How good design is expanding the options for social housing.

In October 2008, Architectural Record published a groundbreaking issue, Design With Conscience. A year ago, in March 2012, we cast a light again on architects engaged in humanitarian projects around the world, in a much-praised issue, Building for Social Change. By looking at a library and community center on the fringes of Medellín, Colombia, a school in Rwanda, and a neighborhood performing-arts space in Richmond, California, we explored a variety of ways that good design can have a major impact on people and places with few resources—what's been called architecture for the other 99 percent.

Cathleen McGuigan, Editor in Chief
Photo © Michael Arnaud

This month we take up a related, and especially daunting, topic: urgently needed new models for social housing, especially in rapidly expanding global cities, not only for those living in poverty but also for working people trying to find affordable options in urban areas where land values and housing shortages have sent rents soaring.

In the history of modernism, architects have played a big role in designing solutions for such problems. No model has been more influential than Le Corbusier's towers-in-the-park from the 1920s. Widely adopted during the wave of urban renewal in America and Europe in the 1950s and '60s—and later attacked as the perfect incubator for crime and other social ills—high-rise public housing has been exported everywhere, particularly to China, where forests of cheaply built residential towers march depressingly from the centers of its mega-cities toward the horizon.

The most damning symbol of the high-rise as housing for the poor is, ironically, a skyscraper never intended for that purpose: Torre David, a mirrored glass office building in Caracas that was left abandoned and unfinished after a banking crisis in 1994. Since 2007 it has been home to a community of 3,000 squatters, with its own elaborate and controversial social structure. RECORD contributing photographer Iwan Baan documented life in this unforgettable makeshift dwelling in Torre David, a book that the Financial Times named one of the best of 2012 (page 122).

Many experts no longer believe that public-housing towers should necessarily be toppled. Instead, architects are collaborating with professionals in housing and social services to design new residential buildings or renovate existing structures in ways that provide better security and more light, common spaces, recreational amenities, and facilities for support services.

Today it's clear that no single typology offers a universal solution; rather, social housing must reflect local conditions and cultures. In Singapore, where more than 80 percent of the population lives in government-built housing, urban density dictates towers. But because of the tropical climate, new high-rise public residences designed by the firm WOHA can feature gardens and open community spaces gracing the roofs, the ground, and the lofty levels in between. In La Valentina Station, in mostly low-rise Sacramento, California, David Baker, an architect who's built dozens of social-housing projects over the years, designed a four-story subsidized apartment complex that fits neatly into the scale of the cityscape. He also artfully juggled the budget to specify a few luxe materials—such as the water-jet-cut Cor-Ten for the ornate balcony fronts—to create housing that doesn't scream “affordable” but looks market-rate. Like the project in Singapore, it was planned to be close to mass transit.

Such projects are symbols of hope, but the reality of the global housing crisis is grim. According to the United Nations, 3.5 billion people now live in urban areas, with more than 1 billion of them in slums or informal settlements. (To put real faces against these staggering statistics, read Katherine Boo's gripping account of Annawadi, the “slumbai” next to Mumbai's international airport, in her book Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, winner of last year's National Book Award for nonfiction.) The complexity of the issues surrounding these makeshift communities—migration and population growth, public health, economics, corruption and governance—is beyond what architecture and planning alone could ever address. But architects are expanding their reach, using their creativity and problem-solving skills in broader collaborations with experts from social science, government, finance, and NGOs. Whether bringing good design to large-scale public housing or devising incremental interventions in the world's most challenged settlements, these architects are making a difference every day.