Canada is in the midst of a severe and protracted housing crisis, with issues ranging from widespread unaffordability to under-housing, precarious housing, and homelessness. The process is violent, resulting in an urban environment that is racist, sexist, and classist at a systemic level. Within this scenario, Architects Against Housing Alienation (AAHA) has transformed the Canada Pavilion in the Giardini into a campaign headquarters for equitable housing that rejects this concept of property and the financialized form of architecture that it implies. In this interview with Matthew Soules, we talk about the genesis of the AAHA, the damage that real estate speculation has made in the Canadian context and the ways in which the housing system can be less alienating.
This interview is part of KoozArch's focus dedicated to Biennale Architettura 2023 - 18th International Architecture Exhibition The Laboratory of the Future, curated by Lesley Lokko and organised by La Biennale di Venezia. The International Exhibition is open in Venice from May 20 to November 26.
KOOZ Not for Sale!, is a response to the severe and protracted housing crisis in Canada. What prompted the project? How does the latter respond to Lesley Lokko’s curatorial theme The Laboratory of the Future?
MATTHEW SOULES When the Canada Council issued its call for the juried competition to represent c\a\n\a\d\a, the six of us on the organising committee (Adrian Blackwell, David Fortin, Matthew Soules, Patrick Stewart, Sara Stevens, Tijana Vujosevic) thought it would be exciting and impactful to propose a project that uses the spotlight and funding of the Biennale to create something meaningful within Canada itself. This is how Architects Against Housing Alienation was born. The opportunity of the Biennale engendered an organisation that will operate long after the Biennale is over.
The opportunity of the Biennale engendered an organisation that will operate long after the Biennale is over.
AAHA’s Not for Sale! campaign is all about the future—it makes 10 demands for ending housing alienation. We are seeking change; a different future in which all Canadians have access to affordable and well-designed housing. The physical space of the Canada Pavilion is the workspace of the campaign for the six months of the Biennale. In a very literal sense, we are using the pavilion as a laboratory of the future.
The Not for Sale! campaign is all about the future—it makes 10 demands for ending housing alienation.
KOOZ The project takes the form of an architectural activist campaign for non-alienated housing. Could you expand further on the format of the activist campaign? How does this seek to engage with and mobilise the public of the Biennale?
MS The campaign involves ten teams from across c\a\n\a\d\a, each of which is composed of a housing activist organisation, a housing advocate, and an architectural practice. We think it is important that the different expertise and viewpoints embodied in these different ways of working come together to generate new ideas and tactics. Each of the teams generated a specific demand that at once has national relevance and registers the particularities of their region. These demands are at the core of our manifesto. AAHA, as a broad collective, is actively working to achieve these demands through political advocacy, raising awareness, and working to realise architectural projects.
The public at the Biennale is invited to learn about our demands and associated architectural propositions by engaging their detailed description inside the pavilion. Furthermore, the public can discuss with the student activists who are working inside the pavilion. We hope that visitors are mobilised to join AAHA and fight for better housing for all.
We hope that visitors are mobilised to join AAHA and fight for better housing for all.
KOOZ The project states that “real estate speculation is a form of extortion which converts homes into spatio-financial assets, changing the form, function, and aesthetics of housing to better serve the logics of wealth storage and speculation.” How does the condition differ to 50 or even 100 years ago? To what extent is this condition isolated only to Canada or recognized as a global issue?
MS Housing has long played an important role within capitalist economies as an investment vehicle and speculative asset. The fact that it plays this role is not unique to contemporary conditions. However, with shifts that started to take place around 1980—the turn towards neoliberalism and the ascendancy of finance capitalism as the dominant mode of capitalism—housing became increasingly financialised. The degree to which housing has been financialised in recent decades is unprecedented.
Housing has long played an important role within capitalist economies as an investment vehicle and speculative asset. The degree to which housing has been financialised in recent decades is unprecedented.
The financialisation of housing is a global phenomenon that is certainly not isolated to c\a\n\a\d\a. However, c\a\n\a\d\a is a chilling exemplar and world leader in developing a profoundly alienating housing system. Therefore, the context in c\a\n\a\d\a is a bellwether of alienation with global relevance.
KOOZ Today the notion of homeownership is deeply embedded in almost every culture as it is seen as a guarantee against a lost job, rising rents, or a medical emergency. Beyond being a natural market phenomenon, it is propped up by numerous government interventions as per the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage in America. To what extent can this be identified as part of the problem / speculation? What other dynamics do you identify as augmenting the speculation?
MS There is no housing crisis at all, in fact, the housing system is working precisely as it has been designed to work. That is to say that it is a human creation, formed through a whole series of rules, regulations, and practices that enshrine housing as a profit-making vehicle at the expense of marginalised peoples. Everything from tax laws, mortgage policies, architectural education, digital technologies, and ultimately, ideology, play a role in maintaining, and accelerating, housing’s function as a speculative investment asset.
Architects Against Housing Alienation (AAHA), poster in Toronto, Canada.
KOOZ How does the collective Architects Against Housing Alienation (AAHA) aim to continue to instigate an architectural movement and create socially, ecologically, and creatively empowering housing for all beyond the six months of the Biennale?
MS AAHA is just getting started. We envision events and actions that will unfold across c\a\n\a\d\a well beyond the Biennale. These will range from round-panel discussions where ideas are shared to protest actions that bring attention to the particularities of a specific demand. Most importantly, the 10 teams that have created the demands at the core of Not for Sale! are already working hard to achieve their demands. In some cases they are developing real case study projects that will hopefully be implemented in the not too distant future. The members of AAHA include expert groups and individuals who have long been working on critical housing issues. Not for Sale! gives new momentum and focus to this work that is already well underway and will continue into the future.
Architects Against Housing Alienation (AAHA) is a collective formed in 2021 that started Not for Sale! – a campaign to end housing alienation. The Organizing Committee enlisted Campaign Collaborators who have joined the effort to end housing alienation and contributed their talents and expertise to participating in and helping to realise the campaign. The Team Members include activists, architects, and advocates who bring expertise, experience, connection, and compassion to issues of housing justice. This collaborative effort aims to add momentum, new synergies, and a shared focus to the ongoing and remarkable work to create a radically new housing system.
Matthew Soules is an Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture and the founder of Matthew Soules Architecture. Matthew’s research focuses on contemporary capitalism and architecture. His latest book, Icebergs, Zombies, and the Ultra Thin: Architecture and Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century, examines the rise of finance capitalism and its relationship with architecture. Matthew’s work has been funded by numerous organizations, including the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the British Columbia Arts Council, as well as receiving a wide range of awards, such as the AIA/ACSA Housing Design Education Award in 2012. He has been visiting faculty at Harvard University and SCI-Arc.