From Question to Right | The Plan Journal
Open Access
Maurizio Sabini

The “housing question” has characterized the evolution of modern architecture since its very origins. Attesting to its complexity, the question was actually first posed by studies and reflections that came from other disciplinary fields, such as sociology, economics, political science and philosophy. When Friedrich Engels, in the early 1870s, posed the housing question in its first modern definition, he was discussing what he and Karl Marx saw as one of the most acute, inherent, contradictions of the capitalist economy and society, which was deemed unsolvable barring a complete upheaval of the whole socio-economic system.1 On the other hand, the Modern Movement in architecture and urbanism took it upon itself to outline future scenarios, as well as innovative typologies, technologies and systems, to offer possible solutions for the metropolis of mature capitalism. Since then, though, in spite of many good and innovative design ideas, the housing question has remained unresolved. In fact, with the acceleration of urban population, triggered by an ever more globalized economy, which we witnessed over the last decades, the question has become even more urgent. 


Alejandro Aravena, one of the leading figures on the current global discourse on housing, has recently observed how the housing question today has grown into a completely new dimension due to the “three S menace” of the phenomenon: scale, speed and scarcity. He noted that “nowadays, one million people per week are moving into our cities relying on a yearly income of $10,000 per family.” 2 Thus, expanding on Henri Lefebvre’s “right to the city,” 3 what emerged over the last decades, from research and experimentations on a global level, is the need of a paradigm shift about housing, to be seen as a human right, not just as a socio-economic question. And, as a right, it ought to be upheld, affirmed and responded to, regardless of the circumstances. This was eventually sanctioned by the 2016 UN conference “Habitat III” with a “rights-based approach” to housing “and the adoption of qualitatively different housing policies that are truly inclusive and reflect a commitment by governments to leave no one behind.” 4 This “right to housing” is then the background against which this themed issue of our journal should be appreciated.


Two renowned authors on the topic, Ron Shiffman and Rachel Bratt, frame this issue of the TPJ with their position papers by clearly outlining this paradigm shift. We then follow with theoretical and historical investigations by Alexander Eisenschmidt, on the research by modernist architect and urbanist Ludwig Hilberseimer, and by Claudio Meninno, on the power of architectural composition and typological studies, with particular attention to the experience of Louis Sauer.

Typology is also the broader theme of the contributions by Christina Bollo on the “troublesome unit,” and Barbara Angi, Irene Peron and Barbara Badiani on prototyping for homelessness. Innovations in technology and materiality are discussed by Dahlia Nduom and Martín Paddack, for a water harvesting prototype, and by Yong Huang and Jack Collins, on the yet to be fully tapped potentialities of timber construction to meet the new housing demand. At a larger urban scale, or assuming the viewpoint of community engagement, are the articles by Francesco Cianfarani on urban infill strategies, Lorcan O’Herlihy on micro-urbanistic interventions for housing on underutilized urban land, and by Judith Stichtenoth and Ann Dingli on a new take on participatory planning and design. 

Finally, we close with more culture- and place-specific case-studies around the world with research on Rwanda (Yutaka Sho), Mongolia (Joshua Bolchover and Jersey Poon), Northern Italy (Fabio Lepratto) and the Rio Grande Valley in the US (Ian Caine and Gabriel Díaz Montemayor). 


More and more researchers and design professionals are engaging with affordable housing, within the cultural discourse and technical challenge for a more sustainable physical environment. This offers a new hope for the design fields to be able again to make a difference within our society. As demonstrated, for example, by the works of Angela Brooks and Lawrence Scarpa (other leading figures within this line of design inquiry), it is possible, and ethically compelling, to advance the agenda for a more “humane, cost-effective, sustainable, affordable housing.” 5 Overall, with this themed issue, we hope to offer a cross-sectional overview of recent and current research on this ever more complex housing topic. The shift in perspective, that is to say seeing housing as a matter of human rights, seems to have been consolidated, appreciated and upheld by professionals, national and international organizations and institutions, as well as by the larger public. It seems that it has become now another pillar value of our culture as world democratic societies in the current phase of modernity. Yet design is needed, more than ever, to make a difference. As all these contributions demonstrate, design intelligence can help us start affirming this fundamental human right with innovative ideas and deeds, actual experimentations and beautiful, purposeful, sustainable and affordable housing for all.

Figure 1.

Brooks + Scarpa, Colorado Court affordable housing, Santa Monica CA (USA), 2022 (courtesy of Lawrence Scarpa, photo by © Marvin Rand). First LEED-certified multi-family project, and one of the first buildings of this type to be energy-neutral, in the US. Forty-four affordable units, 375 sq. ft. [35 m2] max, with community room, mail room, laundry, common outdoor courtyard space, on-grade parking for twenty cars, and a bicycle storage.The energy co-generation system of the building paid for itself in less than ten years. Annual savings in electricity and natural gas bills are estimated to be in excess of $10,000 annually. Rudy Brunner Award 2003 for Urban Excellence, Silver Medal: “[this project] could be considered a model and the selection committee was pleased that the designers and developers were engaged in influencing public policy to make this kind of project more feasible in the future.” (From the jury citation.)


From June 1872 to February 1873, Friedrich Engels published three articles on The Volksstaat (Leipzig, Ger.), titled “Zur Wohnungsfrage” (The Housing Question).


Alejandro Aravena, interviewed by Norman Foster, within the conversation series “The Future of Cities,” November 23, 2021 - 


Henri Lefebvre, Le droit à la ville (The Right to the City), (Paris: Anthropos, 1968).


UN conference, Habitat III – Issue Papers, conference in Quito, Ec., October 17-20, 2016, proceedings (New York: United Nations, 2017), 44.


James Steele, Brooks + Scarpa Architects, ed. Susanna Woo Seierup (Los Angeles: Gulf Pacific Press, 2020), 275.

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Print Publication Date 
February, 2023
Electronic Publication Date 
Tuesday, February 7, 2023