‘How do we Live? Santiago, London, Shanghai-Suzhou’ is a collaborative research and pedagogic programme launched by Jocelyn Froimovich and Johanna Muszbek in 2015 looking at the current housing production spanning across three continents. In collaboration with three universities, (University of Liverpool, Universidad Católica de Chile and Xi’an Jiaotong University of Liverpool) the investigation is carried out through teaching, exhibitions, publications and events. How do we Live? looks at housing types and the notion of crisis particular to each metropolitan context. It is a comparative study, a classification exercise on housing design problems through a multi-scalar lens. The project aims to negotiate the practical, theoretical and speculative aspects of housing design. The attempt is to bridge—through design—between conceptual and technical problematics, so as to rethink housing for future urbanities.
Urban housing today demands architects to take a stance. Since market dynamics have taken over housing production, the architect’s protagonism within this system has weakened. Architects operate in the urban fabric and work within its rules, thus should be equipped to challenge them. In today’s context, like in any other moment of historical inflection, the status quo has to be discussed; Housing design—both policies and buildings—is a public affair.
Recent Covid-19 related lockdowns are just one of many events that have profoundly influenced the use of our homes. When discussing housing as part of the global economy, certain urban phenomenon is ubiquitous: The need to access more or invent new urban sites disputes current normative ownership models based on planimetric distribution only; Transient modes of inhabitation vary from seasonal agricultural workers to expat multinational executives shaping new taxes, security, and property maintenance conditions; Housing density parameters are calibrated with larger infrastructural programs, responding to larger-scale demands; The level of privacy heightened by increasing levels of security challenges housing boundaries to split from its context; Unit designs have been reduced to the accumulation of rooms and overall area management, with little programmatic variation or indetermination; As part of the real estate market, housing has become commodified, home is not only a place to live but also an investment. Thus, housing performance as well as the relationship between homes, the public realm, and the city needs to be reevaluated. Current housing design discussions must include, amongst others, ownership models, space standards, the use of new technologies, and the economic framework in which housing is produced.
Our programme was inspired by the Bauhaus film “Wie Wohnen wir Gesund und Wirtschaftlich?” (How to Live Healthily and Economically?). The movie was first shown during the opening ceremonies of the new Bauhaus building in 1926, attended by over a thousand guests, including political figures, architects, artists, and scholars. The film grouped a series of short documentaries with the purpose of educating laymen and professionals alike and promoting the Bauhaus and its methods. With Berlin as its focus, the intention was to reach a wide audience raising awareness of dire living conditions and publicising new design and construction solutions developed at the Bauhaus. Deploying a propagandistic language characteristic of the times, the film addressed all stakeholders with a clear message: by embracing domestic design and technological advancements in a systematic manner, the Bauhaus promised the reorganisation of cities with better living conditions. The questions raised in this movie a century ago are still present today. Should urban housing still be addressed from a design perspective? Can the discipline question and ultimately impact the status quo of housing production? In order to face these questions, How do we live? fragments the current debate on housing design into three themes:
Language – Politics
In the real-estate framework, housing has become a commodity or an investment. Therefore, beyond functionality, advertisement plays a decisive role. Through the lens of advertisement it is possible to see how a particular type is construed as a metropolitan lifestyle.
This research proposes to reutilise the language of advertisement in two ways: to analyse the perception of the type and to produce an argument. The language and the way in which we represent our projects is understood as a political tool that allows us to increase our reach to wider audiences and expand the housing design debate.
Crisis – Method
For us the notion of “crisis” is used as an operative term. “Crisis” is understood as a turning point, a time when a difficult or important decision must be made. The term forces us to recognise certain design “problems” so as to propose design “solutions”. Although this approach might sound obvious and is simplistic, it pushes designers to: engage and defend a particular position (“I” designed this and not that) and envision anew (this design is “better” because of this and that).
What defines the housing crisis of Santiago, London and Shanghai- Suzhou today? By forcing the notion of crisis as a methodology, we question specific housing types in their specific contexts so as to propose alternative designs for each of them.
Types – Context
Housing design never starts afresh; housing design operates through variation, iteration, and/or mutation of prior examples. The history of housing design can be understood by analysing the mutation of housing types particular to each metropolitan context. How do we live? ventures into a typological investigation, with the expectation that types can provide a framework to deal with complex urban variables. By understanding the particulars in the production of a housing type, the architect can manipulate and reorganise—invent.
The programme discusses today’s banal housing types, exemplary of a particular city in its making. By looking at the market offer, the goal is to observe, analyse, participate and hopefully interfere in the production system of the urban. Rather than dismissing examples of the current housing offer as “bastard” architecture, it is assumed that these housing types portray specific subjects, their living and urban conditions; the politics, policies, and socio economic factors that lead into developing a particular urban setting.
How do we live?
How do we live? was exhibited at the 12th International Biennale in Sao Paulo, Everyday – Infrastructures (funded by the British Council, the University of Liverpool, Universidad Católica de Chile, and Xi’an Jiaotong University of Liverpool). The exhibit assessed and classified 108 case studies of housing built within the past 10 years in Santiago, London and Shanghai – Suzhou. Their comparison enabled a broad perspective on the current economic, social and technical variables that drive the design of housing in different metropolitan contexts. Building on this typological analysis, our next exhibition at the European Cultural Centre during the XVIIth Venice Architecture Biennale will showcase a catalogue of design operations as ways to manipulate and intervene housing types.
Housing —the sort that is massively repeated, not the one-of-a kind client-tailored house— is the stuff cities are made of. As housing is the primary occupation of architects, re-thinking housing studios and their design outcomes should have an impact in society. As housing studios are part of every architecture school’s curriculum, they are the perfect environment to question preconceived notions of spatial efficiency, programmatic, private versus public segregation, and other modernist inheritances. Nowadays, when metropolitan lives have changed so radically, the analysis of an existing housing type, its critique, and reformulation through an eloquent argument that addresses all stakeholders will allow to re-establish design authorship and bring the disciplinary discussion back into the public sphere.