How Can Architecture Solve the Housing Crisis?

Robin Hood Gardens, East London
“In other places you see doors painted and pot plants outside houses, the minor arts of occupation, which keep the place alive. In Robin Hood you don’t see this because if someone were to put anything out, people will break it.”
– Peter Smithson

In 2008, starchitects Zaha Hadid and Richard Rogers rallied to save London’s public housing complex Robin Hood Gardens (by Alison & Peter Smithson, 1972) from destruction. The tenement was designed in the brutalist tradition, inspired by Le Corbusier’s “streets in the sky.” While architectural enthusiasts thought it was a historic accomplishment, residents weren’t as enthused with Corbu’s influence, because, as Smithson said, “The week it opened, people would shit in the lifts.”

The attempt to save Robin Hood Gardens from extinction was merely a delay of the inevitable. The demolition is planned for the coming weeks, and this isn’t the first time architect-designed public housing was destroyed due to public backlash. Famously, Pruitt Igoe, designed by Minoru Yamasaki of World Trade Center and IBM Building fame, was demolished in 1972. More recently, 5468796 Architecture in Vancouver had their public housing called “crime in the community.” For decades architects have been attempting to heal the wounds of poverty, but this usually results in it blowing up in their face.

Another starchitect whose largely made his name due to his devotion to affordable housing is the Chilean Pritzker prize winner Alejandro Aravena. His most famous urban housing project, Elemental, consists of two-story half-houses (the other half is empty space — which is a provocative image) that residents help build with simple materials. Like with the previous designer social housing projects though, residents are complaining. They don’t want to build their own house, and they don’t like working with the contractors, etc. Some of them even threatened to go on a hunger strike.

All of this makes me wonder if architecture can solve the housing crisis. All of these well-intentioned, intellectual architects design these structures with artfulness in mind, but what if the people who inhabit them do not have the context to “appreciate” the art, the role that it plays in the city, and the architectural context to understand that this building is brutalist, minimalist, or neo-formalist (could you imagine saying to someone in a housing project, after they shit in the elevator, that they shouldn’t do that because the building is deconstructivist?)? Does that mean, then, since the inhabitants hate it, that the architecture doesn’t work? And is there a way to reconcile the desires of the architects and the people?

Recently, this article was published on how architects planned to solve the housing crisis in London. Here are a few ideas.

Live on Water

With global climate change seeming to have an imminent impact on our lives, perhaps a better idea would be to just get used to living on water. This article has several floating homes I’d gladly live in.

Build on Top of Trains

In New York City there is a series of high-rise residential towers called Bridge Towers that are built on top of highway bridges on I-95 near the George Washington Bridge. Approximately 4,000 residents sleep as thousands of cars pass right beneath them, and they breathe in toxic fumes from the motors. It’s quite a hideous site to see, a massive building on top of a highway.

This idea, though, seems far more practical. Benjamin Marks suggests that London builds on top of their underground system which would allow for 53,000 homes.

Hostel Lifestyle

Didn’t we all love when we backpacked through Europe in our early 20’s, living out of our backpack and meeting all kinds of interesting people? Well, how about doing that for the rest of your life? For those who are excited by that idea, there is Y:Cube by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. These are modular unit 26m² one-bed studios for single occupancy. The units can be plugged and unplugged to conserve energy. Units can be added and taken away as needed.

In 1990 in New York City there were approximately 20,000 homeless people, and this number has risen to around 62,000 today. In San Francisco there are tent camps all throughout the city underneath bridges, in parking lots, next to railroad tracks. The tents have been sweeping across the city so badly that Oakland has sanctioned a space specifically for a homeless tent encampment.

Nobody wants tents to be the answer. But how can architecture solve the housing crisis? How can creative solutions come together in a way that will be accepted by the general public?