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Might someone in Venice tell us what contemporary social housing actually looks like?

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Militant modernist: Owen Hatherley on the Venice Biennale

Rumour had it that at the last Venice Biennale in 2012 one of the exhibitors, Zaha Hadid, wandered through the Arsenale and muttered, audibly, ‘this is all so boring’.This was apt: the last Biennale was a conscious attempt to plot a different potential path for contemporary architecture than the Ayn Randian computerised form-giving with which Zaha Hadid Architects has become indelibly associated. David Chipperfield and Kieran Long’s programme argued that the way out was either a rather classical central European Modernism, or informal self-organised spaces, often in the global south. Given his interest in the latter, if not the former, we may expect some of these issues to return in Koolhaas’s ‘Fundamentals’, which this time encompasses the national pavilions as well as the Arsenale.

The central and unexplored contradiction in 2012’s ‘Common Ground’ theme is at the heart of modern architecture today; that is, the fascination with the ‘bottom-up’ and the informal on the part of a profession that relies upon the ‘top-down’ forces of big business and the state. Favela envy, you could call it, if you were being cruel. At one pole, you had Sergison Bates’ exhibits on council housing. A timeline plotted its evolution in the UK from the Arts and Crafts tenements of London’s Boundary Estate onwards and, beside it, showed the firm’s own designs for social housing in extremely affluent contemporary European cities. At the other pole, there was Urban Think Tank and Justin McGuirk’s prize-winning exhibit on the Torre David, the squatted unfinished skyscraper in Caracas. Much of the other exhibits, like Foster’s exploration of the surprisingly informal uses of his HSBC HQ by migrant workers, or Hans Kollhoff’s taxonomies of imposing semi-classical forms in stone and brick, followed one or the other of these directions, but seldom both. The future is to be either Berne or Caracas.

What could each learn from the other? Sergison Bates’ inaugural example, Shoreditch’s Boundary Estate, was designed for the 1890s equivalent of the favela - not self-built, but barely formal, desperately poor and chaotic, with shocking levels of mortality but with (later discovered) networks of kinship and collectivity which managed to make it just about liveable for those that had no choice.

The Boundary Estate itself did not, in fact, manage to cater for all these people, many of whom were moved elsewhere - but within a generation or two its builder, the London County Council, had managed to house most of the London poor in perhaps less picturesque, certainly more formal housing. This was something for which the LCC was phenomenally popular.

So, given that the circumstances - runaway urbanisation, exploitation, informality - were so similar, where was the mid-point between the LCC and the Torre David? The latter is a social project, of a sort - the residents are self-organised and their squat is sanctioned by Venezuela’s professedly socialist government - but it is far from municipal socialism. Architects may admire Torre David and it is wise to try and understand it, but it is hard to imagine them really being able to ‘learn’ from it, as little as Koolhaas himself could really ‘learn from’, as opposed to ‘learn about’, Lagos (the focus of a research project he conducted in 2005). This trend produces much architectural research, but little in the way of actual architecture. To aim to build for slum-dwellers is almost missing the point that it would impose a ‘top-down’ solution, always a solecism in theory, if not practice. Perhaps, somewhere under Koolhaas’s curatorship this year, someone will try to tell us what contemporary social housing might actually look like.

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