Architecture serves many essential functions in the fabric of the built environment, but it is the perpetual deficit of housing that some might argue is the field’s ultimate clarion call. In virtually every global city, growing populations and limited supplies of affordable dwellings are the major issues of twenty-first century life—and therefore are indications of the continued relevance of architecture in solving vexing urban predicaments. The last century offered early promise in addressing such issues with proposals to house the masses in immense slabs and box buildings, structures almost as large as their social ambition. But what became an asset of scale overlooked, or more probably misunderstood, the social degradation that such largeness elicited.
Aware of the fact that a one-size-fits-all approach to social housing rarely brings the desired outcomes of sociability, accountability, and community, Winnipeg’s 5468796 Architecture sought to reinvent the typology on a smaller scale. The outcome, a project in Winnipeg’s Central Park neighborhood known as Centre Village, is a 25-unit housing complex that prioritizes windows for observation and public spaces for socializing. Initially heralded as a beacon for public housing done right, the project was recently the target of vitriol in a Guardian article, claiming its secluded courtyard makes it "a magnet for drinking and drug-taking" and that its architectural vanity is to the detriment of apartment sizes and layouts. Subsequently, the Winnipeg Free Press published a response piece, "Building a better neighbourhood," and more recently on ArchDaily, 5468796 published a “letter-to-the-editor” to share their side of story and to dispel some of the negativity surrounding Centre Village. The myriad of perspectives can make you wonder: who’s right?
Centre Village was completed on an abandoned L-shaped plot of land originally zoned for six single-family houses. Opening in the fall of 2010, the site is now occupied by six three-story townhouse blocks with 25 units varying from one to four bedrooms and sizes ranging from 375 to 975 square feet. Each residence has a separate entrance either at ground level or via an exterior staircase, and each occupant has a minimum of eight windows on two sides. The arrangement of the separate structures creates two public spaces – a pedestrian through-street and a shared courtyard – allowing outsiders and residents alike to mingle and assimilate in secluded spaces.
One imagines that the project was intended to channel the thinking of Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities in which she describes the self-policing and peacekeeping demonstrated by close-knit communities like her own in Manhattan's West Village:
“This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance... an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole.”
Speaking with Colin Neufeld, one of the partners at 5468796 Architecture, I learned that the design of Centre Village came out of a two year research survey conducted with a focus group of prospective residents. The project was originally devised by pastor Bill Millar of Knox United Church, who helped found Knox Centre Winnipeg, a community-urbanism initiative meant to empower local residents to have a self-reflexive positive effect on their community. Winnipeg is a hub for new Canadian immigrants and Centre Village was originally meant to be cooperative housing for Muslim families who are often at a disadvantage because Islamic law prohibits loans that involve interest.
“The focus group,” says Neufeld, “they saw the project every step of the way, agreeing with design choices and subsequently offering suggestions – back and forth – we always sought to balance the funding and financial requirements.” The project’s major features, the windows and public space, were part of the public input during the focus group meetings, which according to Neufeld are uncommon in similar projects in the city.
Raja Moussaoui, the author of The Guardian’s article "Crime in the community: when 'designer' social housing goes wrong," originally visited Centre Village intent on making a documentary on the success of a heralded social housing project. But in her article, Moussaoui quickly asserts that this task would not be possible: “Speak to residents, and a new picture emerges: of 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.” It's difficult to ascertain the validity of these claims, as Moussaoui does not indicate that she witnesses the revelers firsthand. Mapping technology from the Winnipeg police department indicates no crime associated with Centre Village (575 Balmoral Street) itself and crime in Winnipeg is down nearly 50 percent since 2006. It’s possible that crimes are going unreported due to their minor nature or due to the community being disconnected from law enforcement, however Moussaoui's claims are also contradicted by Pastor Bill Millar, who in a Facebook post stated that "Central Park is now a vibrant resilient community with a low crime rate. Yes, we do have some residual issues with intoxication... This is a problem we share with many downtown neighborhoods." It's therefore difficult to see how Moussaoui's claim, one of the central criticisms of her article, can really be attributed to the design by 5468796 Architecture.
A resident of Centre Village who commented in The Guardian article suggested that perhaps some kind of gating system would have dissuaded carousers. Refuting this, Neufeld states “if you design for the worst case scenario, then the worst case scenario will happen.” Asked for further clarification on this, Neufeld said, “When we sit down to design social housing we want to be careful not to criminalize lower-income populations with all sorts of negative characteristics before we even get started.” In other words, adding a gate from the start would have done nothing to generate community with the project’s public space, and it would have made the development intentionally separate from its surroundings—possibly making it a catalyst for a higher level of unsavory behavior in the neighborhood, albeit emphatically removed from the development itself.
Neufeld believes that low-income housing designed by architects instead of developers is held to a higher standard in its outcomes. “A non-designer project would likely have similar or worse issues and we likely wouldn’t blame the structure,” he says. “Architecture can certainly play a role in the success of a community, but it’s unfair to pin larger social issues to architecture, because it props up the field to something larger than what its impacts can be.” While the article intended to make Centre Village’s inhabitants the victims of social housing, instead architecture itself was made into the injured party through unrealistic expectations of what we can expect from design.
There isn’t a clear reason as to why "designer" architecture (as The Guardian derisively calls it), is held to such high standards. Evaluating some of Moussaoui’s past writing on subjects such as the expansion of heritage buildings to boost city density, maintaining industrial space in downtowns in the form of microbreweries, or strategies for river redevelopment in Dallas, it becomes clear that she, a trained architect herself, is not averse to architectural innovation as a boon to city vitality. However this piece in The Guardian is more readily characterized by its title and standfirst – presumably written by The Guardian's editors rather than Moussaoui – which color our subsequent understanding of the article itself, and seem intent on capturing the attention of readers scornful of architecture’s ability to cause positive change. Such an audience views architecture as something frivolous, and sees designers as pretentious outsiders intent on foisting their perspective and vision on the unsuspecting.
But as evidenced by the careful development conducted in tandem with the focus group, Centre Village was intended to embrace the perspectives of the residents through careful dialogue with the architects. As a housing complex made for recent immigrants, in a city where they form a large segment of the population, 5468796 sought to create a living experience that could be relevant to personal cultures as well as life in Winnipeg, specifically in the communality of the building. “The things that are common in other cultures are living together,” says Neufeld, “In Canada and the United States we like to carve out our own space and there’s such isolation, with Centre Village we were driven by community, shared space, and large outdoor space.” The courtyards and exterior stairs are specifically an attempt to maintain sociability in a city where winter lasts five months of the year.
Perhaps architecture endures such criticism because architects know that inciting or accepting criticism is what allows the field to grow and evolve. As Tom Wolfe says of Robert Venturi’s scourge of Modernism, “[He] did to the Mieslings precisely what they had done to Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffman, and the architects of the Vienna Secession half a century earlier. He consigned them to the garbage barge of bourgeois deviationism.” This was of course all in the name of an ascendant Postmodernism, of which Venturi was both the authorial and architectural champion.
While 5468796 is channeling Modernism, they are also clearly subverting the rigidity and reproducibility that are its characteristic features, and such dichotomies are perhaps puzzling to the general public. But this dialectic has become something of the Pavlovian norm in architecture, where each new stylistic or theoretical tangent breaks from the establishment’s thinking, making the public increasingly skeptical of architecture’s potential. The fraught reception of a project like Centre Village comes out of two modes of thinking on the part of the public: a fear that social housing in any form will only degenerate into the worst case scenario, and a belief that more social good could, and should, always come out of building (whether that's "designer" architecture or otherwise). Such perspectives are already altering the process of 5468796, which increasingly relies on community input to develop their projects. Even prior to the Guardian article, the firm has begun to conduct extensive post-occupancy studies in projects with similar design schemes to get feedback.
Neufeld acknowledges the influence and significance of someone like Alejandro Aravena and his firm Elemental, especially in a year when the architect has won the Pritzker Prize and is the upcoming Director of the Architecture Biennale in Venice. Aravena has embraced “participatory design” that involves in-depth community consultation for the firm’s projects. One of Aravena's most quoted epithets goes: "What we're trying to do by asking people to participate is envision what is the question, not what is the answer. There's nothing worse than answering the wrong questions well." Ironically, a version of this quote is even used in The Guardian as a segue into “what went wrong in Winnipeg,” but Aravena’s process and practice actually have much in common with 5468796 and to use the quote to claim the designers are at fault seems fallacious. If anything, the takeaway from Centre Village’s development and its subsequent publicity, is that even when the right questions are being asked and a well-meaning design is implemented, architecture can only be an instrument, not a total solution, to the social and civic issues of the built environment.