Tower, Slab, Superblock: Social Housing Legacies and Futures

‘In 2004, architects Anne Lacaton, Jean-Philippe Vassal, and Frédéric Druot authored a manifesto on the value of renovation over demolition with a powerful opening statement: “Never demolish, never remove or replace, always add, transform and reuse!” Their study, PLUS, came in response to an architectural competition to replace a 1960s high-rise apartment building on the outskirts of Paris, and has become emblematic of a surging interest in refurbishing post-war high-rise and superblock housing.

‘Cities worldwide undertook major residential building programs in the mid-Twentieth Century to create much-needed new housing for workers and low-income residents. Usually built with direct state intervention and in clustered developments on superblock sites, mass housing took different forms – from carefully detailed British council estates to aggressively pragmatist high-rises in the United States – but held the common promise of modern, reasonably priced apartments. This built fabric today represents a significant physical asset, yet in many cases suffers from maintenance issues, financial disinvestment, and social stigma.

‘Where once demolition seemed the de facto response to these persistent issues, efforts in a number of cities demonstrate that we can serve current residents, steward resources for the future, and reinvigorate the urban fabric through smart public policy and good design. Redevelopment has gone by different names – regeneration, transformation, revitalisation – but in many of the best cases looks to maintain and improve the existing building stock and surroundings. When we choose to reinvest – in many cases the more financially, socially, and environmentally conscious decision – how do we do so in ways that benefit and protect current residents?

Tower, Slab, Superblock: Social Housing Legacies and Futures will examine the history, current status, and prospects of high-rise and superblock residential development. The conference will confront questions of design and policy. What does it mean to reconsider this building stock as an asset, rather than a liability or failure? How can the building stock be reimagined to better serve current residents and future generations? And what roles can architects, designers and affiliated professionals play in housing crises?’

The Architectural League of New York (10 December, 2016)

Confucius Plaza Apartments (1975)

A limited-equity housing cooperative in Chinatown with 762 apartments, the 44-storey Confucius Plaza building was the first major public-funded housing project built almost exclusively for Chinese Americans. Initiated by a Chinese-American shop owner who organised a development group through word of mouth and the use of Chinese-language newspapers, and funded mainly by the Mitchell-Lama Housing Program, the project became the centre of a significant protest led by Asian-Americans for Equal Employment, which protested the lack of Chinese or Asian-American construction workers. Later joined by a host of other Chinatown organisations, as well as city-wide minority workers’ groups including the Black and Puerto Rican Coalition, the demonstrations led to the hiring of roughly 40 Asian-American workers as well as the addition of community and commercial facilities to the housing complex.

Sugar Hill Development (2014)

‘A mixed-use development in Harlem with 124 apartments, 70 per cent of the Sugar Hill apartments are targeted to extremely low-income (30 per cent Average Median Income, or below $25,750 for a family of four) and very low-income households (50 per cent AMI, or below $42,950 for a family of four), with the remaining 30 per cent rented to households below 80 per cent AMI ($68,700 for a family of four). 25 of the 124 apartments are reserved for homeless families; of the remainder, 50 per cent are reserved for residents of Community District 9. Residents were chosen by lottery and will not pay more than 30 per cent of their gross income in rent. Designed by Adjaye Associates and developed by the not-for-profit Broadway Housing Communities, the 13-storey building also includes, at ground level, a 100-seat pre-school, a children’s art museum and a community room.’

– Susanne Schindler, Architecture vs. Housing: The Case of Sugar Hill 

Architects for Social Housing

Kidbrooke Village: Our Vision for Your Future

A Non-Place in the Making

‘If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place. Supermodernity produces non-places, meaning spaces which are not themselves anthropological places and which, unlike modernity, do not integrate the earlier places: instead they are listed, classified, promoted to the status of “places of memory”, and assigned to a circumscribed and specific position. Place and non-place are like opposed polarities: the first is never completely erased, the second never totally completed; they are like palimpsests on which the scrambled game of identity and relations is ceaselessly rewritten. But non-places are the real measure of our time.’

Designed for Life

‘The space of non-place creates neither singular identity nor relations; only solitude and similitude. There is no room there for history unless it has been transformed into an element of spectacle, usually in allusive texts. What reigns there is actuality, the urgency of the present moment. Since non-places are there to be passed through, they are measured in units of time. Everything proceeds as if space had been trapped by time, as if there were no history other than the last forty-eight hours of news, as if each individual history were drawing its motives, its words and images from the inexhaustible stock of an unending history in the present.’

Signs & Directions

‘The real non-places of supermodernity – the ones we inhabit when we are driving down the motorway, wandering through the supermarket or sitting in an airport lounge waiting for the next flight – have the peculiarity that they are defined partly by the words and texts they offer us: their “instructions for use”, which may be prescriptive (“Take right-hand lane”), prohibitive (“No parking”) or informative (“You are now entering Kidbrooke Village”). Sometimes these are couched in more or less explicit and codified ideograms (on road signs, maps and tourist guides), sometimes in ordinary language. This establishes the traffic conditions of spaces in which individuals are supposed to interact only with texts, whose proponents are not individuals but “moral entities” or institutions (commercial companies, traffic police, municipal councils); sometimes their presence is explicitly stated (“The council is working to improve your living conditions”), sometimes it is only vaguely discernible behind the injunctions, advice, commentaries and “messages” transmitted by the innumerable “supports” (signboards, screens, posters) that form an integral part of the contemporary landscape.’


‘In the world of supermodernity people are always, and never, at home: the frontier zones no longer open onto totally foreign worlds. Supermodernity naturally finds its full expression in non-places. Words and images in transit through non-places can take root in the still diverse places where people still try to construct part of their daily life. What is seen by the spectator of modernity is the interweaving of old and new. Supermodernity, in contrast, makes the old – makes history – into a specific spectacle, as it does with all exoticism and local particularity. History and exoticism play the same role in it as “quotations” in a written text. In the non-places of supermodernity, there is always a specific position (in the window, on a poster, to the right of the screen, on the left of the motorway) for “curiosities” presented as such.’

Village Hall

‘In the concrete reality of today’s world, places and spaces, places and non-places intertwine and tangle together. The possibility of non-place is never absent from any place. Place becomes a refuge to the user of non-places (who may dream, for example, of owning a second home in the depths of the countryside).’

Roads & Pavements

‘Places and non-places are opposed (or attracted) like the words and notions that enable us to describe them. But the fashionable words – those that did not exist thirty years ago – are associated with non-places. Thus we can contrast the realities of transit (transit camps or passengers in transit) with those of residence or dwelling; the interchange (where nobody crosses anyone else’s path) with the crossroads (where people meet); the passenger (defined by his destination) with the traveller (who strolls along his route); the housing estate, where people do not live together and which is never situated in the centre of anything (big estates characterise the so-called peripheral zones or outskirts), with the monument where people share and commemorate; communication (with its codes, images and strategies) with language (which is spoken).’

1, 2 and 3-Bedroom Luxury Apartments: £412,500, £540,000 and £770,000

‘A world where people are born in a clinic and die in a hospital, where transit points and temporary abodes are proliferating under luxurious or inhuman conditions (hotel chains and squats, holiday clubs and refugee camps, housing estates threatened with demolition or doomed to decaying longevity); where a dense network of means of transport which are also inhabited spaces is developing; where the frequent users of supermarkets, laptop computers and credit cards communicate wordlessly, through gestures, with an abstract, unmediated commerce; a world thereby surrendered to solitary individuality, to the fleeting, the temporary and ephemeral, offers the anthropologist (and others) a new object.’

4-Bedroom Townhouses: £900,000


‘All consumers of space find themselves caught among the echoes and images of a sort of cosmology which, unlike the ones traditionally studied by ethnologists, is objectively universal, and at the same time familiar and prestigious. This has at least two results. On the one hand, these images tend to make a system; they outline a world of consumption that every individual can make his own because it incessantly buttonholes him. The temptation to narcissism is all the more seductive here in that it seems to express the common law: in order to be yourself – do as others do. On the other hand, like all cosmologies, this new cosmology produces effects of recognition. From which arises a paradox of non-place: a foreigner lost in a country he does not know can feel at home there only in the anonymity of motorways, service stations, large stores or hotel chains.’

Affordable Housing & Car Demographics

‘Alone, but one of many, the user of a non-place is in contractual relations with it (or with the powers that govern it). He is reminded, when necessary, that the contract exists. The contract always relates to the individual identity of the contracting party. The passenger accedes to his anonymity only when he has given proof of his identity; when he has countersigned, so to speak, the contract. In a way, the user of the non-place is always required to prove his innocence. Checks on the contract and the user’s identity, beforehand or afterwards, stamp the space of contemporary consumption with the sign of non-place: it can be entered only by the innocent.’

Entrances & Receptions

‘When individuals come together, they engender the social and organise places. But the space of supermodernity is inhabited by this contradiction: it deals only with individuals (customers, passengers, users, listeners), but they are identified (name, occupation, place of birth, address) only on entering or leaving. It seems that the social game is being played elsewhere than in the forward posts of the contemporary world. Those pursuing new socialisations and localisations can see non-places only as a negation of their ideal. The non-place is the opposite of utopia: it exists, and it cannot attain any organic society.’

‘In one form or another, ranging from the misery of refugee camps to the cosseted luxury of five-star hotels, some experience of non-place is today an essential component of all social existence. Hence the very particular and ultimately paradoxical character of what is sometimes regarded in the West as the fashion for “cocooning”, retreating into the self: never before have individual histories, because of their necessary relations with space, image and consumption, been so deeply entangled with general history, with history pure and simple. In this situation, any individual attitude is conceivable: flight (back home, elsewhere), fear (of the self, of others), but also revolt (against established values).’

– Marc Augé, Non-Places (1992)

Architects for Social Housing

The Working Class Strikes Back

These photographs, documenting three years of protests, marches, demonstrations and occupations in London, were exhibited as part of Resist: A Festival of Ideas and Action, held at the London School of Economics and Political Science from 28-30 September, 2016.




June 2015, protesters gate-crash the first open day of Lend Lease’s Elephant Park Experience Suite, which they scatter with remains of the Heygate Estate, demolished by Southwark Labour Council and its land sold to the multinational property developers.


January 2015, following the 3,000-strong March for Homes, which converged on Town Hall from marches in East and South London, squatters make a political occupation of the Aylesbury Estate, where they remain for two months until evicted by court order on 2 April, 2015.


February 2016, on the instructions of Southwark Labour Council, hundreds of riot police from the MET’s Territorial Support Group violently evict the squatters from Chartridge House; but in anticipation of this move the occupiers escape to Chiltern House, another block on the Aylesbury Estate.


April 2016, having been fenced in for a month by Southwark Labour Council-employed security guards, Metropolitan police, razor wire, CCTV and dogs, the March for the Aylesbury concludes with protesters pulling down the Aylesbury Wall.


September 2015, on the second anniversary of the Focus E15 Mothers campaign, during the March Against Evictions in Stratford, protesters occupy estate agents Foxtons.

April 2015, demonstrators at Reclaim Brixton break the window of Foxtons in protest against the role of the estate agents in the social cleansing of Brixton.


On the orders of Lambeth Labour Council, riot police from the MET’s Territorial Support Group, called in to protect the corporate retail outlets on Brixton High Street, spray protesters with CS Gas.


Aysen Dennis of Fight for Aylesbury, and Jasmin Stone of Focus E15 Mothers.

January 2016, demonstrators march on Downing Street to protest against the Conservative Government’s Housing and Planning Bill.


Click on thumbnails below for larger images.