The Role of Public Housing in Barcelona

Raül P. Avilla Royo:

In every major city, housing is being disputed as a right and as a commodity within a transformation process that affects its urban fabric as much as its social structure. Architecture and urban design play major roles in these transformations, as they are seen as instruments both by public authorities and developers. Barcelona is set as a case study due to the crucial role that design and architecture have historically had in the transformation of the city, both morphologically and symbolically. Due to a context of socio-political and economic crisis, the discipline of architecture has shifted its approach regarding professional practice, administration and academia. For that reason, Barcelona offers the opportunity to study alternative procurement models that challenge the role of city administration, dwellers and architects during the procurement process by proposing alternative tenureship and management models that can prevent the commodification of housing and the inclusion of more agents in the design process. This study analyses the impact of local associations and dwellers both during the design process and once the building is inhabited, reconsidering notion of standards – “what” and “for whom” – and shifting traditional housing design and procurement process by starting it from the domestic space.

Left: View of Montjuïc mountain’s slums in 1950. Barcelona was an industrial city under a pollution smog. This area was transformed to locate the major Olympic facilities. Right: September 1931, barricade blocks in Princesa street during a general strike. Being Barcelona an industrial city, worker’s protests were frequent in the first third of XXthC.

The project proposes mixing of three existing housing models – public housing, cooperative housing and emergency shelters, which have different ownership schemes and procurement processes – in a single building has revealed that existing housing procurement mechanisms are sufficient to entail major changes in several aspects of housing. Through a multi-scalar approach to housing procurement, it is possible to simultaneously tackle diverse topics such as the possibility of redefining the notion of standard to address uncertain households or reconsider ing the physical boundaries of the house, blurring the rigid limit between public and private through a set of common areas and shared spaces with different groups of people. There are many benefits that arise from that and open the possibility for further impact in other facets, spanning from the protection of public assets through a diversified collective ownership to encouraging the alternative modes of economic integration.

Left: Charles-Étienne Briseaux. ‘Architecture Moderne ou L’art de bien bair pour  totes sortes de personnes’, 1728 . The plate of Briseaux shows a room divided in four areas: antichambre, chambre, cabinet and alcove. While the cabinet and the alcove are linked to certain specific uses –beds and storage–, chambre and antichambre are two spaces with different attributes –light, size, and disposition– open to any activity.
Right: Beds Lithographs. Published by Larousse, France, 1897 the bed as a tri-dimensional object, not as a soft surface, offers the possibility of changing the conditions of enclosure and privacy.

The strategy proposed in this study does not seek to target a specific household, but a larger social group – the building – and the personal space: the room whose inhabitant is the liquid subject. With that approach, the house is not considered the minimum unit but the first shared space, which includes a proportional set of services and common areas.
Defining the size of the room is crucial to determine which activities can take place within its limits. Rooms of different sizes may lead to a hierarchical structure within the house, as well as to a specialization of rooms by function. Since the use of the rooms is as unpredictable as the household itself, traditional hierarchical relations (such as day-night, service-served areas or parents-children) are not considered appropriate. The proposed rooms are equivalent in size for the purpose of not to predetermine the hierarchical relations in the household and to offer a higher degree of adaptability. In doing so, their use is not predetermined by design but decided by the dwellers and changeable over time.

Activity as room standard. Left: minimum room size according to current regulation in Spain. Right: increment of space allows
many other uses that strictly sleeping and storage.
The room is a light assembled element, the house can be reconfigured in case of necessity.

This strategy entrusts social togetherness as a device to find personal security, instead of the current promotion by administration of individual ownership and non-dependency on others. In this regard, collective decision-making processes allow dealing with conflicts that naturally appear as a result of social mixture. Decisions in the proposed building are taken at two levels. Firstly, the ones comprising the building as a whole and the shared areas among all members. Secondly, the ones referring autonomously within each housing model, dealt in different ways depending on the institution involved and the residence time of the dwellers: self-managed for the collectively owned cooperative, public administration and dwellers in the case of rent of public housing and foundations in the case of emergency housing in which dwellers stay for a short period of time. A scheme of shared housing models reveals itself as a tool to re-politicise housing: habituate dwellers to decision-making processes and make them aware of their personal responsibility in it. For that to happen, architects must better understand the social agendas that underlie housing policies, becoming mediators between administration, neighbourhood associations, academia and dwellers in the delivery of new public housing agendas and procurement processes.

The proposed strategy has been designed as an open methodology that could be extrapolated to other cultural and urban contexts. However, for that to happen it is necessary to consider local specificities and housing models, to analyse the legal framework that could be adopted and the agreements between the different groups involved. In addition, cultural background plays a key role since some cultures are more accustomed to live in “social togetherness” or even in existing shared models, while other ones prefer isolated homes. However, as it has been discussed with the case of Spain, the will of personal isolation through home ownership is an acquired behaviour that can also be reversed, and a model like the one proposed results in many benefits at different levels, the most important of which is to produce housing that is not conditioned to market variations, ensuring long-term affordability and social mixture. As housing policies have an impact far beyond housing supply, it is essential to address it as a matter beyond its built form, not planned as an individual asset or property, but as a collective belonging framed by the cultural and urban specificities of the city.

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