Early this month, The Guardian published a widely shared and debated article titled "Crime in the community: when 'designer' social housing goes wrong." The article told the story of Centre Village, a social housing project in Winnipeg designed by 5468796 Architecture and Cohlmeyer Architecture Limited, examining how noble intentions resulted in what they describe as "apartments poorly suited to family life, and a building structure that seems to act as a magnet for drinking and drug-taking at all hours."
Unsurprisingly 5468796 Architecture, who disagreed with much of the article's conclusions, wrote a response to the editor of Guardian Cities in the hope that their "letter to the editor" would provide some balance to the story. After The Guardian declined to publish the letter, the firm reached out to ArchDaily to ensure that their side of the debate was heard. Here is that letter in full.
We are writing to you in response to the Guardian article concerning Centre Village and many of the comments and re-posts over the last week. We believe the story that was published was inaccurate and provide the following for your information:
The article and the accompanying short film put forward a very important set of questions - especially as our cities are facing increased pressures of immigration - the discussion and inquiry that are very close to our hearts. The author recognizes the complexity and myriad of issues that characterize inner city housing - architecture being only one of the issues - whereas the article’s title and conclusion, on their own, paint design and architecture as a prime suspect.
The author relies on information that appears to be at best anecdotal, affording themselves numerous assumptions and generalizations, including those that the project is not successful, and that it is the "designer social housing that is failing." Such a statement is very harmful for the whole profession of architecture, and care for design is therefore unfortunately wrongfully implicated.
While we cannot speak officially to the success of the project, what we can tell you is that our experiences, both through observations and direct contact with the residents of Centre Village over the past years have been predominantly positive.
Respectfully, the points about not doing our homework as outlined in the article are simply not correct. As with all responsible architects, for each project, the homework typically includes an extensive research into the matters of social, economic, political and physical contexts - in the case of Centre Village the consultation (with both stakeholders and potential users) spanned a period of 2 years prior to design commencement. Understanding the context and designing with appropriate goals in mind are very important and are things that 5468796 and Cohlmeyer Architecture have been relentlessly pursuing, head-on, on all projects that we are involved in.
Our understanding of the potential issues that Centre Village would face was further augmented by personal experiences of Sasa Radulovic, founding partner and design architect, as well as those of his family and friends who immigrated to Canada as war refugees from the former Yugoslavia and have lived in the Winnipeg’s core since 1996. First arriving to Winnipeg through Welcome Place, and then placed in a more permanent housing on Hargrave Street, for Sasa providing safe, inspiring and well-functioning housing for refugees and immigrants is very personal, and an issue that the practice of 5468796 cares deeply about.
Centre Village consists of 25 three storey walk-up townhomes organized around a public space - rudimentary and time tested city building strategies - not gratuitous design whims for the point of experimentation or innovation. We got to test this same concept firsthand at Webbsite - a pioneer inner city condominium project that Cohlmeyer Architecture (while two founding principals of 5468796 were working there) completed just a few blocks away, and that has succeeded in creating a safe and desirable environment. The goals for Centre Village were similar - to create a ground-oriented development, and place all entrances off the courtyards to create opportunities for people to meet and get to know each other; to increase the number and size of windows to create a sense of casual surveillance while allowing natural light deep into the suites; and maximize the amount of space the client could afford to build by eliminating internal corridors - therefore increasing suite sizes that are affordable for families of limited income on the free market. The resulting unit sizes are comparable to those found around the world, and that have become more prevalent in large centers in North America in recent years, regardless of income level. Please note the article erroneously cites a 4 bedroom unit as being 875 square feet, as opposed to the actual size of 975 square feet.
The issues facing inner city communities brought up in the article are correctly identified as systemic, and cannot be addressed or caused by design alone. Rather social services, demographic diversity, long-term attention and management, policing, and good architecture must be implemented together to effect change.
We have heard a very different back-story from people who have devoted their lives to this neighbourhood, as evidenced by Knox United Church Pastor, Bill Millar's Facebook post in response to the article:
This article is wrong on so many fronts - both in detail and in nuance. I was just going to ignore it and let it fade ... but it was creating enough buzz on social media that I thought better to clarify a bit.
Yes, in 2006 we did have a series of conversations, not initiated by us, about trying to get more owned housing in Central Park, and was there a way that we could do this on a rent-to-own basis with no interest (riba) so that ownership options were opened for Muslim newcomers. But after an initial series of conversations it became clear that it was not going to happen, and that was it. We dropped it, went on to other matters. Sometime later the project was revived as affordable housing, which it is. So it really is not the project we were imagining, it is a completely different project. I am not aware of any issues particularly concerning this building.
The third world reference [The Guardian's article included the sentence "'Central Park, it’s kind of like being in the third world. There’s very little institutional presence,' said Bill Millar"] had nothing to do with the neighborhood, it was describing the relationship between Knox and the park, a pattern more common in Europe and throughout much of the third world, that of the cathedral and the piazza.
Central Park is now a vibrant resilient community with a low crime rate. Yes, we do have some residual issues with intoxication, and these seem to emerge in spring, and lessens as we approach summer. This is a problem we share with many downtown neighborhoods - and not particular to Central Park.
But it was the nuances that bothered me. CentreVenture and MB Housing have been great partners and we have deep regard and respect for both. And the (implied) description of the neighborhood has little resemblance the vital, resilient community that surrounds Knox.
Both before and after the Centre Village project, 5468796 and Cohlmeyer Architecture have been involved in a number of social and entry market housing projects in Winnipeg's inner city. With each new project we continue to learn from all people involved, and in particular those that have devoted their lives to making life better in our community. Spanning a whole variety of management and ownership models, these projects are very successful by the same tokens used in the article, demonstrating to us, but more importantly to the broader community, our clients and ultimately the residents, that architecture can bring great value to everyday life.
Colin Neufeld + Johanna Hurme + Sasa Radulovic