Home is where the art is

Where is it written that low-cost housing cannot be aesthetically appealing? (Photograph: Living Neighbourhoods.)

ROWS and rows of identical little blockhouses with flat tin roofs stretch back to meet the horizon. Layer upon layer of dreary apartment buildings unravel across the edges of cities. Street after street of duplicated face brick dwellings – fastened together, Lego-like – line roads and railway lines for indistinguishable mile upon mile.

Is it written somewhere, perhaps as the eleventh commandment on an ugly concrete tablet, that low-cost housing must be sterile and unsightly? Does the argument that cheap-must-be-nasty prevail? Does functionality inevitably negate aesthetics?

Many argue not, saying – as does American professor of art at Goshen College, Marvin Bartel – that houses built with the sole purpose of providing shelter for the maximum number of people possible will ultimately fail to meet their needs. If lives, he asks – even those with the most basic needs – do not include art, design and beauty, are we any better than animals that, in many cases, build shelters more attractive than low-cost housing developments?

“Design needs to reflect hope, not mere subsistence. Art can give a measure of self worth, identity and hope, even where little else exists. Art sets us apart as special. Art is a part of our aware experience that only humans and the creator are privileged to have,” says Bartel, who adds that he was motivated to explore the subject after “feeling frustrated when attempting to do something about the cookie cutter design of local Habitat for Humanity housing”.

In SA, like many other parts of the world, it is widely acknowledged that the role of artists, designers and cultural experts in the establishment of spaces and places is undervalued, particularly in the creation and upgrading of low-cost housing developments. The notion is that, where these specialists are included in housing projects, they and residents would collaborate to shape plans and designs according to an informed and appropriate understanding of the local heritage.

Homes and public spaces, it is asserted, take on greater meaning for communities, and foster a better sense of ownership and pride, where there is interaction between those who will live there and the authorities involved.

The understanding is that, regardless of the levels of poverty and/or marginalisation at which they live, residents should be able to express and recognise their own identity and culture within their homes and communities.

The idea of “dignifying spaces and places through art and design” was arguably most formally and collectively discussed in this country in November 2003 when, in a two-day seminar – initiated by Business and Arts South Africa (BASA) – policy makers, sponsors, artists, cultural activists and designers gathered to discuss ways of enriching places and spaces.

“Our hope for the conference was that it would pave the way to establish policy in this regard,” says CEO for BASA, Nicola Danby. “We wanted to arrive at some guidelines that would encourage the integration of art and aesthetics into the planning of housing developments.”

Discussions were led by the then-minister of housing, Brigitte Mabandla who expressed her department’s commitment to the integration of art, culture and heritage into the building environment.

The workshop included a series of presentations by a number highly qualified individuals, covering subjects such as Healing Apartheid’s Spaces, Critical Arts Practice, People’s Parks, A House Is A Home As A Home Is A House, Art With People, Integration Of Traditional Architecture Into The Housing Process, Ubuntu and Housing, and Art To Set Apart, To Attract And Sustain.

The final stage of the conference was a discussion session with policy recommendations and suggestions for future engagements. This was extensive and formally documented.

And then?

Dr Mark Napier, who played a central role in the 2003 seminar representing the department of housing – he is now programme director of the Urban Landmark initiative, which is funded by the British Department for International Development to support initiatives that aim to make urban land markets work better for the poor in SA – believes that although the objectives of the discussions may not have led to explicit policy decisions, there is evidence at least that the message was heard.

Current housing minister, Lindiwe Sisulu’s ambitious settlement plan to get rid of 2,4-million slum dwellings by 2014 by no means, he believes, totally discounts aesthetics, even if her drive does appear to place greater focus on delivery and technology, than on art and design.

In most instances where art has been incorporated into housing developments to date, it is done in specific places and public spaces, rather than as part of overall design. Examples of this include initiatives like the arts, culture and heritage centre of the Alexandra Renewal Project in Gauteng. The purpose of the centre is to “build upon the rich resource of arts, culture and heritage, encourage entrepreneurship and play a role in promoting civic pride and improving the quality of life of the residents of Alexandra”. While this objective is in line with that of those championing the case for art in housing, it is not as far-reaching as many believe it could or should be.

While it seems there is agreement in policy, the possible future enrichment of SA’s low-cost housing through art depends, unsurprisingly, on funding and the allocation thereof.

“One of the difficulties acknowledged by those at the seminar was how to decide on which department would fund the project, without undermining any other areas of developments,” says Napier, who also deems that the involvement of architects to co-ordinate and guide artists and communities during the planning stages of low-cost housing would go a long way to achieving art in housing objectives.

To those who believe that art can change the human condition however, the allocation of budgets and other administrative questions are inconsequential when weighed up against the potential positive outcome.

“To deny aesthetics for economic reasons or for practical considerations does not make the world a better place. To affirm beauty and truth, even for the poorest of the poor, points in the direction of value, of hope, and away from Diaspora,” says Bartel.

The question in SA seems to be, who will hold reins and spur the horse?

(Written in December 2008 but first published here.)

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About Administrator

Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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