Tower, Slab, Superblock: Social housing legacies & futures

Architects, historians, and activists from London, Paris, and Toronto discuss policy and design strategies for reinvigorating postwar social housing to better serve current residents and future generations.

December 10, 2016
9:45 a.m.

In 2004, architects Anne Lacaton, Jean-Philippe Vassal, and Frédéric Druot authored a manifesto on the value of renovation over demolition with a powerful opening statement: “Never demolish, never remove or replace, always add, transform and reuse!” Their study, PLUS, came in response to an architectural competition to replace a 1960s high-rise apartment building on the outskirts of Paris, and has become emblematic of a surging interest in refurbishing postwar high-rise and superblock housing.

Cities worldwide undertook major residential building programs in the mid-twentieth century to create much-needed new housing for workers and low-income residents. Usually built with direct state intervention and in clustered developments on superblock sites, mass housing took different forms—from carefully detailed British council estates to aggressively pragmatist high-rises in the United States—but held the common promise of modern, reasonably priced apartments. This built fabric today represents a significant physical asset, yet in many cases suffers from maintenance issues, financial disinvestment, and social stigma.

Where once demolition seemed the de facto response to these persistent issues, efforts in a number of cities demonstrate that we can serve current residents, steward resources for the future, and reinvigorate the urban fabric through smart public policy and good design. Redevelopment has gone by different names—regeneration, transformation, revitalization—but in many of the best cases looks to maintain and improve the existing building stock and surroundings. When we choose to reinvest—in many cases the more financially, socially, and environmentally conscious decision—how do we do so in ways that benefit and protect current residents?

Tower, Slab, Superblock: Social housing legacies and futures will examine the history, current status, and prospects of high-rise and superblock residential development. The conference will confront questions of design and policy:

  • What does it mean to reconsider this building stock as an asset, rather than a liability or failure?
  • How can the building stock be reimagined to better serve current residents and future generations?
  • What roles can architects, designers, and affiliated professionals play in housing crises?

The day will focus on three cities—London, Paris, and Toronto—each of which is dealing with the twin pressures of increasingly unaffordable housing and diminishing state support.

Architects, historians, and activists will address housing renovation and redevelopment from the perspectives of process (finance, policy, governance, and community engagement) and design (building fabric, public spaces, neighborhood connections, and unit type).

Film Screening 9:45 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.

2.5 AIA and New York State CEUs
Short documentary films and film excerpts about the history and current status of social housing in London, Paris, and Toronto.

9:15 a.m. – 9:45 a.m.
Registration and Coffee

Farewell Oak Street
Toronto – 1953 – Dir: Grant McLean

HIGHRISE: One Millionth Tower
Toronto – 2011 – Dir: Katerina Cizek

Housing Problems
London – 1935 – Dir: Arthur Elton and Edgar Anstey

Cressingham Gardens
London – 2014 – Dir: Sanda Kolar

Utopia London
London – 2010 – Dir: Tom Cordell

London – 2016 – Dir: Ross Domoney

Concrete Stories
France – 2014 – Dir: Lorenz Findeisen

Imaginaries of Transformation
France – 2015 – Dir: Karine Dana


Conference 1:00 p.m. – 6:15 p.m.

5.5 AIA and New York State CEUs

1:00 p.m. – 1:10 p.m.
Rosalie Genevro – Executive Director, The Architectural League of New York

1:10 p.m. – 1:25 p.m.
The Design Politics of Social Housing
Lawrence Vale – Ford Professor of Urban Design and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1:25 p.m. – 2:40 p.m.
On London
Geraldine Dening, Co-Founder, Architects for Social Housing
Simon Elmer, Co-Founder, Architects for Social Housing
Phineas Harper, Deputy Director, The Architecture Foundation
Paul Karakusevic, Founder and Partner, Karakusevic Carson Architects

2:40 p.m. – 2:55 p.m.
Jean-Louis Cohen – Sheldon H. Solow Professor in the History of Architecture at New York University

2:55 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.
On Paris
Javier Arpa, Research and Education Coordinator of The Why Factory at Delft University of Technology
Kenny Cupers, Associate Professor in the History and Theory of Architecture and Urbanism at the University of Basel
Frédéric Druot, Founder and Partner, Frédéric Druot Architecture

4:00 p.m. – 4:15 p.m.
Coffee Break

4:15 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Susanne Schindler – Architect, writer, and housing columnist for Urban Omnibus

4:30 p.m. – 5:15 p.m.
On Toronto
Martine August, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University
Graeme Stewart, Principal, ERA Architects

5:15 p.m. – 6:15 p.m.
Conversation and Response

6:15 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.
Join us in the lobby for light refreshments



Tower, Slab, Superblock is organized by The Architectural League of New York and hosted by the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.

This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. This program is also supported by the J. Clawson Mills Fund of The Architectural League.