- Having explored the design that establishes ’emotional ownership’ and the anti-patrons of social housing, Nikos A. Salingaros, David Brain, Andrés M. Duany, Michael W. Mehaffy and Ernesto Philibert-Petit continue their series of articles on social housing in Latin America.
- This time, the proposal studies how control influences the urban form and the form of housing.
A clearly recognizable “geometry of power”
The psychological process of control influences urban form and the shape of social housing to a remarkable extent. Control may be manifested in architectural geometry and also in urban layout. A rigid, mechanical geometry dictates the shape of individual buildings and urban spaces, while the geometry of their layout determines the relationship among separate buildings and the shape of the street network. There are many opportunities to express control in urban and architectural terms, and we find them all in government-built social housing.
Examples of organic/bottom-up generated urban structures are found along a universal timeline starting with the first cities registered in the Neolithic period, through modern times. The mechanical/top-down fabricated urban structure is found in our timeline ever since patterns of colonization first appeared in history. Thus, we have models of this mechanical structure dating from the imperial periods of Greece, Rome, or China until today.
In the 20th Century, an exacerbated mechanical structure was imposed on cities by the machine culture of modernist thoughts and values. This last period has been decisive in configuring the structure of present-day cities and is set to dominate those of the coming years. In the near future, spatial fragmentation could become the ultimate consequence of the recent past. Alternatively, we may enter the period when the emerging paradigm of networks could be wisely used to connect our spatial structures and patterns again, working instead against fragmentation.
There is a clearly recognizable “geometry of power” (Alexander, 2001-2005; Salingaros, 2006). It is most clearly expressed in the military and Fascist architecture of the Second World War (and long before that), but has been adopted by governments and institutions of all political persuasions (from the most progressive, to the most repressive). Such buildings are shaped as oversized rectangular blocks and are placed in strictly repetitive rectangular grids. High-rise blocks give the impression of control of their occupants, who are forced into a military/industrial typology that is obviously the opposite of the free urban geometry of the favela. We have two contrasting geometries: housing units massed into one or more blocks, versus having them spread out irregularly. The psychological impression of control follows the possibility of ACTUAL control, as the entrance to a high-rise housing block can be easily sealed off by the police, something that is impossible in a rambling cluster of individual houses.
Government officials and developers share these views about control, and this, in turn, tends to eliminate any other approach. The local government would prefer to have better access to the site through regularly shaped blocks. Administrators are fooled by the notion that simple geometric shapes are the only typology we can use to create efficient new dwellings.
An administration can build many smaller units rather than high-rise blocks, but rigidly fixed to a military/industrial grid on the ground. Individual housing units are exact copies of a single prototype. Control here is exercised by not allowing individual variations. One modular house is repeated to cover the entire region, with careful attention paid to strict rectangular alignment. Complexity and variation are perceived as losing overall control — not only of building typology, but also of the way decisions are made — and are thus avoided.
Building variability is perceived as a threat
Several factors provide powerful motivations for standardization and relatively rigid regulations: administrative efficiency, accountability, maintenance of standards on which the success of the administration will be assessed, and the requirements of both transparency and procedural fairness. The efficiency of modular production, falsely tied to economic progress, is used as an excuse for the military/industrial geometry. Building variability is perceived as a threat, and is countered by arguments about excessive production costs. Those arguments support the belief that central planning is an economic and social necessity. Yet, such arguments have been shown again and again to be invalid. It is once more the industrial, mechanical paradigm of linear production (and linear thinking) that does not allow developers of social housing to consider variability, heterogeneity, and complexity as essential features in their projects.
In a manner similar to the application of new technology to factory production, a justification is often presented in terms of cost and efficiency, but the underlying logic is a logic of control. In the context of the modern state, it is often more crucial to maintain standards, transparency, and accountability than to reduce cost in absolute terms. As a result, it has become all too common for the structures of bureaucratic administration (with the best of intentions, and regardless of ideological leanings of Left or Right) to impose standards that disrupt the very thing they hope to accomplish.
Adaptability to individual needs requires design freedom so that every unit could be different, with its shape and position decided in large part by its future residents. It is indeed possible to do that. Nevertheless, both sides of the political spectrum strongly oppose design freedom. The Right considers poor people not to deserve such attention, and that a custom-made house is the exclusive privilege of the wealthy class. The Left, on the other hand, stands firmly behind its belief of fundamental equality, which it misinterprets as forbidding houses in social development from being in any way different from each other. Institutions such as banks, construction companies, and land surveyors get frightened by the prospect of having to deal with individual variations.
Modular components restrict design freedom
Control is exerted in other, more subtle ways as a result of standardization. A cheaply produced building module available in the marketplace, if it is large enough, replaces other, better alternatives. Modular components restrict design freedom, because they influence the final product resulting from their assembly (Alexander, 2001-2005; Salingaros, 2006). Governments that sponsor social housing do like to promote industrial modules and components, and to discourage construction that is shaped individually. Nevertheless, local production could be achieved more cheaply, and solves part of the unemployment problem. An industrial geometry embodied in architectural and urban typologies is eventually reflected in the built environment.
The natural environment becomes one more casualty of the geometry of control. Nature and life are visually “messy”. Topographical features such as rocks, hills, and streams; as well as trees and plant life, pose challenges to a flat, rectangular geometry, and are thus usually eliminated. Local governments put in the effort to eradicate organic elements from the “ideal” sterile environment. Sometimes (but not always), this act of aggression against nature is mollified after the fact by planting a few non-native trees in strict geometrical alignment and making up a phony rock landscape as a visual sculpture. Existing native plant species are regarded as unwelcome, and only an artificial-looking lawn is acceptable (because it is sleek and does not grow unevenly like other plants). In low-income housing, even that is considered an unaffordable luxury, so in the end, the project acquires an unnatural, lifeless character, totally lacking in connections to plant growth.