A novel social housing project in Winnepeg has recently gone from the object of international praise to the poster child for architectural hubris. In an article written for the Guardian, reporter Raja Moussaoui discovered that the project’s social ambitions were creating inhospitable conditions for its residents. In other words, the development’s generous public spaces have become a favourite spot for locals to do their drinking and yelling, away from public surveillance. And the same generous public spaces forced the dwelling units into a tall and narrow configuration, resulting in spaces that are a bit too tight for the large immigrant families who call them home.

Moussaoui’s conclusion is that the architects who designed the project (5468796 Architecture) should have been more mindful of the cultural context in which they were designing. They should have known that this project would house large families in a neighbourhood troubled by crime and poverty. If they had, the project’s failures could have been avoided. The discussion that has been stirred up by the article manages to avoid a critical issue that is important for architects to consider. I’d like to unpack it here:

For Which Future Should We Design?

Most people would agree that architects should take into account a project’s cultural context in its design. In a context that is perceived as dangerous or unstable, special considerations must be made for security. In the case of Centre Village, the troubled housing project in Winnipeg, one resident recommends gates be installed around the property to prevent people from passing through. In fact, if the project were redesigned, having observed the problems of this iteration, it’s unlikely that anyone would advocate for generous public spaces to be included again.

Unfortunately, humans have a pattern of being short-sighted. The present is so real compared to the future that it becomes the focus of most of our attention.  But the future is extremely important in architecture, especially if the building is designed to last more than a couple decades. What if this neighbourhood in central Winnipeg changes in the next ten years? What if it becomes safer and more stable? In that future, Centre Village’s public spaces would be used as 5468796 had envisioned; as spaces that are not only open to the community but create community. Unfortunately, architects can’t design for an optimistic future when the troubled present is the context in which our projects have to work.

We too easily forget that architecture creates context as well. In her contribution to the Chicago Architecture Biennial, Jeanne Gang proposed the creation of a new kind of police station for American cities called “Polis Station.” Following the riots in Ferguson, it occurred to Gang that the current standards in police station design are producing buildings that feel like fortresses, removed from the communities they are designed to serve. The police stations of our parents’ generation weren’t designed like this. Why has this become the standard? Because police station architects are responding to the troubled present. They design fortified buildings to keep officers safe by keeping the community out. An opportunity to create connection between police and community is lost, the divide increases, hostility rises, police stations become even more fortified, etc.

Gang saw an opportunity to end this cycle by spreading the police station across the community. Instead of a single building, the station is a campus of buildings spread throughout a neighbourhood, and open to it. The gym, classrooms, cafeteria, basketball court, etc. are all shared by officers and community members, strengthening bonds that had been weakening. Compared to a fortified police station, this proposal puts officers at much greater risk. It’s for this reason that the idea isn’t likely to be fully implemented, and perhaps shouldn’t be. However, it helps to highlight the reciprocal relationship between architecture and context, and is a good reminder that paranoia creates the conditions to justify more paranoia.