Advanced Design Studio: Aureli
Is Less Enough? 100,000 houses for San Francisco
with Emily Abruzzo
The studio asks students to take a position towards one of the most urgent problems in architecture: the project of housing. More specifically the studio will be asked to design 100,000 affordable houses for a city that is at the moment suffering one of the most dramatic housing crises in the US: San Francisco.
There are two main questions implied within this project:
What is the social and political meaning of housing in an age that has made of ‘scarcity’, ‘crisis’, ‘resilience’, a fundamental modus operandi of economy?
Can such a project that operates at the scale of the city still be an ‘architectural project’?
Less is more: this dictum has been the most successful slogan of modernist design. The call for Less was not only a call to embrace formal restraint, but also the desire to make architecture a sober place where life could happen in all its unpredictable unfolding. Mies van der Rohe who famously pronounced this dictum (borrowing it from the poet Robert Browning), considered architecture not a formal composition, but a frame whose goal would be to support and enable in the best way possible the life of its inhabitants. His adherence to this credo was so extreme that the majority of his projects can be summarized with the simple diagram of the frame within which architecture as form is reduced to its bare minimum: a perimeter and a roof. Far from being just an aesthetic goal (or worse a style for architecture) less is more implied a spatial revolution wherein the “destructive character” of modernization would be manifested in a space where inhabitants could start anew.
But today the ethical implications of less is more are at best ambiguous if not deeply sinister. Beyond being the too predictable branding of minimalist design where reduction and simplicity become design fetishes, less is more can be seen to summarize the ethics of contemporary capitalism, wherein exploitation consists of pushing people to do more with less: more production and less social security, more work and less money, precarity and less affordability, more competition and fewer opportunities, more stress and less rest. Less is more sounds–at best–like a sarcastic commentary on our increasingly precarious living conditions.
In this way, less is more appears to be the most concise representation of post-recession real estate strategies. Before the recession, suburbia was filled with privately owned family houses, and people were encouraged to take on the financial debt necessary to buy their own house. Since the recession, the real estate industry can no longer rely on the indebted masses, and as such it is increasingly shifting towards the development of two kind of houses: luxury homes and what, in the absence of a better term, we might call "minimal" dwellings. The latter is a peculiar typology because it reduces the spaces of a "normal" home (e.g. bedroom, living, studio, kitchen and bathroom) to unprecedented small-size spaces whose combined square footage does not exceed an average hotel room. The minimum dwelling is thus not just a room, but a miniature house. In spite of its radical smallness, the contemporary minimum dwelling pretends to take the form of the traditional condominium, where social decorum and the status of owning a proper house is seemingly left unchallenged. Many cities under real estate pressure, including London, New York, and San Francisco are adopting such micro-unit solutions; even re-writing building codes to new, smaller, standards
Related, home furnishing retailers such as IKEA are increasingly focusing on the rise of this new typology of living space. IKEA is not only producing an ever increasing number of furnishings whose goal is to "save space," but through the promotion of a specific image of the home, it is also putting forward a domestic scenario in which scarcity (in the form of radically constrained living conditions) is compensated by reassuring images of domestic life. While the minimum dwelling is the ultimate and most radical embodiment of uprooted-ness and precarious living, its image attempts to re-establish the decorum of middle-class values.
The studio will address this scarcity of housing by envisioning what would happen if a large number of housing units (100,000) were to be built within the city in the next few years. The main question that the studio will ask is how to rethink affordability within the domain of housing. Is affordability only a matter of extreme reduction of previous living standards? Is affordability the embodiment of the rhetoric of scarcity and austerity? Are we condemned to do more with less and less resources and social security? Most importantly, is real estate speculation the only way to trigger the production of housing? These questions will form the background for a project whose goal is to imagine what would happen if 100,000 new houses will be build in San Francisco over the next 10 years.
Within the studio, each student (or group of two students) will design a share of the 100,000 affordable houses and thus propose a model that can be deployed on different sites. Each project will put forth an affordable model of housing that goes beyond the minimum dwelling, incorporating strategies by which a number of facilities can be shared. This project seeks a strategy in which sharing can replace scarcity as an approach to affordable housing.
The chosen site for this project is the city of San Francisco, which is currently suffering one of the most dramatic housing crises in the history of United States. The fact that San Francisco is undergoing such crisis may at first sound like a paradox, since in the last 20 years the city has experienced one of the most enduring economic booms, largely thanks to its renowned tech industry. However, it is but because of this very economic boom that the city has witnessed increasing real estate pressure that has made housing unaffordable for a large part of the city's population, including a portion of those workers supporting the tech industry. Addressing this condition, the proposition of 100,000 houses to be built over the next 10 years aims to release the city from the burden of housing scarcity.
The goal is not to argue for this housing as a social benefit, nor to ask for it as an act of charity or philanthropy. The aim is to redefine affordable housing as a first step towards a more equal redistribution of wealth within the city. In this way, the construction of new housing can be understood not as a palliative within an already compromised and unfair economic system, but as a fundamental structural economic policy, which implies a change within the power relationship of the current neoliberal system. The studio seeks to promote this agenda for housing not as an ideological utopia, but as a reasonable solution. For this reason the students will work on realistic proposals within which even the most banal and unspectacular architectural items such as typologies and the most common architectural elements (rooms, windows, etc.) can be seen as sites for radical architectural invention.
In addition to the urgency for addressing the housing crisis, the proposition of 100,000 houses for San Francisco is put forward as an opportunity to radically re-think the architecture of domestic space. Since the beginning of its history, housing has been the exclusive embodiment of one type of human association: the nuclear family. In this way, housing has prevented other forms of association based on values such solidarity and sharing. The studio agenda is not against the nuclear family, but sees the latter as only one possible form of association among others. For this reason an important goal of the studio is to rethink domestic space beyond the typical form of a family home.
Rather than beginning with the design of the family home, the studio will propose to start from the most basic form of living space, the room. We propose take the room at face value, stripping it of the expectations and preconceptions created by the last three centuries of typological discourse. The very fact that we name rooms following the objects that they contain (bed-room, bath-room) is a sign that, in the past, objects gave meaning to spaces which were largely non-typological and more open to interpretation and change. Today, as practicing architects, we work with a preset toolbox of purpose-intended rooms which can just be shifted around and given a different position or different form while in fact still fitting the same diagram–the nuclear family apartment. But should a room have functions at all? Should an apartment be divided in rooms? Are the standard sizes requested by law a way to protect the citizen, or a straitjacket to enforce a certain behavior?
If we were to free the room from being purpose-intended, perhaps new combinations could arise–and, with them, not only new spatial diagrams, but new social ones. Such an attempt has occasionally been made in the last centuries; in 19th century America, for instance, the Beecher sisters transformed the kitchen into a large multi-purpose room at the center of the house, therefore transforming the symbolic organization of the family.
Addressing the room, and starting a project from the room, does not only mean to question the functional subdivisions we normally take for granted. It also means to challenge the idea of what is public and what is private within the house itself. In the 1950's, Mies designed the Lakeshore Drive apartments as one very large room – only for the tenants to build up walls and reconstruct the "familiar horror" of the bourgeois rooms: full of the tchotchkes and doilies criticized and mocked by the literature and films of the time, and those very things the Modernist agenda sought to redress. What was groundbreaking in Mies’ project was the rejection of the traditional idea of privacy. While degrees of openness and seclusion are a constant of living environments, the actual concept of privacy is a relatively recent one: until the 17th century only monks had the ‘extravagant’ idea of using spaces to be alone. Then again, these spaces of solitude were not necessarily for sleeping but, in certain cases, for prayer and study (while it was perfectly acceptable to sleep and bathe with other people).
With the best possible intentions, architects have tried to propose new horizons for the family apartment, playing with double levels; different distribution patterns; new models of furniture. However, we have hardly criticized the basic articulation of living spaces into a preordered set of rooms. Taking the room as the first element of a project for living space might allow us to see the question of housing on completely different terms from the ones we normally work with. The very presence, form, position and quality of furniture and objects will be an integral part of the project of the room, precisely because furniture is not a neutral element but rather a powerful way to characterize (or destabilize) the room. Ultimately, to imagine a city made of rooms for individuals or groups of people means ultimately to reject the model that sees the city as an agglomeration of nuclear families.
During the first weeks and prior to the class field trip to San Francisco, students will prepare a hypothesis for the project by researching two important topics: examples of experimental dwellings that have challenged the history of the traditional (family) home, and the housing condition in San Francisco. Moreover, an important task prior will be to identify potential sites for the new housing units. The studio assumes that any ‘empty’ space within the city fabric, even the tiniest one, may be available as a potential site for affordable housing. For this purpose, we will construct a cadastral map of sites within the city, which will serve as a reference for the development of the 100,000 houses scenario. Once these premises are established (after the field trip), each student (or groups of two students) will develop a share of these 100,000 units, first by proposing general models, then deploying them within the specific sites selected through the cadastral map.
The studio is organized as a research studio which means that parallel to the design work, students will be asked to critically reflect on their project by formulating a more specific brief, arguing the economic and social premises of each specific model. To make a project means to take a position within the discourse of architecture and the city. For this reason, the studio will encourage literacy with historical precedents not as a matter of erudition, but as a way to engage with the very meaning of our discipline and its historical significance in the face of fundamental human problems such as the need for housing. Emphasis will be placed on representation and communication of the project. The studio sees the production of drawings and images not as mere illustration, but as a specific argumentative language through which to propose ideas for architecture and the city.