Elevating the Role of Architects as Advocates for Equitable Housing

Amid the whirlwind of bankers, developers, contractors, and policymakers involved in housing, these architects believe in paying closer attention to voices in the communities where they work.

A model of Colville Estates, a publicly-owned, half public housing, half market-rate development in London. (Credit: Karakusevic Carson Architects)

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In the early 2000s, urbanist Karen Kubey began thinking about harnessing architecture for social equity.

“We were sort of fringe characters,” she says of the urbanists, architects and planners who believed architecture could serve as an important piece of more equitable cities. “A lot of [that work] was small-scale, a lot of it was pro-bono.”

In ensuing years, as the world moved toward urbanization and a global housing crisis has emerged, she witnessed a change. “I’m interested in how some of that thinking has become a part of the way major firms are working and how profitable work is happening,” she says. “The field of architecture is paying much more attention to housing.”

It’s with that in mind Kubey served as guest editor for the latest issue of Architectural Design, titled Housing as Intervention: Architecture Towards Social Equity. The issue includes 17 essays tackling how housing projects and their design processes could serve as interventions towards greater social equity in cities, and how that work could potentially reposition the architectural profession at large.

“Despite its potential for impact in residents’ lives – and though it was Modernism’s central project – ‘housing’ is often considered separate from ‘architecture,’” Kubey writes in her introduction. She points out that regulatory constraints, profits for banks and developers, NIMBYism and supply-chain challenges often take center stage in discussions around housing. Architects, Kubey believes, can be powerful voices in the complex housing challenges increasingly dominating cities.

Each essay offers a unique perspective taking up that challenge. Matthew Gordon Lasner’s essay, “Architecture’s Progressive Imperative: Housing Betterment in the 19th and 20th centuries,” presents a historical look in architect’s roles for social change.

“In many respects, architects have limited control, especially in such a diffuse arena as housing,” Lasner writes. “Policymakers, developers and lenders tend to shape the larger contours of the system.”

He believes architects are still critical in catalyzing progressive housing policy: their importance, he writes, “lies equally in their ability to engender public support for housing intervention by translating social concerns, especially about the negative effects of modernity on family life and public health, into new physical forms that capture the public and political imaginations.”

Take, for example, the early history of the multi-family apartment building, a common housing type for centuries in Scotland but virtually unknown in England and the United States. In the 1840s, British architects promoted the idea of the multi-family building as a solution to the high cost of urban housing; a parallel campaign in the United States, led by architects like Calvert Vaux, emerged after the Civil War.

Other writers offer modern-day examples of architects serving as equitable housing advocates.

Kaja Kühl and Julie Behrens highlight the work of architects in Berlin in their essay, “Spaces of Migration: Architecture for Refugees.” In a 2014 housing plan, Berlin called for 100,000 housing units over the next 10 years to meet the city’s need for affordable housing. But by 2017 the estimate was considered insufficient — without including the arrival of an estimated 65,000 refugees under the federal government’s resettlement program.

Local architects rejected the concept of emergency, dormitory-style shelters for refugees and instead advocated for units with private kitchens and bathrooms that could be converted into permanent affordable housing. In further collaboration, they challenged the mindset of “architecture for refugees” to instead design “architecture for all.”

The authors add that these times of crisis, in both housing and resettlement, offer opportunities “for architects and their clients to leverage this publicly funded effort as long-term contributions to the city.”

In the Brooklyn, N.Y. neighborhood of Sheepshead Bay, architects pushed for a better resiliency prototype post-Hurricane Sandy. Cynthia Barton, former housing recovery program manager at the New York City Emergency Management Department, and architects Deborah Gans and Rosamund Palmer of GANS studio, wrote of their collaboration around effective models of modular design and community engagement after a storm devastates a community.

The challenge to house people quickly — without relegating them to emergency shelter — resulted in a prototype that demonstrated how “purportedly short-term housing can offer aspects of permanence after disaster and become a long-term asset that is integrated into the community,” the team writes in their essay, “Beyond Temporary: Prototypes for Resilient Communities.”

In London, where city government has re-invested in its public housing stock, the role of architect as advocate has never been more important, argues Paul Karakusevic in his essay, “A New Era of Social Housing: Architecture as the Basis for Change.”

He cautions against a “one-size-fits-all approach” to build or rehabilitate public housing and pushes architects to forge close relationships with residents’ associations and local authorities and use it as the basis for their work.

Karakusevic’s firm, Karakusevic Carson Architects, worked to rehabilitate a public housing project with “a community left disillusioned and disengaged after 18 years of stalled schemes,” he writes. “In 2000, approximately half of the estate was demolished, leaving behind a rubble-filled wasteland.”

The firm kicked off its design process in 2013 with the resident’s association at the center. He writes that “through regular steering-group meetings and public-consultation events, the residents were heavily engaged throughout; from the site planning of new streets right through to the internal specifications.”

Kubey hopes that by presenting a wide range of examples of housing and architecture for the common good, it’ll inspire further change within the profession. The editing process of Housing as Intervention began in 2015, she notes, and the need for architectural advocacy has only grown.

“The housing crisis is not going away — it’s only getting worse,” she says. “This material has felt more and more urgent for me, and I’m heartened that the field is paying more attention.”

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Emily Nonko is a social justice and solutions-oriented reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and transit. 

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Tags: new york cityaffordable housingarchitecturelondon

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