Sunday, 26 June 2016

CROWDED HOUSE: Crowdsourcing a manifesto for new housing architecture.

At last year’s general election, throughout the Mayoral contest in May, at the current Venice Biennale, and in a growing clamour of publications, there is a prominent consensus that the dysfunction in the production of homes in the UK constitutes a “Housing Crisis”; crises even.

Both the new built supply and the maintained existing stock of homes available for rent or sale are made at the wrong quantity, in the wrong quality, at the wrong size, in the wrong place, for the wrong price.

The consequences of this constricted supply of suitable, affordable accommodation are far-reaching, most measurably visible in rising street homelessness, the spread of hidden homelessness and the impact of acute overcrowding. Less obvious, but anecdotally pervasive, are the effects on the health of individuals and on the stability of communities, whose limited housing options dictate they must travel further to work longer for less, divesting relationships and deferring life events such as marriage and children, further education and retirement. The total system is out of kilter and the price of this is largely being paid by the most vulnerable.

There are those in a blooming generation rent, the ‘precariat’ some have called it, who are suffocated by the costs and the risks at play in the roulette of a private rented sector. A swathe of Gen Y are strenuously funding repayments to a previous generation's mortgage on a buy-to-let nest egg, eking out of a cramped cell at a tube's end only just in reach of their fledgling vocation and miles from their thinly spread support community.

Then, there are those council tenants left high and dry as the welfare state ebbs to a low tide: long-term pillars of local communities who are learning new insecurities amongst failing foundations, shattered from living inside a political football, impersonally cooped in a statistical diagram of policy-makers' expedience.

And, as much deserving of our concern, those aging empty nesters, vilified as the 'have's, who prudently steward their tax-efficient asset, alone, damned by their inheritors if they down-size, damned by society if they don’t. Condemned to a protracted old-age in mono-generational care communities at the gated periphery of national consciousness.

There is hope, however.

Our ambition, in an event calling architects to think theologically about housing, is motivated, in part, by a sense of the vast untapped playground of the imagination which could be plugged into the practice of church, the formation of a parish and the aesthetics of social action. At the same time, Crowded House is motivated, in part, by a dissatisfaction with the often cynical architectural rhetoric around the housing crisis. Declaring a “Housing Crisis” must be done with a precision in our language and with humble responsibility for our own part in the problem and with a grave commitment to play our part in its resolution.

It is easy, and very tempting, for me, to consider the crisis furiously as a tragic inevitability, and to convene events around burning Thatcherite effigies to vent impotent anger at the ruin of social equality. Such housing crisis brigades rally around a brand of righteously indignant cynicism, enjoining the faithful to manage the world’s misbehaviour by cajoling housebuilders to mere minimum standards, and understanding the shortfall in housing production through a fearful and disempowering worldview of cosmic scarcity.

Christianity believes in abundance, provision, generosity and hospitality, Christianity believes God is such and that God is one who interferes in life as such, Christianity is preoccupied by the good and the excellent, it thinks on these things and seeks first that Kingdom.

Now, the housing predicament is serious, and more than an unfortunate glitch in the market, it is a culpable injustice which some speakers at the event will helpfully bring clearer definition to. However, I would like to invite the start of the discussion to begin by seeking-first that ultimate destination, the world we all want, a world of human flourishing immersed in the hedonism of urban vitality. Christians are in this game for the joy, the very real pleasure of pouring out perfume, of stories to tell, of all creation swept up in the unfolding wonder of colour and delight, divine order and glorious serendipity.

Crowded House, today, seeks to better understand the housing crisis as theological and as architectural: believing that there is a theology to good architecture, and there is an architecture to good theology.

Good theology, which clearly, precisely, passionately, outlines a worldview that  springs from the person, character and teaching of Jesus Christ. That is a personal universe, in which an infinitely perfect God, out of love elects to get amongst the grit of the world’s suffering, and long labour with his creation to redeem and resurrect those dead, broken and forgotten places. There is an architecture which speaks that declares such a God to exist, being built on such self-giving foundations

Good architecture, noble, effervescent, intuitive, humane, serving and securing human need and human pleasure, a built environment tailored to cultivate civic relational flourishing, perfecting its setting within nature, crystalising its context within history, great architecture has a theology which undergirds it, a praxis of belief, a supernatural substructure which makes it possible, and which makes it imperative.

That is architecture and theology in the abstract. Into this, we bring three very practical questions regarding the question of home, the institution of the church, and the profession of the architect. Through the presentations, walking tour, workshop and informal discussions through the day, we want to invite you to read these questions onto one another.

Of home. What is a home? An investment, a feeling, an artefact, a memory, a technological solution to the problem of shelter, a middle-class privilege at another’s expense, a crucible of trauma, an object of desire. What is a home’s source? What is a home’s excellence? Where does the resource for that come from?

Of the church. What is church? This network of geographic nodes, a diffuse arrangement of fragile relationships, the sum of its landed assets, the steeples, peoples, hierarchies and schisms, soup kitchens and fancy dress? What is the church for? How can the practice of church, and the transformation of its architectural accessories, affect the cities it finds itself in?

Of the architectural profession.What is it? An over-educated clique of naive privilege, an over-worked cohort of tireless optimists, a racket of abstract thinkers, a servant-hearted brood of problem-solvers, a cult of art for art’s sake? Why did you get into it? How do you thrive at your work? What value does an architect bring? How can the particular gifts of the craft be integrated into an often skeptical church?

These questions have been asked before and timely answers have been found, and around us there are architectural practitioners, church leaders and housing policy advocates. During the day we’ll hear more from Housing Justice about the causes of the problem, and we’ll see stories from projects including flats over a rebuilt sanctuary, homeless accommodation on church land, historical solutions in Octavia Hill’s housing, and conceptual experiments in self-build.

To conclude, I do want the informal network of ‘Christians for Architecture’ to be more than the sum of its parts, and to multiply intelligent and joined-up efforts to engage the whole body of the church in building a more just and delightful city. To this end, it is not enough to be only compassionate for those suffering bad housing, and to provide mere pain relief, patching up gaps, catching those who fall out of a cruel system.  It is not enough to be only outraged at the corrupt, divisive, self-interested ways housing is administrated and to campaign to regulate and legislate justice. It is not enough, and it is not sustainable, it is not finally effective to be only caring for and critical of the existing, Christians must create the new culture. It will not do to leave this structuring work to the market or to politicians, Christians need to be the architects, in every sense, of a better city, engineers of different way of dwelling with a different infrastructure, looking to God as the beginning and end of all emotional, spiritual, financial, sociopolitical resource to bridge protectionist divides, to heal homes, to restore imaginations, to recolour a world with the expectations of nobler and better things.

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