In post-war Britain, the brave new world of urban living was the modernist social housing block that sprang up as a solution to the Victorian slums that had blighted the landscape. Modelled on Le Corbusier’s designs for high-rise living, the new blocks were small, functional and dense living spaces for a city’s poor. The only problem was, they quickly turned into slums themselves, becoming notoriously bleak and dangerous places. Many of them have since been pulled down in disgrace. Where did the modernists’ egalitarian dream go wrong?
As a British architect living and working in South Africa, I have often wondered whether the original intention of the Le Corbusier model could be used to put an end to the housing crisis and get people out of shacks and into proper homes. The latest trend for micro-apartments and tiny homes seems to be a move in this direction. But how to create small, dense living spaces without re-creating the slums that they are meant to replace?
The mistake that the modernist architects made was perhaps that they didn’t think carefully enough about maintaining a sense of community and about the relationship of people to the surrounding city. In South African cities, struggling as they do under the burden of Apartheid social planning, the majority of people are divorced from the commercial centres and have to spend much of their income on unreliable and frequently unsafe transportation. People need to live close to where they work.
But to fit large numbers of people into small city blocks, you have to densify and this is where micro-living could rapidly turn into a vertical version of the sprawled out ghetto of Apartheid’s ‘dormitory’ suburbs. Developers – both public and private – will naturally find the most economical way to fit as many apartments as they can into a block, without necessarily thinking through the needs of the people that will live in them.
Careful design using light and materials to create the illusion of space and the incorporation of communal and green spaces in these buildings could save the micro-apartment from being the cramped, dystopian structures we associate with residential tower blocks. Le Corbusier himself wrote about ensuring an equal amount of light coming into high-rise apartments and had, as one of his principles, that apartment blocks should have communal roof gardens to replace the ground space taken up by the footprint of the building.
Thoughtful urban planning is also critical. How apartment blocks speak to each other and the city that surrounds them must be considered. Enlightened town planning departments can promote pedestrian friendly cityscapes which support the communal and shared aspect of micro-living. Local governments across South Africa must start implementing coherent and joined-up planning frameworks and policies that direct developers to accommodate affordable housing, like they do in London where social housing as part of commercial developments is written into the planning act. South African cities have to get serious about affordable housing and think through how to integrate it into existing urban planning fameworks. Our municipalities must be bold and not simply tick boxes.
According to Stats SA, 2.2 million households live in “makeshift structures not erected according to approved architectural plans” – the need for affordable housing is desperate and worsens each year. We have to find new solutions, like cheaper and lighter materials that make for quicker construction. South Africa must get over its reliance on bricks and mortar and embrace timber and steel frame which is now much easier to effectively insulate and fire-proof. Pre-fabricated pods that fit together to form apartment blocks could also provide an answer; quick to erect, cost-effective to build and with successful precedents all over the world. Finally, South Africa doesn’t need high-rise apartment buildings – we have the space to make a difference with smaller blocks of three to four storeys which also keeps living spaces connectively close to the ground.
At the moment, micro-apartments only seem to be available for the upper end of the market in rapidly gentrifying areas, so their potential as an affordable housing solution connected to the city remains limited. Embracing the micro, the shared space, the quick-built to meet the demand for affordable urban housing need not be at the expense of people’s needs and aspirations. “Space and light and order,” said Le Corbusier, “Those are the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep.”
James Finnie is a consulting architect with over 25 years’ experience working on diverse and complex projects in South Africa, Europe and the Middle East. James’s practice – JFCArchitect.co.za – delivers design, detailing and project management solutions across the architectural spectrum from residential to retail and resorts.