In comparison to the design of a single (-family) house, or indeed any singular architectural object, housing involves a different way of thinking. The architecture of housing has more to do with systems, economies of scale and multiplicity. It forces us, more than with any other kind of architectural design project, to consider space in terms of public versus private use (and the various shades of grey in-between), spatial appropriation, flexibility, efficiency, and yes, practicality. It requires us to think about the spaces between buildings as much as those inside, and to think about landscape in much more subtle terms than merely “green space”. Housing is architecture at its most humanitarian, social, and ecological, and as such at its most political, urban and complex. It is where architecture comes closest to confronting the ecological and therefore ethical question of how we should live; of how we should construct our habitat so that it is fair, just, and sustainable. Housing thinking addresses the very form of everyday human life itself.
After all, housing is what mostly makes up the built environment. Other types of buildings might be accorded more monumentality and prestige, along with bigger budgets, but the mere bulk of housing makes it much more representative of the architecture of the city. If it weren’t for the spatial ubiquity of dwelling, for the field condition of normalcy it establishes, other more expressive architectural objects wouldn’t have a background to stand out against. Quantity does indeed have a quality all its own, as has famously been said.
Yet this is not how we like to think about architecture, much less talk about it. Contemporary architecture culture values uniqueness, exceptionality and the well-executed detail over standardization or systematic multiplicity. Architecture is about quality, not quantity; the latter being negatively associated with a construction industry that is seemingly only concerned with square meters and bottom lines, maybe some “curb appeal” if we’re lucky.
Indeed, housing has historically been what “ordinary builders” designed and built, with architects exclusively handling mansions, palaces or villas as far as residential buildings are concerned. Housing was traditionally not considered “architecture”, but “vernacular building”; rarely a subject of treatises or theoretical reflection. This changed with the arrival of the industrial revolution, when mass-housing became a topic of world exhibitions, competitions, and even architectural manifestoes. There was little choice: industrialization was causing massive urban migration and radically changing the landscapes of cities and countrysides, provoking an hour of reckoning for the profession. An emergent architectural Modernist movement placed housing at the top of its agenda. But despite its noble intentions, Modernist housing ended up antagonizing many with its soulless repetitiveness and the inflexible mould it forced its inhabitants to adapt to. The period during which architects dedicated themselves en masse to mass-housing was thus relatively short-lived, in the end.
With post-modernity, and the end of the welfare state at the hands of Reagan and Thatcher, housing became less important in architectural discussions again, with museums and highly customized houses now commanding most of the attention. In the new climate of deregulation and privatization, western cities were effectively taken over by the interests of real-estate development corporations whose conservative and formulaic urban model promoted suburban sprawl. As a consequence, many inner city neighbourhoods, especially in North America and Great Britain, fell into decline during this period.
But more recently, the energy-intensive “American way of life” of a single-family house in the ‘burbs, a car for every family member over 16, and long commutes has started to fall out of reach and out of favour among many young people, many of whom would rather not own a car and live in an inner city neighbourhood where almost everything can be reached on foot, by bike, or with public transit. Only relatively high-density neighbourhoods with mixed uses can enable such a way of life, and this is precisely the transformation many previously ignored inner-city areas have lately been undergoing the world over. An increasing proportion of new housing construction in cities today is high-density and mixed-use in form, necessitating much greater urban-architectural attention and “housing thinking”.
Highly sculptural swirl- or blob-shaped building forms may make for fabulous iconic museums or country villas, but as urban housing typologies they tend not to work. The city is an eco-system, of which housing is the largest physical component. A system is, by definition, never a “one-off” object, such as a singular work of art, but a network of pieces that interact, is expandable, and is therefore open. Unlike the closed singular building, housing has to consider the economical necessity of its multiplication and variation as a basic building type. This is not to say that housing has to systematically repeat sameness, of course. Far from it: like any eco-system, a good housing system incorporates diversity, flexibility, and resilience; it offers a range of possibilities for different ways of living and different kinds of households. It should be thought of as a support rather than a fixed, immutable structure. The paradox, however, is that to offer things like flexibility, certain limitations must simultaneously be established. There is no flexibility without some form of structure in place, from infra- to super- to architectural.
Indeed, another problem with housing, unlike custom houses which are designed to fulfil a known, specific client’s needs, is that one never knows whom exactly one is designing for. Most likely, it is the proverbial family with 2.4 children, but this is less and less the case. One of the most fundamental problems with housing is that a set of assumptions have to be made about the eventual occupants. The challenge of our time, when it comes to housing, is post-Fordist in nature, the Model T of dwelling units no longer being suitable in this day and age.
These kinds of questions are not normally central to architecture, but in the case of housing they most certainly are. As quantitative, more anonymous “background” rather than a qualitatively authored foreground figure, housing is seemingly dialectical to architecture. Perhaps, as was once considered the case, housing isn’t even architecture, strictly speaking. Perhaps housing is not fine art. But as cities grow, transform, and become more complex and diverse, they demand better housing thinking.