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Housing could really get motoring if car makers would take it on

If God really was an astronaut and sent down an angel to sort out the housing problem, the celestial visitor would waste no time. He or she would demand copies of the Egan report, thrust them into the hands of the leaders of the motor industry, and tell them to get on with solving it. Only then would the angel have moved on to deal with BSE, the Dome, petrol prices and other serious matters.

The brilliance of this divine intervention would become evident almost at once. The motor industry deals in big numbers (even a medium-sized company turns out half a million cars a year), and right at the heart of the whole can of worms of housing - from soaring prices to accumulated debt, negative equity, energy efficiency, land availability, flood insurance, design inflexibility, density, everything - lies the issue of production.

This is the teaching I had imbibed 30 years ago when I had the good fortune to be invited to take part in a conference on emergency housing in Chile, a country then governed by the Marxist Unidad Popular coalition headed by Salvador Allende.

Chile at that time was suffering an urban population explosion and a huge shortage of housing, its capital city surrounded by militant squatter settlements. To make matters worse the Allende government was exceedingly unpopular with the government of the US, which had frozen all Chilean offshore credits as a reprisal following the nationalisation of American copper interests.

In my paper to the housing conference I strove to concentrate on increasing production, proposing that all usable agricultural, industrial and consumer wastes should be stockpiled and systematically adapted for use as emergency house building materials, not simply used for random bricolage.

This message was not well received by the audience, but later a brief exposition to President Allende himself led to discussions with the Chilean minister of planning, which were more productive.

At that time, following the American trade embargo, most imports of motor vehicles into Chile had ceased and those that did take place were strictly controlled. This meant that production of the fibreglass-bodied Chilean version of the French Citroen 2CV van and car (with its engine and transmission imported from Belgium), had ceased and the assembly plant in Santiago had closed down.

Thus there was 'industrial waste' in Chile - which my opponents at the conference had denied - albeit in this case an 'opportunity waste' created by the loss of foreign credits. Better yet, given the uniquely 'house-like' appearance of the 2CV van, it looked as though the waste in question could almost certainly be adapted into the armature of an emergency housing system, productive enough to justify reopening the assembly plant and ordering more GRP body panels.

Alas, the remainder of the story is, like all je ferai des maisons comme on fait des voitures (Le Corbusier) stories, a tale of disappointment. The next stage of the project was to design the house - the system having been, as it were, already designed by the motor industry - and this, because of prior commitments, had to be done at Cornell University. There I made it one of four different waste-into-houses student projects and one of them, Jeffrey Skorneck, working with manufacturers' drawings and part numbers, drew up the preliminary design for a 35m 2emergency car-dwelling.

The proposal was received with enthusiasm by the Chilean minister of planning in May 1973 and assembly of a test structure in Santiago was promised within weeks, but it was not to be. By the summer communications with the Chilean government had become problematic and by the time of the Pinochet coup that September they had ceased altogether.Whether any test assemblies were ever made at Citroen Chilena, I never found out.

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