Those Committed to Building Can Build Anything
So, reader, where were we again? Those committed to building can build anything: a hopeful future for housing. My previous columns were like reflecting on a 3D family album: I looked back at sepia-toned memories and revisited them as if they were architectural models. I walked about them, looking at the housing of my communities and the lives that were lived in them, and wondered, how many lives could have been bettered, in some cases, saved, through more inclusive and holistic design, more future-facing housing policy and more housing advocacy? I wondered, often bitterly, why didn’t past generations see this housing crisis coming? Why didn’t they do more?
Inevitably, as one makes their way through generational timelines, past the Baby Boomers into the long corridor that is Generation X, one arrives at their peer group and has to ask what did we do, and what are we doing now? In the long-form ‘The Great Divide’, in North and South, journalist Rebecca Macfie characterises the crisis as: “a catastrophe, but it is not an accident. It has been coming for three decades, and it is the product of deliberate choices.” Societal issues – like housing – are so tangled that they are both everybody’s choice and, consequently, nobody’s choice. Which is the breeding ground for inaction. When I reflect on my peers and what we were thinking about when we were at university, and our concerns when we left, and, indeed, now, I cannot help but feel a bit responsible for the problem.
These columns can keep one up at night: architectural writing can feel like you are somewhat removed from the action and that can create a sense of, let’s say ennui. We are trained to find space first, the words come after. How can an opinion piece, written at a desk (maybe, really late at night, maybe, also, the night before it has been gently asked for again), take part in the built realm in a way that I think matches the urgency and cause? Especially when it comes to housing. This sense of frustration is made more for me because I am a renter. Even writing this sentence, I feel somewhere in between resigned and despondent. In this moment of architectural history – and it is, to me, important that the housing crisis is understood as part of the profession’s remit – one cannot write their way into home ownership. And, yet, here we are.
There are different kinds of renters in a housing crisis and I am one of the more fortunate. I am the kind that is buffered by way of employment and through familial support, with access to mortgage literacy. My architectural education has also given me, amongst other things, a design sensibility attuned to the relationship between social status and architectural design. Beyond the education itself, the architecture world was where I became familiar with the Bourdieusian idea of taste as a social weapon.1 The way in which class can, and is, communicated through architectural design and, by extension also, as a way of positioning oneself within a social hierarchy. A correlation can be made between someone and their house and where they might be in the class struggle. Is this true of the profession? That a correlation can be made between it and the homes it lives in?
Amid this crisis, that spectrum has become something of a ladder with rungs missing. And those missing rungs I tend to think have something to do with the profession. The thing that is so overwhelming about this catastrophe is that there is not just one ladder, there are hundreds, and the choreography to repair them is wide-ranging, specialist-based expertise, which exists in community spaces as well as research and practice, and it needs people to centre housing advocacy to seize every opportunity, at any and every scale. It will also require us to revisit what we think the ladders should look like. We may have to develop new tastes that are more inclusive and future-facing. Since picking up the pen as a columnist, my research interests have become more housing-centric. As a result, I find myself in policy, practice and research spaces where people are identifying opportunities to fix our broken ladders and, literally, lift people and communities out of housing insecurity. The pattern is that those opportunities are typically found by those who keep the crisis foregrounded as an issue that requires the actions of everyone.
I can’t help but wonder if the profession’s inaction in advocating for housing for all, at the cost of housing for the elite, is where we might reinstate some of the missing rungs. It is laborious to do so, to centre housing inequity as, often, when centring something, other things must be decentred and, often, they are things we are attached to, socially, culturally, politically and financially. We may abhor housing developments next to our leafy-suburb home, we may feel challenged by community visions that sit outside our ideas of good design, perhaps we feel that one government has done better than another – when, in fact, it has been the work of successive parties.
This is the real-time swirl that the industry takes place in and what the housing crisis has to be solved in. Whenever I think about architecture and what it can do for the well-being of people, I am always, without fail, moved. The thought that what we draw is what people live in, and all the sacred and profane that entails, always leaves me feeling the inner peace that comes with purpose. Finding the words that come before the spaces comforts me when the despondency settles in. Reflecting, I find myself thinking that if what we draw is what we build, then what we think about is what we draw. If we centre the good things, the right things, the visions of communities, it will get drawn, so it will get built. That’s pretty cool.
1. Douglas E Allen and Paul F Anderson, ‘Consumption and Social Stratification: Bourdieu’s Distinction’, in NA – Advances in Consumer Research, Volume 21, Chris T Allen and Deborah Roedder. John (eds), Provo, Utah: Association for Consumer Research, 1994, pp. 70–74.
Image: William Creighton, The Martinborough Domicile: An architecturalisation of queer domestic cohabitation. Located on the township- viticulture boundary, this house speculates alternative modes of living. It re-imagines site-specific conditions to blur with the public- private found in homemaking. These boundaries are traditionally reaffirmed through heteronormative living structures. A student at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington School of Architecture, Creighton was a finalist in the 2021 Resene Student Design Awards with his project ‘Queer- ing Anti Urbanism’.
This article originally appeared in architecturenow.co.nz