Castles in the Air

Castles in the Air by Iñigo Bujedo-Aguirre

Modernist social housing is one of the most widespread building typologies of the 20th century. After World War II, cities across Europe were transformed through the widespread construction of middle and working-class housing, driven by utopian beliefs that people’s social experience could be determined by their built environment. This was advocated by influential architects, politicians and planners of the day, who looked to rationalist housing models and urban theories both to address immediate population needs and create a more egalitarian society. It was believed that cities, and indeed the human condition, could be improved through rational design.

It is only recently in Europe that high-rise residential living has again become fashionable, following the disasters of the 50s, 60s and 70s, when slab and tower blocks were built to accommodate low-income families and waves of post-war immigrants. Examples include Gropius Staatd and Madeleine Strasse in Berlin, Singerlin, Ciutat Meridiana and Bellvitge in Barcelona, and Robin Hood Gardens and Alexandra Road Estate in London. Many of these relentless estates came to represent the worst effects of public housing design: crime, social neglect and material decay — and some continue to do so.

“Since the completion of the first modular housing developments in the 1930s, towers and slabs have been alternately glorified as the salvation of mankind and scorned as generators of misery and distress. In the fall of 2005, the civil unrest in the French banlieues sparked an intense debate over the architect’s role in creating crime and violence. […] Design is not to blame for mass housing’s mixed achievements. The buildings did not produce the social situation they came to stand for, but acted as vessels, conditioning rather than creating social relations and channelling rather than generating existing polarities.”   (Tower and Slab: Histories of Social Mass Housing. Florian Urban, Routledge 2012 ).

Yet today in Europe’s cities, many of these housing estates have become iconic and their inhabitants have developed a very strong sense of community. Once neglected and entirely apart from the prevailing urban iconography, they are now seen as pivotal to how these cities expanded and have become an essential European urban archetype.

In a series of photographs taken over a period of 20 years, Castles in the Air explores the idea of urban territory and identity – the relationship between the city, its architecture and its inhabitants. Positioned at a prudent distance, I looked at how these urban landscapes have been transformed by the inhabitants that have appropriated and conquered them. The human presence, although noticeable in the photographs, rarely takes center stage. My aim has been to make a contemporary visual map of the landscapes created by Europe’s different political ideologies and to explore the urban aesthetic that has come to represent our identity and social aspirations.

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