Special Subject: Urban Housing— Re-theorizing the Architecture of Housing as Grounds for Research and Practice

Permission of instructor
Limited to 15
Preference Given to: 
MArch, SMArchS, DUSP

In this seminar, we will unpack the ideologies embedded in the language we use to talk about housing. Words are a powerful vehicle to advance a rarely acknowledged agenda and hence frame not only the financial, social, and political dimensions of housing, but its design.

As benign as it may seem, every term we use encapsulates normative assumptions. For example, architects, policy makers, and users alike incessantly invoke “community” to suggest positively-connoted ideas of participation and belonging, and yet rarely address who this framing may in fact exclude or why it so often leads to “contextual” urban design.

We almost invariably quantify housing in terms of “units,” but seldom question the underlying, prescriptive definition of “household”. This in turn leads to a limited range of dwelling “types.” Some words have astonishing duration, but their meanings change: in the 1960s, “environment” was used to describe the “social” and “physical” conditions of dwelling, yet today, the term relates to “nature.” Why and how did these meanings shift?

Other terms fall out of use, and yet their rationale lives on: in the 1940s, policy makers used “obsolescent” to justify slum clearance and urban renewal; today, they choose “underused” as a reason to up-zone a site. Underlying both terms is a similar striving for economic maximization, and the outcome is the same: redevelopment.

Studying the trajectory of how words evolved across time, place, and disciplines reveals not only the instrumentality of language, but also allows designers and planners to better understand the meaning of their work today. This is particularly urgent at a moment in which the “housing crisis” has moved center stage both nationally and globally — architects and planners need the ability to contribute to and change the conversation on this issue that is largely economic and political in nature.

The class is structured around a selection of key terms. We will dissect these terms through the close reading of canonical and lesser-known texts from the fields of architecture and urban studies; primary sources including laws, codes, and guidelines; as well as recent scholarship from across a range of disciplines. In parallel, we will analyze the architecture of selected case studies in contemporary US housing, including two field trips in the Boston area. Students will select a term of their choice as a point of departure to develop their own research project.

The seminar is related to the work of the research group “Re-theorizing the Architecture of Housing as Grounds for Research and Practice” at IIAS Jerusalem, co-organized by Susanne Schindler, Gaia Caramellino and Yael Allweil during the academic year 2019-20.