On Urban Housing
Urban housing designed by architects is a relatively recent phenomenon, and therein may lie the essence of our modern dilemma.
Traditionally, housing was at best a second genre of architectural activity. The primary focus of architects’ efforts were public buildings. Although architects often designed town houses and palaces for wealthy and/or noble families, other houses and housing were done by builders. Thus, housing was excused from the necessity (burden) of theory and art and was free to evolve within the slower norms of convention; i.e., close to the continuity of people’s lives and the urban forms that support them.
In eighteenth century France, however, architects found an expanding and enlightened clientele for town and country houses in the increasing numbers of people with access to knowledge, taste, and money. This led rather directly to the development of the apartment house in France and the terrace house in England as urban population expanded rapidly in the nineteenth-century. Architects were central to the development of these middle class housing types, but their primary commissions were still great civic buildings. In fact, the art of the nineteenth-century Parisian apartment building and the Georgian terrace became so ubiquitous as to almost qualify as a kind of urban vernacular. Certainly these French and English housing models provided the basis for housing in burgeoning urban America.
Modernism changed all that, however. In the twentieth-century architects directed their attention not only to housing, but to problems of mass, or low income, housing. Thus, urban forms that had never benefited from self conscious architectural attention were the sudden recipients of both theory and art. This revolutionary change created a series of difficult issues that are with us still. New types (frequently anti-urban) and a new style (abstract) coupled with a new process (additive and inside-out rather than reductive and outside-in) produced shocking discontinuities despite being based on the promise of an illusive but better future. Zoning laws, the guard dogs of urban convention, were gradually changed to assist in the birth of the new world order, and by the early 1970’s examples were built all over the world. Generally they were fatter, stumpier, less white, and less elegant than the ideal models, but they delineated a new set of conventions nevertheless.
Perhaps because of the American flight to the suburbs after the second world war, and because of a fundamental American antipathy towards urban housing of any kind, modernist projects (in America) carried conspicuously visible socioeconomic connotations of either luxury or the projects.
Modernist housing in America probably peaked in the early 1970’s, and Richard M. Nixon delivered the coup-de-grace in January, 1972 when he killed what little public housing policy the U.S. had. (Roger Sherwood’s Modern Housing Prototypes was published in 1978.)
Concurrently, architects began to reassess the whole modernist agenda, and when a few housing initiatives resumed they were often based on a gentler, less arrogant, less international set of attitudes.
At the moment the issues are not at all clear. The world is not as tidy a place as it appeared to be before the second world war, but not all modernist housing was a failure either. Today housing is less central to architectural thought at a time when it may be needed most. The urban void caused by white flight makes increasing numbers of homeless increasingly more visible in our fractured inner cities, and it appears that there is no policy, no plan, no thought, and no concern for the form and quality of urban life today. National politicians won’t deal with it (except crime prevention) because their financial constituencies are sub-urban. Architecture schools generally don’t deal with it because they are more interested in the “art” of architecture than architecture as part of a bigger societal agenda. Finally, despite the so-called “failures of modern architecture,” modern architects did attempt to address issues that were not deemed “worthy” before. Whether we can, or should, develop new urban housing (for all) is an open question.