It is the great unspoken truth of architecture: when it comes to the buildings that matter most in people’s lives, it has failed
Housing is architecture’s shame. The profession’s guilty secret is that it has almost no influence on housing. It is powerless. We know that the problem is housing. We know that the solution is to build more housing. But we also know it will not be architects who solve the problem. And it will probably not be politicians either. This is a problem destined to remain a problem. Architecture’s impotency is revealed in textbooks, in an official version from the inside, and in an unofficial version from the outside. In both versions, the end is failure.
When we learn about architecture, we almost inevitably learn about the more-or-less socialist achievements in housing. The efforts of the LCC and the Boundary Estate, creating Europe’s first planned social housing; the Weissenhof Estate in Stuttgart; Red Vienna; the Soviet experiments in communal housing; Corb’s Unité d’Habitation; and back to London again with Roehampton’s Alton Estate. And we end with social housing’s doomed behemoths: Robin Hood Gardens, the Aylesbury Estate, the gentrifying Balfron Tower or Park Hill. This is the official version, the epic as transmitted through the approved texts. Architects as engineers of society, smashing through slums and creating streets in the sky. This is the world of brutalist Tumblrs, Instagrammed undercrofts and concrete fetishists.
The other version, the one from the outside looking in, is that this was architecture’s big chance – and it blew it. It fucked up. It built housing instead of houses. It sacrificed everyday life for epic black-and-white photography. Richard Rogers might sign a petition to save Robin Hood Gardens but he lives in two Victorian houses knocked into one in Chelsea. You know the script.
Now Rogers’s and architecture’s involvement in housing is confined to maximising the potential profits in luxury apartments while tinkering at the edges of the housing crisis with a few boutique brick schemes for housing associations – the hopeful contextualism that Peter Cook refers to as the work of the ‘biscuit boys’. The most cursory trip outside London reveals residential architecture that is almost unbelievable in its incompetence. British housing is a joke. The Stirling Prize has seemed to latch onto this as the big issue (after years of demoting it from the main prize to the Manser Prize) but, in its inimitable manner, has got it all wrong.
This year’s shortlist featured dRMM’s Trafalgar Place, which seems a very fine scheme until you understand that it was built on the ruins of the Heygate Estate and that it replaces a huge volume of social housing with for-profit property in a cute deal by Australian mega-developer Lend Lease. The other house on the shortlist was Loyn & Co’s Outhouse, the kind of one-off rural project that architects are supposed to crave, and which in fact reveals everything that is wrong with architects’ unambitious aspirations.
The controversy surrounding this year’s shortlist was not over its dull predictability but over the exclusion of FAT Architecture and Grayson Perry’s A House for Essex. This is an outstandingly crafted piece of work, excluded because its expressive postmodernism refuses to conform to the provincial neo-modern aesthetic of which the Stirling Prize is the great champion. But its status as the locus of protest is utterly misplaced. This is a holiday home for architectural fetishists, a pulpit from which to preach to the converted, and the most bourgeois project imaginable – one sponsored by Alain de Botton. It is of no importance in the issue of housing. Nor, in fact, are the two nominated schemes. The Stirling Prize is a barometer, but not the kind it thinks it is. Instead it manages to divine the outer edges of irrelevance in almost all serious architectural debate. Look forward to finding out the nominees in order to understand where the real issues aren’t. Understanding through elimination.
Architecture’s great problem is the gap between the visionary (promoted in its schools and in the media) and the grubby compromise of reality. The architect’s trajectory is disappointment. But there is also activism, a halfway house that manages to blend idealism with realism, and a position that ought to be the default setting of the profession.
This was the stand taken by Alejandro Aravena at this year’s Venice Biennale, an exploration of how architects can challenge the status quo. It presented a fascinating perspective that was certainly not always successful but was optimistic in its attitude that architects can make a difference – and that they can exert an impact on housing, on public space and on dignity. The vehemence of the reaction from some of the starrier architects in the global firmament, notably the reliably indignant Patrik Schumacher, shows that Aravena must be doing something right. The Chilean architect has been criticised for taking money from the oil industry, money he uses to fund his socially engaged work. Perhaps he isn’t the perfect role model: there can be something queasy about the relationship between big business and do-gooding, an undeserved corporate absolution. Perhaps, in fact, Aravena hasn’t gone far enough? In accommodating the big names from Foster to Ando, has he underlined the weakness and visual incoherence in the work he has selected? I don’t think he has. Architecture defines relevance by its edges. There is the visionary and there is the engaged, the two extremes that drive architecture.
So is this the moment of a radical reset? Assemble winning the Turner Prize does suggest the art world is feeling insecure in the uselessness of its production. When OMA attempts to suggest that its new super-luxury housing built on former public open space at the Commonwealth Institute is a public good because it has funded the new Design Museum you sense a similar sweaty desperation.
If Aravena’s Biennale presents a socially engaged world of architects working on the street, and the brick-built biscuit-boy blocks represent a confluence of fashion, self-asserted seriousness and expediency, while student shows reveal the computer-enhanced, image-focused superficiality of naive architectural ambition, the question remains, where is the grown-up visionary? What is missing is a sense of tension between the camps. At the moment almost anything goes. Schumacher occasionally puts his head above the parapet to defend the indefensible through the articulation of the incomprehensible, but where is the other side?
Architecture needs the vision for where housing might go. It once had streets in the sky, towers in the park, monuments for the masses. Now it has a few brick terraces if it’s lucky. I’m all in favour of the considered, careful reintroduction of a streetscape and well-articulated – if slightly boring – architecture. What is Georgian housing if not dull? But I also want to see the competition. I want to understand the visionary, wrong-headed brilliance of designers who retain an eye for the utopian. How can we continue to admire the Smithsons, Cedric Price, Corb, Mies and the others yet not see any reason to attempt to match their ambition? Where is the provocation?
The curators of Home Economics – the British Pavilion at Venice – attempted a look into the future, one communicated, I think, better in their book than in the exhibition. It represented an effort to understand the economics behind architecture as well as the demographics, the changes in use and in understanding of space. With its inflatable pods, the project offered a faint echo of Archigram and 1960s freak-out, drop-out culture. But it needed more. Architects need to completely rethink the nature of housing and, even if they need to do it themselves and pay for it themselves, demonstrate that there is a way out.
Architects have failed repeatedly on housing, though they blame everyone else. The question is, even if they had the optimum conditions for reinvention, could they do better on their own? The profession needs to think about the future, about society, about making and understanding. It needs to generate alternatives on every scale and for every political and economic eventuality. And it needs to cling to the mad and the unrealistic so that it can continue to dream.
This article first appeared in Icon 161 – read more about it and subscribe here