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Vienna’s Karl Marx-Hof apartments.

Aesthetic public housing

The impression of public housing as dull, dilapidated, and dangerous has always worked in favour of those who would rather there be no public housing at all.

1. Red Vienna

A robust labour movement with socialist leadership had established itself in Austria during industrialization in the late ninteenth century, but socialism really came into its own after the First World War, when the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy created new political openings. In Vienna, the Social Democratic Workers Party came to power in 1919 and immediately set about implementing an ambitious reform programme.

Red Vienna’s social housing was designed not just as a place for workers to recharge between shifts — what Barbara Ehrenreich has aptly called “canned labour” — but as a place to live. The majestic apartment buildings featured leafy courtyards, copious open space, and plenty of natural light. They had well-equipped shared laundries and communal state-of-the-art kitchen facilities. They were connected to, and sometimes contained within them, public schools and cooperative stores. Many even had bathhouses and swimming pools, healthcare and childcare centres, pharmacies, post offices, and libraries on the premises.

Vienna continued to build desirable social housing after the war, and today 62 percent of the city’s residents live in social housing, compared to 5 percent in New York City.

“We have an old idea here that not only rich people should live in good conditions,” says one 52-year-old social housing resident in Vienna. “It’s an important idea and we should hold onto it.”

2. British Council Housing

In 1979, 42 percent of Brits lived in public housing. Some council estates were modest, while others — like the charming, eccentric turn-of-the-century Boundary Street Estate, or the striking modernist buildings designed by communist architect Berthold Lubetkin — were carefully planned for maximum livability and architectural allure.

British social housing was funded through progressive taxation, an arrangement that social democrats justified by pointing out that public housing tenants performed the labour that made large personal fortunes possible. Naturally, this never sat well with the domestic ruling class. Deliberate underfunding of the housing projects — rationalized as a consequence of unavoidable recession-era belt-tightening — began in the 1970s, followed by a full-on privatization scheme in the 1980s.

As shelter costs creep up on earnings across the UK, many who grew up in public council housing are nostalgic for a time when working-class tenants were protected from the vagaries of the private rental market. They remember their council-house upbringings fondly. “You practically knew every kid that was here, and you always had someone to play with,” recalls one woman who grew up in the Quaker Court Estate in London. “The parents got on brilliantly as well. If one of you was having a party, the whole lot of you would go.”

Only 8 percent of Brits live in public housing today, but they still have a stronger intuition about social housing than Americans do. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has recently proposed an ambitious new social housing initiative, and it’s been received with an enthusiasm that’s difficult — though not impossible — to imagine in the United States.

3. Spain’s Architecturally Adventurous Housing Projects

Though privatization and austerity are on the march everywhere, the social-democratic legacy of high-quality public housing hasn’t entirely evaporated. Particularly in Europe, there are a handful of recent developments that draw inspiration from the projects of the past — particularly their architectural legacy. Spain has recently taken up the mantle, and has turned its public housing programme into an opportunity for architectural experimentation.

In Madrid, the Mirador housing project features a large open space in the middle of the vertical building that doubles as a communal plaza, while the Carabanchel Social Housing project is heavy on bamboo and the 120 Parla project has a retro-futuristic appearance. In Barcelona, the Torre Plaça Europa looks identical to a pricey condo building in London or New York City — same with the Parc Central Social Housing Building in Valencia. The Sa Pobla project in Mallorca looks like something a movie star would rent out for an Instagrammable vacation, and social housing for mineworkers in Asturias is a geometric novelty, inspired in color and shape by the coal that the miners extract.

Savonnerie Heymans in Brussels.

These buildings are often located on the peripheries of cities, where land is cheaper — for a reason, since these areas are underdeveloped and remote. Building social housing on the outskirts tends to segregate working-class tenants and burden them with costly and time-consuming travel, a mistake also made by the otherwise relatively successful Swedish miljonprogrammet, or Million Program. Fashionable buildings are an improvement, but ultimately unsatisfactory if there aren’t shops or schools nearby.

4. Savonnerie Heymans and Le Lorrain, Brussels

Brussels has given Spain a run for its money in recent years. Two developments in particular — Savonnerie Heymans and Le Lorrain — are shining examples of social housing architecture.

Savonnerie Heymans, named after the soap factory that used to occupy the site, is less than half a mile from Brussels’ central square. It comprises dozens of units of varying types — studios, lofts, duplexes and apartments ranging from one to six bedrooms. The architecture is as varied as the units themselves: there are boxlike structures made from glass and slatted wood that have a modern Finnish-sauna feel, and white pitched-roof dwellings that resemble modern interpretations of Belgian cottages. In the middle is the old chimney from the soap factory, the kind of homage to industrial history that’s usually cloying in bourgeois settings, less so in a social housing project.

The smaller Le Lorrain is designed by the same architects and is also a renovated industrial complex, this one an old iron dealer. The new estate is spotless and stylish, like something out of Kinfolk or Dwell. But what’s remarkable about Savonnerie Heymans and Le Lorrain isn’t just their pleasing architecture; it’s that, unlike the Spanish projects, they’re located on high-value lots in lively neighborhoods, avoiding the problem of working-class siloing. Their designs also encourage communal life to a greater extent: plenty of shared outdoor space, pavilions and gardens and “mini-forests,” and Savonnerie Heymans even has a game library for kids.

The major downside to social housing in Belgium is that it’s a complicated public-private affair, with a labyrinthine nexus of developers, providers, payers and categories of tenant. The system is decentralized, and while Brussels doesn’t allow tenants to buy (or eventually sell) public housing as Britain does, other Belgian regions do — and there’s a danger that Brussels could fall prey to this policy, as austerity and neoliberalism break the social-democratic commitments of municipal governments across Europe.

5. Participatory Social Housing in Chile

One of the most inventive social housing experiments of the last few decades is the Quinta Monroy Housing project in Iquique, Chile.

In search of a solution to dangerous living conditions in unsanctioned dwellings, the Chilean state tapped architect Alejandro Aravena in 2004 to turn the slums into social housing.

Aravena came up with an idea: the state would provide half a house to each tenant, featuring a sturdy exterior shell and necessary interior infrastructure like bathrooms and kitchens. The residents could add onto them as they wished. Aravena calls this participatory housing.

The upsides to this approach are many. In Quinta Monroy as well as in subsequent developments — including one in Mexico — a major emphasis has been placed on proximity of the site to amenities and opportunities, so they’re all situated close to city centers. And they also double as social services locations, with job training and childcare on site. Finally, as residents build out their units they get an opportunity to be creative and expressive of their unique sensibilities.

But while the housing developments are a huge and necessary step up from dangerous slums, and the final results are eclectic and unique, the project also glorifies thrift and reifies lack of state resources in a way that’s at odds with a truly socialist vision of public housing. Aravena’s idea is a clever solution to a problem — slender state budgets — that doesn’t need to exist. Chile and Mexico boast the largest wealth gaps in the entire world. There is an underlying problem of resource distribution that participatory housing fails to address, and even affirms with its concessionary orientation to public-sector frugality.

The Socialist Vision

Though all these projects have their flaws and vulnerabilities, the British, Spanish, Belgian and Chilean social housing experiments all seriously trouble the idea that public housing must be ugly and uniform and ought to bear no markings of permanence or features of communal life. (Jeevan Thiagarajah)

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