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APLA Student Travels the World as Aydelott Fellow

Homes for the People
(all 7 billion of them)
by Josiah Brown

I set out this summer on a seventy-five day trip to learn more about affordable housing. The end goal: to better equip architects to combat the global housing crisis by providing quality homes to the 1.6 billion people without. Sponsored by a generous grant from the Aydelott Foundation, I visited four projects from different corners of the globe in hopes of gaining a better understanding of what works and what doesn't. The four projects each represented distinct approaches to providing quality affordable housing. During my two and a half months on the road, I visited each project, met with the architects, interviewed residents, and observed each neighborhood, gaining valuable insights into what can make affordable housing the kinds of places people are proud to call home.

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On May 9, I set out for Villa Verde, an incremental housing community in Constitución, Chile, designed by recent Pritzker Prize-winning architect Alejandro Aravena. The idea behind incremental housing is to provide the framework for an entire house but to only complete the first half. This allows the homes to be built and purchased at a lower cost while still giving residents the chance to add on later if they desire. When I arrived, I was amazed by how many residents had built out the second half of their house. In a neighborhood of over 450 houses, nearly 85 percent had been fully completed and were using all 900 square feet of living space. All of that construction was accomplished in just six years since Villa Verde’s completion in 2010. Buying half a house to finish the rest later was clearly an idea that the people of Constitución bought into.

After my time in Chile, I traveled to the southern coast of Sri Lanka to the Muslim fishing village of Kirinda, where another Pritzker winner, Shigeru Ban, designed sustainable homes to replace what had been destroyed during the 2004 tsunami. Shigeru, based in Tokyo, Japan, consulted with local residents to design the homes, opting to include an open covered space for fishermen to store their nets and leaving open wood slats at the top of the gable walls to aid with ventilation in the hot climate. The homes were built with compressed earth bricks and wood from trees grown in the area. The finished homes earned Shigeru Ban the 2013 Aga Khan Award for Architecture for their locality, simplicity, and elegance. When I visited, I was able to appreciate the beauty of Shigeru’s design in person. However, I also learned that many residents had since altered the original homes to better suit their needs. Out of 44 homes, only
17 of those still had an open covered space. Residents of the 27 other houses had decided to close off the open areas in order to keep out stray dogs and keep their children safely inside. Additionally, half of the homes had received new front facades. When I looked into it further, I found out that many residents wanted their homes to look like a traditional Sri Lankan style home, rather than the award-winning design by Shigeru Ban. These and other interesting developments surfaced during my time in Kirinda, and when I left, I had a much better understanding of the difficulty of designing in a culture and place that is not your own.

After Sri Lanka, I journeyed to Cologne, Germany where ASTOC Architects designed Buchheimer Weg, a housing complex that aims to serve as a new model for low-income urban housing. The green-hued, playfully shaped buildings bring life to what has historically been an uninspiring housing type. The first thing I noticed on site was the vibrancy of social life in the public spaces. The way the buildings bend creates dynamic exterior spaces between the volumes. ASTOC Architects programmed these exterior spaces to be playgrounds, picnic areas, basketball courts, and gardens. In the center of the complex is the largest of these public spaces, and on a fair-weathered afternoon, there were easily fifty children playing while their parents watched from balconies or talked on benches nearby. Studying this neighborhood made me realize how important it is to include high quality public spaces. When it comes to housing, the public space is just as important as the private, and the space leading up to the house can function as an extension of the home if given the proper attention and care in design.

Nearly two months had gone by and now it was time to visit my final site—a courtyard housing complex on the Spanish island of Mallorca. Social Housing in Sa Pobla, designed by RIPOLLTIZON Architects, is a complex of nineteen homes centering around a shared courtyard, similar to the traditional housing type found in Spain. Each home is made up of a varied composition of set building modules—the bedroom, bathroom, living area, etc. This system allows for more customization among the homes while also simplifying construction and implying a unified, rigorous design. When visiting the site, I was very interested to compare how the public space functioned between this project and the last. At Social Housing in Sa Pobla, the courtyard was visually striking in its clean and minimal design, but its lack of
program provided little opportunity for meaningful interaction. What resulted was an underused space and a less convivial atmosphere. Though beautiful homes in and of themselves, the stark courtyard seemed like a missed opportunity for an otherwise well-designed space. Sometimes the desire for front-cover worthy project photographs undermines the ability of a space to perform its intended purpose.

My last stop on this seventy-five day journey was the Architecture Biennale in Venice, Italy. Curated by Alejandro Aravena, this year’s world architecture exhibition was entitled “Reporting From the Front,” and content of the show focused on issues such as housing, sustainability, communities, and quality of life. While I was there, I got to see the work of leading architects and designers from all over the world, including work by Auburn’s own Rural Studio. In fact, while I was walking through one of the large exhibit halls, I heard the familiar voice of one of my friends as her sweet Southern accent was narrating the video on display at the Rural Studio’s exhibit. Another highlight from my few days in Venice was getting to hear Alejandro himself speak at the Urban Age conference that was going on during my stay. Attending the Biennale was both enlightening and inspiring, and it was with a greater awareness of what’s going on in the world of architecture that I headed for home.

Now that I'm back in America, my task is to sift through all of the data that I collected this summer and compile a report to present to the Aydelott Foundation. In my analysis, I will be examining the success of these varied approaches and drawing my own conclusions about successful design of affordable housing communities. It is my hope that this work will help architects better respond to the great need in our world today for quality homes for all people.