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Renewals for Architecture and Social Housing?

Sabrina Bresson, Yankel Fijalkow et Ioana Iosa
Cet article est une traduction de :
Architecture et logement social, quels renouvellements ? [fr]

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1The dialogue between architecture and social housing has given rise to many experimental projects, various historical examples of which include the garden city movement, the soviet Narkomfin Building, the Karl Marx-Hof in Vienna, Le Corbusier’s Cités Radieuses or the Aillaud Tours in Nanterre, France. Like recent projects, these experiments as well as the spread of heritage awareness throughout the 20th century enriched the thinking of developers and social housing managers. Nevertheless, social housing is defined differently in every country, regardless of whether it is destined for the population’s poorest fringes or open to the middle class, whether it is financed primarily by public authorities or also by other sources, or whether it gives tenants the status of renter or owner. Social housing, often called public housing, is likewise represented differently depending on national context. It strongly contributes to urban renewal, despite being present to varying degrees throughout Europe, from 4 % in Romania to 32 % in the Netherlands. The evolution of its meanings, design, actors or populations leads to new dynamics which act upon forms of architecture, urbanism and landscape architecture as well as upon spatial construction jobs and ways of living. What do these changes signify for social housing production? Which forms of its architectural renewal are we seeing?

2This current issue intersects the implications of social housing in architecture within different European, American and Asian countries with the diversity of its forms of organization. A renewal in the debate surrounding social housing architecture, along with its functions and its principal actors, is revealed as we observe a simultaneous trend within housing policies, shifting in favor of market regulation. With the emergence of new challenges (social cohesion, demographic aging, climate change, energy savings, etc.), we uncover ways to adjust supply in terms of change, local context, needs and resources. In this way, the question also arises surrounding the notion of heritage and the meaning of heritigizing 20th century housing ensembles. This is especially the case in France, where the social housing stock is among the largest in Europe.

Economy and Architecture

3The articles found in this current issue put into perspective the increasingly dense network of actors gravitating around social housing, as well as the political and economic restructuring taking place in this sector. Many of them show that the architectural language adopted by new constructions is significantly weakened by the principles of property financialization, which instead prioritizes efficiency and rationality. This is something that exceeds borders and political stances. In the United States, John Goering and Alex Schwartz use three examples of new housing projects in New York City to exemplify how the design of affordable rental housing, which is severely limited in the city, is subjected to a complex financial and political system, as well as cross-financing, subsidies and taxes upheld by federal government authorities and specialized agencies. Their research highlights the challenges of designing creative architecture that supports social housing in a financial and regulatory system already struggling to house the poor. In an entirely different context, Miguel Elosua, Françoise Ged and Yang Chen show how, in China, a shifting market economy was accompanied by significant land reform as well as the promotion of housing as private property, thereby marking a radical turn in the relationship between Chinese people and their homes. Real estate inflation also sparked social unrest, forcing the government to engage in a campaign pushing against speculation and for the eradication of illegal practices, all while reinstating municipality-led plans to construct social housing, like in Shanghai and Chonqking. From these examples, the authors teach us about the material effects of property financialization and the policy that comes along with it; which has led to social housing programs in the form of twenty-story apartment complexes situated in the outskirts of cities. This text thus investigates the capacity of urban capitalism, represented by the involvement of private investment companies, to drive social housing policy. In the example of Israel, Ravit Hananel clearly demonstrates that public housing privatization has not led to a renewal in housing supply, nor in architectural designs, even in cases where urban renovation is led by private developers. Although in the 1950s and the 1960s public housing represented 60 % of Israel’s total housing stock and was available to the majority of the population, today it has become marginal, reserved for just 1.9% of the total population (mainly the country’s poorest households). From the mass immigration period (1950-1970), to the liberalization of economic policy (1980-1990), to rising prices and social protest (2000-2013), Israel’s current situation is defined by more or less successful attempts to respond to housing needs, following a significant social movement in 2011. Anne-Laure Jourdheuil shows that, in France, responses to demand for the quantitative production of social rental housing, along with liberalization principles in the sector  which were reinforced with the ELAN (Evolution du logement de l’aménagement et du numérique) law of 2018 for the reform of housing, planning and digital technology  have driven social housing associations to diversify their production means. Among the methods developed, the off-plan sale of public housing (VEFA-HLM, vente en état futur d’achèvement HLM) allow them to acquire new housing units from real estate developers within buildings that have not yet been constructed. The author hypothesizes a “de-stigmatization” of social housing, the off-plan sales granting access to sought-after locations (in cities and their centralities) and allowing to level out the proposed architecture between social rentals and home ownership programs. This bridging between social housing, historically managed by the government, and real estate development merits a debate surrounding the notion of architectural quality, or a lack thereof.

Adaptations and Innovation

4Counter to examples highlighting the correlation between social housing financialization and the weakening of its architectural quality, some articles demonstrate a desire for innovation and research through new types of development projects or within the framework of specific local policies. This is the case in France’s Foncière Chênelet experiment, as recounted by Lucie Gallet, Amélie Flamand and Rémi Laporte. Carried out by a landlord with a nonprofit, activist background, also engaged in the production of very social housing, this project demonstrates that other forms of production are feasible. While this architectural experiment is overly constrained by its technical and financial approach, this limited scale operation still testifies to a desire for ecological housing that grants particular attention to usage. In this search for innovation, new tools or new methods emerge, sometimes inspired by entrepreneurial registers. Marion Ille Roussel also exemplifies this, analyzing the strategies of social housing organizations in France faced with the demographic aging of tenants. She shows that architectural quality is investigated by certification processes which claim to respond to the needs of the elderly, thanks to New Public Management methods. Alongside these European examples, two articles examine emergency contexts and the search for new models for post-disaster housing in Venezuela and Japan. Taking the example of a large housing relocation initiative carried out by the Venezuelan government, Yaneira Wilson shows that mass standardized architecture is set in stone, going against stated ideologies. This, however, is not due to tailor-made architectural language, as Ceausescu’s communist regime was able to do in Romania or Niazov’s in Turkmenistan, but thanks to ornamentation that mobilized new symbols, such as the pervasive image of the signature “Chávez eyes”, present in both public spaces and the interior of the dwellings alike. As demonstrated by Camille Cosson in the case of Japan, seismic disasters have largely sparked the coming together of local authorities in their efforts to build social housing on land at affordable prices, with the goal of relocating those affected. In this last case, post-disaster housing brings morphological innovation both in terms of installation and typology, as well as in spaces for socializing. In order to strengthen the community networks of victims and to recreate links between them, these initiatives offer components such as pleasant green spaces or adaptations to living access principles. Unfortunately, our call for papers did not give rise to proposals which more explicitly raise questions surrounding shared space, as is the case in “collaborative housing” projects which have been developing in Western Europe for several decades, increasingly in the context of social housing. In these initiatives, reflections on social cohesion, ecology, property speculation, everyday practices or the place of residents are integrated into the housing design, questioning the practices of architects.

Heritagization, Renovation and Collective Memory

5Finally, social housing architecture is also renewed through the tangible and intangible transformation of what already exists. It thus serves as a learning source, benefiting urban renewal projects which better consider users and of a certain architectural quality (the recognition of which remains poorly defined). Designs are therefore questioned when taking into account this social and architectural heritage. In this respect, the advantage of undertaking rehabilitation and heritigization projects in social housing complexes is to evaluate the relevance of the forms produced, with regard to both past and present user practices. Géraldine Djament’s article on the housing operations of Jean Renaudie in Villetaneuse and Renée Gailhoustet in Aubervillers, as well as Ryma Habdi’s article on low-cost housing in Grenoble allow us to investigate the notion of heritage value for the various actors at play. Building upon the words of residents, Ryma Hadbi argues for the idea that their daily experiences and stories would bring value to this evolving heritage, and that this “shared collective narrative” should henceforth be taken into account in urban renewal projects. The author supports the idea that the focus should not rest solely upon “what we keep and what we demolish”, but also upon attachment to place, which is inseparable from emotions and affects linked to the history and memory of social housing. Géraldine Djament, on the other hand, proves that the heritage and tourism policy of the Plaine Commune in France has helped to upgrade, update and perpetuate the generalist model of social housing in a context of shortage and rarefaction caused by recent neoliberal policies. Heritagization through resident ownership can, in certain cases, reveal itself to be a stronghold against gentrification practices, which too often accompany individual and/or collective revalorization processes in social housing. For Géraldine Djament, this includes transmitting and valuing both an architecture and an experience of common life, as well as sustaining a social model that has participated in the construction of territories; that is, providing access to social housing for a wider range of populations. In the cases of Ile de France and Grenoble presented here, social housing thus becomes the laboratory for dynamic heritagization, which is confronted with policies for urban renewal and for the management of social issues through security and coercive planning developments. Audrey Courbebaisse and Marianne Pommier also question urban renewal through the “aging at home” lens, motivated as well by the already existing. They analyze several systems for managing demographic aging in social housing, some of which are perfectly suited for it. Their article undoubtedly explains the attachment of older tenants to place and the interest of the territories able or not able to keep them there. The authors thus contend that some of the larger housing estates of the post-war boom have social, architectural and urban qualities that could help to keep the elderly at home. These include aspects such as urban proximity, collective spaces and sociability networks that are valued and from which new programs could be inspired.

6The texts gathered here present social housing as a model that, in the course of history, has been easily influenced. It adapts to political and economic injunctions and can serve various purposes, such as meeting the needs of the most disadvantaged (United States), the rural exodus (China), the building of a country (Israel), natural disasters (Japan, Venezuela), demographic aging, social diversity and the return to nature (France). This issue of CRAUP therefore covers a wide spectrum of experiments and forms of social housing renewal and architecture. From a perspective inspired by Henri Lefebvre, it can be said that social and economic factors affect architecture in many of its spatial, environmental and constructive dimensions. We can also suggest, however, that the architectural space of social housing, which is deeply dependent on a country, its history, its economy, its strengths and its weaknesses, is consubstantial with the way in which it is designed, planned and used.

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Sabrina Bresson, Yankel Fijalkow et Ioana Iosa, « Renewals for Architecture and Social Housing? »Les Cahiers de la recherche architecturale urbaine et paysagère [En ligne], 8 | 2020, mis en ligne le 05 novembre 2020, consulté le 30 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Sabrina Bresson

Sabrina Bresson est sociologue, maîtresse de conférences à l’ENSA Paris-Val de Seine et codirectrice du Centre de recherche sur l'habitat (UMR CNRS 7218 LAVUE). Ses travaux analysent les pratiques sociales d’habitation, au regard des transformations urbaines et des évolutions de la conception du logement. Après une thèse sur les expérimentations architecturales dans le logement social (2010), elle s’intéresse aux alternatives dans l’habitat et participe aux activités d’un réseau de recherche européen sur le « Collaborative Housing ». Depuis 2018, elle coordonne un programme de recherche financé par l'USH et la CDC sur « les pratiques collaboratives dans l'habitat social ». Elle a récemment publié « Collaborative housing and social inclusion. A French perspective » dans la revue Housing, Theory and Society.

Yankel Fijalkow

Sociologue et urbaniste, professeur HDR en sciences humaines et sociales en architecture (SHSA) à l’École nationale supérieure d’architecture de Paris-Val de Seine (ENSAPVS), chercheur au sein de l’UMR 7218 LAVUE (Laboratoire architecture, ville, urbanisme, environnement), codirecteur du Centre de recherche sur l’habitat (LAVUE).

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Ioana Iosa

Ioana Iosa est architecte, docteure en urbanisme et chercheure au LAA/UMR 7218 LAVUE. Depuis 2020, elle est membre du comité de pilotage de la chaire partenariale « Le logement demain » (inter-écoles d’architecture et conventionnée par le ministère de la Culture), active dans l’axe transversal « Histoire et mémoire des acteurs et des processus ». Elle a également mené, de 2011 à 2012, une recherche au sujet de l’habitat en autopromotion, lors du second appel PUCA Bâtiments exemplaires « Batex », ainsi que, de 2016 à 2018, une recherche au profit de la MSH Paris Nord intitulée « Patrimonialisation, renouvellement urbain et ville durable. Les défis d’un quartier emblématique des expérimentations architecturales, urbaines et sociales du XXe siècle : la Maladrerie à Aubervilliers. » 

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