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Patrik Schumacher has provided a necessary challenge to housing

Paul Finch

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

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. 


Readers' comments (13)

  • The Jerry Springer/Jeremy Kyle approach to architecture journalism. The laissez faire market approach to housing in the UK is today's reality, where housing developers openly tout that they release flats to 'test the market' or in other words restrict supply in order to ramp up the prices. Where there are 475,000 homes with planning permission that developers are sitting on waiting to be built. Using the 'For example, UK law says you cannot have more than seven people sharing a "house" unless they are family members' as some kind of demonstration that the law is misplaced. Maybe that law is in place to stop buy to let landlords turning every room/cupboard into a bedsit and charging £120 a week. Paul, time to retire this kind of Jeremy Kyle/Katie Hopkins approach – makes you look stupid and cheap.

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  • (On behalf of Paul Finch) That is why I said I have no faith in private house-builders creating a sufficiency of stock. I am therefore baffled by this response. Paul Finch

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  • So you have faith in public house-builders?

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  • Public sector housing programmes worked in London for a century, mainly delivered by private contractors. We could always try the same formula, albeit with a greater tenure mix on the developments created.

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  • You are completely missing the point. First the idea that Mr. Schumacher has provided a necessary challenge to housing is ludicrous. He provided us with Jerry Springer/Jeremy Kyle moment which you by the title of your article gave him a platform & legitimized his nonsense. To describe him as one of the worlds polemicists is absurd, Patrik Schumacher is an embarrassment to the architecture profession and should be treated as such.
    Second all house building has it rules set by the government the property developers play by these rules which as we all know allow land banking, slow release of properties etc. The problem is government, which currently allows the property developers to get away with these abuses because they are to scared to antagonize the industry. Public sector housing programs are being limited by the government policy/ideology and have nothing to do with private house builders. And finally, its time for you to retire because you should know these things you shouldn't be pandering to Mr. Schumacher who's only in the position he is because he rode the back of Miss Z. Hadid's fame.

    Oh and by the way Private House Builders build public sector housing

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  • Since the tone of this response is tending towards abuse rather than criticism, I have nothing to add. Pity when comment gets nasty.

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  • Kieran Gaffney

    "Patrik Schumacher’s free-market answers to the housing crisis may be unfashionable..."

    His 'answers' are not "unfashionable" they are hugely offensive.

    Juts to reiterate he suggests kicking all council tenants out of centrally located homes because land prices dictate that they shouldn't be able afford to live there. Thus cleansing whole areas and turning houses into financial assets rather than as homes where people live. This equation is the source of most of our problems!

    The system of housing provision is not working and we may need a different answer to the problem but it is so clearly not *less* regulation.

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  • As far as I can gather the concept of people getting together to build their own housing – self-build to a greater or lesser extent – wasn't on Mr Schumacher's radar.
    Maybe, to a polemicist, this represents such a tiny fraction of a percentage of new-build housing provision (in this country, at any rate, but more significant elsewhere in Europe) that it's a waste of a fine intellect to spend time thinking about it, let alone talking about it.
    But it's surely very, very macabre that he chose to propound his chillingly rational (final?) solution to what he seems to consider to be a disposable underclass of city dwellers in Berlin, of all places.
    He's certainly caused outrage well beyond the architectural profession -– see p31 of today's Times newspaper.

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  • ...a lot of value (in the ethical sense) from most of the readers leaving comments here, which feels positive. Architects should make a bigger effort to move from the ethical to the political in order to solve these housing issues. I am neither surprised nor terrified by the tone of Paul's article or the ideas of the mentioned 'polemicist'. What I feel is that too much space is wasted by privileging and installing those ideas as respectable in a country moving towards even worse forms of inequality without proper counterbalance. The discussion goes on...

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  • (on behalf of Paul Finch) Who exactly decides whether an idea is 'respectable' or not? And what happens if one person thinks it is but others don't? You end up on a slippery slope to the world of third-rate student unions banning free speech if it might cause 'offence'. The only way to encourage ideas about housing is to ventilate them. Publication does not imply approval, a concept some find difficult to take on board. Paul Finch

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