This piece from yesterday’s Guardian might be based on an oxymoron. I often think ‘starchitects’, urbanists and assorted housing talking heads (am I one?) are part of the problem, not the solution. Worth having a look though. For my money only the first (Charles Holland) gets close to the ‘home truths’, although good that Sarah Wigglesworth correctly aligns housing associations with private developers. Understandably, architects are inclined to propose design solutions to social, political and economic problems. Self-build, ‘lifetime’ housing, reusing empty buildings and community land trusts have their place, but they are, at best, supplements. There are two fundamental and inter-linked issues that have to be tackled if we are ever to escape perennial housing crises. First, there is the deep-rooted hegemony of private home ownership second, the marginalisation of public housing.
In some ways, the second of these is easier to argue against and Defend Council Housing has been doing so for years, with support from a very wide range of opinion. But DCH, as the name suggests, is often fighting a rear-guard action. The 30-year onslaught against council housing is well documented and is entering a potentially decisive phase as the Coalition government attempts to drive the final nails in the coffin. But there is a symbiotic relationship between the denigration and diminution of municipal housing and the deification of private home ownership. It’s often difficult to discuss this without hitting personal and rhetorical obstacles. The propaganda value of ‘home owning democracy’ remains potent: challenging it can quickly lead to accusations of anarchic nihilism. Despite the disastrous economic consequences, ‘sub prime’ does not seem to have fundamentally shaken the view that anything less than a mortgage, even an unaffordable one, represents a lesser form of citizenship and a personal failure. Considering the wider social and human costs of the home ownership fixation remains strictly off-limits, partly because it is bound up with a network of vested interests of which architecture is a part. Questioning the philosophical value of privatised, commodified, consumerised domesticity is reserved for dramatists:
I hoped it was a time bomb under the bullshit of capitalism, this pseudo life that sought to touch the clouds by standing on top of a refrigerator, waving a paid-up mortgage at the moon, victorious at last!’
(Arthur Miller on ‘Death of a Salesman’)