In Santa Monica last weekend, New York architect Peter Eisenman, an accomplished media manipulator and practitioner of the controversial, fractured form of architecture known as deconstructivism, led a forum featuring several highbrow architects and theoreticians from diverse backgrounds.
The goal was to explore new ways of thinking about architecture for the next millennium, but the endless hours of academic and philosophic double talk left many architects numbed and reeling.
Last Sunday and Monday, UC San Diego's new School of Architecture held a far less esoteric but much more meaningful forum, titled "Housing Environments: A Cross-Cultural Perspective." Over a day and a half, an international group of architects and professionals from other fields kept its conversation confined to the realm of the comprehensible and its attentions focused on a real-world issue: housing for the needy.
The contrast between Eisenman's hot-air balloon and the earthy, practical San Diego sessions organized under the direction of UCSD architecture Dean Adele Naude Santos sent up the first major sign that the new architecture school is headed
in an ambitious direction--truly a revolutionary direction when you think of how unglamorous it is to talk about affordable housing.
As Santos explained when she introduced Indian architect Balkrishna Doshi as the keynote speaker Sunday evening (where else might a non-Western, non-celebrity architect specializing in low-income housing be given the spotlight?) she wanted this year's third annual architecture forum at UCSD to provide an alternative to the usual parade of celebrity architects showing off their glitzy work.
Doshi, who worked with Le Corbusier on the planning and design of the Indian city of Chandigarh in the early 1960s, won over his audience with a mix of intelligence and humility.
In India, where cardboard shacks can be seen next to high-rise buildings, perhaps 100 million to 150 million of the country's 800 million people live in "unlivable" situations, according to Doshi. Instead of disregarding their improvised communities as hopeless ghettos, Doshi applied some of their best features, such as the hierarchies of important outdoor spaces, in his own low-income housing designs.
Doshi has designed thousands of units of government-funded, bottom-rung housing in India, including a whole new community expected to house 80,000 near the city of Jaipur. In many cases, the government installs roads, utilities, foundations, plumbing and public buildings according to Doshi's plans, and residents build their own homes from readily available local materials.
Through judicious use of porches, rooftop terraces and public outdoor spaces such as courtyards and alleys, Doshi has expanded the size of these people's modest homes beyond four walls, while accommodating the open style of Indian life--Indians spend a great deal of their time outdoors, especially during the hot summers.
Doshi hopes his projects, with their strong ties to sun, sky and moon, and carefully crafted social environments, can promote spirituality and healthy families. That's why he believes the social spaces between and next to his buildings are more important than the buildings themselves.
"Forms are not as important as the experience," he said. "That is the memory we always carry with us."
Monday's daylong session opened with Dutch architect Theo Bosch, whose work proves, in a way that holds special interest for the Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego, that contemporary buildings can work exceptionally well in historical contexts. Amid centuries-old structures in a variety of cities in the Netherlands, Bosch's mixed-use, government-subsidized affordable housing projects, usually with ground-floor commercial space and upper-level apartments, become a part of the perennial "urban fabric" through their scale and ingenious circulation schemes, rather than historic detailing.
Next up, architect and author Witold Rybczynski, a professor at McGill University in Montreal and author of the excellent book "Home: A Short History of an Idea," spoke about his experiments in developing affordable homes that meet the needs of the North American market.
While 20th-Century architects have often tried to create avant-garde, low-income housing solutions, what most people really want is something simple, according to Rybczynski: They want to own--not rent--a detached dwelling constructed from conventional materials, including a private garden.
At McGill, Rybczynski and his associates have experimented with the design of two-story, narrow, box-like row homes of about 1,000 square feet, with front facades that utilize traditional, familiar architectural forms and unfinished second floors that owners can complete themselves.
A prototype projected to cost $37,000 to $58,000 was built at McGill. Some 10,000 visitors responded favorably, indicating in a survey that they would be more than willing to sacrifice size and complexity in exchange for the opportunity to own a home. A Montreal developer sold 75 of them before they were finished.
Following Rybczynski, Mexican architect Felix Sanchez detailed the revolution in low-income housing that has occurred in Mexico since the 1984 earthquake devastated Mexico City. The cataclysmic event forced the government to take quick action to build low-income housing--52,000 new residences were constructed in less than 16 months.
Like Doshi, Sanchez said he looked to vernacular buildings for inspiration, instead of trying to dream up an all-new, contemporary solution.
At day's end, architect and Harvard Professor Moshe Safdie took a surprisingly critical look at the experimental housing he has designed over the years, beginning with the 159-unit Habitat project for Expo '67 in Montreal.
Early in his career, Safdie dreamed of developing a modular system of housing. The popularity of Habitat, a cluster of modules like something out of a Buckminster Fuller fantasy, seemed to signal success. But Safdie was never able to land a housing project large enough to make mass production cost-efficient.
Instead, in the mid-1970s, he turned his attentions to large residential developments that employed conventional construction but inventive planning.
In Baltimore, a 1975 townhouse project designed by Safdie doubled the usual density of such a development from 15 to 30 units per acre, while still providing both privacy and inviting public spaces--most notably a terrace atop a well-concealed parking garage.
Safdie freely confessed the failings of a group of eight-story apartment towers he designed in Jerusalem. To make his point, he showed a slide of these anonymous monoliths next to a slide of an inviting cluster of affordable hillside homes that sprouted nearby--without any input from an architect.
As with several of the other speakers, his message was clear: Architects can learn much by paying attention to vernacular buildings before they take off on designs of their own.
Overall, the five main speakers provided copious amounts of fresh information--all the more so because it came from such a diversity of cultures so different from the United States'.
As in past years, the forum's format left something to be desired. As usual, the eagerly anticipated open discussions following each lecture, led by a variety of distinguished architects and academics, were relegated to the status of afterthoughts.
Very few sparks flew, and few insights were gleaned as to how some of these imported ideas might apply in the United States, even right here in San Diego.
A radical rethinking of the traditional lecture format is needed. Breaking the audience into smaller groups for discussions led by the experts might generate a more active, meaningful dialogue.
Also, such valuable thoughts as were aired last Sunday and Monday could go even further if they were compiled into a journal and disseminated to a broader group of architects, planners, politicians and other influential types. Many of the powerful local politicians, developers and city officials who attended the annual forum in past years were absent Sunday and Monday.
The UCSD architecture school has discussed publishing such a journal, but probably will not. If key decision makers don't become inspired about new modes of affordable housing, not much change can be expected to occur.
Attendance this year proved that the subject of low-income housing is not especially popular. Forums in 1989 and '90 packed the campus' 800-seat Mandeville Auditorium, while this year's event--held mostly on Monday instead of the usual Saturday because Santos felt it would be more convenient for architects--drew about 250 to the Price Center Ballroom.