The Right to the City: ASH Residency at the 221A Gallery, Vancouver

‘Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.’

– Bertolt Brecht

For a Socialist Architecture (under Capitalism)

Within the overall socio-economic context of Western democracies today, in which there is a cross-party consensus from the political establishment on the marketisation of housing provision, and whatever party forms a government there is no longer the political will to make the state responsible for housing its citizens, how do we meet the housing needs of an increasingly homeless population? Is a socialist model of housing provision unsustainable and impossible within capitalist economies? And in the absence of a socialist government – let alone a socialist revolution – on the horizon, what would a socialist architecture look like?

Faced with our current global crisis of housing affordability, whose financial roots reach deep into the world economy, can architects do more than bury their heads in the limitations of a developer’s brief, confine themselves to purely formal interpretations of housing typologies imposed by developers to maximise land values, attend award ceremonies to their own complicity in the failed and failing marketisation of housing provision, and become just another cog in the building industry – but with fancier spectacles?

Behind these spectacles, are the ideologues of Neo-liberalism in the architectural profession doing no more than accurately describing the economic and professional conditions under which architects must work, and which they’d better get used to sooner rather than later? Or does an accurate understanding and factual knowledge of the consequences of Neo-liberal housing policy, rather than blind belief and cynical trading in the myths told to justify that policy by politicians, developers, estate agents and architects, open up the possibility of a socialist architecture, even under existing economic conditions?

Architects for Social Housing (ASH) strongly believes the latter to be true, and for the past four years, alongside our critique of UK housing policy and exposure of the disastrous impact it is having on housing poverty and homelessness, we have developed practical design and policy interventions in housing provision that demonstrate that there is another way.

This summer ASH will be taking up a month’s residency in the 221A Gallery in Vancouver, Canada, where we plan to further formulate what we have learned from the practices of ASH and other architects into principles for a socialist architecture. To this end, we plan to engage in conversations with local individuals, communities and institutions that will help us to explore and formulate these principles through sharing their own practices.

ASH will be holding weekly workshops on the four Fridays of our residency, at which we will present and discuss the necessity and possibility of a socialist architecture under capitalism. Our aim in doing so is to create a forum in which to talk to and hear from residents, campaigners, activists, students, academics, architects, environmentalists, planners, economists, property developers, lobbyists, policy writers, politicians and others affected by or involved in responding to the housing crisis, both local and global.

In tandem with these workshops, and by the end of the residency, ASH will produce the draft text for a book titled For a Socialist Architecture. With financial assistance from the 221A Gallery, this book will be published and made available to people who are threatened by the housing crisis; to policy-writers looking for alternatives to the selling off of public land and housing to private investors; and to architects looking for an alternative to the orthodoxy of contemporary architectural practice and its collusion in the housing crisis.

Drawing on the advice and connections of the 221A Gallery, ASH is inviting a local organisation, group or individual based in Vancouver to co-present with us at each of these workshops. These workshops will address in succession the following four themes of a socialist architecture.

1. The Social (19 July)

In April 2019 the government of Canada passed the National Housing Strategy Act. This participatory, rights-based approach, which is founded on the recommendations of reports produced by civil society but has no legal requirements or enforceable court orders, is meant to provide recourse to anyone wrongfully denied a home for reasons such as their ethnicity, religion, sexuality or gender identity. This right to housing, however, does nothing to ensure either the affordability or security of tenure of that housing. This example reveals the limits of human rights as a model for good governance and social justice.

The human rights model arose in the aftermath of the Second World War as a defence against the perceived threat of socialism. As such, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, rejected ‘the right of political rebellion’ but enshrined ‘the right to own property’ (Article 17). It granted ‘the right to equal pay for equal work’ (Article 23), but said nothing about what makes some forms of work less equal than others under capitalism, and thus without the right to equal pay. It also stated that ‘Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including . . . housing’ (Article 25). It is from this right to housing, which Canada recognised in 1976 when it ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, that the 2019 National Housing Strategy Act draws its framework.

Leaving aside the question of their upholding – most recently exposed by the collusion of the UK government in the extra-territorial extradition of Julian Assange into the gulag of the US justice system – human rights, even in principle, guarantee nothing more than the right to compete in the market from a position of vastly unequal means and needs. In the UK we have repeatedly seen the inadequacy of this framework: of the right to equality of compensation for leaseholders’ demolished homes; of residents’ right to return to the new, far more expensive properties built in their place; of the right to take over the management of our own homes; of the right to transfer them into our ownership; of the right to see the financial viability assessments by which their demolition is justified; of the right to assemble in protest; and of the right of access to the law itself. Faced with the repeated failure of these rights to defend residents and their homes from the overriding demands of capitalism, it has become necessary to formulate the principles and practices of a socialist architecture beyond the limitations of human rights.

After forty years of Neo-liberal propaganda, most architects – certainly in the UK – equate socialism either with the bogey-man of totalitarianism propagated by the US culture industry or, alternatively, the social-democratic liberalism of the European Union. But at ASH we aren’t interested in identities (social democratic-voting activists who identify themselves as ‘anarchist’ or ‘socialist’), but in social practice. A socialist architecture is not dependent for its existence upon a socialist government, a socialist economic system or even socialist architects. Its existence is manifested through practice alone. So, whether or not an architect, resident, campaigner or activist identifies as a ‘socialist’ (whatever that may mean to them personally), we believe that formulating the principles of a socialist architecture will show that it is possible to practice architecture as something other than the obedient tool of capitalism.

The first principle of a socialist architecture must be to look at the sources of funding, labour relations and working and living conditions under which their architecture is being produced, and take into consideration all those who will produce and use that architecture. The duties of an architect don’t end with the construction or completion of the building; and the more an architect understands how buildings, communities or a neighbourhood work in practice, the better their architectural solutions will be. An ongoing relationship, therefore, with both the client and those expected to use the architecture, must be developed over a subservient relationship to the brief.

A socialist architecture is one in which the processes of funding, procurement, design, construction, management, maintenance, use and re-use of the architecture take precedence over the purely formal qualities of the architectural object. A socialist architecture must interrogate, be critical of and involve itself in the development of a client’s brief, take responsibility for producing the option best suited to the needs of the users of their architecture, and where necessary be prepared to reject the commission when it fails to meet the standards practitioners of a socialist architecture must set for themselves.

  1. Why is an ‘ethical’ architecture inadequate as model of practice?
  2. Who are the agents of a socialist architecture?
  3. What are the processes of its production?
  4. For whom is a socialist architecture produced?
  5. What are the design principles of a socialist architecture?

2. The Environmental (26 July)

‘Our profession tends to attract and develop idealists, and that can make some of our work little more rewarding than working on a factory production line. Idealism is great but, mixed with naivety, the danger is it will remain unrealised. An architect who, as a student explored an enticing proposition such as the impact of driverless cars, might think they are in a good position to solve these issues in the real world, But architects aren’t normally the people single-handedly entrusted to envision such complex projects. You are more likely to be closer to the action as a politician, planner, campaigner or engineer, than an architect. All of these are possible career routes for architects.’

This advice to a young architect, recently published in the Architects’ Journal by Matthew Turner, an architect and careers consultant, was written in response to a letter saying: ‘Social and environmental issues really matter to me. I want to have real influence but, as an architect, I don’t’. Besides being a servile delimitation of the remit of the profession that abjectly concedes the territory won by modernist British architects such as Maxwell Fry, Berthold Lubetkin, Denys Lasdun, Rosemary Stjernstedt, Ralph Erskine, Ted Hollamby, Alison and Peter Smithson, Neave Brown, George Finch and Kate Macintosh, this response is also at the opposite pole to a socialist architecture, which seeks to expand, not contract, the reach of the architect and her professional practice.

As an example of which, in addition to the huge financial costs and debt risk associated with the demolition of existing social housing and its redevelopment as properties for market sale, the environmental costs of both are huge, ranging from the loss of the embodied carbon in the existing buildings to the pollution in the air from demolition and disposal, to the carbon cost and environmental impact of the new buildings. The typical architectural response of green roofs and walls, solar paneling, improved thermal performance and the reduced energy consumption of modern buildings is not enough to offset this environmental impact. It has been estimated that it will takes at least 30 years for the more environmentally efficient buildings one might expect to be built on new developments to recoup the environmental losses of demolition and redevelopment. Instead, the environmental sustainability of housing needs to be taken as a totality.

A commitment to reducing carbon emissions and to policies of economic de-growth is inevitably a socialist concern, not least because damage to the environment has enormous collective social and economic consequences. While maintaining that only a socialist economy can hope to re-order the relations of production to sustainable levels of consumption, a socialist architecture must seek to ameliorate, resist and challenge the unsustainable growth on which capitalism depends for its profits.

Under capitalism, the global consequences of expansion are not estimated in individual project costs but deferred, manifesting themselves in the health or social well-being of future generations, or in contributions to the long-term destruction of our global environment. A socialist architecture, by contrast, must calculate and mitigate the social and environmental costs of any given project. Above all, a socialist architecture must place the economic sustainability of housing communities as the key component in the sustainability of the environment in which we live.

  1. What is the environmental context of architecture?
  2. What constitutes the environment for a socialist architecture?
  3. What is the difference between the environment and sustainability?
  4. How is socialist architecture sustainable?
  5. What does socialist architecture sustain?

3. The Economic (2 August)

The obvious way to fund the homes for social rent or equivalent that constitutes the greatest housing need for a growing homeless population is for governments to invest in it sufficiently, as they should any essential infrastructure, thereby removing the responsibility for new-build housing provision from the market altogether. In the absence of such funding, however, or anything like it, ASH has found itself asking whether a socialist architecture can exist within a capitalist system; and, if it can, what would it look like? The key to answering this question lies in the way in which projects are financed.

The architectural profession’s current culture of demolition and redevelopment – of the erasure of the historical layers of the city and the construction of the always new commodity – is driven not by concern for the most sustainable solution to a brief, but by the desire to make and maintain a name for an architectural practice with a recognisable brand or – when that brand has already been established – to meet the developer’s desire for a signature building. The skylines of the world’s wealthiest cities, surrounded by neglected and run-down slums and favelas, is ample testament to the social consequences of this culture. At the base of this culture, however, is the commercial inducement of calculating architects’ fees as a percentage of the total cost of the project, rather than its total social value.

A socialist architecture, by contrast, subordinates such marketing concerns to the use and function of the building in meeting the total requirements of the scheme; and the decision not to demolish, but to refurbish, to improve, and where possible to add, must be the default point of departure. The answer, already formulated by Lacaton and Vassal Architects in France, is simple. Do not demolish structurally-sound dwellings in which people have made their homes and communities, but refurbish them and – where possible and with the consent of the residents – increase housing capacity with infill and roof extensions.

A socialist architect must produce an impact assessment of the financial costs to both the local authority and residents, both existing and future; the social costs for existing residents of the estate as well as those who live in the neighbourhood and will be affected by any new development; and the environmental costs, not only of the embodied carbon lost, but the carbon emissions from demolition and construction, and the environmental impact of the use of additional buildings, in terms of both energy use and carbon emissions from, for instance, increased car use, as well as the impact on local services, such as roads, schools, clinics, hospitals, police and fire services.

Such impact assessments are different from a financial viability assessment calculating the gross development value of a scheme; or calculating, for example, the additional income to the chain stores and supermarkets that will benefit from the gentrification of a neighbourhood consequent upon building high-value property in the area; or again the rise in house and land values for property- and land-owners who will benefit according to the land value uplift in an area consequent upon development of a scheme.

The so-called ‘law’ of supply and demand, as an economic model for the marketisation of housing provision, is not a mechanism for reducing house prices but an excuse for increasing the profits of developers and investors. In contrast, a socialist architecture must look at the use-value of its productions, and not merely at their exchange-value as commodities.

  1. What are the ideal economic conditions for a socialist architecture?
  2. What are the actual economic conditions for a socialist architecture?
  3. What is a socialist architecture under capitalism?
  4. What funding revenues are there for a socialist architecture?
  5. How can architecture be socialist under capitalism?

4. The Political (9 August)

Voting for this or that political party, or waiting for changes in legislation or policy, isn’t enough when there is a cross-party consensus on the marketisation of housing provision. Nor is denying the political agency of the architect under the profession’s rapidly diminishing field of expertise and influence. It is this denial that is both cause and consequence of the reduced remit of the architectural profession. Architecture is always political, and a socialist architecture must apply pressure on both local and municipal authorities and government to write policy and legislation that will make it possible to pursue socialist practices further within our current capitalist system.

A socialist architecture must have a duty beyond meeting Neo-liberal policies specifically designed to remove any curbing of market forces. This duty begins with the well-being, safety and lives of the users of their products and extends out to encompass the total social, financial and environmental impacts of the work in which they participate from its inception and construction through the whole lifespan of its use, re-use and afterlife.

A socialist architecture is one that priorities residents and users over the profits of developers; recognises that the question of how to save the environment is an economic question and that the architecture of Neo-liberalism is contributing to its destruction; and that it is possible to design for the housing needs of communities within the existing economic system.

A socialist architecture must reclaim the political dimension of architecture ceded to developers, planners, think-tanks and politicians, and restore the object of architectural practice to its place within the totality of the social relations of production, distribution and consumption.

  1. Which are the institutions in which a socialist architecture is practiced?
  2. How can architects participate in political processes?
  3. How can architecture practice institutional critique?
  4. How can architects change policy?
  5. What is a political architecture?

Preliminary principles for a socialist architecture

  1. A socialist architecture must be critical of, and involve itself in, the funding, procurement, design, construction, management, maintenance, use and re-use of its product, which must take precedence over the purely formal qualities of the architectural object.
  2. A socialist architecture must take the refurbishment of existing homes, the improvement of communal amenities and, where possible and with the agreement of existing residents, the infill of additional housing as its default option in any housing scheme, rather than the current orthodoxy of demolition and redevelopment.
  3. A socialist architecture must consider the impact of, and respond to, the social, financial and environmental costs of its product, to both users and those affected by it, from the moment of its proposition through the lifetime of its use and after.
  4. A socialist architecture must prioritise the use-value of its products over their exchange-value as commodities.
  5. A socialist architecture must interrogate the client’s brief, and be prepared to reject a commission when it fails to produce the option best suited to the needs of the users of its products.
  6. A socialist architecture must apply political and cultural pressure for the legislative and policy changes that will make it possible to further socialist practices within our current capitalist system.

Architects for Social Housing

Illustration by Clifford Harper

One thought on “The Right to the City: ASH Residency at the 221A Gallery, Vancouver

Leave a Reply