The Elusive Politics of Housing

10/20/2011 Uncategorized


As I work through the issues of the housing studio at the University of Toronto – provoked by the fourteen very smart students in my class – I have come to realize that the design of multi-family housing is profoundly political. No other design problem so clearly situates the individual in relationship to a cascading series of circumscribed social relations – beginning with the household and ending with the city-at-large (for the purposes of this argument, scales larger than the City do not quite merit architectonic thinking).

Perhaps one way to highlight this issue is to think about the design problem through written narratives – in addition to the means of conventional architectural representation. To frame the methodology I have in mind, I have reduced the potential narratives to two: a) a story about a visitor visiting a specific apartment for the very first time and b) a narrative that starts with a person leaving a desk in their apartment to take a walk to a specific destination. Significantly, both journeys link a spatial/psychological conception of an individual dwelling with larger categories of spatial/social engagement: the building, the street, the neighborhood, and the city. One possible narrative is described in detail below:

The first narrative is imagined from the point-of-view of a person visiting an apartment of a friend, who has recently moved to a new city, for the very first time. The narrator leaves the city center by subway and disembarks at the closest stop to the apartment, a walk of approximately ten minutes. After ascending to the street, the narrator finds himself/herself on a commercial corridor of continuous retail facades that serve several abutting residential neighborhoods. After walking seven minutes along the street, the narrator turns left onto a tree-lined street fronted by brick four and five story apartment buildings with an occasional corner store on the ground floor. After two blocks, the narrator turns right onto a narrower street with smaller apartment buildings and side-by-side duplexes – with shallow front yards defined by low iron fences or hedges. He/she looks for addresses along the street and finds the number he/she is looking for above a well-lit door with a window that provides a view into a vestibule. The narrator walks into this intermediate space and buzzes number 3D and waits for the second interior door to be unlocked. Once in the second, interior lobby, the narrator discovers a large curved stair that doubles back over his/her head- inviting him/her to climb to the third floor. At the top of the stair, a corridor is arranged in a H-configuration, with the door to each apartment on the floor found at the ends of the H. Once inside the apartment, the narrator is surprised to find himself/herself on a small balcony – elevated a half level above an informal dining area. The short end of the table below faces a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows that lead to another shallow balcony overlooking an enclosed garden below.

While this scenario may describe a relatively ordinary experience and urban and architectural framework – there is a value to establishing a base line scenario from which to imagine more unprecedented – and even surreal – possibilities. What if the narrator passed a room on the way to the stair where a group of men were planning cards? What if the dining room balcony doors instead opened directly to a garden where people were reading in Adirondack chairs? What if the dining room space was lined with another set of doors that lead to micro-studio apartments with only the minimum of amenities? What’s important in each instance is to understand the moments where new realizations might occur – and what they might imply (socially and politically) – as part of a carefully orchestrated and unfolding experience.