Patrik Schumacher’s free-market answers to the housing crisis may be unfashionable, but our current arrangements are simply not working, says Paul Finch
We had a terrific time in Berlin last week for the World Architecture Festival, and it was gratifying to see so many British architects presenting, judging and speaking, in the context of a truly global event with 60 countries represented.
Because of the history of the city, we made housing our main conference topic, generating a series of stimulating propositions on everything from emergency accommodation for refugees at one end of the spectrum, to the nature of luxury at the other.
In general our architect contributors made no claim to ‘solving’ the housing ‘crisis’. There were, however, plenty of provocative ideas on offer, most notably Patrik Schumacher’s evening keynote. He had assured us that his ideas might cause trouble, expected since Patrik is one of the world’s polemicists – an advantage of which is the expression of unfashionable views which undermine the cosy assumptions of, for example, people who think that we can produce enough housing by doing more of the same.
I have no faith in the ability of the private sector to provide all the housing necessary, but I do not regard this as a criticism
His argument was that we should pay far more attention to the free market, taking an axe to regulations, which have produced unintended consequences in respect of new housing types. For example, UK law says you cannot have more than seven people sharing a ‘house’ unless they are family members. But what if a novel form of housing emerges in which the living accommodation is 10m2, accompanied by substantial communal spaces? What happens if more and more people wish to live in non-family communes without the tepees and hair shirts? Another speaker, the Swedish architect Monica von Schmalensee (chief executive of White Arkitekter) preferred to live in a shared house run on this model, and there is currently a big move in Berlin towards this sort of accommodation.
The emphasis on the private sector elicited some sarcastic audience comments, including a suggestion that Patrik would like to privatise oxygen, on the grounds that it would deal with a hierarchy of consumption based on wealth rather than necessity. The speaker was amused by this (he has a sense of humour), but wasn’t giving an inch on the principles of his argument: that our current arrangements are simply not delivering society’s needs, and therefore our assumptions and regulation need fundamental challenge.
Trafalgar house, elephant park
In particular, his call for intensification and a revamp of density standards struck a chord. He cited Elephant Park in Southwark (pictured) where, following demolition of the failed gigantist (but low-density) municipal ghetto, densities are being doubled. But the developer could easily triple or even quadruple the density. Why is it only double?
This makes uncomfortable listening for a whole generation of committed housing architects, but – certainly in London – if we don’t challenge our existing mindset then we have no prospect of producing the numbers required. As regular readers of this column will have noticed, I have no faith at all in the ability of the private sector to provide all that is necessary, but I do not regard this as a criticism – housebuilders are in business and they should be allowed to go about it without having the burden of delivering a social housing programme imposed upon them.
I agree that we should go for higher densities, analyse things like space standards (I recognised my slightly Luddite belief that more space means better), and stop treating the only people who produced housing in quantity as pariahs.
However, I don’t see any way of providing what is necessary without a dirigiste public programme (delivered by the private sector), managed ruthlessly by a fearless deliverer of high-quality design. You can imagine who I have in mind.