Architecture’s Role in Social Housing: The Debate Continues

Via flickr by One More Go

Since the famous demolition of St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe housing project in 1972, and the infamous preservation of Robin Hood Gardens in East London, architecture’s role in social housing has been a publicized and controversial debate. At the core of all of these class-oriented arguments, of course, is the cost. Is it worth it to apply modern, sophisticated designs, most of which are more costly to construct, to public housing? Many taxpayers, who commonly do not feel responsible for the poverty of others, do not agree that they should bear the burden of footing the bill.

Many starchitects though, including Richard Rodgers and Zaha Hadid, both of which have campaigned for the historical landmark status of Robin Hood Gardens, and this year’s Pritzker Prize Winner, Alejandro Arevena, who established an entire career on public housing, think it’s worth it.

The debate this past week re-erupted when the architecture firm 5468796 responded via ArchDaily to The Guardian’s article entitled, “Crime in the Community: When ‘Designer’ Social Housing Goes Wrong” which criticized their social housing project, Centre Village in Winnipeg. The widely-acclaimed firm, who calls Winnipeg home, had their design choices attacked, saying that “families [were] living in cramped and unsuitable conditions . . . [in] a building structure that seems to act as a magnet for drinking and drug-taking at all hours.” The firm, who won the 2014 Canadian Architect Award of Excellence, attempted to respond to this article directly to The Guardian by writing them a letter, but the magazine declined to publish it.

And in reading the letter, it’s clear why.

With tremendous clarity and sincere emotion, 5468796 argued back. They countered the notion that the project wasn’t properly researched by citing the two years of research they performed, the fact that they had already completed a similar project within walking distance of Centre Village, not to mention the deep roots the architects have implanted in the city. 5468796 defended the logic of their design choices, such as their use of public space to create community, and the irregularly shaped windows that “create the sense of casual surveillance.” They cited the personal experience of one of their founding architects, Sasa Radulovic, whose family immigrated to Canada as war refugees, and said that “providing safe, inspiring and well functioning housing for refugees and immigrants is very personal, and an issue that the practice of 5468796 cares very deeply about.”

The argument over design decisions at Centre Village is a part of a larger, crucial discussion of architecture’s role in social housing — how much to spend? Who to protect? How to keep it going?

Today, Centre Village is up for sale, and as the building changes hands, and ultimately transforms, time will be the only judge of its success or not. Will it pay the price that Pruitt-Igoe paid, or endure like Robin Hood Gardens?

And even further, will talented design firms continue to take on these daunting, bureaucratic, and sometimes thankless projects? How many will decide that it’s not worth the time, money, and the headache?