The movement to provide increased affordable housing in cities across the world is gaining momentum as the pace of rural to urban migration continues to accelerate. The internal reorganization of populations, coupled with rising property prices in ever-more prosperous cities, leads to the pricing out of existing residents and the inability of newcomers to find homes. There have generally been two responses to this development from the governments of the ballooning cities of the developing world: Turn a blind eye to illegal construction in hard-to-reach urban areas, or construct vast social housing projects either on land previously occupied by an "undesirable" or "underdeveloped" community or far out in the suburbs.
Surely more housing is a good thing, no matter what form it takes. But what if that housing is, well, bad? What if instead of welcoming residents and increasing their social mobility, it actually disguises problems and traps residents in a cycle of poverty? More to the point: what if instead of helping, it covers over structural social problems ... like with paint, for example?
Pruitt Igoe in St. Louis, Missouri, was demolished in 1972. Image source.
Ever since the demolition of the Pruitt Igoe housing project in St. Louis, Missouri, critics of modernist social utopianism have pointed to social housing as a failed attempt at social engineering. Rather than providing air, clean living quarters, and independence, these buildings (generally modeled somewhat fecklessly and superficially on Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation) came to be seen as incubators of social ills, forcing underprivileged residents to compete with each other in a social system isolated from more mainstream communities.
Of course, some dispute the role architecture played in the problematics of housing projects, but the critique soon turned from social to aesthetic arguments: Articles showcase “housing projects from hell” with images of the buildings themselves rather than the life inside them, while Eastern-bloc cities filled with modernist apartment buildings are often invoked in representations of depression (see EuroTrip’s travels to Bratislava to get the idea).
Navy Green Supportive Housing in Brooklyn, New York.
Thus began the application of a giant band-aid to an exponentially larger issue: Rather than tackle the very problems that cause the need for housing projects, it seems as if governments, architects, and some NGOs all agreed that substandard or problematic living situations just needed a coat of paint to make the buildings less depressing. Entire vibrant (if less than pristine) neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for modernist buildings to house the previous residents (as with Pruitt Igoe) in a more "sanitized" environment, and the only way to ease the overwhelming starkness of these spaces was to bling them out with supersaturated color. From an architectural point of view, this solution, now ubiquitous, is unacceptable (at least in isolation).
To paint over uninspired design rather than invest in more cogent solutions is cynical to say the least. It is as if because future residents have little choice in the matter, they should be happy with what they are given. Of course, anyone would be glad to find a place to call their own, but there are generally more urgent issues at hand—first, designers and developers should make sure that these projects are well-integrated into existing social, cultural, and economic networks.
Alegria in Bayonne, France.
Then again, there are many social housing projects that do, in fact, take these factors into account—and that do attempt, through design or otherwise, to address the problematics of grouping the poor together into single areas. But often, these same projects still go crazy with color, marking residents with a metaphorical scarlet letter. Again, there are many exceptions, but it’s common enough that when one sees a colorful building, one can generally infer the economic status of its inhabitants.
The issue takes on a somewhat different aspect, however, when the color is applied to existing structures rather than from the inception of the project. Here, one might rightly argue that the housing stock is what it is, so one might as well make it look better. Projects such as Favela Painting and a program for Haiti’s Jalousie slum have met with some success, though critics question the allocation of funds toward cosmetic treatments rather than on providing electricity or running water. These sorts of projects also have the ability to raise the value of unofficial properties and thus price out their original residents.
In some cities, the painting has taken place not in unofficial settlements but on buildings that are simply, for want of a more diplomatic term, ugly. In Tirana, Albania, for example, Mayor Edi Rama undertook a project to repaint the downtown in vibrant tones, moving the overall experience of the place from dirty concrete drab to colorful fab. The effects were, in fact, powerful: Crime decreased as did the amount of litter on the streets. But this is a success story that incorporated all buildings within an area, rather than marking out one or two as different. The residents did not have to change any aspect of their lives in order for wider changes to occur.
But the bottom line is that as designers, we should not collude in the camouflaging of issues; rather than a means of alleviation, the practice of spraying the rainbow on any and all housing projects can serve to hide the real problems of poverty and rootlessness. Color is a pleasant stopgap, but like the floorboards in The Tell-Tale Heart, hides issues that eventually fester and explode into protests and violence.
Edi Rama's work in Tirana.