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(19-20) Homes for Brussels. The self-built house

MAster Dissertation studio
Academic year 2019-20, Brussels

Promotor: Martino Tattara

This dissertation studio represents the third and last iteration of the project ‘Homes for Flanders’/’Homes for Brussels’. After having investigated affordability (2017-18) and property (2018-19), this year the master dissertation studio will focus on the relation between construction and labour. Considering the rising concerns about the limitations of real-estate conventional dwellings, coupled with an increasing interest for inhabitants’ engagement in the definition/appropriation of their living units, the studio will tackle what can be generically defined as the ‘self-built house’. With this term, we refer to a series of potential lines of both theoretical research and design investigations centred around the possibility to criticise the current standardization of productive and selling practices through which domestic units, buildings and even furniture are realised. We thus envision an alternative project of domestic space reassessing the qualities of architecture starting from the practices of its realisation.

The ‘self-built house’ studio critically questions the crucial relationships between domestic space, forms of living, productive labour and property. The studio will dwell into the most relevant aspects that such relationships entails, and will try to answer to questions such as:

what would the consequences of self-construction techniques, materials and detailing be on the spatial features of domestic space?; how can housing design allow for qualitative, cheap and easy-to-realise transformations of the living unit in order to respond to flexibility concerns caused by demographic shifts, the possible evolution of inhabitants’ financial situation or the necessities to merge living and working in the same space?; how can we rethink the idea of home maintenance through an innovative use of material and constructive techniques liberating inhabitants from the tyranny of predefined practices of house management?; how can we imagine home ownership not as a mere financial private asset, but as a framework able to envision affordable housing through construction and participation, therefore rethinking conventional forms of welfare?; and finally, what could be a feasible strategy, in terms of building site organisation, relations with construction material/technique suppliers and building skills, to envision new forms of construction labour and their potential social consequences?

Focusing on one or more of these preliminary questions, each student will be asked to question the very grounding role and task of architecture as a profession. Displacing conventional relations between designer, client and constructor through the lenses of ‘self-building’, what can the role of the architect be(come)? and to which extent shall we reframe the traditional boundaries of architecture as discipline and profession, as well as our (graphic, intellectual, social) instruments and design paradigms?

The studio will be working in the region of Flanders and in the Brussels Capital Region.  Students are free to select their own site and the socio/economic/demographic conditions that will be tackled within the umbrella of the general studio topic, and to possibly connect their project to ongoing housing initiatives, such as social housing companies, co-housing experiences, housing cooperatives, the Community Land Trust, or even to local stakeholders and/or available firms in the field of construction. Students spending their winter semester abroad are free to continue working on the city where they will be spending their winter semester.

During the winter semester, each student will closely look into a ‘self-built’ historical or present case, whether specific project and experiences (American barn raising, Castors cooperatives, post-earthquake constructions etc..), diffuse cultural practices (DIY, IKEA, antiquarians, furniture and material reuse…) or even the development of construction techniques related to the evolution of industrial production, labour skills and architectural design, from a list that will be provided. In addition, during the winter semester they are also asked to select a potential site where to work during the second semester.

The output of the year work will be twofold: a personal research paper (developed during the winter semester) and an individual architectural proposal (developed during the summer semester). Each project will define its own scale of intervention according to its specific focus. A study trip to London will be organized in February 2020 before the start of the second semester.