Jan '05 - Mar '06
[I was going through some stuff from last semester, and came across this entry that I started then and never finished, so I'm posting it now. Better late than never.]
Someone remarked the other day that housing studio is
particularly earnest this year. Last year, the studio site was on
Manhattan's west side, and though the aim was to design public
housing (as it always is), it was still in the proximity of art
galleries, shopping and urban amenties, offering the temptation
to incorporate these as the prominent contextual elements.
This year we're working in Brownsville, a neighborhood that
claims New York's highest rates of poverty and incarceration. The
sites that we have have to work on are adjacent to large arrays
of 60s superblock public housing, elevated train lines, vacant
lots, and derelict buildings. A lot of students (including
myself) admit to feeling a certain malaise. It's difficult to
face the most brutal parts of America's housing policy legacy and
the egregious failures of whatever social contract this country
can be said to have. Worse, the seeming inability of architecture
to make any significant difference adds insecurity to depression.
What action can we take in such a position? Where do we start?
In the context of Brownsville, the social issues that influence
the project are difficult to obscure behind formalisms. Throw in
a studio critic who likes to lead discussions that engage (which
is not to say embrace) Marx and Adorno, and the issues become
inescapable. In these discussions, we talk about 'the masses', as
the term is used commonly in the writings, but it is now a term
that I (like most Americans, I imagine) usually encounter only as
part of a few select phrases--huddled masses, mass housing, mass
media, mass culture--and nearly never on its own.
The 'huddled masses' (always yearning) provoke, perhaps, the
strongest connotations of poverty and marginalization. However,
the term is today only a bromide to conjure images of immigrants
and refugees and evoke patriotic notions of freedom and
opportunity. 'Huddled masses', I would venture, survives almost
exlusively in the context of American history and heritage
(particularly since immigration policies today embody a less
generous view of foreigners than at Lady Liberty's peak).
'Mass housing' shares the same connotations, but also has
currency in usage. Mass housing conjures ideas of the least
fortunate and least self-sufficient segments of society, deemed
worthy of direct subsidy to meet basic housing needs. These
masses are often assumed (whether justifiably or not) to be
unskilled and undereducated.
Mass media and mass culture, however, embody a distinctly
different notion of the masses. 'Mass media' describes the most
widely circulated messages and images in our society, and the
means by which they are produced and distributed. Through
constant repositioning, the media usually aim to be broadly
inclusive, in order to achieve the largest audience. In doing so,
the media have traditionally helped to define and exclude the
Mass culture can be described as the feedback loop between the
public and the media, the process of appropriation of media
imagery into American life, its translation into desire and
consumption, and subsequent re-presentation as new consumer dream
imagery in the media. The media become a vector of conformity,
directing the course for the mainstream of society: the American
middle class. The masses here are defined as the 'target
So masses can be cultured or huddled, that is to say, they can be
the mainstream or the margins. Curiously, mass media draw the
line between the two: the transition between these strata of
lower and middle class is marked by the willingness to subjugate
oneself to media messages, to become part of the mass culture.
It's like the rant Renton (aka Rent-boy) gives in Trainspotting--
Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family.
Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars,
compact disc players, and electrical tin openers. Choose good
health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed-
interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose
your friends. Choose leisure wear and matching luggage. Choose
a three piece suite on hire purchased in a range of fucking
fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who you are on a Sunday
morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing
spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food in your
mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing your
last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to
the selfish, fucked-up brats you have spawned to replace
yourself. Choose your future.
Rent-boy's dilemma, yuppie vs junkie, is perhaps an extreme
case--certainly not everyone who is poor or lives in mass housing
has a drug problem--but it serves to highlight the gap between
the two masses. To be associated with mass culture doesn't carry
the same stigma (nor, it must be said, confer the same street
cred) that mass housing (or a heroin addiction) does, Rent-boy's
The stigma of being part of the (huddled/housed) masses is built
into a long-standing model for housing in the US, one that says
that housing is temporary assistance for poor residents to get on
their feet, and that once they become financially stable, they
can move into a market rate apartment. In aiding the transition
from the poverty of 'the projects' to the middle class lifestyle
of mass culture, the purpose of mass housing has a parallel with
that of mass media: as a society, we encourage everyone to make
The stigma has given birth to euphemisms invented to avert
potential associations between the two types of masses. Mass
housing is usually called 'public housing' (superceding the
earlier 'housing project') and mass culture has been rechristened
I'm not going to vilify middle class America and those who aspire
to join it (that would be rather hypocritical of me) and I have
no intention of romanticizing poverty and drugs, but there should
be an option to joining the target demographic. Is there such a
thing as 'popular housing'--a hybrid of pop culture and public
housing--and do we want it?
Lately, countertrends to mass media and mass culture have been
growing--niche marketing, personalization, blogging (and other
DIY media), the long tail--that resist the genericizing
tendencies of media and that tweak our current notions of
individuality and subculture. As these gain momentum, the idea of
'the masses' will recede further, becoming even less common.
How can we even conceive of mass housing in this context?
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