Mass Support Symposium: Flexibility and Resident Agency in Housing

An international, online symposium on flexibility, resident input, and modular building in contemporary housing

July 25, 2023

Opening of the exhibition Mass Support: Flexibility and Resident Agency in Housing, held at the Spitzer School of Architecture, City College in the spring of 2023.

How can cities and neighborhoods meet housing production goals while also responding to the needs of distinct households and communities?

This symposium extends the themes explored in the exhibition Mass Support: Flexibility and Resident Agency in Housing, held at the Spitzer School of Architecture, City College in the spring of 2023. The exhibit—organized by the Curatorial Research Collective and designed by office ca—investigates the legacy and contemporary relevance of the Stichting Architecten Research (SAR), a Dutch architectural think tank founded in 1964 to propose a radical new way of thinking about housing, fusing the efficiency of industrial construction with the flexibility of user customization. Initially led by John Habraken, the SAR suggested new functions for the construction industry, for households, and, crucially, for architects.

From new models of social housing in Berlin and Barcelona to new applications of prefab construction in Beijing and Brooklyn, the three sessions of the symposium explore architectural strategies that connect to broader, structural issues in housing today, including local economies of construction labor, densification in the suburbs, and more.

Session I: What can resident control enable politically?

The opening session to the online symposium Mass Support: Flexibility and Resident Agency in Housing features an introduction from Marta Gutman (Dean of the Spitzer School of Architecture at City College); historical context from Sergio Figueiredo (Eindhoven University of Technology) and Cassim Shepard (Spitzer School of Architecture); an overview of Open Building Techniques from Tom Frantzen (Lemniskade).

The first panel discussion features resident-led social housing and co-housing projects in Barcelona, Berlin, and Munich, with presentations from Christoph Heinemann (ifau), Juliane Greb (Büro Juliane Greb), and Cristina Gamboa (Lacol), followed by a conversation moderated by Susanne Schindler (ETH Zurich and Harvard GSD).

Session II: What can modular construction enable architecturally?

The second session features presentations and projects from Deborah Gans (Gans & Co), James Shen (People’s Architecture Office), and Tim Swanson (Inherent Homes). A conversation moderated by Laura Wainer (Spitzer School of Architecture) delved into how modular construction is about so much more than efficiency and cost. It can support strategies of neighborhood preservation, resident decision-making, and the reinvigoration of local labor economies.

Session III: What can flexibility enable at the neighborhood scale?

The final session features presentations from Michael Piper (University of Toronto), Dana Cuff (UCLA), and Renee Chow (UC Berkeley) that reveal how flexibility is about more than design and construction. A conversation moderated by June Williamson (Spitzer School of Architecture) explores how the potential to retrofit suburban fabric requires a deep understanding of the policies that perpetuate unsustainable and inflexible settlement patterns.

Concluding reflections from Rosalie Genevro (The Architectural League of New York), Karen Kubey (University of Toronto), Marta Gutman (Spitzer School of Architecture), and Cassim Shepard (Spitzer School of Architecture) suggest new directions for practice and pedagogy in light of the symposium’s themes of flexibility and resident agency in housing.

More about the symposium

Today, in the midst of a profound global housing emergency, we need many new ideas to address the quality, availability, and attainability of shelter. We also need to examine the promise and pitfalls of overlooked knowledge from the recent past. The work of John Habraken and the SAR offers useful pathways to consider a range of seemingly contradictory contemporary imperatives. How do we balance a commitment to the self-determination of residents with the need to build more housing units quickly and economically? How do we leverage a detailed understanding of the minutiae of zoning and building codes in the service of bold visions to reshape the built fabric of our cities and suburbs? How can we utilize sustained observation of demographic change and household diversity to inform concrete design proposals for housing that empowers its users, that overcomes political and financial inertia, that anticipates change?

Practitioners and researchers from around the world discuss these questions in light of a range of contemporary design strategies to increase the supply of housing without sacrificing the self-determination of residents.

The exhibition was curated by the Curatorial Research Collective of the Eindhoven University of Technology. The symposium is co-presented by The Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture, The City College of New York (CUNY) and The Architectural League of New York. This program is supported, in part, by the Dutch Culture USA program by the Consulate General of the Netherlands in New York.


Model homes

As Portland, Oregon, confronts a housing crisis, Waechter Architecture creates thoughtful examples of how to densify residential neighborhoods.

Emerging Voices Interview 2019