From a post-war modernist ideal to a flexible approach in today’s urban hyper-complexity.

POOT: I… I dunno, man, I’m kinda sad.
Them towers mean home to me.

BODIE: You goin’ cry over a housing project now? Man, they should’ve
blown up ‘em motherfuckers a long time ago, if you ask me!

POOT:  Right, I know ‘em been bad. But I’ve been seen some shit happen
in ‘em towers that still make me smile, yo.

(The Wire. Season 3, Episode 1. September 19, 2004.)

The third season of The Wire opens with the demolition of one of the public high rises controlled by Baltimore’s fictitious drug lord Avon Barksdale and his gang. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that with the demolition of the housing project also comes a change in the physical and social structure for the marginalized urban community, which leads to a bloody turf war as the drug dealers are pushed onto the streets and into previously untouched areas.

The Wire’s opening scene quite possibly pays reminiscence to the Pruitt-Igoe urban housing project in Saint Louis built by Japanese architect Minoru Yamasaki, who also designed the World Trade Center. Pruitt-Igoe was a massive collection of 33 high rises built in the 1950s that became symbolic of everything wrong with social housing: its disconnectedness from the surrounding community, the therefore inevitable social segregation, and with it the concomitant drugs and violence. The complex was demolished sixteen years after construction at 3 p.m. on March 16, 1972.

When Pruitt-Igoe got blown into bits and pieces it wasn’t only the concept of social housing that was put into question but modern architecture as a whole, as Charles Jencks wrote in The Language of Post-Modern Architecture some years later. The idea of a continuous technological process that would automatically trigger social progress was put to a halt. The guidepost of post-war modernist architecture—Le Corbusier’s vision of the egalitarian city La ville contemporaine pour trois millions d'habitants—was abandoned, as was CIAM’s Charte d'Athènes, which turned out to be a lame phrasebook for techno-urbanistic nerds and car lovers. The proposed death of modern architecture also marks the starting point of the post-modernist discourse in architecture and the introduction of neo-liberal mechanisms to the social housing sector, disassociating social welfare from the constructive impetus of providing affordable housing for all citizens who could not afford it themselves.

BODIE: They talkin’ about steel and concrete, man…
Steel and concrete.

POOT: I’m takin’ about people. Memories and shit.

(The Wire. Season 3, Episode 1. September 19, 2004.)

In The Wire we see Barksdale’s dealer kids losing their cool as the housing project—and with it the physical manifestation of their idea of home—collapses in front of their eyes. We are shown beyond the intellectual social housing discourse to the interior of the housing projects: the inhabitants and their emotional connection to the people they live with. A connection that makes home the place you live at and not the place you dream of. Here, individual’s fate is closely knit to the collective memory of a community that is bound to disappear shortly after its physical shell has been crushed. We witness an act of marginalizing the history of a city’s already marginalized citizens. As the housing project’s inhabitants are relocated all over Baltimore, they have to leave behind the social fabric that made their lifes at least bearable.  

In the case of Pruitt-Igoe, fiction from The Wire is reality. In Randall Roberts’s account of Pruitt-Igoe’s former inhabitants, It Was Just Like Beverly Hills, Joseph Heathcott, American Studies professor at Saint Louis University, states that “nobody has ever gone back actually to do primary research, look at the archival records, talk to former tenants and try to untangle myth from reality.” What the inhabitants say differs blatantly from public opinion: some hundred former inhabitants still meet every year for a reunion party remembering a sense of connectedness and closeness within the housing project’s community—despite the horrible living conditions. A former inhabitant declares: “I loved it. There was something very unique and special about the relationships we had. Even though there were many, many fights, there is still something unique. It was like a very huge family.”

In a sense, Pruitt-Igoe is not only an example of what has become of social housing but also what architectural discourse and city planning might have missed out on, focusing widely on the externally visible turnouts of social housing. With the consequent construction and demolition of social housing arises the question whether fully erasing the wrongly built is the right answer to the problem or if opening the architectural program to its users could be a more gainful approach. Almost everywhere, inhabitants of social housing experiments were—and still are—unable to alter the built surroundings they live in. Without the money to leave, the inhabitants have to deal with architecture that tells them, with every concrete staircase, that they are powerless to change anything. Every iron gate shows them that this architecture was built for people who generally cannot be trusted to change something for the better. There is still no relevant discourse involving the people who have dealt and deal with social housing on a day-to-day basis. They are powerless up to the point where they can’t even argue against the destruction of their self-made living arrangements within the strict planning system that was superimposed on them in the first place.

A broader, more theoretical perspective overrules these relevant questions on the architectural environments that—in the critics’ eyes—would never fulfill what it promised. The media and architectural writers focused on the grand layout, so public opinion on such egregious failures such as Pruitt-Igoe have consolidated in negative images of not only social housing but of its residents as well. Ironically, even Pruitt-Igoe’s creator, Minoru Yamasaki, soon turned against its users, already stating in 1965 in an interview he gave the Architectural Review: “I never thought people were that destructive. As an architect, I doubt if I would think about it now. I suppose we should have quit the job. It's a job I wish I hadn't done.” Apparently, social housing remains to be architecture for people who cannot be trusted.
Full stop.

Toward a Flexible Utopia

Utopias seem like locomotives to me,
pulling mankind’s trains through history.
Yet, they can never arrive since the trains’ timetables
are newly written by every new generation.

(Horst Krüger in conversation with Ernst Bloch and Theodor W. Adorno, May 6, 1964.)

Turning to the developing world, the idea to provide appropriate housing for a many people hasn’t lost its utopic glow. A place for everyone seems like an architectural Atlantis or—as in More’s Utopia and other utopian city projects—the ideal of an egalitarian urban environment—inclusive of everyone—hasn’t lost its spark. Especially in Asia and Africa, where roughly another three billion people will seek a roof over their heads within the next 40 years. But here, people move to the cities mostly as urban slum dwellers. City governments are not able to cope. Urban migration in the beginning of the 21st century is almost entirely informal.

Given this context, the idea of mega-constructions based on long-term strategic planning within the dynamic environment of a megacity seems inappropriate. Still, strategies of post-war modern social housing are being implemented everywhere as if Pruitt-Igoe was only destroyed to return manifold: the layout of a typical middle-class apartment is fiddled around with until it fits the economic limitations, which simply results in a minor reduction in size. The project location is shifted throughout the city until a plot is identified where no investor wants to build within the next 20 years. This generally means urban displacement to the desolate periphery, following the neoliberal urban development practices of the past four decades. There are innumerable stories of city administrations that have built public housing projects on the periphery of their megacities to house the poorest of the poor, only to find the poor renting out their newly provided real estate while moving back to the slum they came from. In In the Cities of the South, Jeremy Seabrook describes how the high travel costs forced inhabitants of the newly build social housing on the periphery of Mumbai to move back to Dharavi slum in Mumbai’s city center where the former slum dwellers worked in the informal sector. Moving back meant accepting poor infrastructure and sanitary conditions but also being close to Mumbai’s bustling heart of business and the opportunity to earn a living.  

Against this headless race that has already been lost, stand projects such as Alejandro Aravena’s efforts aiming at providing minimal infrastructure with the help of what made social housing immune to its users preferences: pre­fab­ri­cat­ed sys­tems. The prefabricated systems only provide infrastructure and a minimal amount of space to be extended by its inhabitants. Aravena’s concept of incremental housing does not finish what it starts but only offers a solid beginning, leaving the magnitude of the urban challenge to be solved with the self-construction capacity of the future inhabitants of the building. The simple yet solid buildings have been first tested in Iquique, Chile, where 93 families were re-established with proper housing where they had been previously squat­ting. With a very limited budget, Aravena’s project opposes the above described idea(l) of social housing: the inhabitants of the projects are held responsible for their new home and participate in the building process, also giving them the chance to use the equity that comes from having security of tenure to take out a loan for a small business or developing their house further. A flexible base is established upon which the urban poor can react in a self-determined manner with respect to the uncertainty of the urban future.

The idea of social housing seems to be able to shift from the empowerment of the state to take land and money—having architects build a vision in accordance to the state’s policy—to an empowerment of the people to build faster and smaller structures without much more than an informal organizational overhead. Not providing a strategy applicable to different political systems but rather offering tactics, able to cope with a huge array of problems that appear everywhere in almost incomparable shapes. Flexible approaches to providing building infrastructure might be today’s form of social housing. The cities’ governments can empower individuals and small interest groups of the urban poor not only to find a more or less acceptable home but to create a process in which home can be re-defined and adapted as the soaring dynamics of the bustling megacities change their appearance every fortnight. Social housing can become the built image of the remarks from Horst Krüger quoted above where the ideal living environment can never be reached since every new generation of inhabitants newly rebuilds upon its individual desires. The re-imagining of the possible in the sense of a “flexible utopia” makes it impossible for something to be put in a finished state. What is always in progress of being built is never ready to be demolished.