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‘The average affordable home will be a coffin’: Reinier de Graaf on the decline of social housing

Author: Paweł Wargan

Dutch architect and OMA partner Reinier de Graaf talks about the decline in social architecture—and points a way to the future.

“Modern housing died in 1972,” architect, theorist, and one of Strelka’s first program directors Reinier de Graaf said at the Moscow Urban Forum 2019 last week, referring to the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe estate in Saint Louis. “[It] has died many times since.”

Reinier de Graaf. Image courtesy OMA

Modern housing, once intimately tied to the welfare state and the idea that housing should be affordable for the many, has been under attack. Today, de Graaf said, what remains of these ambitious projects have been demolished or privatized and rendered unaffordable to most. The idea of social housing is incompatible with the profit motive.

New housing, de Graaf said, is a “race to build cheaply, but sell as expensively as possible.” Buildings are becoming smaller and increasingly commoditized, and are built to last no more than a few decades. In the most livable cities in the world, the average person can afford a space of no more than 15 square meters—less than was considered livable during the Russian Revolution.

“I think the curious thing is that in recent decades, modern architecture has continued to exist, but has traded down. What once was affordable for average people is now increasingly beyond the reach of average people. Building are still... the hallmarks of the enlightened modern architecture of the previous century, but they have become part of an economic logic which is largely to the detriment of people,” he said.

“I’m sure that the outcome of that process is that the average affordable home is a coffin.”

Commercial buildings, build for investment not use, become absurd in their lack of function. “If buildings are not lived in,” de Graaf said, “they can become thinner, thinner, and thinner. They stop being buildings, and in a way become a tradable form of art. Concrete art.”

432 Park Avenue. Source: commons.wikimedia.org

So how do we escape this cycle? How do we return to architecture that put people before profit? “I think only a very radical intervention in the economy of buildings is necessary for this to change,” de Graaf said.

“These are the three pillars of Vitruvius, upon which architecture ought to be based: durability, functionality, and beauty. I think there are compelling reasons not to believe that at face value anymore. In the 1500s, a building used to last for 300 years. In the 19th century, a building lasted a mere 150 years. In the early 20th century, buildings lasted on average 100 years. In the late 20th century, buildings lasted 50 years. In the even later 20th century, buildings lasted for 25 years. And it is not unimaginable that buildings will eventually expire before they are designed. So that the economic lifespan of a building will be negative.”

Crucially, we need to go beyond this architectural ethos and replace it by its three antonyms—“temporality, flexibility, and discretion, rather than beauty.”

The recycling of buildings shows us how. In eastern Germany, former housing estates built from prefabricated blocks have been dismantled much in the same way as they were created. The parts were then used in new housing projects, ensuring that the old materials didn’t go to waste. The products were durable, sustainable, and inexpensive, harnessing all that was most important in the modern buildings from which they were assembled.

We should, de Graaf says, abandon the idea of homes as “immovable” property, and accept that they can indeed be moved, transferred, recycled, and rebuilt. Only then can we begin to confront the growing housing crisis.

Listen to de Graaf’s talk below.

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