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Feeling Well at Home. About the Need to Finally Rethink Housing

by Anne Lacaton, Carina Sacher

Stay at home! The clear message issued worldwide almost simultaneously in mid-March, urging us to leave home only in extreme need, interrupted our familiar daily routine and straitened our living environment from one day to the next, limiting it to the domestic space available to us. In that time of needs must, domestic space turned almost instantly into an amalgam of activities and routines that had previously been outsourced and were not intended for it, superimposed over those of our companions, family members and flatmates.

“Now the cubicle had contracted”, Elias Canetti’s protagonist Kien observed painfully, after giving up three of his four rooms holding 25,000 books to his wife. In doing so, he had to bid farewell to the pleasure of being voluntarily barricaded in his “residential district”, cut off from the world. The 40-metre walk up and down, the gazes and thoughts drifting through open doors and windows, and the breeze blowing through the rooms were all at an end. The narrowness that entered, “the serious change in his surroundings”, filled him with a miserable feeling of imprisonment.

To what extent we experienced over two months with limited outside time as a staycation (1) or suffering depended mainly on the living space to which we were confined fulltime during this time. Little focused the general public’s attention more than housing and the space we call home, with the presupposition implicit in the across-the-board appeal to “stay at home”. The appeal was the same for everyone, but the realities were very different. Those who were able turned their second residences into temporary homes for the duration. Others were faced with the reality of what happens when infrastructures such as libraries or public services for keeping warm and socialising were closed, or shelter was a shared dormitory representing a high-risk environment. What is the alternative when your only home address is barely comfortable, or when communal living is marked by overcrowding? Whereas public space previously offered necessary emotional compensation and a spatial buffer, going outside now looked set to become a crime. Both the everyday environment experienced by the individual and the available urban space shrank in space and time. This was due firstly to the one-kilometre radius of movement introduced in many places (2), the closing of parks, playgrounds, community gardens and other public spaces, and then to the one-hour time limit or scheduled sport. Suddenly, urban space became a Fata Morgana. The apartment lost its extended living room, stripped of an essential quality and, therefore, somehow significantly devalued. This temporary loss and contraction of available space revealed the widespread reality of uncomfortable, inadequate housing in cities that generally offer their inhabitants only a minimum and lack vital qualities. This is true not just for low-income households, but also to a large extent for people with an average income. What is more, lockdown, with its imposition of indoor time, heightened the misery of poor housing, an outrageous, already apparent state that has become worse in recent decades, to which children are increasingly exposed. The health crisis has not just made poor housing more visible, with economic consequences that threaten to aggravate the situation, it has also highlighted the extent to which housing in general is inadequate for well-being. This is the central question of today: What can we do to change this general absence of quality in housing, and quickly?

The health crisis has not just made poor housing more visible, it has also highlighted the extent to which housing in general is inadequate for well-being. This is the central question of today: What can we do to change this general absence of quality in housing, and quickly?

On a general level, the current phase of the global pandemic reveals with brutal honesty the shortcomings not only in national health and political systems, but also in housing and even housing policy and production. On a personal level, imposed togetherness with domestic space clearly revealed its deficits. Each of us examined the housing we occupy and tested its adaptability to a myriad non-residential activities. How receptive is my living space to additional roles, possibly beyond the period of lockdown, if more home office space is needed or in the case of future curfews? Does it even possess the housing qualities that are important to me personally?

Housing surveys carried out between March and May highlight the general lack of living space, natural light and access to an outdoor space (4). These results are neither new nor surprising; they merely draw a direct line between the experience of lockdown and existing housing. Both, individually and together, show that the mantra of affordable housing, housing production on the self-regulating market or even developers’ rigorous minimum space programmes often overlook vital elements in any dwelling: spaciousness, natural light and private outdoor space. Moreover, the legally required minimum living space continues to be reduced in many places. The leading argument here is cost, supported by the argument of sustainability due to greater social density, and the one of spatial compensation through e.g. “joker rooms”, communal rooms or, simply, upgraded public space. As a remedy for rising rents, economic solutions such as cluster apartments or co-living models are being set in a modern arrangement of social community life.

Just as we need to improve the quality of existing housing, we have to question the housing currently being built and its quality. The economic argument of reducing construction costs is not a valid reason to minimize space. In large metropolises, the construction cost represents just some 15 percent of the sale price. It is less a question of cost than one of political will and choice. Trends that reduce living space certainly deprive dwellings of the possibility of extra space, that could effectively offer elastic space for times of expansion and contraction, such as lockdown or changing lifestyles. Generally, it is about providing more generous living space that is open and enclosed, connectible and de-connectible, free of brief and function. Spatial generosity in surface area and height is the prerequisite for freedom of appropriation, personal evolvement and, indeed, a situation-dependent elasticity to absorb different uses. Furthermore, two months at home clearly signalled the crucial role of the building’s skin. It is the visual and physical interface with the exterior, natural light, weather, neighbourhood, surroundings—the world, in short—which to a large extent we inevitably exchanged for a digital world during lockdown and which we longingly sought in the façade. Because it was there—at the window, on the balcony or the terrace—that the collective events took place—neighbourly gossip, support for the feats of the health workers, concerts and protests—and where one could simply be, breathe, garden or dream. It is clear that the quality of dwelling has a considerable impact on dwelling satisfaction and, therefore, on both emotional state and health. That is why these essentialities of housing, which are simple to implement, need to be regarded as non-negotiable. In other words, dwelling satisfaction cannot be the luxury of a few, it must be a condition. To us, it means that a dwelling must offer as much extra space as traditional space, added to the programmed space, abundance of natural light, generous vistas and a private outdoor space with its dual quality of retreat and exchange—such as a balcony, a terrace, a winter garden—which guarantees the possibility to enjoy living outside comparable to a single house with a garden.

Spatial generosity in surface area and height is the prerequisite for freedom of appropriation, personal evolvement and, indeed, a situation-dependent elasticity to absorb different uses

It is not a question so much of the inequalities and grievances brought to light by the COVID-19 pandemic—which were apparent before—as the opportunity it may present for a shared task of placing the housing issue firmly on the agenda of everyone involved. It would be cynical to conduct this discussion in terms of a post-COVID world only, as its origin lies elsewhere. But recent times offer a direct criticism of the modus operandi of housing design and production, as well as of the withdrawal of public authorities to demand spatial quality in housing. Low quality is a universal concern, as it is the reality of a considerable portion of housing, old and new, and therefore, of much of the population. This highly unsatisfactory situation calls for a widespread, radical improvement of existing and future housing. Criteria for housing and its space have to be redefined without ambiguity or nuances, and not just in technical, regulatory or environmental terms, but with explicit criteria that prioritize freedom of use and everyday pleasure in dwelling. To create a general consensus without exception would have positive effects on the quality of housing for everyone. Additionally, it could also help to level out the rising correlation of low-income household and poor-quality housing, which was the ambition of various housing policies in the 1920s.

Recent times offer a direct criticism of the modus operandi of housing design and production, as well as of the withdrawal of public authorities to demand spatial quality in housing

Ultimately, housing is the loveliest challenge facing contemporary society. From the architect’s perspective, it means incessantly striving for optimum quality in existing and new housing, for everyone. It is our responsibility to society; there is no excuse and no good argument for not doing it. The cost argument has to be overruled, firstly because it can always be achieved by means of design budget and secondly because quality housing for everyone must be a priority in politics and society. Taken to an extreme, we should make it possible for everyone to experience the pleasure of voluntarily barricading oneself at home as Kien happily does in his spacious private library. Dwelling satisfaction is the sine qua non for a thriving social life and, ultimately, for social cohesion. It might be argued that it is, basically, the basic condition for the freedom and, therefore, the collective right to transform and reinvent the city “after our heart’s desire” (5), which David Harvey calls the most precious but also the most neglected human right.

(1)

Canetti, Elias, Die Blendung (Vienna: Reichner, 1936)

(2)

A staycation or holistay is a period of time where someone stays at home and goes on day trips for leisure activities without the need for overnight accommodation.

(3)

In France, during lockdown, one kilometre marked the radius of daily movement from place of residence in one hour. In Scotland and Wales, it was limited to eight kilometres. Residents of Melbourne have been restricted to a maximum travel radius of five kilometres since the beginning of August.

(4)

See the survey “Au confins du logement” by IDHEAL, June 2020. The survey processed 7,400 responses, of which 60% of respondents earn between 1,500 and 3,000 € a month. Nearly half of the respondents reside in the Île-de-France; as well as 45% live in family households. https://files.cargocollective.com/c642624/Aux-confins-du-logement—20200610.pdf (accessed 31.8.2020).

(5)

Harvey, David, Rebel Cities. From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (London, New York: Verso, 2012), p 4

Posted
03.Sep.2020 734 views
Author
Anne Lacaton Anne Lacaton

Anne Lacaton manages together with Jean-Philippe Vassal the internationally active architectural office Lacaton & Vassal, based in Paris. Their work ranges from public buildings to housing and urban planning. Realized projects include the FRAC Center for Contemporary Art in Dunkerque, the renovation of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, the Nantes School of Architecture, the Café in the Architekturzentrum Wien, the conversion of modernist social housing complexes such as the Tour Bois le Prêtre in Paris or the Cité du Grand Parc in Bordeaux, and numerous housing projects in France such as the Latapie House in Bordeaux, the House in the Trees on the Bay of Arcachon, the Cité Manifeste in Mulhouse or social housing with student apartments in Paris, as well as a high-rise residential building in Geneva. Between 2000 and 2017 she was a visiting professor at various universities such as Madrid at the Master of Housing, EPFL Lausanne, Harvard GSD and TU Delft. She is Professor of Architecture and Design at ETH Zurich.

https://www.lacatonvassal.com/
Posted
03.Sep.2020 734 views
Author
Carina Sacher

Carina Sacher focuses in her work on precarious housing and sociopolitical spaces at the intersection of architectural and urban research in form of text, exhibition and installation. She is assistant at the Studio Anne Lacaton at the Department of Architecture, ETH Zurich. Recently, she co-edited “Willkommen im Hotel. Echo einer Krise” (Jan-Mar 2020) published by dérive – magazine for urban research.

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