Special Subject: Urban Housing—On Whose Terms? 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 On Whose Terms? we will unpack the ideologies embedded in the language we use to talk about housing. Words are powerful vehicles to advance various agendas and hence frame not only the financial, social, and political dimensions of housing, but its design.

Every term we use encapsulates normative assumptions. Architects, policy makers, and users alike incessantly invoke “community,” for example, 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 notion of “household,” which in turn leads to a limited range of dwelling “types.” 

Some terms are so ubiquitous and so fundamentally part of our capitalist mode of development that we no longer question what they entail. Why, for instance, is “affordable housing” not only defined in relation to, but almost exclusively generated as a by-product of “market-rate” housing? And what does it mean that the term emerged only in the mid-1980s? Other terms have fallen out of use, and yet their rationale lives on: in the early twentieth century, “obsolescent” was used to justify slum clearance and urban renewal; today, “underused” is given as a reason to up-zone a site. Underlying both terms is a similar striving for economic maximization through “density,” and the outcome is the same: redevelopment. 

A central question motivating the seminar is thus: can we envision a form of housing as existing beyond the market, and if yes, how can architecture contribute to this proposition?

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 and impact of their work today. This is particularly urgent at a moment in which the housing “crisis” has moved center stage both nationally and globally. The course posits that architects and planners need to be able to contribute to and change the conversation onanissue that is largely framed in economic and political terms.

The seminar’s goal is not to develop a set of normative practices or replicable models or to coin new terms. Rather, the intent is to sharpen students’ awareness of the assumptions embedded in the way architects talk and think about housing. Rather than immediately jumping to solving an issue like affordability through design, often subsumed as “smarter, more creative, more efficient”—, we will aim to understand what is at stake when architecture is asked to be smart, creative, and efficient, and explore the implications of certain design solutions that have had astonishing persistence in search for cheaper housing, including shrinking, prefabricating, standardizing, and leaving unfinished.

The class is structured around a selection of key terms used to talk about how we live in the United States today. We will dissect these terms through the close reading of canonical and more recent texts written both by practitioners and scholars, and seek to connect these to contemporary policy developments. We will seek to bridge theory and practice throughselected case studies ofcontemporary US housing, including two field trips in the Boston area. As a final project, students will select a term of their choice, a policy or a project as a point of departure to develop their own exploration of how design, policy, and finance intersect in housing.


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.