Housing as Intervention: Architecture Towards Social Equity
By Karen Kubey
This compendium makes an important contribution to the discussion of the many strategies architects are using to help deal with the global housing crisis. Edited by housing specialist Karen Kubey, who trained as an architect and teaches at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, it brings together 16 essays on housing in the U.S., UK, and Europe with excursions to Africa and China. (Because of the time lag in book publishing, none address new housing policy under the Trump administration.)
But what it reveals, despite architects’ noble intentions, are the limitations on what they can actually do to solve the housing crisis. The architect is often called upon to fix problems in the realm of public policy, politics, and finance. This expectation gives short shrift to what they do best, which is to design.
Some essays are remarkable and insightful, but others not. For example, while Matthew Lasner thankfully does not rehash the disillusionment with such modern housing schemes as Le Corbusier’s towers in the park or Jane Jacobs’s radical return to low-rise, he does not present a convincing narrative in their place. To commend José Lluis Sert for his dreary Roosevelt Island housing—and for “reinvigorating the field”—is very odd.
Robert Fishman outlines the housing crisis in the west from the time of the withdrawal of big government, after building much housing following World War II, until the 1980s. Now it is up to private developers, often in public-private partnerships, to build housing with government subsidies or tax credits, so the quantity cannot keep up with the demand. While Fishman does wax on about small nonprofit developers who hire talented architects, he does not give enough credit to for-profit developers who have created quality affordable housing at a greater scale—for example, L&M Development Partners, who commissioned FX Collaborative to create mixed-income (including supportive) housing at Navy Green, in Brooklyn.
Also missing throughout the book is any mention of the role of the great community-organizing group the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation (Metro IAF), started up in 1940 by Saul Alinsky. In Brooklyn and the Bronx, it has built over 6,000 units of affordable housing since 1983. (Full disclosure: my firm designed 500 units for its Nehemiah program in Brooklyn.)
The best essays demonstrate changing policies that will advance the cause of more affordable housing. Dana Cuff, director of cityLAB, a think tank at UCLA, has successfully pushed to change the law to allow Accessory Dwelling Units on every home in California. That is an astounding 8 million lots, a tremendous sea change in permitting people to add a backyard rental or granny flat to provide more housing.
All in all, this vast and intractable problem needs more than a 144-page AD catalogue. (Unfortunately, the book’s graphics don’t help the case: bold type is often printed over the images, and tiny drawings and captions are set in a font more suitable to the bottom row of an eye chart.) But, that said, this is worth a spot on your bookshelf as an introduction to one of the acute global crises of our time.