Architects Against Housing Alienation on addressing Canada’s housing crisis

By Taylor Pace

One Canadian collective is bringing together activists, architects and advocates from across the country to tackle the housing crisis from the perspective of making housing more equitable. 

Architects Against Housing Alienation is a collective of six architects from across Canada who came together to form a proposal for the Venice Biennale of Architecture, an international exhibition, which they will be attending in 2023.  

There are currently six members of the curatorial team, which consists of University of British Columbia faculty Matthew Soules, Sara Stevens and Tijana Vujosevic; west coast-based architect Patrick Stewart; and two faculty members at the University of Waterloo’s School of Architecture, Adrian Blackwell and David Fortin. 

“We came together because we all believe that Canada is in a deep housing crisis, and we think architecture has an important role to play in that,” said Blackwell. “And, we thought that it was the most important issue that we could address at an international architecture exhibition.”

They named the collective Architects Against Housing Alienation because they consider one of the fundamental problems with contemporary housing to be that it’s exchangeable at a rapid rate.

“For us, the word alienation refers to its exchangeability: it’s built for sale,” he said. The exchangeability of housing, he says, makes us alienated from the land around us and from our communities. 

“Quality is related to its inaccessibility and affordability,” he said. 

Which is why their exhibition is called “Not For Sale!” 

Instead of being built with the sale in mind, Blackwell says housing needs to be built with habitation and use in mind. 

“I think for many Canadians, one of the key things is that we’re working within a system,” Fortin said. “So the financial and real estate systems are closely linked; a lot of our GDP is proportionally to real estate. It’s important for people to realize that almost everything in the way we inhabit the world has been designed at some point.” 

The outcomes of those designs influence our reality. 

“Architects have played a role in implementing the system that we currently live in, through visionary proposals and drawings of earlier generations, and so what we're trying to do is celebrate visionary ideas on something that's a different kind of future.”

In other words, they want architects to rethink our relationship to housing, loosening its ties to the financial world and instead focusing on creating equitable homes. 

Though the AAHA was created for the Biennale, Blackwell says they see the project as more than an exhibition. 

“We see it as an attempt to create a conversation in Canada about solutions to the housing crisis,” he said. 

While they can’t say much about the actual exhibit yet, the goal is to create a national conversation about the importance of non-commodified housing. 

To achieve this, they’ve created ten teams of experts across the country to develop an interdisciplinary campaign, with each group focusing on a specific housing issue. Each team consists of an architect, an activist oraganization, and an advocate who has special expertise in providing housing. 

“Activists have a deep understanding about what the problems are with the contemporary housing system in Canada, and architects have a certain perception as well,” he said. “And then there are many people who at the moment are trying to produce affordable housing, in the non-profit sector, for instance. And what we’re trying to do is bring those groups together and create a national conversation.”

Fortin says there are two parts: one is to highlight the work of 30 different groups in Canada who are already pursuing housing justice in a variety of different ways. The other is to outline the context in which the work operates, to better understand contemporary housing alienation and its history in Canada.

“Our proposal is that housing alienation is a result of colonialism and capitalism,” Fortin said. 

So the campaign is interested in trying to understand issues of Indigenous housing in Canada, and urban housing problems as part of a single continuous problem, generated through the way land was taken from Indigenous people. 

“And the way that the real estate market was developed through this process of taking land,” he said, adding that a third of their team is Indigenous, as are many of the people in the organizations they’re working with. 

One such group was born out of the Idle No More movement, called One House Many Nations. They’ve been working towards housing justice in the Prairies, and will “be the anchor” for the team looking at on-reserve housing and the complexities of that in Canada.

Another team, for example, is looking at racialized gentrification in Toronto, partly due to state-led transit development. The activist group involved is Black Urbanism Toronto. 

More specifically, they will be looking at the gentrification of Little Jamaica. 

Fortin says the goal is for the work of each team to lead to implementable changes.

“The project won’t end with the Biennale, but [will be] a catalyst for an ongoing conversation about affordable housing in Canada, with architecture and design foregrounded in the conversation,” he said. 

“So the end goal is, in some ways, the beginning.” 

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