of what extreme shrinkage looks like in Hong Kong or even Tokyo where people have to live with little space inside a building owned by someone else.
Tiny apartments such as the one above are still luxury compared to the coffin apartment which is a degraded capsule hotel. Nevertheless, coffin apartments still remain within the realm of dwellings provided by someone, even if the word dwelling is now being stretched to breaking point and the driver for that provision is profit rather than any social good. We’re not there yet, but we have parallels in our own societies.
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Informal settlements arise when dwellings aren’t provided by any external party. The dwellings comprising them are self-built to satisfy bare minimum needs for shelter and safety. Their construction is not regulated in any sense we recognise and there is no surplus for ornament or any other kind of architectural pretence. Informal settlements are going to be a reality for more people in the future because there’s little hope of affordable housing being made more affordable through traditional ways of lowering of the costs of resources, land and labour.
For a long time now our architecture has not been drawing its traditional inspiration from the architecture of the wealthy. When having any kind of place to live is the best that the dominant market for dwellings can aspire to, it follows that architecture will shift in that direction. We are creeping towards an architecture that incorporates what is taken as given in informal settlements.
Ad-hoc architecture: The pursuit of the apparently random is architecture’s way of aestheticising the procurement that occurs in the construction of informal settlements.
Less architecture: When the provision of a minimum quantity of space is paramount, the shape of that space is more likely to be determined by economies of materials and structure. This is H Arquitectes’ Casa Barcelona.
There are no contrivances of planning and construction and their associated expense. Space is first created and then divided and allocated. A sequence of spaces is still present but without decadent hallways and corridors.
Consolidation: Not assigning a dedicated space to every function is something we’ve come to accept as an expression of Modernity (and its “freer, more open way of living”) but, as an example of perception management following development gain, larger and less fragmented spaces are easier and cheaper to enclose and construct.
This is now acceptable even in supposedly luxury apartments as supposedly busy and active people leading supposedly fulfilling lives in the big city eat out while networking and/or socializing. I’ve mentioned the decline of the kitchen before [c.f. Architecture Reductions] but there are signs the bathroom is now on the verge of being consolidated [c.f. The Open Bathroom]. The future is one room for everything. For many people, living in one room was always the norm.
Lower quality, less expensive materials: The early work of Lacaton & Vassal adopted the North Africa talent for solving an immediate problem in the most pragmatic way possible. These architecture of these buildings approaches that of informal settlements by usinglow-cost materials to enclosure maximum space in the simplest way possible.
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If chasing economies of resources land and labour is going to be for the sake of the producers and not the consumers, then something else will give.
The sharing of living space itself: In tandem with reducing the costs of resources, land and labour, co-housing and alternative forms of tenure work to lower peoples’ expectations of housing.
Giving up on the ownership of land: Tiny houses may be the smiley face of mobility but legally parked yet illegally inhabited RVs are a type of informal settlement. People haven’t had to put their dwelling together from salvaged scrap but it’s no less an informal settlement. There’s not that much difference between this
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The people in the village of Tiébélé in Burkina Faso might be able to teach us a thing or two about living in one-room houses self-built from materials of little value on land of little value. These houses show an awareness of being part of something greater and two, for taking pride in that.
Though not self-built, this student housing in Munich has something of the same spirit.