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Building for the Poor: Bauhaus Launches Social Housing Architecture Award

By Ulrike Knöfel

The Bauhaus-Dessau Foundation is going back to its roots and sponsoring an architectural competition that aims to encourage young architects to build attractive homes for the poor. Its 2008 award deliberately pays tribute to the Bauhaus commitment to social housing in the 1920s.

The Bauhaus in Dessau hopes to encourage architects to think about poverty.
DPA

The Bauhaus in Dessau hopes to encourage architects to think about poverty.

There's always something new in the world of architecture and interior design. Two of the themes at next week's International Furniture Show in Cologne will be "Priceless" and "Neo Nature," a reflection of the current popularity of costly eco-chic in German living rooms.

The truth is that just about everything goes these days, from retro to futurist, from cool to cushy -- although "cocooning" is apparently passé. The question of how we design and shape our living spaces is taken very seriously, because it reveals a lot about both a person's taste and their status.

Given all the fuss about luxury and esthetics, an initiative that has been launched in a small city in eastern Germany -- and, if its organizers have their way, will reach out into the world -- seems downright provocative. In January the Bauhaus-Dessau Foundation launched its latest biennial competition, and this year the title is: "Housing shortages: The minimum subsistence level housing of today."

Indeed, what could be more provocative than the notion of designing more attractive living spaces for welfare recipients and slum dwellers?

The 2008 Bauhaus award is part of the ambitious vision of Omar Akbar, 59, the foundation's executive director. He wants to place architecture, design and his own organization back into the social and political landscape. In the 1920s, the Bauhaus School was considered a leading authority on design, architecture and urban planning. Today the foundation, which still bears the school's famous name, wants to revive the missionary zeal of the school's heyday.

As part of this new social focus Akbar, a native of Afghanistan, wants to draw our attention to a problem "that no longer seems to interest today's architects: poverty and destitution." Pointing out that an estimated 900 million people on earth live under dramatically adverse conditions today, officials at the Bauhaus-Dessau Foundation are asking what amounts to a heretical question in the world of contemporary architecture: "Where are the celebrity architects who are interested in fighting poverty?"

Akbar hopes that the subject of the 2008 Bauhaus award, "Housing shortages," will attract young architects and designers, as well as artists and academics. The final date for entries is March 31, 2008, and Bauhaus is also holding a colloquium on the topic later in January.

The population that could potentially benefit from the entries is enormous, including the unemployed, the homeless, retirees, single parents and large families. Living at the subsistence level comes in many shapes and forms, especially in a world in which poverty is on the rise, even in Europe.

Bauhaus's 2008 contest is a reincarnation of sorts. In October 1929, visionaries from all over Europe, including Swiss architect Le Corbusier and Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius came together in Frankfurt to attend the second International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM). The 2008 award has even borrowed the title of that 1929 conference: "The minimum subsistence level housing."

Attendees at the 1929 conference were urged to create housing for "society's poorest classes." This effort, according to the literature distributed to participants, was "at the forefront of the public interest in almost all civilized countries." The 1929 world economic crisis that followed the Wall Street Crash provided ample evidence that poverty can become a global explosive force. Black Thursday on the New York Stock Exchange, the day the market crashed, coincided with the second day of the 1929 Frankfurt conference.

The members of the avant-garde who had come together in Frankfurt had already committed themselves to the concept of the "minimal living space." In a related exhibition and a subsequent book, they presented 100 floor plans, including a 23-square-meter (248-square-foot) apartment "for the working woman." They even envisioned a family living comfortably in a space of 48 square meters (516 square feet). For Le Corbusier, four square meters (43 square feet) was enough space for a tiny bedroom.

The modernists' mantra -- light, air and sunlight -- translated into cities filled with boxy residential buildings surrounded by park-like spaces. But these architects were not interested in providing the masses with interior space or privacy. This was reflected in the cage-like structures known as balcony houses, built in Dessau in 1930.

Modernism Perverted

Many of the modernists' ideas, including the good ones, were later "downright perverted" in post-war high-rise residential developments, says Akbar. By contrast, he praises the residential Wilhelminian style of the 19th century, once demonized by Bauhaus architects, because its flexible design made it possible for buildings to serve a dual residential and commercial function. Nowadays, of course, there is more to building design than just agreeing on the best floor plan. And the sort of architecture that is so prevalent in Germany's low-income housing today, which has become synonymous with faceless high-rise apartment buildings and ghettos, can hardly be considered a starting point for architectural concepts that could be applied globally.

One thing is clear, and that is that most people will soon be living in cities, many of which are developing into true megacities. With this trend in mind, Akbar is now justifiably calling for the urgent restructuring of entire cities. But it remains to be seen whether this means the Bauhaus is about to become the starting point of a new revolution. Or even that the institute's latest efforts will trigger a new debate over the responsibilities of architects and urban planners.

There are, however, some new pioneers in the world of socially conscious architecture. One of these happens to be one of Hollywood's hottest actors, Brad Pitt, who has commissioned several architecture firms to design new housing for low-income families in New Orleans, a city devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In addition to being affordable and environmentally sound, the structures are to be designed to better withstand the elements.

Perhaps this is exactly what socially conscious architecture needs -- to become a trendy cause that attracts celebrity support.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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