Social Housing and Segregation, by Andrew Ashbury

Deconstructing Modern Myths: The Spatial Imaginaries of Racial Segregation and Social Housing

October 23, 2020

[Reading List]

In The Racialization of Space and the Spatialization of Race, George Lipsitz calls upon design professionals to “disassemble the fatal links that connect race, place, and power.”  Lipsitz’s call to action is a “two-part strategy”: he argues that architects and urban planners must dismantle systems of economic segregation and re-examine what values are privileged in their designs. Today, this call to action remains as urgent as ever. Architects must dismantle the systemic forces of settler colonialism and white supremacy that pervade our profession, our pedagogies, and the built environment.  To guide this rethinking, Lipsitz points to the metaphorical construct of racially specific spatial imaginaries2: the exclusionary white spatial imaginary and the counter-imaginary of the Black spatial imaginary.  These contrasting imaginaries offer a powerful lens for challenging the prevailing ideals of architectural discourse, particularly as they apply to the sociopolitical battleground of social housing. Katharine G. Bristol’s The Pruitt-Igoe Myth3 demonstrates architecture’s mystification of the demise of the Pruitt-Igoe social housing complex and how flawed ideals ignored systemic oppression and segregation.

Contesting the White Spatial Imaginary by Embracing the Black Spatial Imaginary

Lipsitz outlines the diverse mechanisms of racial segregation that persist today throughout American society.Racial segregation has a similarly long history in Canada that has targeted diverse communities, including settler colonial violence against Indigenous peoples, Transatlantic slavery, and immigration policy while persisting today as systemic discrimination and inequality affecting countless dimensions of everyday life for BIPOC communities. Lipsitz demonstrates that the white spatial imaginary perpetuates segregation and privileges white property ownership: “A white spatial imaginary, based on exclusivity and augmented exchange value, functions as a central mechanism for skewing opportunities and life chances in the United States along racial lines.”5 Contesting this hegemonic white spatial imaginary, the Black spatial imaginary fosters an inclusive enclave, a supportive community, public investment, and a value system of use-value. This counter-imaginary reveals forms of resistance: “They augment the use value of their neighbourhoods by relying on each other for bartered services and goods; by mobilizing collectively for better city services; by establishing businesses geared to a local ethnic clientele; and by using the commonalities of race and class as a basis for building pan-neighbourhood alliances with residents of similar neighborhoods to increase the responsibility, power, and accountability of local government. Black neighborhoods generate a spatial imaginary that favours public expenditures for public needs.”6

Social Housing as an Architectural Epicentre of “Racialized Space and Spatialized Race”

Lipsitz emphasizes the historical legacy and ongoing harm of exclusionary housing and real estate practices that emerge from the racist ideals of the white spatial imaginary. The “private, properly-ordered suburban home”7 is central to the white North American home ownership model favouring defensive privatism over investment in public services. Lipsitz demonstrates how inequality in residential real estate culminated in discriminatory economic, educational, and diverse other social injustices that prevent access to capital. Social housing must respond to the intersectional challenges of racial segregation and socioeconomic inequality. It is continuously undermined by the white spatial imaginary’s individualistic opposition to public investment and community support. To further examine these spatial imaginaries in specific buildings, the architectural discourse surrounding social housing projects provides insight when read in these terms.

Imagining Myths vs. Imagination of Space at Pruitt-Igoe

In The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,8 Katharine G. Bristol explores the deeply problematic mystification within the architectural discourse surrounding the iconic demise of the Pruitt-Igoe social housing complex in St. Louis. Bristol shows that the primary cause of the demise—ultimately demolished just 22 years after construction—was not its architectural design, despite this common assertion among architectural critics. Instead, this notorious failure’s primary causes were twofold: the prevailing racist segregation and oppression of the urban poor left the residents in extreme poverty, while the associated chronic underfunding of public housing failed to maintain the low quality buildings.  Racist false narratives have commonly blamed the residents of Pruitt-Igoe, asserting that the project “imploded from within” as its residents caused their own problems.9 Bristol highlights false architectural narratives that indirectly echoed this racist scapegoating: Oscar Newman’s Defensible Space blamed the design for the “presence of excessive ‘indefensible’ public space,” criticism that was based on the racist “assumption that certain ‘populations’ unavoidably bring with them behavioral problems that have to be designed against.” Lipsitz’s spatial imaginaries offer insight into the missing perspectives that fueled the myth. The architectural discourse failed to question the broader white spatial imaginary that had systematically undermined racialized communities and left the Housing Authority hopelessly underfunded.

Benny Farm: A Canadian Social Housing Example

In our class discussion, we explored how Lipsitz and Bristol’s readings can help to analyze design projects and their discourse. As an example, Benny Farm, a large social housing neighbourhood in Montreal, was reviewed. Benny Farm’s complex design and history differ from that of Pruitt-Igoe. However, in the early 2000s, hints of myths and gaps in the architectural discourse surrounded its most controversial period, as it was threatened with a nearly total demolition.

In a 2001 Canadian Architect review of Benny Farm Housing Phases 2 and 3, comprising two new midrise housing developments designed by Saia et Barbarese, Laverdière Giguêre architects, Pruitt-Igoe is invoked as an architectural and urban design failure: “But if [early Modernist’s] hostility to the street, made explicit at the 1927 Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), challenged historic urban form, it was post-war politicians and their architects, with the mass produced towers and housing estates—like the infamous Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis—that contributed to a crisis of dysfunctional communities.”10 Even after Bristol’s article ten years later, the Pruitt-Igoe project was still seen as a Modernist design failure, rather than devastating segregation, poverty and underfunding. As documented in the Canadian Architect, the Phases 2 and 3 buildings were part of a planned total demolition and redevelopment of Benny Farm. Much of the land was to be sold by the Canada Lands Corporation (CLC), the site’s quasi-government owner, for private market developments. In 2002, the CLC and the architects were awarded a Governor General’s Medal of Architecture for the pair of buildings and the neighbourhood redevelopment plan.11 In 2002, a vast alliance of housing advocates and community groups united in protest under the name Friends of Benny Farm. They successfully shifted the CLC’s redevelopment plan away from disruptive relocations of residents, from the selloff of public land, and towards preserving several of the original buildings along with a variety of low-cost housing.12 The Canadian Architect article and the Governor General’s award seemingly ignore the ongoing controversy of community opposition rallying against the larger planned redevelopment.

From Building Myths to Building Change

Pruitt-Igoe and Benny Farm demonstrate how social housing projects and their surrounding architectural discourse are vulnerable to the white spatial imaginary and prioritization of ownership, development, and maximizing exchange value. Debates about architectural style risk ignoring the community’s larger challenges, thereby perpetuating the status quo and concealing the devastating impacts of segregation or displacement. As architects, we must continue to advocate for equitable housing and participatory design throughout spatial planning processes. Lipsitz shows us how to see past our modern myths and work towards change:

The dynamic, syncretic, and dialogic properties of the Black spatial imaginary have much to offer. They possess creative possibilities for remapping time and space, renegotiating the links between past and present, and between the local and the global. They can clarify the relations between people and property, independence and interdependence, materialism and morality, race and place. Yet advancing the creative potential of the Black spatial imaginary is not simply or solely the task of Black people. Changing the spatial imaginary of society is an enormous and daunting task. It cannot be engineered by experts or called into being by charismatic leaders. It requires endless agonistic struggle by ordinary people.13

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George Lipsitz, “The Racialization of Space and Spatialization of Race: Theorizing the Hidden Architecture of Landscape,” Landscape Journal v26 n1 (20070101): 10.  https://proxy.library.mcgill.ca/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bth&AN=25260619&scope=site.

Throughout this blog post, unless noted otherwise, all references to racial spatial imaginaries draw from George Lipsitz, in particular from “The Racialization of Space and Spatialization of Race: Theorizing the Hidden Architecture of Landscape,” Landscape Journal v26 n1 (20070101): 10-23.

Katharine G. Bristol, “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,” Journal of Architectural Education 44, no. 3 (May 1991): 163-171, https://doi.org/10.1080/10464883.1991.11102687.

George Lipsitz, “The Racialization of Space and Spatialization of Race: Theorizing the Hidden Architecture of Landscape,” Landscape Journal v26 n1 (20070101): 10-23.  https://proxy.library.mcgill.ca/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bth&AN=25260619&scope=site.

Ibid, 13.

Ibid, 14.

Ibid, 15.

Bristol, “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,” Journal of Architectural Education 44, 163-171.

First-Run Features, “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,” Video, 2011, https://mcgill.on.worldcat.org/oclc/957614173.

10 Rhys Phillips, “Modern Living: Benny Farm Housing, Phases 2 and 3, Montreal” The Canadian Architect 46, no. 3; Mar 1, 2001: 20.

11 Canada Lands Company, “Briefing Binder for The Honourable Anita Anand, Minister of Public Services and Procurement Canada, January 2020”: 84, accessed December 1, 2020, https://en.clc.ca/files/Ministerial%20Briefing%20Binder%20Feb10%202020.pdf.

12 “Benny Farm From the Ground up: NDG History Workshop,” NDG Community Council, accessed December 1, 2020, http://atelierhistoirendg.ca/.

13 George Lipsitz, “A Place Where Everybody Is Somebody,” in How Racism Takes Place, (Temple University Press, 2011), 255, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/mcgill/detail.action?docID=660533.

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