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February 09, 2012


Kate Bird

It seems a fitting close to my undergraduate career at UVa that the last question on my last exam should address a problem that I have been challenged by since the first day of my first class in Lessons of the Lawn with Professor Waldman. The modern International style of Le Corbusier was one focus of that course, but what was touted as architectural brilliance seemed to me in many regards to be a social disaster, and I found it disturbing that Waldman’s course seemed to ignore that. Le Corbusier designed a monastery for monks who lived collectively, but designed it with individual cells and a voided center, which although a very smart political architectural statement in post-war Europe seemed to me to be a miserable situation in which to place the monks. He designed a brilliant new capital in Chandigahr, India, with monolithic buildings and an auto-centric layout that was so unfamiliar to the typical lifestyle in that region that now the buildings seem to be primarily by goats and are no longer used for their intended purpose. I understood Pruitt-Igoe to be the logical application of Le Corbusier’s International style, and in many planning classes since then we have discussed the completely disastrous situation in which those architectural ideas put thousands of public housing residents. Silver’s essay puts all of this in context for me now, and I am surprised to learn that the same architectural style was used successfully in New York City. I think this suggests that intention, context, an understanding of local vernacular and needs, and comparative research are all important in designing spaces for human habitation. This is particularly important to understand as it applies to the development and support of affordable housing in the United States.
While we still seem to be promoting architectural solutions to social problems, by promoting mixed-use or lower-density mixed-income development instead of high-rise buildings like Pruitt-Igoe, I think Silver’s essay suggests that we need to take a step back. Group projects this semester focused on the important questions of whether mixed-income communities and mixed-use projects have better outcomes for their residents. This is a challenging area in which to conduct research: it is unfortunately essentially impossible to conduct experiments on housing that hold all variables stable except for the one to be tested. The time, expense, and complexity of housing development projects, as well as the differences in social and economic variables among communities, make it very hard to make accurate comparisons between projects and find the critical factors for success. However, to the extent possible, it would be interesting to see further comparative research on housing developments among different architectural styles. Are there other examples like Pruitt-Igoe and the development in Chelsea, and how did these projects fare? Can we assume as the essay suggests that social programs are the difference in the outcomes, or are variables such as different community response to living in high rises (which I imagine is more of a norm in New York City than in St. Louis) or other factors involved? What are the variations in success rates among low-rise developments? What about other styles? Is it possible that single architectural and site design features make a difference – do open lobbies and gathering areas help, regardless of whether they are in high-rise or low-rise buildings, for example? Data and research are hard to come by, but the answers to these questions are critical as we proceed with further housing development activities.
CDCs and the other organizations involved in the vast, decentralized affordable housing network, need as much information as possible to make well-informed decisions about the projects they undertake in their neighborhoods. I think if Le Corbusier teaches us anything, it is that a type of lifestyle and way of moving through space is not something that can be imposed on a community from without, no matter how brilliant the architect. This course has increased my interest in housing articles on Atlantic Cities, and recently a few pieces about affordable housing using the vernacular style of Native American building traditions have caught my eye. Architects, developers and designers are working with Native American communities to understand the way that they live in their homes and within their communities, in an effort to build affordable housing projects that are culturally appropriate. This type of approach will help us to develop buildings that are not only appropriate culturally, but that also respond well to the climate in which they are situated, insuring that the buildings are sustainable and heating/cooling costs are minimized, making the housing more affordable.
Finally, Silver’s essay illustrates the idea that affordable housing policy is not just about building houses. Successful projects and policies must integrate social service delivery, educational opportunities, economic opportunities, and many other considerations beyond the bricks and mortar of the development. This means that CDCs and other organizations must be multi-faceted and take a holistic approach to housing development, and the success of their efforts depends on many other areas of government services and the economy. We cannot simply design and build a beautiful structure and walk away: affordable housing delivery is an ongoing commitment to developing and supporting community. Given the scale of the problem and its long history, we will need a continued, consistent, and concerted approach to the challenge.

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