Economic inequality in the provision of housing is deeply entangled with social and spatial disparities. Beyond real estate, building type, and market sector——housing is primarily an architectural activity. The act begins when a line is drawn between the ‘inner’ and the ‘outer’. This operation is inextricably linked to concepts such as form, politics, construction, ownership, and subjectivity within a single domain. The production and logic of ‘public’ or ‘social’ spaces is subject to routine stigma and unjust negativity. The concepts above are often amplified and reorganised by political motives to the detriment of occupants. This is the source of economic inequality in the provision of housing——it is grounded in the production of architecture. The geography of economic inequality is both local and global; it’s history is both distant and present; and the future of economic inequality is ultimately uncertain.
Pier Vittorio Aureli, identifies architecture and autonomy in relation to a capacity to intellectualise and rationalise history as a representation in his work ‘The Project of Autonomy’. Laying down a map of the past that hints at directions for the future. Aureli’s position however never resonates with the individuals who traditionally occupy buildings. Autonomy as he describes it requires a precondition of possibility — of isolation from the mainstream. In this state autonomy is perceived as countercultural, which appears to confirm it as a critical practice of a kind. His return to the Autonomia movement in the architectural consciousness of Italy in the late 20th century, through his work ‘The Project of Autonomy’, does however open up vital questions for strategies for social change. Particularly in regard to the worker/labourer and their spaces of occupation. The idea that form has the potential to exert agency within the urban realm is planted within his project. Especially in the production of form as carried out by architects. Their action can alter the existing state of affairs in the public housing domain. A state which privileges the concerns of the social elite and governing forces over the people who will inhabit such structures. The question of economic inequality in housing can only be dealt with through the reorganisation of form and production, perceived as the primary support of capitalist society. Only then can architecture have a progressive function within this society and deliver space that is autonomous from financial exploitation.
In the course of history, politics and ideology have not disappeared but have become increasingly tight and subservient to the re-organisation of urban space for the sake its economic exploitation. Our cities have developed from ‘civically oriented’ to what architectural historian Manfredo Tafuri defined as “a machine for the extraction of surplus value. ” While form and production in architecture is largely the result of capitalist forces, it has the potential to become the edge against which new forces can be reorganised. The platform from which social change can be instigated and meaningful civic engagement an be increased — in both the public and private sphere that is public housing. We are aware of how public housing is regarded with general suspicion as it promotes a “generic” desirability in economic terms. The urban preoccupation is simply a historical process of abstraction of labour and space. A process which has been pervaded by this mistrust as every bit of collective life as it immediately sold and bought as commodity. Throughout history such collective spaces have acted as a vessel for private interests rather than as a true manifestation of a public sphere. Aureli establishes our understanding of the autonomous movement in 1960’s Italy where the history of public space is a key example of how public and private interests have historically been deeply entangled more for the sake of the ‘private’ than for the ‘public’ good. Despite our ability to trace history, the question of a space of public ownership that is not immediately commodified is an insistent and unanswered question. The dialectic between form and the processes and materials associated with its making, create an opportunity to begin a new act in the realm of public housing. The advancement in material and building technologies have the potential to shift the cost of production and the impact on quality. The choice of how to draw the line between the inner and outer can reshape the manner of occupation. Form and process are inextricably a part of the system that perpetuates the cycle of social inequality and simultaneously have the meaningful chance to break it. The limitations of the past inform the imagination of the future.
Existing and emerging digital and material technologies offer radically new possibilities in the production of architecture. French architect Jean Renaudie composed a progressive social housing scheme that defied the strict planning controls of Paris, precisely creating conditions in opposition to its surroundings. The form exemplifies this contrast, as the neighbourhood is proliferated with dull and homogenous low income housing complexes. Traditional materials typically found in these low income housing structures are utilised in Renaudie’s building. The production of this structure is, however, expressive of a shift in thinking — in particular the method of design, where no angle or space is replicated. The traditional form of the building is radically broken and reconstructed. Public and private spaces are intertwined and flexible spaces are invaded by vegetation and pedestrians. The result is a public housing structure that invites its inhabitants to exist beyond the fundamental nature of the building. Perhaps its greatest success is that many of its occupants are unaware of its aims, as it remains accessible to all social classes. Renaudie triumphantly operates within and against the constraints of the past, in terms of materiality and form, and economic and government controls.
The ‘public’ or ‘social’ spaces of public housing can only exist as a believable reality if those who participate in it can acquire a space that is able to gradually become autonomous from financial exploitation. What appears certain is that success of such spaces will depend on weaving technologies and the breaking of traditional forms — into the making of more desirable and functional environments for a populace experiencing tremendous cultural and political pressures.
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