Architects have long sought to design the minimum dwelling. It was the functionalist Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), which Le Corbusier commanded from inception in 1928, but which collapsed around its tenth congress between 1955 and 1959, that had most notably pursued an Existenzminimum for industrialised households. Establishing a ‘subsistence’ level of housing at a time of inter-war privation and political defeat seemed radical to avant-garde architects like the Czech Marxist Karel Tiege. He went further than many modernist leaders in looking at self-contained industrialised housing for the majority, but it was a popular design preoccupation.
When an estimated one billion squatters in the World’s rapidly growing megacities still lack even modest housing, it might seem enough to propose subsistence standards of development again. That may even be posed as an environmental virtue, when, in the developed world too, we struggle to afford plenty of living space. But it is not enough to preface Existenzminimum with ‘eco’. We all require better than basic, and the potential to mass-produce excellent housing has never been greater than it is today. Homes could be made like any other high performance consumer durable, and at economies of scale that reduce their cost. Housing might be produced for its use value, and designed to be consumed and replaced. Instead, housing is considered more as an exchange value in a speculative market, even when diminutive and dilapidated.
In Britain’s housing boom, consequent on so little housing being built, there is no minimum size for households to be compacted into, and much architectural talent is again focused on exquisitely designed and even manufacturable ‘Microflats’. Orange have one such product - designed by the masterful Richard Horden - the Micro-Compact Home. It is an aluminium cube of less than 7 square metres in area, and a gorgeous but expensive cell. However cheating on useable space without lowering cost is no housing strategy for a growing world population. By 2024 architects must address the harder question of how everyone might afford an upgradeable Macro-home. Or repeat the architectural tragedy of modernism as farce.
Ian Abley is coauthor of Why Is Construction So Backward? (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)) and coeditor of Manmade Modular Megastructures (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). See his website.