The Power Structures of Built Reality

»Home is increasingly portrayed as a cocoon-like sanctuary that is supposed to protect us from the threats of the outside world,« says Ana Filipovic. Informed by the cities she lived in – Belgrade, Frankfurt, New York, Berlin – the architect and designer looks into the current state and crisis of housing. Her often research-based, analytical works examine the structures and the cultural values of the late capitalist society in order to expose and eventually appropriate them for the public good. What specific power structures are created through the hyper-financialization of housing, and how do they affect our homes and the cities we live in? How could the future of housing look, and how can we share know-how and tools for self-organized housing?

Schlosspost: Can you give us a short introduction into the story of housing, and the state of housing today in two examples, Frankfurt and Berlin?

Ana Filipovic: The struggle for affordable housing became a shared experience of the many living in developing cities. Being a class struggle, it was always present among the underprivileged in the society. However, with the increased commodification of housing, where it’s become a site for profit making, and real-estate instead of a home, the crisis has affected much broader social strata. This issue is undoubtedly political. Frankfurt was a site of large social housing developments in the 1920s under the premise of providing the working class with good living conditions. The first law of housing in Berlin from 1950 prescribed the urgency of building housing available to a broad spectrum of society. Sure, both are the examples of the postwar welfare developments, but they exemplify how policy could protect the common, public interests.

»Ideally, housing would be
completely decommodified
and provided as a basic
need to everyone.«

The culture of renting is specific for both cities today, so the prevalence of the free market and financial speculation is inevitably fueling the fear of eviction. A huge portion of the social housing stock in Berlin was privatized over the last two decades and the city, deemed as number-one place to invest in real estate in Europe, is experiencing a construction boom. Frankfurt has the highest rise in prices and is developing rapidly, supported by the Brexit narrative. Despite favorable credit conditions that reflect the government’s tendency toward homeownership, prices are so high that many households cannot afford to buy without a generous inheritance.

Schlosspost: Your field of research is informed by the cities you lived: Belgrade, Frankfurt, New York, and Berlin. How important is it for your practice to navigate through specific sites, and actually perceiving the space you talk about.

AF: I grew up in a mass housing settlement in Belgrade and while such developments are a product of nondemocratic systems and are criticized for the lack of individuality they provide to its residents, their well-organized flats provide good living conditions and thus facilitate social justice. Today I live in an icon of Berlin social housing, designed by John Hejduk for the International Building Exhibition in 1987 for the low-to-middle income families with a migration background. The generous spatial concept of the apartment has more qualities than many quasi-luxurious ones built today. Unfortunately, the building got privatized and rents substantially increased. The lived experience of housing, that I would argue is the site of the political, is a vantage point of my research.

When I was still living in Frankfurt, I worked with a team of architects and urbanists on a speculative architectural design for the project »Kulturcampus.«

The project The City Within (2012), for the »Kulturcampus« in Frankfurt, came similarly out of my personal navigation through various living spaces and the need to spatially address the instability. My proposal for a soon-to-be abandoned office building in Frankfurt combined various durations of stay – a day, a month, a year or a lifetime – in order to provide a financial model that would acknowledge the social capital of long-term residents and provide them with cheaper rents. The day units would operate as a hotel, and a monthly or yearly ones like co-living units. Now this was before the whole boom of serviced, mini-apartments happened around the world, where the substandard living conditions are sold as a lifestyle and one’s necessity is exploited for profit-making. It is exactly the negation of the social capital of the residents and their involvement in the design of the living environment that makes those projects highly problematic.

»Kulturcampus«, Frankfurt am Main
The City Within (2012)
The City Within (2012)
The City Within (2012)
The City Within (2012)
»Textbuild«, photo: textbild (Ilka & Andreas Ruby)

Schlosspost: Housing is a fundamental human need and one could claim that housing is a basic social human right. Today, we encounter a hyper-financialization of housing and the sellout of cities, properties, and land. In your latest research project Neubau: Design and Finance in Berlin Housing (2018 – ongoing), you further dissect the instigated financialization of housing. How does the sellout of cities and property change the appearance of our cities and homes?

AF: I am focusing in this project on the built form of those processes and the materialization of new concepts of living defined by the market. My work is examining the structures and the cultural values of late capitalist society in to expose and eventually appropriate them for the public good.

»Home is increasingly portrayed
as a cocoon-like sanctuary that is
supposed to protect us from
the threats of the outside world.«

The physical embodiment of how we cohabitate with others, as housing is foremost an art of living together, paints a picture of the current power structures. It is interesting to see how spaces that once fostered openness and inclusivity, such as open courtyards, galleries or generous staircases where the residents could meet are rendered unsafe and are replaced with gates and other means of controlled access. Home is increasingly portrayed as a cocoon-like sanctuary that is supposed to protect us from the threats of the outside world. When reading the real-estate brochures, one finds names such as a »refuge« or an »oasis of peace.« This narrative becomes counterproductive when denser forms of cohabitation are needed as one solution to the housing crisis.

On the other hand, the mediocrity of architectural design in market-driven developments, as well as often poor quality of their execution, are results of relatively low value of the building compared to the value of the land. The spatial quality of an apartment is less emphasized than its quantifiable location. The rooms we inhabit become a result of a financial calculus rather than spatial imagination. Take balconies for instance: instead of an optimal position or size, they will often result out of the regulation that excludes them from a gross floor area if they don’t exceed a certain depth or length. If we talk about architecture as a cultural practice, it becomes interesting to observe what material and spatial culture are produced by various financial systems. The ones originating from collective efforts happen to be the only truly progressive ones, unfortunately they remain an island in a sea of projects negligent of this culture. I was interested in the mass culture associated with housing and using mundane objects such as real estate displays, as means of visual communication.

Schlosspost:The hyper-financialization of housing affects certain power structures. In your ongoing research Craig’s Lust: Internet-enabled Housing Discrimination, you hunt down how especially young women are being discriminated and abused by the nonregulated housing market.

»Sex for rent portrays the abuse of the financial power associated with real estate, to the extent that having an apartment becomes a privilege. It also reproduces the patriarchal patterns that claim rights to female bodies in both the domestic space, through marital obligations, and the public space where female bodies are sold as commodities on the street.«

AF: I started looking at the »sex for rent« phenomenon during the »Female Futures« workshop last summer at Württembergischer Kunstverein. I found it striking that it was simply out there, as it was the most normal thing in the world to offer women sex slavery for what happens to be a basic need. »Sex for rent« portrays the abuse of the financial power associated with real estate, to the extent that having an apartment becomes a privilege. It also reproduces the patriarchal patterns that claim rights to female bodies in both the domestic space, through marital obligations, and the public space where female bodies are sold as commodities on the street. It’s interesting to observe the global nature of this phenomenon and its tight connection with neoliberalism and white supremacy, since the majority of the »renters« are middle-aged white men.

Schlosspost: Besides actually navigating through or observing spaces, you often use the analysis of statistics and visual patterns as tools to examine the relation between architecture and politics. Back in 2012, you worked on a project called The Parliamentary Chambers. Here one can clearly see your interest in the question: how does architecture manifest certain power structures? Can you tell us a bit more about the project and your approach?

AF: This visual essay questioned the seemingly casual relationship between the spaces of parliamentary chambers and the system they represent. The majority of democracies adopted the architectural legacy of the classic Greek democracy, which is a semicircular plenary chamber that fosters the culture of consensus. The equality in its shape – the equal distance from the speaker, for example – is used whenever democratic dialogue is anticipated. The Westminster spatial setting with the opposing benches, on the other hand, fosters the polemic approach, which originates from the previous use of the space as a chapel. States with a low democracy index have a rather rectangular setting and, interestingly enough, larger parliaments. This project was published in a newspaper format and I have been working with diagrammatic drawings superimposed on images showing the culture of the debate.

Schlosspost: Trained as an architect and urbanist and with a background in architecture and critical and spatial practice, you also take a playful and experimental approach to the topic of housing from the perspective of a designer. With Philipp Mecke you collaborate under the name »if-then.« What does this collaborative practice look like?

AF: Our collaboration started around 2013, after our studies at the Städelschule in Frankfurt, and since then we have worked on projects various in scale and program. We have very different backgrounds and what unites us is the pursuit of non-predetermined spatial responses that work as open systems, easily accessed by anyone. We move across mediums, but at the core of each project is a sort of analytical, low-tech intelligence.

Schlosspost: Can you tell us a bit more about your sculptural and spatial works? What is the connection between the sculptural and spatial works and your research-based practice?

AF: As much as I find the anachronistic architecture of contemporary housing problematic, we need to acknowledge its general good reception. However, the objective lack of quality can be pinpointed in its materiality. The exercises with facade materials I have been working on deal with the perceived and the actual qualities of the built reality, such as stability versus porosity, durability versus fragility, the environmental benefit versus the environmental damage, and so on. Approximately 80 percent of all houses in Germany are insulated with polystyrol, which is known as styrofoam. When covered in plaster, it is not only the cheapest possible facade construction, but also the thinnest one, which maximizes the sellable space. Such construction is reasonable when it’s on a budget, but as an overpriced property it hardly makes any sense. This way of working is a new territory for me and I am still exploring the possibilities to use materials as a critical tool.

Schlosspost: Can we distinguish between a bad and a good developer and/or bad and good housing or isn’t it that easy?

AF: We could distinguish between for-profit and non-profit oriented developments, with innovative spatial concepts associated mostly with the latter. The architecture itself cannot generate inequality – the house management of Stuttgart’s Wohnmaschine Asemwald proves that 1,800 residents can harmoniously cohabitate in three high-rises – yet it can’t be detached from the political and the financial conditions behind it. On the other hand, the developers are only one link in the chain and behind every exclusionary, and therefore socially unsustainable development, are both city authorities and the end user.

Schlosspost: How do we fight this housing crisis?

AF: Essentially to design a policy that would prevent the speculation in housing and acknowledge the rights of the residents.

Schlosspost: Can you specify what you understand under the idea of decommodification of housing. How should regulations on the housing market look like?

AF: Since the liberation of the market proved to be an inefficient strategy for the provision of housing, new forms of regulation should be explored. There is an initiative at the moment in Berlin to seize the property of private landlords who own more than 3,000 apartments. The tax policy that would discourage foreign and multiple homeownership should be advanced and long-term renters should be given the right to own their homes. The established housing cooperatives struggling with the lack of funds could develop cofinancing models and partly adopt the market model of residents reserving and thus prefinancing flats. Self-organized housing could be further incentivized, both fiscally and legally. For instance, a concept-based sale of public land introduced couple of years ago proved to be only partially successful, as the property remains mostly unaffordable for the many cooperations. In addition, the know-how and tools for self-organized housing should be spread and educated to the broader population.

»The rooms we inhabit become
a result of a financial calculus
rather than spatial imagination.«

Schlosspost: How should the future of housing look?

AF: Ideally, housing would be completely decommodified and provided as a basic need to everyone. I believe that the notion of mass housing on the fringe of the city deserves to be revamped. Cheap plots of land and prefabricated construction would make it affordable, fast trains would make it accessible and the participative governing make it livable. We just need to get rid of the stigma associated with it and reimagine a way to live in larger communities.

Denise Helene Sumi conducted the interview.