Politics with Poetry: The Quest for a Legitimate Architecture of Housing

By Michael Pyatok

Individual vs. Collective

In the early 1960s, some planners and architects began to question the obvious and not-so-obvious fusion between their professions’ interests and belief systems on the one hand, and those of private capital and/or governments, quick to support the desires of private capital, on the other hand. For the past four decades or more, some members of these two professions have sought to build an ideological and methodological basis for guiding these professions so that they are at least more self-conscious about when their seemingly neutral, professionally-derived beliefs, or seemingly innocent, artistically-derived beliefs, are in fact derivatives of, or apologists for, the ruling capitalist ideology.

Probably the most enduring cure for combating an unchecked allegiance to the interests of capital has been the plea for “participatory design.” Participatory design is based on the belief that if those without access to capital, property or political power are directly engaged in the planning and design work necessary to move their own agenda forward, then the planners and architects facilitating that process are not too far removed from understanding the worldview and culture of those they are trying to help. The disenfranchised become empowered by learning from the professionals about the politics, economics and social implications of the real estate development process, and the range of feasible planning policies and physical design options for their communities’ sustenance, self-preservation and growth with equity.

Sometimes participatory design efforts can take place at the neighborhood scale, while at other times they are more focused on a specific project, i.e., a housing development or community facility. It is these latter assignments that mostly engaged my time during the last three or more decades and gave me many opportunities to experience the transition from the “participatory” stage of the process (often an amalgam of political action, collective decision-making and the tapping of cultural preferences and biases) to a somewhat more “individualist” stage. At this individualist stage, the designer(s) must give final form and character to the aspirations that have been expressed by many other participants in the first stage.

This inevitable partial shift of authorship may seem like a contradiction, or even a distortion or co-optation of the collective process, but it really is the result of both simple pragmatics and the special dynamic relationship that perhaps has always existed between the collective and the individual. In terms of pragmatism, there are thousands of decisions, at both the urban and architectural scales, that must be made when designing a new neighborhood or inserting housing into the fabric of an existing neighborhood. The time available to local advocates, neighbors and residents is limited. Since they have lives to live and perhaps other issues even more important to champion, they cannot and should not be burdened with micro-level decisions regarding design details.

The shift of responsibility places an added burden on professionals to be certain that they remain in tune with the values of those they are serving and not retreat into the peculiar values of the design subculture, with its narrowly focused media and design schools, which, under capitalism, often reward the pursuit of frivolous novelty for its own sake. Designers must make a long-lasting commitment to those being served to ensure that they internalize the local point of view and eventually give it expression. Periodic checkpoints in the design process, when the collective client can review and critique a project as designers steer it into greater levels of detail, can be helpful a helpful tool for realizing the local perspective.

Maintaining that special connection between the designer with those being served, regardless of class and ethnic/cultural distance, is key to ensuring that final results are not that far removed from the tastes and preferences of those being served.

When to Collectivize, When to Individualize

There is a hierarchy of issues for which planning and design decisions need to be made on any project and for several, those regarding site plans and dwelling plans, local participant feedback is critical. The decisions around these can be characterized as “casting the die” or creating the fundamental “DNA” of a living environment that can support the life of a community for the next five to ten decades (long periods by US construction standards and real estate market forces). A site plan, which determines the arrangement of dwelling clusters and open space, as well as how autos circulate and where they are stored, is fundamental to a community’s future social life. Dwelling plans, on the other hand, can help reflect the daily routines and special needs of the cultural groups expected to occupy the dwelling units. Collective participation in decisions about site plans and dwelling plans, therefore, is critical.

There are a host of other design decisions, however, which create the feel of a place or make it memorable and define it as a “landmark” in the eyes and hearts of its residents and neighbors. These myriad micro decisions, when aggregated, can make the difference between creating a place of merely adequate living conditions or creating a truly inspiring place that generations hence will deem a lovable, cherished historic place worth retaining and rehabbing. While some of these design choices can be made available to the collective process, there are just too many over the course of a project to be logistically conducive to the collective decision-making.

Many of these decisions, therefore, are left to the professional design team or individual designer executing the project. Biologists tell us that we are about 97 percent genetically identical to chimpanzees. It is that last 3 percent that distinguishes us ashomo sapiens within the animal kingdom. The same is true for urban design and housing design: In my experience, there absolutely must be 97 percent concurrence among the local participants regarding the macro decisions to ensure basic livability, but there also must be that metaphorical 3 percent contribution by the design specialist, the artist—the poet. That 3 percent can make all the difference in the world—between merely adequate barracks susceptible to the wrecking ball a few decades down the road and forever cherished landmarks.

Those “poetic” decisions will inevitably, at least in part, represent a fusion of values acquired from professional design schools and nourished unavoidably by some continued immersion in the design sub-culture. While there is value to the semi-detached and rarified dialogue internal to the design professions, such dialogue can also breed an elitism that causes professionals to ignore the everyday values of the people the are serving, particularly lower-income communities, a sizable portion of which are made of residents who come from many of the world’s complex cultures.

This is why the commitment to participatory design is so crucial not just for casting the die, but for creating a lingering sense of awareness that influences designers when making those remaining poetic decisions that are so crucial to creating a memorable place. Even if such real-life encounters within participatory workshops are limited in scope and frequency, they provide a window through which to see and listen to other worldviews, and to appreciate the struggles of people living in those realities.

There are, of course, many other avenues that designers can choose to help enrich the more narrowly focused views of their professions: where they choose to live; what volunteer organizations they join; and where they spend their recreational hours and with whom. All of these choices have the potential of tempering the narrowing class influences of design schools so that designers can become better equipped to work in, and with, lower-income communities as they strive to improve their conditions.

Micro Design Decisions

Site planning, collectively accomplished with the aid of 3-d modeling kits, will dictate the general manner by which dwellings are attached and distributed in relation to each other and to the variety of private, semi-public and public open spaces. But from among the many additional poetic decisions that must be made at more micro levels, I would like to focus attention on three—roofs, windows and railings/fences—to demonstrate how important micro design decisions can be. These seem trivial compared to the major socio-political choices made at the urban design or neighborhood planning levels, but they can make all the difference in the world between creating a memorable landmark or an embarrassing reject.

The Romance of Roofs. How dwellings attach to each other and how their massing congeals can generate very different roof forms, depending on the type of roofs chosen. Anyone who has traveled even small portions of our planet cannot but be impressed by the many ways humanity has “put a roof over its head” to protect itself from the elements. Roof shapes have a way of becoming embedded in a locality’s collective psyche such that any change in that vocabulary is considered a misfit. Modernist architects, in their audacity to challenge all local histories with “universal” or “international” stylistic vocabularies, now labeled “globalized,” created some extraordinarily inventive ways to roof buildings. They also, however, annoyed many people when those inventions were inserted into residential sectors of cities that possessed long roof-shape traditions.

While such experiments may be acceptable for major public buildings—city halls, museums or places of entertainment and shopping—where audacious or self-impressed displays are required, the same is not true for housing. Housing, often 80 percent of a city’s footprint, is where people spend most of their waking hours and where they have made significant financial and personal investments. Therefore, they are a bit more cautious about what level of experimentation to let into their backyards. This is almost equally as true for lower-income communities as for higher-income ones. I say almost because in lower-income communities, experimentation is often the result of economic necessity, and self-help efforts can be quite inventive, charming and simply tolerable to everyone around who must engage is similar survival efforts. But even there, homeowners, albeit on modest incomes, will take issue with some of the more “inventive” self-help architectural solutions. And roofs have the highest profile of such incursions because they are so visible when seen against the sky.

A designer can shape a roof derived from the vocabulary of roof shapes utilized in a neighborhood or region and interpret it literally or loosely. But the degree of deviation from the past can cause that housing to be perceived by the locals to either comfortably fit the surroundings or forever be considered a strange anomaly that stigmatizes the new community as not fitting in with neighboring ones. Roof shapes, especially in buildings of three stories or less, are major contributors to the feel of a place. In addition to shapes, how colors and textures appear; how edges are detailed; how tops are crowned and connect and/or collide with each other; and how vents penetrate their shapes can make a world of difference in how well roofs are perceived as belonging.

These are choices that only a skilled designer can explore and offer back to participants. Maybe there is time for review and commentary by the community, but often there is not. And even if there is, the quality of a final decision is heavily dependent on the designer’s facility, breath of experience and poetic reservoir of stored roof memories built from world travels and the study of history.

The Whimsy of Windows. The same can be said about the shapes and proportions of windows. In some housing they are simply holes in a wall that allow for some natural light and maybe natural ventilation. But there are many types of operable windows, some that allow people to easily lean out to talk with neighbors and others that prohibit such casual social interactions. There are some that trap heat in and others that take seriously the heat of the sun, employing devices that allow it in when desired and keep it out when undesired. There are some windows that actively capture breezes and others that accidentally capture them and even miss them if not properly oriented and shaped. There are some windows that allow people to grow plants at their base, both inside and outside, or to feed wildlife, and others that easily allow laundry to dry or someone to sit in their openings to read a book.

Glass can be transparent, translucent, mirrored or tinted. Each type will reflect the sky differently and can add sparkle in shaded or sunless conditions. Windows are like the eyes of buildings: They can sparkle, wink and speak volumes about the residents behind them if they are designed to permit people to express their presence.

Windows can extend a room over a street, as with the bay or oriole window, allowing occupants to look up and down a street, court or plaza, thereby increasing surveillance, as well as bringing more light into a room. Windows can be placed in a room to increase lighting by reflecting natural light on adjacent walls, or be unintentionally positioned to cause glare and too much contrast with surrounding wall surfaces, making a window more of an annoyance in a room than a help.

Proportions and rhythms of windows, and how they are trimmed or whether they are recessed, may affect how well new buildings fit into their neighborhoods, since windows can be such an important part of a neighborhood’s character. There are many choices designers have to make about how openings are made in the walls of their buildings which determines the overall poetic effect of a building.

The Power and Charm of Railings, Fences and Trellises. Perhaps the most often slighted or underrated decisions in multifamily residential design relate to railings, fences and those architectural ingredients that engage the landscape, like trellises. Railings on stairs, balconies, decks and roof edges, while small elements, can be extremely important in defining the character of a residential building. These ingredients get much abuse and use over the years and if the materials and finishes are not carefully chosen, the wear and tear can show too soon and too often, sending derogatory messages to the larger public about the inhabitants.

An argument can be made that in order for the appearance of buildings to have pleasing scale, they must have elements that human beings can perceptually gauge the size of by comparing them to familiar objects, especially to their own bodies. Railings, fences and trellises, composed of elements the size of legs and arms and with details the size of hands and fingers, are important indicators of scale.

In Conclusion

The architectural significance of only three of the dozens of ingredients in multifamily housing design have been identified to prove that even after all the neighborhood and resident participation in macro design and planning decisions, there is much poetry still to be brewed by the individual designer. The wisdom and spontaneity of what people do to adapt, expand and adjust their homes is a wealth of inspiration for designers to absorb for future use in their own work. And if designers consciously design their own lives and travels, as they do their buildings, to more than just rub shoulders with the socio-economic classes that may eventually inhabit their creations, then they are that much more likely to understand and appreciate the world more like those they are trying to serve.

Michael Pyatok is president of Pyatok Architects, Inc., director of Stardust Center for Affordable Homes and the Family at Arizona State University and professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Washington.

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