Stable, affordable housing is becoming a rarity in today’s world. Deregulation has made it possible to speculate on property as if it were a liquid asset and public housing units, particularly in Britain and the US, have slowly been released onto the private market since the 1980s. Pressure from rising rents has led to a sharing economy, rent-to-rent entrepreneurialism and a fuzzy boundary between the traditionally distinct spaces of work and leisure.
Two years of thorough research into these questions has culminated in ‘Wohnungsfrage’ (The Housing Question) – an exhibition, public programme, publication series and academy at HKW, co-curated by Jesko Fezer, Nikolaus Hirsch, Wilfried Kuehn and Hila Peleg. While Friedrich Engels’s 1872 essay ‘Zur Wohnungsfrage’ concluded that only the radical abolition of capitalism would solve the housing problems it generated, this exhibition is more cautious in its approach, drawing on past and present examples of experiments in self-determined housing from artists, architects and researchers, to think through possible solutions. A frank documentary by artist Florian Zeyfang and architectural researchers Lisa Schmidt-Colinet and Alexander Schmoeger, Microbrigades – Variations of a Story (2013), tells the story of a Havana-based programme in which factory labourers are paid to build their own apartment blocks. André Cepeda’s 2014 photographs of Porto’s bairros document still-existing housing projects built in the mid-1970s by a ‘Local Mobile Support Service’ working with local communities to combat Portugal’s post-revolution housing shortage. Amie Siegel’s video Quarry (2015) contrasts the interiors of the Danby Marble Quarry in Vermont with Manhattan display apartments for the super-rich – a work as smooth and spectacular as its subject matter. Selections from Martha Rosler’s If You Lived Here ... (1989) and Greenpoint Project (2011) provide a glimpse into the realities of housing and gentrification in the US, then and now. These are histories of both hope and decline from which, the exhibition suggests, we might learn something.
And a possible narrative thread does emerge: that housing is best created through communal efforts. The exhibition toys with this participatory mode. Four full-scale models crowd the wing of HKW’s exhibition space, offering up disjointed forms of immersion. Created by local groups partnered with architectural teams, these modules are designed to suit the needs of each initiative through participatory planning. The efforts resulted in the student-hipster plywood fantasy Urban Forest (by Kooperatives Labor Studierender and Atelier Bow-Wow), and a module from an urban villa with merged living and working spaces for creatives (but maybe not for others?) by Realism Working Group and Dogma. Retrofit Gecekondu, Kotti&Co. and Estudio Teddy Cruz + Forman’s flexible basis for an assembly hall, market stalls or living spaces was produced in a factory in Tijuana owned by a multinational. Broader circuits of exchange and labour would be involved in implementing these ready-to-assemble fantasies of the global North.
Whilst the breakdown between public and private, work and leisure carries an important emancipatory promise, it is also the friendly face of the neo-liberal dream in the West: public space replaced with ‘community relations’ (the ‘public-private partnership’); and leisure-based or creative activities commodified, while material production is outsourced. However, in this exhibition the space to stop and think can still be claimed from the (survival-based) imperative to participate – for instance, in Lara Almarcegui’s Berlin Excavation (2015): 400 m³ of earth displaced from a construction site in Berlin’s Chausseestrasse and dumped directly into HKW’s foyer. This, together with Angelika Levi’s frank and humorous documentation of Kreuzberg’s anti-gentrification movement, MIETE ESSEN SEELE AUF (RENTS DEVOUR SOULS, 2015), serve as a reminder that, while I am immersing myself in model utopias, the city is being (im)mobilized by other forces.
The strength of ‘Wohnungsfrage’ lies in the dialogue it weaves with local projects, and by engaging artists, architects and planners in its programme. In Berlin, the need for affordable housing is becoming acute for longer term residents in the of face escalating gentrification, as well as for refugees in dire need of immediate accommodation. Meanwhile, a class of freelancers is busy generating creative capital on precarious contracts. These individuals, variously described as hipsters, bourgeoisie-in-disguise, the creative class and the first symptom of gentrification, arguably also constitute one of HKW’s primary audiences. This is ‘the creative’ at work.