ESSAY 1: In repose to The Ethical City’
In response to a brief asking one to consider ‘the ethical city’ this project is titled ‘Collective City’. It places the cause for the myriad inequalities of power and space present in our world with the institution of private and absolute land ownership. Where a home or place of work is physically located, its size, the security and affordability of the tenancy, mortgage, or informal agreement are all enormous factors in the life choices open to any given individual. Whether someone can afford to retire or must keep working is often completely dependent on the vicissitudes of the market over their lifetime which determined not only the value of their home but the value of their labour. Similarly young people are often forced to make choices between living where they grew up or where there are jobs or simply where they can afford too. This project also recognises the ultimate challenge of our contemporary moment; that the continued destruction of the planet is in the rational short-term interest of those who have accrued vast amounts of land and power. Thus, this project imagines the architectural qualities of ‘The collective City’, in which Glasgow undergoes a great act of urban land re-commoning which shapes its development towards serving human need away from shareholder value.
This represents an ideological break with past forms of urban development. However, unlike previous generations of egalitarian architects, ‘Collective City’ wishes to challenge the notion that this should translate into the wholesale clearing of the built environment upon which to build anew. This is driven by the two factors.
Firstly, is the concept that history isn’t something finished and predetermined, but something we have a direct relationship to and an influence on. This project wants to stress that buildings and cities are the product of multitude periods of construction, disaster, care, and neglect by the people who have had influence to change them, both formal and informal. Therefore, architectural work which wishes to endure should embrace this fact, working with and referencing the stacked-up accumulation of events that make up the past, without pretending to be them, and indeed without purporting to be the last.
Secondly, there is environmental necessity. It is undoubtedly true that the greenest building is the one that already exists thus it is imperative we set our ‘goals’ for sustainability wider than numbers of spreadsheets. While U-Values are important, it needs to part of a holistic approach. Often, demolition and replacement is justified with these narrow metrics, even when its replacement is inferior when its entire lifecycle, transport of materials and construction emissions are considered.
However, this does not mean that we must settle for the unsatisfactory thermal performances and implicit bias’s that define much of our existing building stock. Indeed, it is this very existential need to transform the city from an extractive logic to a circular economy which provides the greatest argument for challenging and removing the entrenched power that land ownership has created.As an example, if we were to replace every conventional car, van and lorry on the roads today with an electric vehicle without challenging their individualised nature, the mining and refining of the lithium alone would be environmentally catastrophic. Instead we must make the argument for a public transport system that is frequent, reliable, and far reaching where housing, labour and leisure are within easy reach of each other and are accessible to all people. This however requires that we refute the right that the individual has taken from our streets with their car and return it to the collective.
Both Kate Raworth in ‘Doughnut economics’ and Aaron Bastani in ‘Fully automated luxury communism’ stress the importance of thinking collectively if we are to stay within earths planetary boundaries while providing for all. Both in their own way describe ways of living sustainability that rely on collective public goods, providing for everything from Health to Energy. Most notably for this project they both consider, and promote, the treatment of Housing and Transport as public services, potentially free ones. But how can this be achieved in the stagnant mire of British politics?
Glasgow, once a pocket of inexpensive rents and reasonably paid work, is currently undergoing a localised hyper-housing crisis. Rents are skyrocketing and house prices are following. Berlin, which has a similar history of affordability has been experiencing these rent spikes for a little longer and on the 26th of September 2021 they voted to take action.
240,000 properties, or 11% of all apartments in Berlin, which are currently owned by one investment fund. ‘Deutsche Wohnen & Co’ are to be expropriated without compensation and brought into state ownership. This is possible in Germany because it is inline with the German basic law, which states that “property entails obligations” and “its use shall also serve the public good”. Thus in theory the constitution allows for the socialisation of private assets for the public good. Time will tell if Berliners will succeed in implementing this historic victory.
This is of course impossible in the UK, where not only does such a law not exist, neither does a written constitution on which it might be written! However, in order to get the referendum on the law a huge social movement, made up of tens of thousands of people, and not just of Deutsche Wohnen tenants, had to take place. What would happen if a similar amount of people in Glasgow simply stopped paying their rent and mortgages and instead established a co-operative which not only asserted common ownership over their homes but pooled their resources to fix the cities multitudinous problems? It’s very difficult for the state to enforce 50’000 evictions at once. Even more difficult if they start spending the £49.2 million of monthly rental income these homes represent, on public works programs that benefit all.
Therefore, the challenge of ‘Collective City’ is to imagine what this co-operative might achieve. How they might restitch the existing housing and transport infrastructures of the city to serve egalitarian purposes for which they were not envisaged. How also would their new collective ownership structure reorientate their architecture, rejuvenating and reinterpreting spaces of collectivity.