Urgent Architecture

Author(s) Bridgette Meinhold
Publisher W.M Norton & Company Inc.
Year 2013

Title: Urgent Architecture: 40 Sustainable Housing Solutions for a Changing World
Author: Bridgette Meinhold
Publisher: W.M Norton & Company Inc.
Year: 2013

In the preface to the book Urgent Architecture: 40 Sustainable Housing Solutions for a Changing World, Bridgette Meinhold, a freelance writer, civil and environmental engineering masters graduate and business sustainability consultant, shares with us her disquiet concerning those ‘not so lucky … to have a solidly built and durable home’ (p.9). She tells us that this is the issue that most concerns her, a concern that she later articulates as ‘providing housing for the masses when disaster strikes through sudden natural processes, longer term impact of rising sea levels, or even because of poverty’ (p.9).

The book begins by claiming a world of chaos – ‘seemingly out of control’ (p.11) – characterised by rampant population growth, a climate that is unpredictable, and that leaves ‘our future completely uncertain’ (p.11). In addition to the two aforementioned features, she draws our attention to five further factors causing ‘the continuing housing emergency’ (p.12). These include dwindling resources, poverty, conflict, inadequate building codes and natural disasters. In all cases the factors are presented in quantitative terms, where an increase in the magnitude and frequency of the aspects will lead to an increase in the loss of human life as well as added financial costs. The book does not critically engage with any structural explanations for the prevalent conditions, nor does it reference any texts that substantively reflect on the latter.

Meinhold emphasises that the intention of the book is to provide a ‘source of ideas … that will serve as inspiration for architects, designers, governments and aid organisations’ (p.9). In doing so it aims to explore ‘architectural and design solutions’ (p.9) that will achieve greater resource and energy efficiency. The 40 selected projects, which are described as examples of ‘nimble, sustainable, and adaptable architecture’, qualities by which she claims we ‘must build in order to survive’ (p.17) are organised within five different housing categories: 1) Rapid Shelter, 2) Transitional Shelter, 3) Affordable Housing, 4) Prefab Housing and 5) Adaptable Housing.

Each category includes eight selected housing projects and in addition to a basic description of the respective example, the date of construction, project cost, location, project team and web links provide useful information that allows the reader to individually follow up on any project. Twenty of the projects are located in the USA but less than 10 projects are selected from the ‘global south’. The only African examples are two ‘affordable housing’ projects from South Africa.

Single freestanding examples dominate. Higher density projects are located in China and the Netherlands, and whilst Meinhold recognises population growth as one of the foremost factors related to the ever growing housing crisis as part of the 21st century urban condition, these are the only examples that explicitly acknowledge a larger urban concern and imperative.

Most of the examples have been undertaken within the past five years and many of these are prototypical investigations that have either been developed by entrepreneurial industrial designers, builders, individual architects or architectural students. All the projects include full-colour illustrations, but like most architectural texts, evidence of human occupation is largely and unfortunately absent.

The descriptions of the respective projects are mainly concerned with their material aspects. This is not surprising given Meinhold’s primary interest in the technological aspects of housing and her objective to demonstrate that by building better housing which is ‘stronger, more durable, energy-efficient, sustainable, and disaster proof’ (p.9) more lives could be protected and saved.

As a consequence of its primarily materialist focus we gain very little insight concerning the social impact of the project. It is furthermore surprising that the ‘cultural acceptance’ of a project is only included as part of the ‘transitional housing’ category.

The book concludes with a page each of online resources and a selected bibliography. The references are primarily concerned with a discourse related to climate change, post-disaster and relief projects.

As a source book it most usefully serves as an introductory reference that illustrates prototypical examples of projects where the rapid deployment of emergency services and human shelter are required. At the same time it serves as an accessible text for showcasing alternative building materials and construction methods. However, in order to engage more discursively with both the deeper and complex structural features that the (global) housing crisis entails, more advanced and substantive references will have to be employed. Similarly, in order for projects to achieve greater sustainable outcomes, the social aspects thereof must be appropriately weighted.

Finally, notwithstanding the importance of the material needs required for human shelter, including during times of crisis and emergency, it must be remembered that building as architecture is a social practice and institution, more than (individual) edifice. In other words, it is what John Turner reminded us of during 1960-70s – that housing is not (only) a noun, but a verb (as well). The imperative therefore, especially in the context of the larger housing (and human) crisis, is to foreground the production of housing, where both private dwelling and collective public realm – that is, the individual (home) and the collective (city) – finds appropriate representation.

Fadly Isaacs is a lecturer at the School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics, University of Cape Town, South Africa. His current research explores issues concerning spatial justice within the Cape Town metropolitan area. Pursued as a way of engaging contemporary architectural and urban challenges, in particular those aspects that require urgent attention as academics and professionals of the global South, Fadly seeks to critically reflect on notions of architectural place making, identity and justice. These concerns integrally inform and shape his teaching, research and practice experiences.

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