Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Thoughts on Social Housing in London, in Paris, in Theory and in the Cité de l'Architecture

I used to be really excited about social housing but this has waned a bit lately. When I arrived in the UK after living in Australia, a country that's all backyards and space, compact living had a sort of thrill. Large estates seemed so urban, the opposite of suburbia, the epitome of togetherness. My first real encounter with British social housing was the writings of Alison and Peter Smithson, too, and the idealism of Robin Hood Gardens was perfectly pitched to my political sympathies.

At the start of this year, though, I stopped feeling quite so positive about the idea of large-scale housing projects. I think this was a result of two things: firstly, my own terrible experiences living in a room/cupboard in a former housing estate in Hackney; secondly, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs. I'm idealistic but I'm also pretty influenced by years of competitive debating and Jacobs argues her case well (albeit in eight hundred pages rather than eight minutes and with more personal anecdotes than a debater). It's hard to argue with examples backed up by solid explanations and I was questioning Le Corbusier's theories before the end of the introduction. In the end I had to pause my reading of the book because I felt myself becoming too much a disciple, turning every corner with Jacobs' voice in my head, blaming the riots at London's Peabody Estate on bad urbanism.

Robin Hood Gardens, with Balfron Tower in the background (right side)

The book made particularly concrete for me my feelings toward Balfron Tower, which I visited on my second daytrip to London. I'd caught the train to the city in order to visit Robin Hood Gardens and a friend mentioned that Balfron and the Lansbury Estate were both nearby, so I decided to visit all three places. 

I'm pretty much the only modern architecture student I've met who doesn't think Balfron a good design for a housing estate. I've heard it's lovely on the inside, but from the outside it's a fortress and I was scared to approach it. Trellick Tower, in Kensington, is very similar in design to Balfron and followed up years of allegedly terrifying residents with a career as an expensive apartment block that people are desperate to live in. Individuals all have different opinions on the places they live (comments from those who lived at Pruitt-Igoe show this), but I think there's more to it than a lack of consensus.

Erno Goldfinger, who designed Balfron and Trellick, is a wonderful architect and I think what Trellick really shows is the truth of Jacobs' statement that you can't build Park Avenue apartments without Park Avenue security. Trellick didn't work when it was easy for intruders to get into the building, when elevators could be jammed and there was nobody watching or listening, but there are doormen now and CCTV. There isn't a doorman at Balfron. It's a beautiful building, but it's also scary. This is Goldfinger's aesthetic, and when it's coupled with Trellick style security there's something sublime about the architecture... without it, though, there's nothing welcoming.

Anyhow, my enthusiasm for large social housing projects has waned over the past few months. I think this is why I felt a bit depressed about the projects presented in the second edition of 'Vers de Nouveaux Logements Sociaux' (Towards a New Social Housing) at the Cité de l'Architecture. Most of the ideas on show seemed either in the mould of older ones or otherwise futile.

One of the Paris projects on show prided itself on being set apart from the community around it through bright colours and on the large open space at the base of the buildings. I don't really think that there's much to be gained by being set apart from the surrounding community; it just creates divisions along socioeconomic lines and isolates those in social housing. A large open space is good if people use it, but it's a wasteland if they don't. This estate is a block from the Parc de Bercy, too, so this green space seems unnecessarily risky.

On the other end of the scale are the houses designed by Jacques Moussafir and Charles-Henri Tachon as a means of making the area around the Gare du Nord less insalubrious. With nine lodgings in Moussafir's project and eight in Tachon's, how much impact can they have? The projects are grouped together both due to their geographical proximity and as representation of architecture that's engaged with the street -seemingly just through having large windows facing the street.

This might be an unnecessarily negative way of looking at things. It's just that the projects don't seem to be new in their ideas; they're just shinier versions of things that were there before, things that don't always work. The exhibit doesn't acknowledge this.

There's a reference section, though, with screens showing housing projects from around France and the world. This does act as a reminder of all the successful housing estates out there. 

I remember, looking at the screens, that two of my favourite buildings in Paris are social housing. Henri Sauvage and Charles Savarin's Rue des Amiraux (1923-5), which really was revolutionary with its ideas of using architecture to facilitate and encourage healthy living, and Christian de Portzamparc's Rue des Hautes-Formes (1979). 

In London, too, there are some great housing estates, though the ones I like aren't mentioned in the exhibit. I like the stepped concrete levels of Alexandra Road, where children play happily on a grassless pedestrian street, and the whimsical tiles of Spa Green, opposite Sadlers Wells. The first housing estate in the world, Arnold Circus, is in Shoreditch; Emanuel Litvinoff details growing up there during the 1920s/30s in Notes from a Small Planet and it reads as a place with strong community spirit, as I've heard it remains today.

One of the screens in the reference section focuses on France's well-known social housing schemes from the past twenty years. I'm introduced to Portzamparc's 1995 scheme at Rue et Place Nationale, Frédéric Borel's oft praised estates in Oberkampf and Belleville and Massimiliano Fuksa's Îlot Candie Saint-Bernard in the 11th Arrondissement. 

There's Jean Nouvel's project in Nîmes, which looks like a giant space-age hipster cruise ship. It's ultra-industrial and I like it, but I'm not sure how many families would want to live there. There's also Édouard Français's Flower Tower which, like Francis Suler's building on Rue Émile Durkein (featured in the 2010 edition of the Cité de l'Architecture's social housing exhibition), seems designed to be seen from the outside. At this point, I'm not sure who these buildings are being designed for -the international architecture press? 

I hope these buildings are successful as dwellings and I'm not sure they aren't; it's just it sometimes seems to be a secondary consideration. A lot of them, like Français's Flower Tower, are beautiful and exciting and places I plan to visit and photograph and coo over, but I hope they feel as wonderful when you're inside. I'm pretty sure if I lived in Suler's Rue Émile Durkein I'd be annoyed at the graphics blocking the view out my window -they're ostensibly to provide a screen between the inhabitant and the outside world but it's not a screen the inhabitant has control over. 

Looking at the buildings chosen, and their locations, reminded me that the difference in social housing policy between the UK and France is often overstated. London does have larger housing estates in more conspicuous locations than almost anywhere else in the world, but Paris isn't a city where anyone of low income is banished to the banlieues. The city has a strong history of beautifully designed social housing within the peripheral boulevard, one that generally focuses on integrating smaller projects into the existing urban environment. One might hear about La Courneuve and Noisy-le-Grand, but that's because they're on a space age scale and not because there's nothing else. 

The exhibition is thought-provoking, ultimately, and exposed me to a lot of recent French social housing designs that I hadn't seen, though I did find the more interesting stuff was in the reference section. I felt a bit more positive about social housing by the end of it. And, despite Jane Jacobs' criticism of large housing blocks in parks, I still like Robin Hood Gardens.

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