Social housing, when 1000 homes equal one city
Institutional Communication Service
4 January 2021
Martino Pedrozzi is an independent architect and, since 2016, visiting professor at the USI Academy of Architecture, where he directs the workshop on International social housing (www.wish.usi.ch). He has published several volumes, most recently one on residential building and public areas in Lugano (Casagrande, 2020). Pedrozzi has given public lectures about his work on social housing all over the globe, inlcuding Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, China, South Africa, and the U.S.
At USI Università della Svizzera italiana the term ‘sustainability’ is more than just a fancy buzzword: it is one of the essential elements that define the focus of education and scientific research at the University. This element is one that comes natural to the Academy of Architecture in Mendrisio where, for the past 15 years, Swiss architect Martino Pedrozzi has worked on the subject of social housing, mainly through the Workshop on International Social Housing (WISH). Social housing stems from a basic necessity: to provide a home to those who simply cannot afford it on their own. This may seem somewhat of a remote concern to most of us, but housing is actually a priority that affects millions of human beings all over the planet – and not just in poor countries: the issue of affordable housing is relevant to the South American favela no less that it is to the suburbs of Boston. One of the main sources of the problem is the change in urban social structure – due mainly to population growth, migration, and aging – occurring over the past few decades in all major urban areas on the planet, which today involves, in different ways and scales, also small towns – including prosperous cities like Lugano.
Architect Pedrozzi, what does social housing deal with, specifically?
Social housing aims to answer questions such as how to avoid the creation of 21st century ghettos and commuter towns (or ‘bedroom communities’), and how to encourage social interaction between individuals and families, stores and services – which are the cornerstone of a society that can be defined as such. Integration is the ultimate goal of social housing. This means, first, integrating the architectural Project in its context: a new neighbourhood of this type must be able to fit into the existing environment, respectfully, using or improving existing traffic routes, considering terrain and climate, and trying to minimise the forming of residual spaces. A new social housing complex should not be an alien body to the city, rather a natural extension of it. It is not easy to pursue this objective, especially since zoning procedures tend to assign social constructions to the suburbs, where building in a careful and rational way represents a challenge in itself. The standardisation of housing projects, which has the clear advantage of simplifying building processes and further reducing costs, can also be a problem: I have seen the construction of "copycat" neighbourhoods in cities that are completely different from all points of view, with the inevitable result of compromising the fundamental and ultimate goal of a healthy social housing Project, namely the integration of people within an existing social community. We should imagine the city as a living organism, where neighbourhoods are the limbs, and streets, plazas and services are the muscles and vessels. Attaching a new limb without making sure it is well connected to the heart, attaching a new organ without balancing its functions with those of the existing ones is a dangerous practice, which unfortunately is often the most common. For this reason with the WISH project, we have been striving for 15 years now to create a new generation of architects, who will become more aware of the relevance of this issue and this approach, and who will be increasingly assertive when dealing with urban planning situations.
Would you agree that the overall reputation of "social housing" is not always the best?
Here I would like to argue in favour of the category, that is, of architects. One of the critical factors for the success of good social housing is undoubtedly the quality of the Project and the designer, although its maintenance and administration play an equally important role. If the image and reputation of many social housing complexes is not always good – to put it mildly – it is mostly due to bad administration: a good idea can easily turn into a bad result, due to an often fragile and complicated political and economic environment, which leads to all but good and efficient management. Architecture is very much a living matter; it evolves with time and to continue to pursue its mission it needs to be able to adapt to the changing circumstances in which it finds itself. A well-conceived but poorly managed neighbourhood quickly loses its strength and purpose. If we want architecture to achieve lasting and sustainable results over time, then we should create a genuine professional culture around it, through the essential and continuous debate, thus encouraging all actors involved towards constant improvement.
How do you see the situation in Ticino?
In our Canton, there are many examples of good social housing projects, though regrettably they are often unheard of. An example is the social housing complex signed by the architect Rino Tami in the Molino Nuovo district in Lugano, defined by Tita Carloni as "a fine example of social architecture, according to the best tradition of the Swiss Siedlungen (settlements), tempered by an architectural language related to the constructions of the Ticino and Lombard tradition". The Project was designed precisely on the principle of integration mentioned before, with a large central green public space connected to the surrounding environment, in a perspective of lively socialisation and open to the rest of the neighbourhood. Given the attractiveness of the land for more profitable constructions (in line with what has occurred, and still is, in much of Lugano), one project had actually advanced the idea for the partial demolition of the Tami complex, to make room for a "higher standing" building. In the end, the proposal was rejected and the original Tami complex was saved, but with a compromise: the central public green space was sacrificed to a building several storeys high. Nevertheless, this is a meaningful story of economic interests but also of normal social evolution, of a suburb that becomes the city centre, of the difficulty of proposing solutions of harmonious integration between divergent needs. The goal we have set ourselves with WISH is to contribute – all over the world – to promoting the culture of social housing, well beyond the professional boundaries of architecture as such. In our profession, there is also a component of service for the community, of commitment to solving the great problems of our time, which requires us to form a new, conscious figure of architect.
In addition to the book celebrating 15 years of WISH, this year you have published a volume on residential building and public areas in Lugano. Tell us more about it.
About two years ago my students of the Academy of Architecture, my assistants and I, took a walk through the residential neighbourhoods of Lugano, with the intention to analyse the urban structure and the value given to the public domain. The effects of the building spree that has occurred over the decades are there to be seen. The ubiquitous small apartment buildings placed in the middle of the parcel have not only contributed to creating an inconsistent and fragmented urban context, but have also ruled out collective spaces, generating areas lacking some sort of identity. We then focused on thirteen cases where the architectural Project has indeed managed to relate with the surroundings. These Projects represent good examples of what we believe can help forge an urban identity, for the relevance of their architecture and for the strong relationship with the overall context in which they find themselves.
In general, if we take a bird's-eye view of the city of Lugano, we observe a settlement without a recognisable urban planning system. The prevailing driving force behind the urbanisation of Lugano still lies in realm of private property, to the extent that today's city structure often follows the layout of ancient agricultural maps. For many years, the lack of adequate regulations made it almost impossible to deal with the urban transformations that began in the first half of the twentieth century and that increased in the post-war period, with consequences such as the scarcity of coherent urban and architectural solutions and the fragmentation of – and generally amorphous – public areas. As mentioned before, the typical small apartment building does not seek relations with the surrounding context. Very often, in fact, these dwellings are surrounded by an area that is often nothing more than the residual space given by the (mandatory) distances between buildings – which are further enclosed by fences, hedges, walls or gates. Needless to say, the sum of buildings does not generate a city. On the contrary, it tends to deny the public space, which in this respect is unjustly considered in a punctual and isolated form and never as a unique and coherent Project. The issue of housing is of course not new to the denizens of Lugano. Just think of the Sassello district - right next to the posh Via Nassa –, which was torn down in the 1930s to make room for the office buildings, thus removing an entire class of citizens from the city centre. Or the current and lively debate on the subject of affordable housing, which concerns neighbourhoods like Molino Nuovo, where speculative real estate is squeezing out longstanding denizens to make room for higher standing (and costly) buildings.
Among the dozen examples analysed, we see also the famous Quatiere Maghetti…
Indeed, the Maghetti neighbourhood has many qualities. The public urban spaces (the indoor plaza, for example) and the semi-public ones (the bridge, the alley and the entrances to the houses), are all elements that underscore the intention to recreate dynamics comparable to those of a village. The access points to the Maghetti fit well into the pre-existing urban context, which creates a continuous and fluid public space between the surroundings and the inner spaces of the complex.
[by courtesy of Ticino Welcome magazine, issue n. 68, pp.40-42, December 2020-February 2021]