Housing is a Process, not a Product

By July 25, 2019 Blog

Kathrin Golda-Pongratz (Augsburg, 1971) is an architect, urban planner, and professor at the UIC Barcelona School of Architecture. She has carried out research into urbanisation processes linked to migration, informal growth and housing policies in Latin America over many years. She has recently been awarded a FAD award in the category of Thought and Critique for her work as co-author and co-editor (with José Luis Oyón and Volker Zimmermann) of the book “Autoconstrucción. Por una autonomía del habitar. Escritos sobre vivienda, urbanismo, autogestión y holismo”. The book features selected works by the English architect John F. C. Turner, and seeks to offer the reader a closer look at little known aspects of his life and professional journey. Furthermore, Kathrin co-directed the documentary “Ciudad infinita – Voces del Ermitaño”, which is also closely related to Turner’s work.

We met with Kathrin and talked to her about her book and the documentary, as well as current housing and construction processes and their impact on society.

You have recently been awarded a FAD Award for your book “Autoconstrucción. Por una autonomía del habitar”, published by Pepitas de Calabaza. Where did the idea for the project originate and how did it develop from there?

The book is the product of a long conversation, collaboration and friendship with the English architect John F. C. Turner, who just turned 92. In 2003, while I was working on my doctoral thesis on Lima, I was invited to write for the Architectural Design magazin. The invitation was sent to me exactly 40 years after Turner published his well-known “Dwelling Resources in South America” in that magazine. It was my first contact with Turner, who since then has become a very close and important person in my life. A few years later, José Luis Oyón and I developed the idea of traveling to Hastings and to interview the architect, together with Volker Zimmermann, who in the course of this project began his doctoral thesis on Turner. During the conversations with John in that week in the summer of 2011, we realized the complexity and relevance of his thinking far beyond what is generally known about him. So we took the decision to make a book, to translate Turner’s key texts and to show the evolution of his holistic thinking and contemporary ideas that are invariably linked to placemaking and the processes of community creation. José Luis Oyón presented the proposal to Pepitas de Calabaza publishing house for us and it was accepted. They selected the book as the first of a new series, the La Llar series, and it was eventually published in 2018.

John Turner during the interview at his home in 2011

The book brings together much of the practical and theoretical work of the English architect John F. C. Turner, who is known for his commitment, research and practice of self-built housing, especially in Latin America. What is the relevance of Turner’s work for current generations?

We selected ten Turner texts published between 1948 and 2002 and translated them into Spanish. In his writings spanning almost 60 years, the author reveals his thoughts on housing inspired by the work of the Scottish biologist and urban planner Patrick Geddes, an important influence since Turner’s university years. Beyond a creative and open vision of self-built housing, Turner has dedicated much of his life developing a philosophy of housing and a conception of the relationships between space and society. This vision is what we wanted to make accessible to the reader, to turn it into a tool that explains the processes of placemaking. This is the profound value and ultimate relevance of Turner’s work.

Many people directly associate the concept of self-built housing with the illegal occupation of land or the generation of marginal spaces on the periphery of cities. However, some theorists see this option as an alternative to the current housing problem. Are these more informal urbanization processes not indeed the result of the strong pressure that the market places on housing? Can they be a true alternative to a system that excludes so many people?

Turner is one of the theorists who at the beginning of the 60’s focused on the Lima neighbourhoods as “resources” in response to a lack of production of public housing, basically self-construction as “architecture that works”. But his view is neither simplistic nor romanticized, nor is it an advertisement for the expansion of slums or shanty towns. Turner painstakingly analyses the issue of land tenure and its political dimension. He lived and worked in Peru in an era in which the government itself initiated technical assistance programs for the “urbanizaciones populares” – or popular housing developments. Turner names Charles Abrams as one of the relevant sources for the development of his ideas. Abrams’ book “Man’s Struggle for Shelter in an Urbanizing World” is quoted in the foreword of “Self-construction”: “A land policy that would have granted him [the invader] a site, however small and humble, might have prevented a critical challenge to social and political equilibrium in the underdeveloped areas. But this obligation has never been accepted by the more developed nations of the world as a charge upon their consciences.” (p. 24 in the MIT press edition from 1964).

The cities in these “more developed nations”, including Barcelona, are facing this enormous problem you mention: the market pressure on housing that undermines the right to housing, with the result that cities become uninhabitable for the population with medium or low income. Some cities such as Berlin or Vienna are beginning to take municipal land off the market in order to ensure the construction of social and public housing. Vienna’s International Housing Exhibition (IBA), planned for 2022, includes projects with “experimental housing forms” that take up the concept of self-construction. This inevitably reminds me of John Turner’s ideas, if we talk about reactivating the essence of housing, not as a market product, but as a process, as an evolutionary element in the biography of each and every one, and as a key piece in community creation within the city.

First screening of the documentary “A Roof of My Own” at a venue in El Ermitaño

Recently, the documentary “Ciudad infinita – Voces del Ermitaño”, which you co-directed, premiered in Barcelona. What kind of debate do you hope to stimulate with this documentary?

This documentary is closely related to the book and the work of John F.C. Turner, as its origins lie in the documentary “A Roof of My Own” (Turner, Movshon 1964) about the process of self-construction in the El Ermitaño neighbourhood in Lima, filmed by the United Nations. When I found this documentary in Turner’s archive, the project almost forced itself on me: this visual memory had to be returned to the place where it was filmed. Activating this memory would be the beginning of a new story in the form of a new documentary. I started this adventure in 2016 with a small Peruvian team, and with parts of the population of El Ermitaño, located in Lima’s Cono Norte.  Two years later, in October 2018, the documentary premiered in Lima, and now we are exploring how to give it more visibility and reach a wider audience. Although it tells the history and reality of a specific place, it also carries a universal message. A decent home and a safe and healthy vital environment is what all human beings need.

“Ciudad Infinita – Voces de El Ermitaño” gives a voice, literally, to the inhabitants of today’s neighborhood and is at the same time a placemaking tool, given that it is a key piece in the creation of the collective memory of the community – a community that emerged as a result of an invasion and whose struggle for the construction of a neighbourhood has been acute and important. The main concerns of the protagonists of the documentary concentrate on the issue of migration, on the one hand, and on the relationships between housing and the public and natural environment on the other. We need to look for strategies to limit urban expansion, to consolidate and densify the initial self-built city and to protect, with the help of the population itself, the natural environment, the microclimate of the hills and the pre-Hispanic cultural landscape. The documentary and research work recognizes the territory that Lima occupies today as an interrelated system. Hopefully, with the documentary as a tool, the inhabitants can actively participate as actors and protagonists responsible for the protection of the cultural heritage and the ecological balance of their habitat. And hopefully the message will also reach politics and create a greater awareness for neighbourhoods like El Ermitaño.

Urbanization processes linked to migration, housing policies and urban memory are some of the topics that you focus on in your work and research. Does the way in which urbanism is practised today consider these aspects?

The type of urbanism that I embrace, and that I try to teach as an educator, starts with a thorough analysis of a place, a community, a territory and its built and cultural layers in their entirety. The act of seeing, observing and understanding is fundamental. Town planners like Patrick Geddes or Lewis Mumford have taught us that. Ildefons Cerdà, who created the Eixample of Barcelona, demonstrated a very comprehensive territorial vision when he wrote his “General Theory of Urbanization”, a fundamental document of modern urbanism. In contemporary practice, volumes, built masses and uses are usually distributed at the drawing table or the computer screen in the office, according to availability, interests or economic frameworks. Many town planning concepts and large master plans do not consider the climatic or territorial idiosyncrasies, which is why urban development has produced major natural imbalances that, in turn, endanger these same large urbanizations and their inhabitants. In this respect, the brutal urbanization of Spain’s coastal area is just one of many examples.

Barcelona has been subject to strong pressure from urban development for years, which resulted in substantial problems to access housing for the vast majority of its population. Are politicians, academics and the civil society doing enough to be able to reverse this situation?

Yes, the pressure on Barcelona is increasing and so is the difficulty to access housing. It will be difficult to reverse the pressure, but it will be possible to balance it out a little. Barcelona is a compact city with a very good infrastructure network and a lot of innovative potential, also regarding new forms of ownership and co-living, I hope. Home ownership is deeply rooted culturally both in Catalonia and in Spain, and went hand in hand with the production of housing as a mass market product during the last half century or even more. Banks and real estate developers took advantage of this indiscriminately before and during the so-called “crisis.” The phenomenon of the second residence was closely connected to the urbanization of the coast that I just mentioned. And it spiralled completely out of control with the arrival of foreign capital, which is now also appropriating the historic neighbourhoods of the big cities. Investors acquire entire buildings in Ciutat Vella, Gràcia or El Raval, expel the population, and convert them into another type of second residence: for tourists, as luxury residences, or as capital itself, therefore treating housing as a commodity of speculation. This way, the neighbourhoods gradually lose their essence, their life. The City Council itself and the Generalitat have acted in a shortsighted way and sold their valuable land and buildings, instead of saving them. The constant rise in rents has not been countered so far by any mechanism that would be capable of stopping it. The time will come when a doctor, a teacher, a craftsman or an electrician will no longer be able to live in the city, because they cannot find a home within their financial reach. This is already happening in London and in Munich, resulting in a lack of these professions in the city. Hopefully this phenomenon can provide some self-regulation.

What lessons could our city learn from the processes that are taking place in Latin America?

For many decades, our city has been a reference for Latin American cities. The “Barcelona model” and its strategy of urban acupuncture during the 80’s is widely known for the value that has been given to public spaces and for its investment in the neighbourhoods. Academic and public institutions have also exported the investment policies for the improvement of the peripheral neighbourhoods. Sometimes it has been forgotten that the fundamental anchor for these transformations was a very active civil society, and that this urban spirit and neighbourhood pride cannot be exported as such. Nor has the important role that self-construction also played in Barcelona been sufficiently emphasized.

What Barcelona at this time perhaps can learn from the Latin American context in which, despite many positive developments, the focus on large capital and the neglect of integrative urban policies led to even more significant social inequalities, is this: to recover the most important value it has, which are its neighbourhoods. The neighbourhoods that with all their differences and complexity make Barcelona the city we all love. I think the current municipal government is aware of this. We have to ensure that there is no further loss of population in Ciutat Vella, that there is no increase in poverty in Ciutat Meridiana, and that there is no further consolidation of the disregarded shantytowns expanding over Poble Nou, right next to the enormous still unfinished real estate miracles.

Many theorists agree that cities are already decisive actors in the fight against the devastating effects of climate change. How is this reality affecting urban development processes? Is there a real paradigm shift?

Right now the first thing mentioned in this context, especially in northern Europe, are the “Fridays For Future”, where young people meet week after week to claim a paradigm shift. They seem to have an impact on their own families, on society and on political debates, where the demand for a better future and for real action against global warming has become much urgent. These movements have also emerged in and through the cities. And it is true that an effective recycling system, a public transport concept or the regulation of climate efficiency of buildings in a city can make a major change. The essential aspect hereby is to see the city as a community and understand it in the context of its hinterland, its natural context, whose protection is a guarantee for a better life, both in urban and rural areas. And our first priority should not be to have car parking in front of our house and the most powerful air conditioning, but a shared neighbourhood space with less traffic, more natural ventilation and more shared spaces and infrastructure. Our own behaviour makes a big difference.

Looking at the current situation, how do you think the problem of housing and contemporary cities will evolve?

Housing must cease to be a commodity and a substitute for financial values as is currently the case. Let’s go back to Turner, who in his essay “Housing as a Verb” defines dwelling as an activity, as a verb, as a process and not as a product. This is, by the way, the aspect that interests him most about self-construction. I believe that it will not be possible to curb the interest of investors and large capital to invest in housing. But cities must develop their own strategies to maintain a balance. I believe that we should pursue strategies for the revival of small or medium-sized semi-abandoned cities to stimulate their densification, to make way for cooperative projects, to think about ways of co-living for different ages, to increase the quality of life, to improve interurban public transport and so take the pressure off the big cities. Much more has to be done to convert existing buildings into quality housing. I think that the interest in single-family housing in housing developments and in the main metropolitan areas will diminish. In Germany, we can already see that fewer people pursue the dream of a detached house where in the end only a single old person continues to live, without bakery next door, car-dependant and without a living neighbourhood or an urban context of sharing and exchanging, which is fundamental for a good quality of life.

You teach the module of “Bottom-up strategies for urban regeneration” at our Master in International Cooperation: Sustainable Emergency Architecture. What are the messages you are trying to convey to your students?

We start by reading theoretical sources, relevant discourses and case studies about everything that constitutes “bottom-up”: participation, the struggle for civic rights, different types of micro-politics and strategies of appropriation of urban spaces for the common good. I want to familiarize the students with the role of ad-hoc actions, community organizations and networks, non-formal strategies – sometimes subversive ones – of civil commitment, on the one hand, and with institutional programs and planning and architecture strategies that foster and promote citizen participation and initiatives from civil society, on the other hand. To this, another layer of analysis is added, which is the role of urban and collective memory. What we aim to achieve in the course is to search for tools and propose ways of (re) construction, (re) creation, narration and interpretation of memory in the public space.

El Carmel in Barcelona, an example of self-constructed neighbourhoods in the city

Barcelona serves as a case study, and in one class we tour and observe emblematic spaces on-site. We also visit neighbourhoods such as El Carmel where bottom-up, network building and solidary cooperation have been forming the neighbourhood’s identity. But we also have a global outlook: I am especially interested in exchanging ideas and group work among students who come from different countries, from different cultural backgrounds and with different ways of understanding and using a public space and of dealing with urban memory. This is especially relevant in post-conflict or emergency contexts that are at the core of the master. I try to convey the importance of a sensitivity towards the collective memory of the community and the territory itself when acting in it.

 

The interview was conducted by Selena Ramos, 2ndyear student of Journalism at the UIC Barcelona. It was first published in Spanish by the UIC Barcelona School of Architecture.

Feature image and top image: © Renzo Salazar, Perú 21; all other images: © Kathrin Golda-Pongratz

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