Further discussion of MoMa’s “Foreclosure” exhibit

A few months ago, we wrote a couple of times about the “Foreclosed” exhibit at MoMa (see here and here). Here is an extended “roundtable debate” about the exhibit and a paragraph of argument from the four participants:

It is equally interesting, and maybe troubling, that the overwhelming majority of the projects did not take up practices of participatory design that also date back to the 1970s and even earlier. Still, it is worth noting that the more recent codification of “bottom-up” approaches to housing, particularly in Latin America, has coincided with neoliberal “structural adjustment” in the global economy. In the case of sites-and-services and other models of user-generated, low-income housing — in which municipalities provide only minimal financing and basic infrastructure (e.g., water, electricity, sanitation) and depend upon residents to construct their own shelter — this has often meant, among other things, offloading the material cost of that housing onto the backs of already dispossessed residents. This reality in no way delegitimizes vital efforts to empower residents in the provision of housing; it merely marks one of the potential contradictions — the fact that residents are often compelled by implicit, seemingly horizontal power relations to participate in processes that validate and perpetuate their own dispossession. And it suggests that empowerment from below must center on developing the political resources with which to contest — intellectually and pragmatically — the very structures by which this occurs…

That said, public-sector officials can help to encourage both for-profit and non-profit private developers to actually make diverse and inclusive housing — housing for all. Let’s say that we — we the people, via our elected representatives — insist that housing be provided for 100 percent of the population (and actually none of the Foreclosed teams addresses this most basic goal). As a robust player in the housing market, public housing would not only ensure that everyone has adequate housing; it might also spur other housing sectors to better performance. In other words, if the private sector cannot meet the large social goal, then public agencies will develop housing and in this way make the market more competitive. (In the ongoing medical insurance debate, it’s become clear that that the one thing both private and non-profit players will do almost anything to avoid is government competition, which in the case of health care might extend the proven success of such popular programs as Medicare.) It is important to acknowledge that housing is a tool of political power. Just as high jobless rates work to drive down wages (thus hurting workers and helping employers), so too high rates of homelessness, as well as overcrowding and substandard housing, serve to inflate the profits of real estate developers and mortgage bankers. At this most fundamental level, the threat of homelessness gives the 1% greater leverage over the 99%. If we guarantee that as a nation we will uphold the right to housing codified in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, then we will empower the poor — a class which these days is expanding to include many who once felt secure in the middle…

These are just a few examples of thinking big/starting small. Central to all is the belief that design matters. For decades now, we have waged a battle between Architecture (high design) and architecture (social design). But as with public and private, this is a false debate. Ultimately good design must be aesthetically engaging, economically viable, environmentally responsive and socially just. There is no either/or. If we are to meet the goal of housing for all, good design must be part of the process. This is why Foreclosed is compelling; regardless of the criticism they’ve inspired, all of the projects grappled with the power of good design to reshape housing. And yet they all neglected one final quality of good design: the ability to be actionable. Let’s pair them with more agile, smaller-scale innovative processes, as a first step in realizing their big-scale visions…

Finally, we need an open, democratic approach to long-range planning. I don’t believe it when planners and designers talk about “smart growth,” “retrofitting the suburbs,” and “transit-oriented development.” These seem to me the new mantras for professions that lack the courage to confront the real problems and challenge the dictatorship of developers. The urban planning profession fully endorsed and helped create suburban sprawl when it chose to collaborate with the homebuilding industry and accommodate itself to the highway system. It is now obediently following the market trend towards denser development without critically engaging with and supporting the widespread movements that place quality of life over growth.

These are some big issues to tackle: the impact of neoliberal capitalism on housing, providing housing for all, marrying design and social design, and long-range planning that doesn’t just cater to developers. One exhibit can’t solve all of these concerns but they are important ones that more people should be discussing.

I had an interesting conversation with an architect a while ago that touched on some of these issues. He was interested in partnering with social scientists who could help him better understand how structures fit within a community. I wonder if this isn’t the route more architects will go: looking for a broader understanding of planning, design, and social life. This would require some openness from both sides but there is a long history of overlap between the two parties.

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