Since taking root towards the end of the 1970s, neoliberalism has separated services and goods from their social function and ideology, rendering them into utilities that only exist for the sake of accumulating wealth. Very few sectors of life express this more greatly than the state of housing.
In his book Radical Cities, Justin McGuirk uses the example of Latin America to explain that up to the end of the 1960s, architects were at the heart of social housing. This meant that when mass housing projects were undertaken, the extent to which the building served the needs of the community was always at the forefront of a project. For instance, in Peru, one proposed housing project was designed specifically to accommodate to the individual needs of residents. Houses would be built so that residents could expand their houses with their families and to suit their needs. Despite the backing of Peru’s President the project never came through; but it was indicative of a general attitude towards social housing, one that came to an end with the failure of this project.
Architects were blamed for the failure of projects, when it was the fault of poor maintenance and management, McGuirk continues, saying that government used these sins of social housing to justify stepping back from their provision and instead allowing the private sector to take over. As the private sector increasingly encroached on what was previously in the public domain, the architect was further removed from the heart of housing. As a result, housing increasingly lost sight of its function.
But, McGuirk says that examples from Latin America today offer us reasons to be optimistic.
In northern Chile, architect Alejandro Aravena has built social housing on “the barest of budgets,” by providing families with half of a house and then letting them build the other half according to their means and a particular framework. McGuirk notes that what is significant about this project is that it was initiated by Aravena, the architect.
In the north of Argentina, there is a much more radical attempt by social movement Tupac Amaru [neighbourhood association], which has turned many of the assumed principles of social housing provision on their head. Tupac Amaru was conceived as a result of politicians’ continuing failures, so residents took matters into their own hands. One remarkable part of this movement, led by Milagro Sala, a Kolla Indian woman, is that it created its own brick and metal-working factories and the residents were employed in construction.
Whereas social housing has always sought to provide for the minimum needs of the community, Tupac Amaru aims to provide for the maximum needs of the community. They have built swimming pools and Jurassic theme parks to accompany the housing: not merely to provide more for the people but to also make residents feel more wealthy.
As housing markets in Toronto and London spiral out of control, and more people are forced out of city centres, McGuirk’s book indicates a way out of the mess we are in and how we can avoid another technocracy-induced crisis.
In order to avoid crisis: put architects at the heart of housing projects, and return housing to its original purpose – and to only that purpose.