Monday, June 6, 2011

AFFORDABLE HOUSING: What Do Architects Know About It?

If there’s one building type that architects seem ill-equipped to design, it’s so-called affordable housing. Aside from getting in a few years of honest-to-goodness construction experience—which is rare in the profession—very little in an architect’s training enables him to understand what makes for an affordable, easily-constructed building.  

While many factors outside an architect’s control interfere with the production of housing for ordinary incomes--including obsolete zoning ordinances, anxious lenders, and developers who naturally prefer the fat profit margin of upscale markets--the architect’s share of the problem is rooted in an educational system that encourages unique solutions when obvious ones might do better.  

Many brilliant architects have taken a crack at producing affordable housing over the years. Not the least of them was Frank Lloyd Wright, who in 1937 erected the first of his “Usonian” houses—an attempt to deliver his highly personal brand of architecture in an inexpensive form. Well, okay—not that inexpensive. 

Le Corbusier and a host of other Modernists brought their affordable-housing ideas to the United States and, unfortunately, some of them got built. Minoru Yamasaki’s ultra-rational Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, celebrated as a shining example of urban renewal when it was constructed in the Fifties, ended its short life as little more than a highrise drug den. Its demolition by dynamite in 1972, a slow-motion image seared into the conscience of many an architect, vividly signaled the failures of Modernism.    

One problem with attempts such as these lies in the architect’s characteristic compulsion to begin from a clean slate. Wright invented what amounted to a whole new construction system for his Usonian houses but, being unfamiliar to contractors, it could hardly have gained rapid acceptance. And in his Broadacre City model town project of the ‘30s, he proposed that each house be placed on a full acre of land, at a time when most Americans were already gravitating toward big cities.

While Wright dallied with such bucolic notions, the International Style Modernists instead seemed convinced that rationalism and technology held the key. In his “Ville Radieuse” project—mercifully unbuilt—Le Corbusier placed a phalanx of numbingly identical living towers on a site that resembled nothing so much as a sheet of graph paper. It was the spiritual ancestor of Pruitt-Igoe, based on the strange idea that equality was somehow linked to mindless anonymity.  

Moshe Safdie’s innovative Habitat housing scheme, built in Montreal in 1967, attempted to stack a standardized concrete housing unit into a sort of multistoried modular sculpture. Alas, the need to design much of the details from scratch once again derailed the project’s practical potential for mass construction.

Since that time, there have been any number of attempts to provide decent housing at a reasonable cost. Many have been laudable, and some have actually been affordable. Few have been both.

In recent years, one of the most promising forms of affordable housing has been the concept of industrial loft housing (often called live-work), in which obsolete industrial and commercial buildings were adapted to residential use. Artists, musicians, and craftspeople found generous areas of low-cost living space in these buildings, and could pursue their avocations there at the same time.  

As soon as architects eager for show-stopping projects entered the picture, however, the industrial loft became just another trendoid living style. I know—I helped it happen.  The result, I’m sorry to say, is a gentrification so rapid that industrial lofts are now essentially the domain of attorneys, stockbrokers, and techies. 

Once again, the virtual absence of practical training in architecture serves us badly, leaving most architects unable to judge what’s affordable and what isn’t.

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