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Agency and Empowerment in Public Housing: A Case Study of Rochor Center, Singapore and The Waterside Plaza, New York

Published onJun 11, 2020
Agency and Empowerment in Public Housing: A Case Study of Rochor Center, Singapore and The Waterside Plaza, New York


Architecture has provided many socialists and progressives with the opportunity to help construct a better future for its citizens. All citizens have a fundamental right to urban spaces such as affordable and quality public housing that works for our interests rather than against them. To deliver these rights means to take control of our role as architects and implement changes that enable ordinary people to influence the shape of their urban environment. However, over time, architecture has become a tool of neo-liberal and socialist practices, complicit in a purpose antithetical to its social mission.

To create a scope, two desperate points on a political spectrum will serve as a basis for contextualizing the analysis. These differing political models provide an insight into how public housing initiatives are approached contextually by the citizen and the architect. 

The first model investigated is the Socialist Model largely embedded in the Singapore context. Socialism describes a political and economic model in which production and exchange is regulated by the government. The well-intentioned but often authoritarian and paternalistic attempts of the socialist model bump up against the citizen’s fight to assert their democratic rights and define urban space according to their needs. Comparatively, the Neoliberal Model, embedded in the context of New York City (NYC), describes a political and economic condition in which the government resists interfering with production and exchange but actively perpetuates free-market capitalism. Marginalized communities are pushed out by the ongoing process of capital accumulation. 

Through analyzing these two disparate models, we seek to understand and evaluate their implication on the formation of public housing as well as the position of the citizen and the architect. As such, the essay seeks to find some underlying commonalities in which social, architectural, and political agency can be expressed within the governing power structures.

The Agency of the Architect

In both case studies the agency of the architect is limited. While government agencies and the private sector are investing in architects to point out creative solutions to design problems, a loss of autonomy has become a concern, leading to “the end of cultural democracy” and a “contemporary crisis of voice”.

In Singapore, the architect is limited by Fordian processes of standardized mass production. The architect is bound by the political ideology of the government in which, speed, economy, and quantity are the main operative concepts. HDB estates are marked by structural homogeneity and regularity of form. Moreover, estates are internally standardized as well, following Fordian models of modular construction. As such, architects in Singapore are limited by an “anonymous standardization”. Exercising creative participation would mean going against the ideologies of the government.  The Singaporean architect lacks creative agency and therefore seeks the safety of limited options provided by the government for their personal expression. 

In New York, the architect has not only become a prototypical icon of creativity in the neoliberal project but also the prototype of immaterial labor - the role model of the post-Fordian work environment. The role of the architect within NYC public housing is overshadowed by private interests due to the ability of developers to work with architects that align to their goals. With an oversaturated availability of architects, developers can pay a range of architects to develop proposals and then choose one which meets their goals. Accordingly, the goal of that architect must be the goal of the developer. Goals include the optimization of apartment space and emphasis on views, as well as the incorporation of dynamic commercial possibilities. 

Hence, the architect is no longer a creative professional but a worker for the government or private sector economy. When the flexibility, certainty and freedom promised by being part of a critical "outsider" are considered as extensions of advances in socio-economic exploitation, does the architect then become the uncritical, complicit of something far more compelling?”

Creating Agency: A Menu of Different Operations

While in both case studies, the architect becomes mitigated to the facilitator of external goals, the question becomes in what ways and forms can architects express creative solutions that begin to empower the people for which the architecture serves? 

The aim of this investigation is to understand the tools architects and planners wield in subverting structural conditions imposed by contextual political systems. We seek to propose an Experimental Handbook, which provides the beginnings of a discourse surrounding the nature of architectural agency within public housing. The diagrams within the handbook describe a range of architectural tools that can be used by architects within each political context. For instance, one such tool is the addition of bridges which hope to unify isolated communities within the project. Another tool is creating public spaces with varying degrees of privacy using elevated parks. Through this experimental handbook we hope to continue the push for architectural agency in social discourse.

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