HOUSING AS URBANISM


AA Housing & Urbanism Programme and Federal University of Pernambuco MDU Programme

Introduction

This publication is the result of an academic collaboration between the Housing & Urbanism Programme (H&U) at the Architectural Association Graduate School and the Departament of Architecture and Urbanism of the Federal University of Pernambuco. This collaboration was organised as a ten-day intensive international design workshop in the city of Recife from (26 June – 5 July 2013) and focused on the place of design and spatial reasoning in addressing the challenges faced by the Brazilian national housing programme, entitled “Minha Casa, Minha Vida” (My House, My Life). In particular, it aimed at reflecting on appropriate spatial approaches to the articulation of the inexorable link of housing and the production of the city in the provision of affordable housing for people in need. It brought together a large group of graduate students and tutors from the two schools that were mixed in four working groups. What we present here is a condensed version of the work of each one of these groups.

 

Why “Minha Casa, Minha Vida” (MC/MV)?

For several years now, there has been a resurgence of mass housing strategies and policies all over the world, developing and developed. These policies have been invariably, and not for the first time, used as central instruments of economic policy.  This has been particularly accentuated since the global financial crisis of 2008, with housing construction and production emerging once again as an important component of anti-cyclical strategies to combat recession. However, as in the past, these policies have been introduced with a strong discourse about their social goals and their objectives of reaching the low-income segments of the population – whether they do it or not.

Differently from the past, these policies have been very much driven by private sector initiative and have accentuated the market logic of housing production and provision, even when addressing the housing needs of the poorest sectors of the population. Often this has restricted the social reach of these policies and programmes or has affected the overall quality of the housing provided. What is unquestionable though, and indeed new, is the much larger quantitative scale of housing production when compared with previous generations of mass housing policies and the fact that there has been an increase in the proportion of the population that can have access to such housing. Moreover, in at least a few cases, these policies have in fact reached the low and medium income segments of the population in ways that previous policies never managed to do. Brazil, through the MC/MV programme, is one such case.

The new housing policies have been fundamentally about state subsidies that simultaneously advance the market logic in housing production and provision as well as, when the political will exists, protect the poorest sectors of the population against such logic. Indeed, it is the very high level of subsidies to producers and users and the way in which those subsidies have been used that explain why, in countries such as Brazil, a very high proportion of the new housing produced has reached the poorest sectors of the population. This is a significant achievement by any standards.

As always, the enlargement of housing markets everywhere has been intimately related with the dynamics of land markets, with the continuous removal in many countries today of the restrictions – often already quite feeble and excessively flexible – to the operation of such markets. This is at the root of the unremitting peripheralisation of new housing production, not just for the poor but for medium and high-income groups as well. As for the poor, the affordability of this new housing –even when strongly subsidised by the state – has almost invariably been made possible by the production of housing of very minimum spatial and building standards in peripheral land with very low levels of urbanisation. In here lies the central challenge to any social housing policy with the ambition of materialising an understanding of housing as a central and structuring dimension of the indivisible right to the city.

A previous generation of housing policies in the developing world – entirely associated since the early 1990s with policies for the informal city and slum upgrading programmes and projects – reflected, not accidentally, a growing understanding of “housing as urbanism”. It was operationalized through urban projects with a strong sense of the city and of the urban condition, albeit frequently with poor results in terms of houses per se. It would appear that the new generation of mass housing provision, in legitimately reclaiming the need to produce large amounts of affordable new houses, is running the risk of losing the city and any sense of the inexorable articulation of housing and urbanism.

It is worth noting that in many of the occasions when the new mass housing policies have implemented urbanised housing projects, these projects have been located in areas of irregularity and informality closely connected to the city fabric and often in combined projects of slum upgrading and production of finished houses. The informal city, especially in areas that are protected as zones of social interest, seems to create an opportunity to combine the best of previous generations of slum upgrading with the ambition of large-scale provision of finished houses for people in need. The recent Brazilian experience of such projects shows the potential of these combined interventions; not least because of the way it counteracts some of the negative pressures of land markets.

Producing affordable housing of social interest at any significant scale presents a enormous and complex challenge and involves the development and synchronisation of appropriate approaches and strategies to questions such as public expenditure and subsidies, land policy, financial systems, planning methods and tools, multisectoral coordination, articulation of national and local systems of governance and strengthening of instruments of quality control of housing and urban projects, to name some of the most obvious ones.

It is our contention that central to that equation is also the place of architectural and urban design in the production of urbanised housing. Indeed, the interaction of spatial strategies and urban social policies, particularly housing, is one of the central areas of interest of our academic work, which searches for a broader reasoning about housing typologies, housing densities and urban intensification, in which architecture provides a dynamic nexus to an urban process.

 

Design Workshop: background, structure and objectives

This was the third joint design workshop between our two schools. The first two workshops, in April 2003 and in April 2006, focused on questions of urban design in the central area of Recife and the Bairro do Recife respectively and originated in previous academic contacts between the schools. The starting point of this third workshop, however, was different. The idea of organising a design workshop to explore and propose innovating and experimental approaches to the implementation of social housing projects within the MC/MV programme, was triggered by two things: first, the interest of our programmes in MC/MV as one of the most advanced experiences of a new generation of housing policies being implemented all over the world, which both our departments had been accompanying and studying for some time, and, second, the collaboration between the Ministry of Cities in Brasilia and the H&U programme, which initiated in November 2012. The objective of this collaboration has been to help setting up a network of relations between British and Brazilian experts to address a series of architectural, environmental and urbanistic concerns expressed by the Ministry regarding the implementation of MC/MV housing projects. This collaboration contributed to the organisation by the Ministry of Cities of two important events involving British architects and urbanists, in December 2012 in May 2013, to explore appropriate parameters for the formulation of innovative design approaches to MC/MV’s housing projects. It was in the context of such collaboration that the idea emerged of doing an academic design workshop – involving two academic departments that not only shared the interest on MC/MV but had a long history of academic exchange – to explore the contribution of design and design reasoning to the formulation of new experimental projects within MC/MV.

The collaboration of our programmes with the Ministry of Cities and the local government of Recife made possible to identity a large site (134 hectares) which happens to be located in a very central position in Recife and which has been for some time now ear marked for redevelopment and introduction of new social housing. For historical reasons, this site had been designated as a site for social use when transferred several decades ago from federal to local control, mainly in response to the presence in the site of a large and historical squatter settlement – Favela Coque – that had been declared a zone of social interest (ZEIS). The combination of location and conditions of irregularity that both protected the area as well as made possible to attract additional public programmes for slum upgrading, made this an ideal place to reflect on experimental approaches to an urban project in which housing, through the MC/MV programme, could play a central role. This was a site that lent itself well to an exploration and testing of the meaning of housing as urbanism.

More than 60 students were mixed and divided in four groups with an average of three tutors per group. Rather than a detailed brief, each group was asked to identify potential drivers of an urban spatial strategy and project in which housing would act as the structuring and anchoring component of such a strategy. What emerged are four quite distinct spatial approaches, with different urban drivers, different combination of programmes and mixes of use and with different ways of articulating questions of density, typology and urban intensification.

The model of the intensive design workshop is one that the H&U programme has been using for many years, working in many different cities worldwide. It aims at collaborating with local academic institutions to address challenging urban conditions, often in the context of real plans and projects, and always engaging all the relevant stakeholders, private and public. These workshops are a central part of a pedagogy that attempts not only to expose the students to the pressures, complexities and politics of real projects and plans, but also to expose them to other pedagogic approaches to the urban project as well as other understandings of urbanism itself. Indeed, pedagogy as intense contrasting of pedagogies and conceptual perspectives.

The structure and intensity of the workshops provide one model for testing a critical approach to urban conditions.  The aim is to explore both the conceptual tolls and the spatial tools of urbanism, investigating how drawing can be a way of thinking rather than just a representation of a condition or of proposals. This means trying to draw the question, to draw ideas for responding, as well as drawing proposals to test the ideas.  It means working at many scales in parallel, graphically and conceptually, and testing ideas at all scales.  It also means working very fast and effectively in order to be able to contribute something useful in such a short period of research and proposition.

The goal is to make spatial and design proposals that relate to an argument about how to intervene in the urban condition.  It is not about finished designs.  The scale of this work is neither the architectural project nor the fixed model of masterplans.  The proposals aim to develop an architectural urbanism to inform methods of intervention in the urban condition, and to debate this with a broad range of stakeholders in the real situation.  If these proposals influence public policy and plans or the action of any of the stakeholders, this is a most welcomed outcome, which testifies to the relevance, of what is primarily an academic exercise. The fact that our workshop in Recife last year acted as the spur of a real plan for the site, which is now been formulated, is something we value greatly.