Architecture for the Rich; Mere Shelter for the Poor
Urban Crossroads #77

I recently was talking to an architect who works at a small office primarily engaged in designing single-family residences. I asked him how the office is doing, and he answered that they feel their work has advanced to the point where they would like to attract a few rich clients. He added that this would give them the freedom to carry out the kinds of designs they always aimed at.

Architects historically have been attracted to wealthy clients like moth to a flame. For many architects, good architecture and expensive buildings go hand in hand. Admittedly, a few well-known architects during the twentieth century did try to develop housing for those with limited means, but these attempts usually were short-lived. German modernists such as Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius took it as a main goal in the early phases of their careers, during the 1920s and 1930s, to develop new prototypes for workers’ housing, but eventually abandoned that ideal and ended up designing expensive buildings for rich and powerful individuals and institutions.

In our part of the world, architect Hassan Fathy designed and built during the 1940s a complete village, New Gourna, for a poor rural community in Egypt, and documented the process and results in his celebrated monograph, Architecture for the Poor. Fathy has been a hero to many around the world who view architecture as a tool for helping uplift people from poverty. His experiments unfortunately were not very successful, and the villagers for whom he built his elegant traditionally-inspired mud-brick houses did not particularly like them. They preferred to live in houses that resembled what they believed a house in the city should look like, rather than the traditional mud-brick dwellings that Fathy created for (some would say, imposed upon) them, and that were inspired by their rural roots, which they wished to escape for they associated rural life with misery and poverty. Not unlike Mies and Gropius, Fathy ended up primarily designing expensive houses for wealthy patrons, mainly in the Middle East, who appreciated and enjoyed his romantic vision of rural life and its architecture.

In the final result, one rarely comes across architects of acclaim who design for the poor. Of course, these architects may design public buildings and spaces, which to some extent are accessible to all, rich or poor. This is especially the case with public works such as religious buildings, museums, and parks. When it comes to housing, however, successful architects seem to only design for the rich. One may come across the occasional exception, such as architectural students who briefly dabble with theoretical exercises aimed at creating low-income (also known as social or public) housing for the fun of it or while going through a short-lived fit of idealism before they enter the “real” world of architecture. Most established architects, however, consider designing houses for the poor in the same vain that a five-star restaurant chef would consider operating a street-side falafel stand. There simply is too little money and too little professional recognition in such endeavors.

Many architects not only stay away from designing low-income housing, but would not even have a clue as how to set about doing it. In the rare cases when they try, their ignorance in this field of housing brings about disastrous outcomes, whether it is in buildings for which costs skyrocket above the initial budget, or in buildings that fall apart soon after their completion, or whose residents find unusable and therefore end up abusing or abandoning. The vast majority of architects simply do not have the know-how to create buildings that are economical to build, but also are pleasant to live in, use little energy, and promote healthy social relations between neighbors.

In fact, many architects (as well as many non-architects) unfortunately view low-income housing as no more than a rudimentary protective shelter for the poor, and existing examples promote this view. Most such housing is abysmal, and consists of mere building rather than the more elevated architecture. In rural areas, low-income housing consists of shoddily-built concrete sheds, and in cities, it often consists of large characterless building blocks that quickly fall into dilapidation. And I am not even referring to slum areas, or what euphemistically is referred to as “informal housing,” which often simply consist of not much more than cement blocks covered with corrugated metal sheets.

While such appalling examples of housing proliferate, successful architects increasingly view themselves as the equivalent to haute-couture designers, detached from the needs and aspirations not only of the poor, but also from much of the population, who cannot afford to live in custom-made, architect-designed dwellings. Architecture consequently is becoming an art of luxury separated from the lives of most.

There is a need to redirect the energies of architects to serve humanity as a whole, rather than wealthy elites. Good examples of this do exist. In a number of European countries such as The Netherlands, governments regularly commission architects and cover their design fees to develop public housing solutions, thus helping create high-quality examples of it. Some good examples also are found in less affluent countries, where a minority of architects has heroically dedicated energies to improving the built environment for the poor through working with and for them, even though there is little gold or glory in the process.

A few good examples also exist here in Jordan, where the government-owned company Mawared has commissioned a number of respected local architectural offices to come up with high-quality middle and low-income housing prototypes in Zarqa. The Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority also invited a few years ago respected local architectural offices to submit proposals for designing whole communities that serve low-income groups. Back in the 1980s, a number of Jordan’s leading architects designed very good examples of middle-income housing projects. More importantly, the Housing and Urban Development Corporation then was engaged in developing well-thought-out housing solutions in low-income areas, and their work received international recognition. All these efforts should be built upon as the Jordanian government embarks upon an ambitious undertaking aimed at meeting the housing requirements of low-income segments of the population. There is a need to think seriously about the quality, and not just the quantity, of such housing.

Over the past decade or so, various developments in production processes, often linked to globalization, have aimed at making adequately-designed and affordable products, including clothing, furniture and household items, electrical and electronic equipment, and even automobiles (the $2,500 Tata car was a dominant news item lately), available to a wide range of income groups at a scale not known before. Some of these efforts have been successful and others have not. Still, these developments have not extended to include the more locally-based housing industry, where quality seems to continuously go down and prices go up. In the meantime, architecture values itself as a profession that produces creative problem-solvers. It would be greatly welcome if whatever creative energies that exist in the profession would be re-channeled to improving the quality of the housing stock for all, rather than merely satisfying the indulgences of the rich.

Achieving this goal is a major challenge, and it involves a complete transformation of the profession of architecture. Such transformations include extensively rethinking architectural education. It also includes developing new financial models relating to the compensation of architects to allow them to dedicate more of their energies to designing housing solutions for those who have too little money rather than only for those who have too much of it.

Mohammad al-Asad

February 7, 2008