Publicly subsidized housing provides shelter for some of the most vulnerable members of society, giving them a chance at security. Overarching problems such as inequality and poverty aren’t directly addressed, but having suitable, comfortable living spaces adds “bandwidth” to people’s cognitive abilities, allowing them energy to pursue night classes or pay bills on time.
Jay Z and Oprah at the Marcy Projects. Image via.
Social housing also plays a large role in the general population's imagination. The narrative of Jay Z—growing up in the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn and rising to the level of celebrity, CEO, and part owner/cheerleader of the Barclay Center—is the 21st century's answer to Horatio Alger. His "escape" from public housing is the triumph of the story, the buildings of Marcy a physical representation of what was holding him back from reaching his full potential.
Vele di Scampia, Naples, Italy. Image via.
It's hard to argue with the contention that the design of public housing may create many of the problems found there. Housing projects tend to be isolating with little community structure built around them. Often they are found in food deserts, far from the nearest affordable, healthy grocery store.
The Vele di Scampia homes in Italy and the Pruitt Igoe projects in St. Louis were probably the furthest thing from Corbusier’s mind when he designed the Unité d'Habitation, a utopian solution to the post-war housing problems of France. However, Corbusier's design program actually became a touchstone for many of the social housing projects like these. (The typology of public housing may have been much different if Corbusier had been able to get the steel and glass he desired, which was unavailable because of World War II.)
Pruitt Igoe Housing Project, St. Louis, Missouri.
Now, the architecture of public housing is shifting away from the brutalist concrete structures of the past. Issues including access to public transportation and supermarkets are also being addressed, creating a holistic approach to housing. Here are some examples of social housing that break away from the utilitarian model, offering a secure housing base from which residents can not only survive, but thrive.