In 2020, prior to the start of the pandemic, our architects, namely James Saisakorn, RA, with assistance from his colleague and partner Alex Nizhikhovskiy, RA, set out to investigate the history and various models of social housing as they may relate to TTC’s own work. During their research period, they analyzed the errors and successes of past projects, and theorized how these observations can be applied to modern multifamily housing.
Over the course of our firm’s over three decade history, we have had the pleasure of designing, restoring, and furnishing spaces that bring people together, from private homes to public spaces. As we expand into larger, multi-family work, we continue our research into the patterns of how people occupy, use, and transform the spaces they inhabit.
While many outsiders envision architecture as a practice of design and construction, studying innovative past and present solutions, as well as finding novel approaches to address design problems is done not only out of interest, but out of necessity. If we continue to build forward without learning from the past, we are bound to repeat the same mistakes.
James and Alex’s findings, which will be presented over the next four months on our blog, extend beyond architecture and delve into social sciences such as sociology and anthropology. In these four distinct, yet connected entries, we will uncover the ways in which social housing of the past can help inform housing for the future.
Check in on the 15th of each month for a new entry from now until May.
THE IMPORTANCE OF INFRASTRUCTURE
We speak of infrastructure these days and usually refer to the state of our transportation networks, water reservoirs, power distribution systems, etc.: the large physical facilities and organizational structures that our society as a whole relies on to function. The tone of our conversations on infrastructure are often critical since the general belief is that this nation’s infrastructure and that in many parts of the world is in a state of disrepair. The importance of updating and upgrading our infrastructure may be the only thing that politicians in the U.S. on both sides of the aisle agree upon.
The state of our physical infrastructure is a relatively easy concept for people to understand. Roads are in disrepair, bridges are crumbling, mass transit systems are at or over capacity, safe drinking water is lacking, all are persistent issues that plague our society. These systemic problems of our nation’s physical infrastructure are so pervasive that very few citizens are immune to their negative effects.
While physical infrastructure is an absolute societal requirement, we often forget that equally important to a society ’s survival and success is its access to social infrastructure - the places in our physical environment that facilitate human interaction. “Social Infrastructure” traditionally refers to places that accommodate social services: libraries, schools, hospitals, community housing and daycare centers, but increasingly it has begun to refer to places in general that contribute towards a good quality of life whether or not a social service is provided.
In a rural community, due to greater physical distances, a lack of access to, or independence from, social infrastructure would be understandable. Paradoxically, in an urban context, while members of a community may be physically proximate, they may be as isolated from each other as their rural counterparts. An apartment building may have many residents, but unless it has been purposefully designed to promote interaction, its residents may remain separate from each
other. We must ask ourselves why this is and what we can do to promote and instill a sense of community - a social infrastructure within the architecture we create.
Image 1: Wikimedia Commons, Kristoferb
Image 2: This file comes from the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) or Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS). These are programs of the National Park Service established for the purpose of documenting historic places. Records consist of measured drawings, archival photographs, and written reports.
Image 3: Wikimedia Commons, secker.jane
UTOPIAN VISIONS & FANTASTIC FAILURES
In post WWII Europe and America, urban planners and architects promoted new concepts in social housing. Le Corbusier, for example, proposed La Ville Radieuse, his vision of the ideal city. Instead of the slums and tenements that characterized the way most lower class urban residents lived prior to the two world wars, he proposed gleaming, high-rise housing blocks dispersed in an unrelenting grid, separated from each other by vast swaths of open space. Corbusier and his contemporaries argued that the extreme proximity of residents in slums bred poverty and urban blight. People needed order and ample space to improve their well being and promote a healthy lifestyle. These architects and planners based social housing designs on rational planning concepts that leveraged technological advances, mass production, zoning, and standardization.
These architects and planners believed that the advances that had so clearly ushered in the modern Industrial Age could also cure the problems that plagued cities. Residential high rise towers of similar scale and materiality would erase some outward expressions of class differentiation and would provide equal access to opportunities for all.
In Europe, areas decimated by the war were leveled and replanned to create massive tower blocks separated by “landscaped” open space. In post-war America, slums were torn down, and low income social housing projects were erected in their place borrowing heavily from the tenets of this “forward thinking” group of architects and planners . The result? More often than not, the housing projects were failures, so much so that the word “project” grew to have an extremely negative connotation when associated with housing. Rather than creating a level playing field through a rigid sense of order, these housing projects made their residents feel isolated - highlighting their separateness from the rest of the urban fabric and community.
In lieu of vibrant neighborhoods, projects such as The Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, or Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, were seen as unsafe places lacking a sense of community. Due to the impersonality and scale of the buildings, residents had a difficult time differentiating between the members of their own community from outsiders. The architecture itself promoted a feeling of anonymity and as a result a lack of community. A sense of lawlessness became pervasive in these types of social housing.
Architects and planners promoted the belief that they could solve a city’s problems, but this was largely criticized as a grandiose attempt at social engineering justified by an over intellectualization and manipulation of form and formal arrangements. As architectural theorist, Diane Ghirardo describes in her essay, “ The Architecture of Deceit”, They failed to understand the complexities of the “social interactions and behaviors that are inherent to the urban context and its myriad components when overlaid with the complexities of race, power structure, and manipulation of land values by governmental agencies.”
Image 1: Flickr, David Wilson
Image 2: Still Picture Records Section, Special Media Archives Services Division
Image 3: The U.S. National Archives @ Flickr Commons
Image 4: Wikimedia Commons, Valentinois26
(all research by The Turett Collaborative, text by James Saisakorn and Alex Nizhikhovskiy, all diagrams by The Turett Collaborative unless otherwise noted)
(banner photo of Lower Manhattan Knickerbocker Village from Wikimedia Commons, jqpubliq