A trilogy produced by the CCA, these three documentaries examine the ways in which changing societies, new economic pressures, and increasing population density are affecting the homes of various communities. Through the lens of architectural projects, each episode looks at the global scope as well as the local specificities of a different urgent demographic issue. In this interview with Canadian Centre for Architecture Director Giovanna Borasi, we talked about the role of architects in confronting the pressing issue of homelessness, how people who live alone engage with the city of Tokyo, and how cities may adapt to the rapid demographic change of ageing populations.
This interview is developed within the partnership with the 10th edition of the Arquiteturas Film Festival "Where Life Happens", held in Porto from June 27 to July 01, and the Canadian Centre for Architecture.
KOOZWhere We Grow Older is the last in a three-part documentary series produced by the CCA that examines the ways in which changing societies, new economic pressures and increasing population density are affecting the homes of various communities. What prompted the project? What informed the three specific topics of research which constitute the trilogy?
GIOVANNA BORASI The project was always conceived as a trilogy that wanted to address the most pressing issues of our contemporary cities, while also giving a voice to marginalised communities. The trilogy has an overarching agenda and, through each chapter, we examined very specific conditions: the crisis around the increasing number of people who don't have a home; the surge in numbers of people who have made a personal choice to live alone; and finally the many people who are left alone near the end of their lives. The “What, How and Where” play an important part in building this story of care. Rather than offering tangible solutions, the research has always existed between the topic and the specific answer, where the specific answer might lead to more general thoughts and at the same time, the general thoughts might lead us to find specific sites and case studies.
KOOZ To what extent and in what ways do the three films, shot between 2019 and 2022, capture the impact of the pandemic on the concept of home and the relationship that diverse communities have to it?
GB Although the overarching research topic was chosen pre-pandemic, Covid-19 really exacerbated these urgent and critical issues. First and foremost, whilst we were “safely” confined in the interiors of our homes, homeless people found themselves seeking shelter in our deserted cities. It is hard to forget those horrific images of how these communities were treated, how they were allocated “spaces” within parking lots for fear of becoming contaminators.
The filming of When We Live Alone coincided with the beginning of the pandemic. I recall discussing the fact that, although at the CCA we seek to create research projects and exhibitions which can “last” several years, this film would always be grounded in a very specific moment. Where We Grow Older was, on the other hand, put on hold because of the fragility of these elderly communities. Beyond the way in which the pandemic informed the concept of the home, it very much also impacted the production of the research.
KOOZ Spanning various metropolises—including Los Angeles, Vienna, Tokyo, Barcelona and Baltimore—all three documentaries are structured around conversations and interconnected vignettes with architects, psychologists and entrepreneurs, as well as first-hand accounts on the portrayed situations. How did you approach the research of these cities? What informed the choice of the multiple voices engaged to unravel each topic?
GB Although not systematic, our choices of cities were very precise. The site of Los Angeles for What It Takes to Make a Home stemmed from the heightened state of homelessness throughout the metropolis, which is very much connected to questions of zoning and gentrification. For example, the neighbourhood where we found the projects by Michael Maltzan is an area where a typical American typology offered very cheap one-bedroom rooms to live in. Then there are other pockets throughout the city, like Venice and Downtown, where the problem also manifests. Whilst the choice of Venice is characterised by its proximity to the beach, the fact that Downtown is primarily office buildings has led to the creation of numerous undetermined spaces, in between infrastructures, that can be easily claimed.
In the US, policies around the homeless issue are governed by economics and politics. By law, there are specific areas where homeless people can park their car and sleep. It is clear that these spaces do not pop-up in Hollywood. Vienna, as a European city, sits in direct contrast to the American model. Specifically, the housing project by Michael Maltzan, which has been extensively criticised for being “too beautiful” for such a marginal population, was conceived by the architect as an instrument which would give visibility to this population rather than trying to hide it.Meanwhile, the project by Alexander Hagner wants to blend into the urban fabric so that people will not point to the specific users and the look of the building as an exception, as something that sticks out.
Still from "What it Takes to Make a Home", a documentary film conceived by Giovanna Borasi and directed by Daniel Schwartz
For When We Live Alone, prior to focusing on Tokyo, we researched Sweden as one of the countries with the highest percentage of people living alone. Tokyo, however, can truly be seen as a laboratory where these ideas and typologies are being tested.
“In Japan, one-person spaces are numerous, both in quantity and in variety. [...] They are physically divided by partitions. That’s a common quality. Another characteristic of these spaces is that they are often commercialised. People pay a fee to occupy [them].”
- Yoshikazu Nango, Sociologist interviewed for “When We Live Alone”.
For Where We Grow Older, we knew from the outset that we didn't want to feature traditional housing for the elderly, but rather engage with the uncertainty that one has when becoming older and the role that the city can play in this. From loneliness to economic instability and health care issues, this led us to social housing blocks in Barcelona and Baltimore. When undertaking the research on the homeless, we saw that a lot of people who end up in the streets are economically insecure. At a certain age, not having family support might lead them to end up in the street. This project then tied back into the first film.
“There are many reasons for homelessness but for the most part, they all involve loss. Sometimes it’s losing a job or losing a family member or a relationship.”
- Ferdinand Kolar, tour guide of Supertramps interviewed for “What It Takes to Make a Home”
For me, it was very important to engage with architects whose work on these issues was not an isolated case, but who have really critically analysed these conditions. On the other hand, Daniel Schwartz, the film director, was very keen on engaging the voices who are really experiencing these conditions. Throughout the trilogy, the protagonists are not the architects but rather the communities.
KOOZ The first documentary What It Takes to Make a Home specifically addresses homelessness by following a conversation between architects Michael Maltzan (Los Angeles) and Alexander Hagner (Vienna), who have been addressing this phenomenon throughout their careers and through numerous radical projects. How does the documentary explore an individual’s right to the city and the very nature of public space, how it is to be used, and under what conditions?
GB The rights of a homeless person in the States greatly differ from those of a homeless person in Austria. When we were recording in the US, nobody wanted to be filmed because if one does not have an address they cannot have a social security number, or, consequently, a job. In Europe, or at least in a country like Austria, the problem is very different, as there seems to be more of a support structure. Nonetheless, the problem is mainly addressed through a shelter system, a solution which we learned, from engaging in a number of interviews, creates an extremely insecure and unpleasant environment. Just imagine putting two hundred people with different backgrounds and conditions within a closed space. Within this framework, projects such as those of Vinzi Rast, which integrates both the homeless with students, in addition to giving the tenants a job with the restaurant on the ground floor is an extremely interesting model.
“Home is really complicated because it means a lot of things for me. I really feel that I have been able to find solace in community, the people that make me feel safe. I have never felt safe in a place that is enclosed by four walls.”
- Kevin Recinos, Life skills coordinator at Safe Parking LA interviewed for “What It Takes to Make a Home”
Along this approach, throughout our research, we engaged with Juha Kaakinen, CEO of the Y-foundation in Finland, who understands architecture as only one of the ingredients to the solution, foreseeing a more long-term approach which is focused on a process of integration through job opportunities and healthcare support. It has been scientifically proven that a homeless person who lives on the streets for five years will have aged 15 years.
KOOZ The second documentary, When We Live Alone, starts by introducing us to staggering statistics on the rise of urban dwellers living on their own. In 1950, 22% of the people in the US were single, and one-person households accounted for only 9%, while today singles have risen to 49% and 28% of all homes in the US are one-person households. The fastest segment of people who live alone are young adults under the age of 35. To what extent has this new demographic trend become an urban condition? What informed the choice of Tokyo as a site through which to unpack and analyse this change in social structures and its effect on the fabric of our cities?
“A person’s life in the city isn’t limited by the walls of their home. For many generations, people have used public baths, laundromats, and notably restaurants. They use them as a network of services and spaces. The people who live this way understood the whole city to be part of their homes.”
- Yoshikazu Nango, Sociologist interviewed for “When We Live Alone”
GB When researching the topic, we looked to the writings of American sociologist Eric Klinenberg, whose work understands the fact that people are living alone not as a crisis but rather as a choice. This has positive repercussions on both the social network of a city, as people will tend to share certain amenities, as well as its environmental footprint, as people would use more public transport. From the Nakagin Capsule tower as a precursor, all the way to the Apartment House by Takashi Ippei, Tokyo is a laboratory where these ideas around living alone are being continuously tested. It is not just a matter of people living alone but rather seeing how this has informed the design of what usually are shared spaces and moments, from the restaurant to the karaoke bar.
"This building acts as a house for eight people in the city and each has their own room. This is a completely new type of residential space. […] A house with just a bath might suffice, or maybe just a good kitchen, or one that allows the maximum amount of daylight in. This house is the sum of all these partial spaces and each inhabitant owns only one of them. By living in this space, people begin to visit other spaces allowing people to gather and to form a kind of family.” - Apartment House by Architect Takashi Ippei, interviewed for “When We Live Alone”
KOOZ Where We Grow Older brings us to two housing projects, “Alí Bei” and “Carehaus”, situated in Barcelona and Baltimore, respectively. Whilst the former exemplifies the model of “public housing as part of municipal policies and infrastructure”, the latter explores the creation of the “first intergenerational care-based co-housing project in the United States”. To what extent are these projects site specific? How can their approach to addressing demographic ageing in a spatially inclusive manner be adapted and applied to different contexts and locations?
GB The choice of Barcelona was very specific and was made with the ambition of putting this urban strategy on the map, with the hope that other cities can follow suit. The strategy is not site specific or tied to a precise building, but rather requires a forward-thinking government and an unconventional approach to architecture, one that does not seek to reproduce the same solution but rather engage diverse architects in reinterpreting the circumstances every time.
The Baltimore case study sheds light on the importance of a multigenerational approach, challenging the modernist approach which segregated entire age groups within very specific care systems, from day care to school all the way to the homes for the elderly.
KOOZ This trilogy sits within the context of a broader project at the CCA to explore film as a curatorial tool. What comes next? How do you seek to continue to challenge this medium “as a means for exploring, relating, and opening a topic up for discussion beyond the realm and publics of architecture”?
GB We are really enjoying working with this medium, and it is something we will definitely continue to explore at the CCA. The next project is in the hands of Francesco Garutti (CCA Associate Director, Programs) and will directly explore the research that architects undertake when designing. Working backwards from the final project to reveal the thoughts, conversations, and trials and errors which, although present in some drawings, are never really explained.
Then I think we will want to start a new trilogy which will continue to focus on the question of housing, but the frameworks and questions we seek to address are yet to be defined.
Following the world premiere at the Arquiteturas Film Festival in Porto, Where We Grow Older will screen at international film festivals. Confirmed screenings include St. Moritz Art Film Festival (31 August – 3 September 2023), Architecture Film Festival Rotterdam (4 – 8 October 2023), and as part of Atmospheric, Filming at arc en rêve, Bordeaux.
What It Takes to Make a Home and When We Live Alone currently screen as part of the exhibitions HOME SWEET HOME at the Triennale di Milano (through 10 September 2023) and Ways to Utopia. Life Between Desire and Crisis at the Bauhaus Museum, Weimar (through 5 February 2024).
Giovanna Borasi (born 1971 in Milan, Italy) is Director and Chief Curator of the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal, Quebec, Canada since 2020. She first joined the CCA as Curator for Contemporary Architecture in 2005. Borasi was educated in architecture at Politecnico di Milano, and has worked as a writer and editor in addition to her curatorial activities.
Federica Zambeletti is the founder and managing director of KoozArch. She is an architect, researcher and digital curator whose interests lie at the intersection between art, architecture and regenerative practices. In 2015 Federica founded KoozArch with the ambition of creating a space where to research, explore and discuss architecture beyond the limits of its built form. Parallel to her work at KoozArch, Federica is Architect at the architecture studio UNA and researcher at the non-profit agency for change UNLESS where she is project manager of the research "Antarctic Resolution". Federica is an Architectural Association School of Architecture in London alumni.