Social Housing Dreams

The great paradox of the UKS’s proposal for affordable housing for artists is that it should apply to everyone, not just artists.

UKS Kunstnerbolig. Illustration: Fragment.

How can we make room for artists when building and expanding our cities? When the average price per square metre comes to more than 40,000 kroner when buying a home, you won’t get much to live in for 89,000 kroner – the average annual income generated by visual artists in Norway for their artistic work. The property market in Oslo makes it extremely difficult for young first-time buyers to find a home, particularly if their income is low or fluctuates.

UKS (Unge Kunstneres Samfund / Young Artists’ Society) offers up a solution. With support from the City of Oslo’s Agency for Planning and Building and Agency for Cultural Affairs, UKS has hired the architectural firm Fragment to develop a plan for artists’ housing and studio spaces in Hovinbyen, a suburb north-east of central Oslo where the city authorities are planning to have 30,000-40,000 new homes built in the years to come.

The result of Fragment’s work, presented at the UKS’s own venue in a manner typical of architectural exhibitions, complete with floor plans and plywood models, is a very exciting example of how the construction of housing in Oslo may be organised differently than it is today. The project also demonstrates that you do not need to lower your standards when building affordable housing.

Flexible spaces

Fragment chose to work with a site on Økern which is owned by the City of Oslo and has planning permission for residential construction. The plan comprises two five-storey blocks of flats and a separate six-storey building of studio spaces. The main buildings are connected by open external galleries, and the structures are built out of columns of glued laminated timber and concrete floors. The designs consist of open, flexible spaces with high ceilings and plenty of light. One of the things that sets Fragment’s artists’ housing apart from other new construction projects is the way in which its inhabitants can change the overall floor plan by moving the interior walls around. The studio spaces are also designed to accommodate changing needs, and the size and shape of each individual studio can be changed by moving walls and opening up the spaces separating individual floors.

UKS Kunstnerbolig. Illustration: Fragment.

The project is clearly inspired by the social housing built in Norway in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. In order to cover the tremendous need for housing in the wake of the war, the authorities laid down housing policies that enabled people with ordinary incomes to buy their own home, but which in turn limited the possibilities for subletting or selling such flats at a profit. The local authorities provided the building sites while Husbanken (The Norwegian State Housing Bank) provided loans to housing construction societies such as Oslo Bolig- og sparelag (OBOS), which built collectively owned housing co-operatives.

This was also how the artists’ homes that serves as role models for UKS and Fragment were created. The most famous of these are the 29 artists’ homes located at the site of Edvard Munch’s former home at Ekely. They were followed by the housing co-operative Trolltun at Bøler, built by OBOS for Unge kunstneres Selvbyggerlag (Young Artists’ Self-build Society) in the late 1950s. These were simple row houses containing three or four rooms and with integrated studio spaces in each home. Remarkably, parts of the deposits on these homes were paid in art: the various homeowners approved for residence in the co-operative supplied these part-payment works directly to the art collections of the City of Oslo.

By the mid-1980s, these social housing policies had come to an end. By that time the City of Oslo had begun to sell building sites at current market prices, and the right-wing Høyre government deregulated the real estate market and made it easier to take out loans. Since then we have seen a huge crash in the housing market in the early 1990s, followed by a steep rise in prices over the last 20 years; rises that have cut off far too many from the housing market and turned ordinary home-owners into a kind of heavily indebted speculative investors. Now, the idea that purchasing power trumps real needs is accepted as a matter of course. For its part, UKS’s and Fragments’s project shows an approach to housing policymaking that not only gives artists a roof over their heads, but which also may serve as a model for reinventing social housing policies. That is what makes this project so interesting and so welcome.

Fragment and Young Artists’ Society (UKS), UKS Kunstnerbolig, installation view from the exhibition. Photo: UKS.

Huge savings

Fragment estimates that it would be possible to save up to 50% in costs by returning to a set-up where the local authorities provide a leasehold of the site instead of selling it at market prices, and where the construction work is done through building societies that do not take out a profit. Secondly, the allocation of flats will be governed by actual needs. For example, small studio flats are reserved for younger artists for limited periods of time, whereas family flats are rented out on lifetime leases or until the children have reached the age of 20. Contracts are assigned to applicants by drawing lots.

My one reservation about this project concerns the issue of diversity. Is it good urban planning to return to separate neighbourhoods for particular professions the way we used to do with housing for e.g. engineers, civil servants and workers, the intention being that each group should socialise with their own segment? This question remains unanswered in the project plans supplied by UKS and Fragment.

Paradoxically, my second reservation arises out of the very aspect that may be this entire plan’s greatest strength: the fact that similar models might be applied to low-income groups in general, offering an alternative to the unregulated market. This gives rise to certain fundamental dilemmas. Artists occupy a precarious situation because they belong to a low-income group within an unregulated housing market, not because they belong to a particularly vulnerable or marginalised profession. An important part of UKS’s arguments in favour of this project is that artists are key actors in urban development, for example when producing works of art for public spaces and when providing content for the large cultural institutions in the city centres. A reasonable point, and one that one would expect an artists union to make on behalf of its members. Yet similar points could be as validly made for other low-income groups that help build the city and keep it operating, but are being pushed out of the city centre by financial constraints.

Still, changes have to begin somewhere, and the exemplary features of this project outweigh such reservations. If the artists’ housing in Hovinbyen can demonstrate that it is possible once again to carry out urban development and housing policies that are more social and sustainable in scope than present, the City of Oslo ought to give this plan their full support and do their utmost to have it realised.

UKS Kunstnerbolig. Illustration: Fragment.