In the early, pioneering years of modernism, the architectural avant-garde was driven by experimentation in housing — at both ends. The social imperative meant it was social housing and the desire to create good accommodation for the working classes that motivated architects. But the desire for formal innovation was more usually led by the wealthy, who had the funds to enable their architects to experiment and try out radical new forms and prototypes.
So it was the dense grid of low-cost housing and the standalone villa that underpinned the emergence of a modern architecture, a negotiation between poverty and wealth, between the state and the individual.
You might think the circumstances almost a century after the emergence of modern architecture necessarily entail a very different environment for the development of housing. But, in fact, you could argue it is still the same twin poles that drive the best domestic architecture.
It is the case, for instance, that in London by far the most interesting domestic architecture is in the social housing sphere. Designs for Peter Barber’s widely admired buildings are on show at the Design Museum, while council housing specialists Karakusevic Carson have completed an intriguing new pair of towers with David Chipperfield at the Hoxton Press in Hackney. With abundant references to the radical social housing of an earlier era (the 1960s and ’70s, and Brutalism), these towers are part of a masterplan which accommodates both subsidised and market price accommodation in what is effectively a new model, eliminating the distinction and any remaining stigma between private and public housing.
The excesses of towers for the super-rich have not abated, even though the market for them has almost collapsed. Architecture is notoriously slow and responds to market trends after their sell-by date. Nowhere is this more evident than in the colossal towers dominating the skylines of New York, London, Toronto and the big Asian cities.
The result, particularly in the western hemisphere, is a glut of super-tall towers, a new kind of ghost architecture (whose developers are scrabbling round for innovative ways to disguise how few apartments are actually being sold). But these are not buildings that are easily adapted to other uses.
While central London’s Georgian houses once served as dwellings for the bourgeoisie, then as chambers and offices with accommodation above, then were split up into bedsits and boarding houses, and now have been adapted to dwellings for the global elite, super-slender towers with a single apartment on each floor are more difficult to adapt — and too expensive to give up on.
With luck, this scenario might make developers look more into adaptive re-use — a far greener way to reinterpret urban landscapes and one that embodies the memories of neighbours and enlists them for support and succour. Many of the most impressive signs this year have seen this kind of re-use — from Centre Point in London to Francesc Macià 10 in Barcelona — but also the swath of developments around Wall Street in New York that have seen banking buildings repurposed as apartment blocks (albeit, again, for the same elite layer that once would have worked in them). Ole Scheeren’s imaginative plans for reworking a clunky commercial tower from Frankfurt’s less globally glamorous days into an intelligent new apartment block show what could be done.
The private house, however, continues to provide the vehicle for real experimentation, even if it can seem a remarkably rarefied game. Zaha Hadid’s villa for Vladislav Doronin in the woods outside Moscow is an almost visionary thing, an indulgent retro-futurist dream of what a house might be if it didn’t have to look, or work, like a house.
Ludwig Godfroy’s severe, Brutalist cubes, meanwhile, go against everything we assume about the decadent Mexican beach house — enclosed, ruthlessly geometric, almost monastic. They are an encouraging riposte to the endless stream of McMansions and high-end towers that take up most of the column inches on investment properties.
What, though, is the future? Perhaps it is a more genuinely mixed urban plan, pieces of city able to accommodate diverse mixes of buildings and social use, something less fragile than the meticulously targeted and super-talls with branded interiors we see so often. Barcelona’s MAIO practice used its home city’s model — the dense, urban apartment block — and just gave it a contemporary twist, along with some smart thinking about the changing nature of the family unit.
If we look carefully, the models are probably all there. In a century of modernism, we have tried many things — some just work better.
Photographs: Luke Hayes; Hufton+Crow; Adrian Gaut/francescmacia10.com; José Hevia; courtesy of OKOGroup.com; MAIO Architects; Morley Von Sternberg and Peter Barber; Alamy; markluscombewhyte.com; Büro Ole Scheeren; Nikolay Rykov/vostokphotos.ru; Nin Solis
This article was updated to reflect that the towers at Hoxton Press do not include social housing, although the scheme's overall masterplan does.