Living Machines

by / September 3, 2007

A product of the modernism of the sixties, the social housing apartments of Wellington have recently come under the spotlight as breeding grounds for antisocial behavior, including gang violence. The idea that apartments, or “living machines” as their inventor called them, can psychologically influence behavior is not without international examples. Salient volunteer writer Duncan McKinlay investigates the relationship between architecture and behavior and finds some tenuous links.


“Love thy neighbour” is not such a bad idea. But what do you do if your neighbours are the local chapter of the Mongrel Mob? Invite them around for a cup of P? The residents of the Newtown Park housing complex found that having the gang in tow meant unwanted attention from both the print and television media, who painted the place as a crime ridden ghetto not too dissimilar to the zoo across the road. This most notably came to a head several weeks ago, when a party at one of the gang flats within the complex got out of hand, ending in one man getting stabbed and another four people arrested. The Newtown Park complex is sadly typical of many such places around the world which have historically been hot-beds of crime and anti social behaviour.

There are many factors that cause this to be the case, and chief among them could very well be the design of the complexes themselves. Large, squat, faceless and functional buildings squeezed together like your horny auntie’s breasts in a boob tube; they by no means conform to what most people think as an ideal place to live. In such a confined space it can be little wonder that things often boil over into violence. How much of this undesirable behaviour is merely the result of badly designed buildings?

First thing’s first, however. Despite the slight hyperbole of the opening paragraph, it should be noted that things certainly seem much better now at the Newtown Park housing complex than what recent events may suggest. The council and the tenants’ committee seem to have hatched quite a few schemes to make the place a safer, nicer place to live. I spent a bit of time there researching this story and the place isn’t so much different to the Hall of Residences some of you reside in at the moment (Admittedly veiled praise). It was quiet, there was little evidence of vandalism, there was a playground for the kids, and even a really nice garden. It is an ugly building, there is no getting away from that, and a lot of areas were clearly in need of an upgrade 10 years ago, but it is certainly not quite the urban wasteland it has been portrayed to be elsewhere. The rooms are pokey, but there is enough room to swing a medium sized cat if you are so inclined, and the kitchen and bathroom facilities are better than some of the flats I’ve lived in (The only really crazy thing I saw was a typed letter on the notice board about a government conspiracy to cover up the fact that they have invented a pharmaceutical cure for aging which they don’t want to share with the rest of us. It even had a contact phone number on it so you can get in touch if you had any information). Nevertheless, the complex still falls short of being a satisfactory answer to the problem of housing people on a low income. Who came up with this design, and who thought it would be a good idea in the first place?

Well apparently a bloke known as Le Corbusier (real name Charles-Edouard Jeanneret), who was a writer, architect, urban planner, painter, sculptor, writer, modern furniture designer and evidently a bit of a wanker. I can say that now because he’s dead, but during his lifetime (1887-1965) he had a hand in constructing iconic buildings throughout central Europe, India, Russia, and one structure each in North and South America. You know the Palace of Ministry of National Education and Public Health in Rio De Janiero? That was the Corbusier. How about the Tsentrosoyuz in Moscow? Yep, that was him as well. And about fifty others, including designing almost the entire layout of the Indian city of Chandigarh. Swiss born, but adopted by the French, he was also a major driving force in creating the modernism movement within architecture. He believed that his new fandangled architectural forms would provide an organizational solution that would raise the quality of life for the lower classes. He has been quoted as saying such potential T-shirt slogans as “The house is a machine for living in,” and “It is a question of building which is at the root of the social unrest of today: architecture or revolution.”

His first attempt at this was with the Immeubles Villas in 1922, a structure that called for large blocks of cell-like individual apartments stacked one on top of the other. At around the same time he also presented his scheme for the “Contemporary City” for three million inhabitants or “Ville Contemporaine” if you must. To quote some egghead on Wikipedia: “The centerpiece of this plan was the group of sixty-story, cruciform skyscrapers built on steel frames and encased in huge curtain walls of glass. They housed both offices and the apartments of the wealthiest inhabitants. These skyscrapers were set within large, rectangular park-like green spaces. At the very middle was a huge transportation centre that on different levels included depots for buses and trains, as well as highway intersections, and at the top, an airport. He had the fanciful notion that commercial airliners would land between the huge skyscrapers. Le Corbusier segregated the pedestrian circulation paths from the roadways, and glorified the use of the automobile as a means of transportation. As one moved out from the central skyscrapers, smaller multi-storey, zigzag blocks set in green space and set far back from the street, housed the proletarian workers.”

To be fair, Le Corbusier (useless fact of the day: this pseudonym can be loosely translated to mean “the crow like one”) was just one of many involved in the modernist architecture movement, and he is not seen to be the central figure of modernism that he was once believed to be. Apparently he was into his right wing politics during the 1930s, a bit of a fascist, and even asked Mussolini if he could design a new capital city for Ethiopia after Mussolini invaded it in 1935 using nerve-gas.

Nevertheless, he was one of the first to pitch the idea of tearing down the slums and building in their place large cell-like apartment blocks to house the poor. Vestiges of this idea can be seen in council-run housing estates all round our fair city such as the Newtown Park housing complex.

Gerald Melling owns an architecture practice specialising in the creation of low cost housing for the people that need it the most. He has also been involved in the improvement of council estates such as the Newtown Park complex, is an ex-editor of an architecture magazine and a poet. He is not a fan of Le Corbusier.

“He is an amazingly fascinating figure for 20th century architecture, but in the end he was super elitist, super egotist, super utopian, and utopia is never the answer. One solution for everyone is not the answer. Things grow organically.” He cites Chandigarh as an example of Le Corbusier’s elitism.

“It was a whole new city that he designed. If you go there, Le Corbusier himself only designed the important cultural buildings, and never did any of the housing, which I have always found extraordinarily offensive. Luckily other interesting architects did get to grip with the housing. Not Le Corbusier, not the ‘great man,’ he was too good for the poor man’s house.”

He feels that the modernism movement in architecture has little credence in today’s world, apart from being a stylistic choice. “It is a style now. In a sense it is quite innocent in a funny sort of way, because it is free of that social commitment that early modernism had, which wanted to re-house the great masses, to get them out of their dark squalid holes and into the light and the air. It is to its eternal credit that that was what modernism was about to start with. It was the marriage of that social idea that was driven by the opportunity of a whole new manufacturing base and clever new materials.”

“A lot of it was to do with new technology, and it was really where the modernist movement started. And it must have been really exciting to be an architect at the time because there was a whole new raft of materials; you know, steel, concrete, large sheets of glass. Early modernism was as much a social movement as it was an architectural movement, but it became in the end merely a style of architecture.”

Although Melling is positive about the initial motivation behind the modernist architecture movement, he feels it hasn’t worked because the initial idea itself was flawed.

“All these public housing schemes all suffer form the same problems, but they are historical problems because the original idea hadn’t been thought through properly. If you think about the community base from the very beginning then the whole idea has a healthy start.”

“It’s quite a paradox really, because they were supposed to be the early modern movement’s socialist transformation, housing for normal ordinary people. I grew up in Liverpool, so this is in my background. They took people out from their old terraced houses, tight little urban environments, which weren’t satisfactory of course, but the dream was they’d put them in these high-rise buildings on the outskirts of the city. They became the worst places to live, worse than the places they replaced.”

“Things like the Ballard flats at the bottom of the Brooklyn hill. Those big slabs, they blew them up in Europe, they blew them up in the states and we should’ve blown them up here.”

Since it is unlikely that the council will be calling in the demolition crew anytime soon, what can be done to the design of these estates to make them safer and more functional communities? If, as Le Corbusier suggests, houses are living machines, how can we overhaul them to make them work better? Melling tells me of another estate that he helped upgrade the design on, in the hope of giving the residents a better sense of community.

“We did a big city council block over on Daniel Street. They were a long group of flats with the high wastes, typical state housing. But they didn’t work. The spaces between the buildings had never been thought about. We focused on the spaces in between the buildings to get it so people would want to interact, instead of avoiding each other all the time. There are reasons why people would want to avoid each other, so it was it was designed to give them privacy. But then if you can give them some privacy and then some obvious areas that they can share, you have a much better chance of forming some type of community.”

“So we demolished the end unit, but left the room, and built bleachers up like a little stadium for the kids to occupy, so they could then look over this somewhat informal playing field. You always want to get some kind of center happening in those places, which is got to strike a balance between being for everybody and not being taken over by some kind of cliquish group at the expense of everyone else.”

“It’s striking a balance between over articulating the spaces in between the houses and under articulating, most of these places under articulate them. You can overdo it, and that turns people away because it is just too specific; if you under do it, it’s just treated like a wasteland. You want to encourage activities, particularly for kids.”

John Gray is a lecturer at the Victoria University School of Architecture and has focused his research on affordable, sustainable house design. He feels that a lot of the older houses in New Zealand, not just the estates, don’t work very well.

“They all suffer from a lot of the same things. Houses can cause illness. People who can’t afford new houses can often end up in places that are poorly ventilated and poorly insulated. In extreme cases this can mean people dying of hypothermia or children dying of respiratory disease.”

Apart from fixing those obviously necessary practicalities, he suggests that since a lot of the residents tend to be from a non-European background, one way to redo places such as Newtown Park would be to look at cultural differences and design the places accordingly. He says the facets a Pacific island family may need in their house differ somewhat from your typical European nuclear family.

“There are a lot of small things that add up to be quite a considerable cultural difference. For example, the way Pacific Island people handle death in the family. It is tradition for the deceased to be brought in to spend time with the family, so they have to be able to get the coffin in and out and they often find the doorways too narrow. It can be so difficult to get around this that people have taken to their windows with chainsaws, because it is actually something they have to do. So bigger openings on the houses would be one way you could upgrade with culture in mind.”

Gray cites other examples like the cultural differences in the way people cook, the way people entertain and the way people visit each other.

“Visitors, such as cousins and aunties etc, can be put up for several weeks at a time, so we need to design houses that give people that extra space when they need it.”

“Indigenous people bring their culture with them, they don’t leave it behind. Often what they are confronted with in New Zealand, as far as housing, doesn’t fit their way of seeing the world.”

Like Melling, Gray is also dubious about the role modernistic architecture has in social engineering of the urban space.

“Modernists thought they could solve problems through architecture, but it is not as direct, obvious and easy as that. Buildings can enable or not enable, they can’t force people to change behaviour.”

Melling feels that the problem with housing estates has just as much to do with ownership as it has to do with design.

“The difference is the ownership. That is the big problem. You will always feel disempowered if you don’t own the place. I got brought up in an environment where you would never expect to own a building. Renting, whether it was from a local authority or through a private landlord, was the accepted way of life. New Zealand hasn’t got that kind of history, New Zealand has a history of one of the highest rates of home ownership, so in New Zealand if you have people that are renting then clearly these are people that are at the bottom of the food chain for whatever reason, whether they are sickness beneficiaries or have psychiatric problems, so you get an intensification of that kind of tenant, whereas you can get middleclass people renting quite happily in Europe, it is part of the tradition.”

“We are going to work on an undisclosed location and the actual brief we have had is to see if we can we turn around this culture though environmental design. But what they are doing is that they are not for rent. They want to try and make the houses accessible to people at the lower end of the economic scale, so they can shoehorn people into houses where they are paying a mortgage, not rent. There is no doubt that that transforms people’s attitude towards where they live.”

“That is the problem with those places; somehow those people have to feel that they are at home, even though they don’t own the homes they live in. It is not easy, but it takes more than a coat of paint and a new kitchen.”

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