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Old February 13th, 2006, 06:20 AM   #1
hkskyline
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Architecture for the Poor

Poor people, poor homes
We are told that good mass housing is not a question of aesthetics or style. What a lot of rot
Jonathan Glancey
Wednesday February 8, 2006
The Guardian

It's official. There is one architecture for those with the freedom to choose, another for those for whom a roof over their heads is a matter of all but choiceless necessity. The debate over quality, or lack of it, in the development of mass housing in sweeping tracts of southern England has been fuelled by Cabe, the government's Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment. Its chief executive, Richard Simmons, wrote in the Guardian: "Our challenge is to create the kind of neighbourhoods that people will want to live in. This is not a question of aesthetics or style."

Oh yes it is. I would have thought that Simmons's job was to champion the way buildings and the "built environment" look. However, as he was referring to new housing estates, or "sustainable communities" in New Labour-speak, in the Thames Gateway, a tragic fiction of a non-place in the profitable making, I suppose we must learn to forgive him.

For this stretch of sopping, strangely beautiful land along the banks of the Thames has become the dumping ground of crass new housing for poor people, many of them migrants, employed to clean up the costly messes we make in our homes, offices and public lavatories, and to stick expensive tickets on the windscreens of our cars. This is a no-go area for such trivial things as aesthetics, civility or style.

Such foppish concerns should surely be left to the educated, affluent middle classes. Let them choose beautifully designed homes in effete Edinburgh, bathetic Bath or the languorous squares of Kensington or Pimlico. No-nonsense Thames Gateway folk deserve something different: architecture and planning innocent of aesthetics, stripped of style. Given that many of them will have come from some of the poorest towns and villages in the world, why should they care about the way their houses or the buildings around them look?

In any case, the vibrant, accessible - and not forgetting sustainable - "environment" they will live in is all about "delivering" tens of thousands of new homes as free from architecture as possible. To date there is not a single decent new housing development in what the government, and those in hock to it, insists on calling the Thames Gateway. There are few trains or schools or anywhere to go - but that's another story.

Quite why government ministers and Simmons insist on "delivering" homes in the Thames Gateway is a patronising mystery. Homes are nurtured from houses, and houses are designed and built from the ground up. They are not delivered like pints of milk once were. The very word suggests some government milkman from Quango Dairies plonking design-free houses down in bleak, marshy landscapes, then waiting for poor, huddled masses to touch the forelock as they cross their thresholds, while thanking Cabe that the delivery of their homes came free of embarrassing aesthetics or unmentionable style.

Imagine Bath, or Edinburgh, or another exceptionally good-looking city or town, re-dressed to address Cabe criteria for housing design. Away with those preening porticoes. Lower those unnecessarily high ceilings. Uproot those aristocratic geometric squares and line the houses, newly detached from one another, along serpentine cul-de-sacs unknown to public transport.

Architecture of the very highest calibre, a matter of aesthetics as well as planning, functionality, common sense and all the rest, should be available to everyone. Few traditional societies live style-free lives. Much modern urban society does. Fey though this will seem to tough-talking, self-righteous politicians and their placemen, I think many of us would hope that the government's commission for architecture might just have a jargon-free word to say in favour of the way our houses, our homes, look.

Jonathan Glancey is the Guardian's architecture critic.
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Old October 25th, 2006, 09:48 PM   #2
hkskyline
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The luxury of quality architecture for the poor
20 October 2006
The Globe and Mail

Quality in apartment building design is often not what first meets the eye. One would presume that perpetually under-funded social housing in Canada is built as cheaply as possible with the lowest-priced materials, and that luxury housing is built to last with the finest features built-in.

Not so, and not so surprisingly often.

I learned this surprising reality as an architecture student working one summer for an Alberta design firm.

While my own contributions to the project were the truly junior tasks of drawing up doors and crafting meticulous lists of hardware, I did enjoy spending the first half of the summer working on a mid-rise tower for seniors, sponsored under a social housing program.

Round about Canada Day, the program got cancelled, and we spent the second half of the summer adapting the design for new life as luxury housing.

I was amazed to find out that this meant cheapening the finishes, down-grading the quality of the doors and windows, and changing the exterior cladding from low-maintenance brick to stucco that would have to be regularly patched and painted.

Oh yes, we did add mirrors and a schmaltzy fountain to the lobby, to increase its 'curb appeal' to prospective buyers. In changing the same basic building from social to luxury housing, we had "spec'd it down." In architect's lingo, this refers to the specifications--written lists of chosen materials that come together in their floor-plans and building elevations.

The simple fact is that social housing is designed to last--because it is usually owned in perpetuity by a public or quasi-public organization, and complete life cycle costs are what matters -- while luxury housing is designed to sell. British Columbia's multiple-family housing is an extreme example of the latter, with triple the money spent on marketing here, on average, as designing it. We will reside in the results of this imbalance for a century and more.

This is the context for one of the best-designed Vancouver apartment buildings of any kind constructed this decade, Belkin House on Homer Street between Dunsmuir and Pender. The client here is one that might not seem at first inclined to support leading edge design: The Salvation Army.

Au contraire, the organization that combines the Social Gospel with housing and feeding the poorest in our society has, surprisingly, been a regular patron of leading edge architectural design for a century, and has always built to last.

It all began with a temporary shelter for the homeless of Paris, helping out residents sleeping on the streets in the housing crunch that intensified through the 1920s. Sound eerily familiar?

Though he had only constructed a few villas for the wealthy, the Salvation Army trusted a young Swiss-French architect--who had just re-named himself Le Corbusier--to adapt barges moored at the Quai d'Austerlitz into emergency housing. Five years later in 1934, Le Corbusier completed the brightly-coloured, cast concrete Cité de Refuge, still in use today as the Salvation Army's main Parisian hostel.

The very same spirit came to Canada with the Canadian Headquarters for the Salvation Army, completed in 1956 by the Parkin Partnership, and a crucial piece of Toronto modernism that was sadly demolished a decade ago.

Today, as one strolls from London's Tate Modern across Norman Foster's Millennium bridge, the second building on the right on the sloping walk up to St. Paul's cathedral is the brand-new, high-tech world headquarters of the Salvation Army, completed last year.

This context of investment in design explains why the Salvation Army's Vancouver Division (these Christian soliders still use military terminology) invested in top drawer architecture for their $23-million downtown hostel and free meal facility.

The Sally Ann had grown out of their former downtown premises, Dunsmuir House. True to the class-confounding theme of this column, Dunsmuir House was first constructed as luxury housing just before the First World War, but had been used by the Salvation Army since 1950.

Having used them for several earlier suburban group homes, the Vancouver officers of the Salvation Army engaged Neale Staniskis Doll Adams, a top mid-sized design firms. This firm designed the innovative 2002 Dr. Peter Centre for AIDS treatment in the West End, plus 1994's Central City Lodge.

With a donation of $1-million from the City of Vancouver, plus land concessions from BC Hydro and a major grant from the Morris and Helen Belkin Foundation, funding was put in place early this decade, and Belkin House opened two years ago.

The architecture of Belkin House builds on traditional early 20th century apartment layouts like that of Dunsmuir House -- the former hostel, now a backpacker's hotel, forms a 'E'-shape in plan, while the Neale Staniskis Doll Adams layout is one big 'U.' Most floors feature double-loaded runs of single rooms averaging 18 square meters (190 square feet), most with private bathrooms, and all with a window offering either city views or a glimpse into its artful courtyard.

Unlike most of Vancouver's supposedly luxury apartment blocks, Belkin House's residential corridors are terminated with sheets of floor-to-ceiling glass, counter-acting the claustrophobia of lines of small rooms, and trimming operating costs with free natural light.

By way of comparison, councillor Kim Capri called last week for construction of 10-square-meter transitional housing for the homeless, too small to include a toilet or shower and bordering on the edge of livability, even for emergency accommodation.

What is most apparent about Belkin House is the sense of dignity it imparts to the down-on-their-luck residents of the building, most of them disturbingly young, and including many women and families in an emergency shelter on two of the top stories.

Senior partner Jerry Doll and project architect Brian Dust have crafted a paradigm project that demonstrates the power of architecture to brighten the lives of the poor While durability and cost necessitated a concrete structure and interior surfaces, the greyness of these are warmed visually with use of a red brick outside, and caramel-stained particle board panels lining classroom, corridor and lobby walls inside.

The main floor is given over to a large kitchen and expandable rooms for dining, appointed with custom-commissioned visual art and the equal--in pure design terms--of some of this city's finest large restaurants.

Flanked by an austere but dignified cross, a stair to second floor classrooms and support staff offices is boldly bare in cast-in-place concrete--linking to similar details in Le Corbusier's Paris hostel.

The most spectacular architectural design flourish here is also in cast concrete, an ovoid drum that starts on the ground floor as the portal through which staff hand over the free meals, the same form rising up to form a second floor oval-shaped resident's chapel lined with birch panels, then exploding up onto the third floor's courtyard, forming a sculptural planter and fountain framed with poplars and birchs, the focus of one of Vancouver's the best urban landscapes.

I hope that someday soon the Salvation Army gets out its brass band and donation kettles, then invites our luxury condominium developers over for a free meal and tour of their daring and very practical building. Belkin House just might inspire them.
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