Rethinking the Architecture of Social Housing in Flanders

Rethinking the Architecture of Social Housing in Flanders

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Social housing is a slippery concept. While similar expressions such as ‘public housing’ or ‘dwellings for the poorest / the labouring classes’ give precise indications concerning the actors involved and the targeted population, the notion of ‘social housing’ highlights a more problematic, dynamic dimension. In it, housing is constructed as a matter of generalized concern, framed by political and ideological positions, and works as an operative tool characterised by the continuous historical reassessment of its agenda, of the subject it targets, of the models through which it confronts a given urban reality and its architectural forms. It represents, with Deleuze, that ‘Modern Hybrid’ encompassing how desires and powers, the new requirements of control, but also the new possibilities of resistance and liberation, come to be organized, laid out opposite one another along these lines’ (Deleuze, 1977).


Since the 1970s in Belgium, social housing has referred to the public-subsidised provision of affordable dwellings for the poorer and most vulnerable portion of the population. Guided by the understanding of housing as a citizenship right (as explicitly heralded by the Flemish Wooncode), entitled semi-public companies (SHM) provide low-rent living units for those who are not able to meet their demands on the private market, either as private renters or as home-owners.  While the progressive attempt to define housing as a ‘right’ has represented a crucial conquest of the social state, it has ultimately led to a fairly sterile discussion over quantitative and technical issues necessary to lower construction costs and produce more units. The diffuse bureaucratization of the sector and chronic financial shortages have impacted architectural outcomes. Working through the repetition of established regulatory standards, building and typological schemes have failed to adapt to households’ demographic shifts, to recognise the potential offered by the collective dimension of subsidised rental dwellings and their opportunity to support shared forms of empowerment for tenants. The recent return of social housing as a matter of public concern refers not only to its most visible architectural shortcomings. It also questions the value of housing as welfare, the way it was envisioned after the II World War as a fundamental asset for social and economic emancipation: a crucial element for the forging of the post-war social pact. This rediscovery comes with momentous questions about the future of subsidized housing schemes, their social agenda and spatial qualities, wondering if the welfare model they have long represented proves to be still sustainable. A path for reform can be imagined by rejecting the dogmatic reiteration of individualization through tenure and standard domestic typologies, integrating the right to an affordable home with spatial and functional framework able to foster shared services, uses and care.


The research explores possible ways to rethink the model and spaces of social housing in Flanders, redefining the conditions to understand housing as a form of welfare and for inhabitants’ empowerment. The research hypothesises that a reform in this direction can be thought by: 1) re-conceptualising the collective dimension which characterises social housing and particularly the relation between private and shared domains; 2) critiquing of the forms of tenure traditionally based on the dichotomy between renting and ownership; 3) imagining new type of living units which, explicitly connecting the private domain with shared services and activities of care, leisure and production, overcome the forms of domesticity typical of bourgeois modernity. In order to discuss this hypothesis, the research attempts to answer the following questions: 1) How has the social housing sector been historically constructed in Flanders, in relation to shifting social, political and ideological paradigms, thus representing an alternative to the social and spatial model embodied by the dominant form of private home-ownership? 2) What are the current shortcomings that characterise the sector and how could alternative ownership and spatial models overcome such limitations? 3) What actors and forms of management should take part in the definition of a new model of social housing? 4) What architectural forms (building and dwelling typologies) and design methodologies are the most appropriate to embody alternative forms of tenure and shared uses in collective housing projects?


Arguing for the emblematic and productive role of architectural design, the research discusses strategies to rethink the architectural qualities of social and affordable housing, ultimately aiming to test them through the development of a pilot project in collaboration with a Flemish social housing company.


The research project is financed by the FWO SB Grant.