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January 2, 2020
Kıvanç Kılınç and Mohammad Gharipour, eds. Social Housing in the Middle East: Architecture, Urban Development, and Transnational Modernity Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019. 336 pp.; 79 b/w ills. Paper $38.00 (9780253039859)

Social housing constructed in Middle Eastern cities since the 1940s has been presented as a solution to several pressing problems, from the crisis of slums and inadequate accommodations for industrial workers to the urban segregation and inequality sustained by colonial housing policies. Social Housing in the Middle East: Architecture, Urban Development, and Transnational Modernity, edited by Kıvanç Kılınç and Mohammad Gharipour, discusses the conditions that call for social housing as well as the societal ramifications of the domestic designs that engage with global “transnational modernity” in urban planning and services.

Each region discussed in the book—Tunisia and Egypt in North Africa, Turkey, Cyprus, Jordan, and Israel in the eastern Mediterranean, Iran, and Kuwait in the Persian Gulf—is subject to specific circumstances, yet the common variables of rapid urbanization, rampant poverty, state corruption, conflict, and dominant religious ideologies have played roles in each of the public housing case studies presented. Architecture is understood to be a social phenomenon, impacting architects’ use of vernacular materials and design vocabulary in traditional and nontraditional ways. As a result, floor plans and siting take on a central role in the formal discussion of housing types, but this is secondary to social analysis in each chapter. Top-down and bottom-up scenarios for the physical development of such housing often exist simultaneously, discussed via municipal restrictions on space and land allocations, and site-specific interventions into the housing fabric and governance. One of the strengths of the book is the ability of the contributors to juxtapose complicated user-occupant experiences with the narratives of architects, planning offices, and government-mandated policies, subsidies, and practices that endeavor to relocate, control, educate, and improve the hygiene and morals of citizens living at lower socioeconomic levels.

The book is divided into three sections that present regional case studies under the intersecting themes of “Settings,” “Histories,” and “Design and Construction” of social housing. Housing can act as a marker of societal reform, identity and nation building, transnationalism, regionalism, class, gender, ethnicity, postcolonialism, Islamist and Zionist cultural politics, and workers’ movements. Institutional housing construction is a tool of social control, with the potential to bring about “hygiene,” “progress,” and modern thinking, or to quash labor organizations, women, the poor, and ethnolinguistic minorities. Residents intervene in an attempt to thwart these design-driven efforts through the creation of extra rooms, the use of outdoor space for indoor domestic activities, the application of bright colors to a uniform, modernist palette, and the creation of virtual spaces for organizing and internally governing the housing. Nonetheless, the end result is often predictable: public housing relocates, concentrates, and exacerbates rather than alleviates many societal problems. The hope that modern architecture could generate and exemplify the conditions for progress has not been not fully realized.

Social Housing in the Middle East is cohesively organized around the issues raised by the editors in the introductory essay, “Global Modernity and Marginalized Histories of Social Housing in the Middle East.” Kılınç and Gharipour begin with the clearly stated assertion that “social housing” includes all subsidized housing types, primarily for lower-income dwellers; funded by agencies, institutions, and governmental bodies, this housing is an inherently political form of architecture. The history of public housing in Europe and in postcolonial settings prefaces its role in the modern Middle East, with notes on the growing role of social science data in the design and theory of planned housing. The editors contrast the role of the architect with that of the contractor, who, for the sake of finances and expediency, became and continues to be the primary developer of social housing projects; the neoliberal economic policies of the 1980s caused another great shift in subsidized housing in Middle Eastern states. An excellent bibliography includes many policy-oriented publications, solidifying the importance of the book and the necessity for architecturally focused scholarship that, in the editors’ words, looks “beyond elite pursuits of architecture” in the region (2). This is a reference to the overwhelming emphasis on historic monuments in the traditional architectural history of the Middle East. Responses to the “urgent, contemporary crises” in housing (14) include ostensibly temporary refugee camps and other emergency shelters that are in reality a growing form of social housing in areas impacted by conflict and environmental disasters. The editors note the role of the Museum of Modern Art’s 2016–17 exhibition Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter in bringing the subject of migrant and refugee housing to a venue associated with the visual arts.

The early history of housing policy and design included architectural efforts to provide healthy homes for workers, such as the garden city movement introduced in the United Kingdom in the late nineteenth century. These forms of architectural activism, with idealistic and socially conscious architects at the forefront, were an influence on colonial planning offices in locations such as Cyprus and Tunisia, as well as on Middle Eastern architects, many of whom were trained in European schools in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century. The editors, juxtaposing Middle Eastern “design activism” with its iterations in other regions, write that “the very question of agency takes different forms in the Middle East, where continuous wars and displacement bar architects from venturing into design activism as much as they could in, say, Latin America or Central Europe; they are actively involved in humanitarian missions instead, which is an exigent matter of survival for the region” (7). Yet the reality in many cases is that the modernist ideal of improving the world through design, promoted by the architects belonging to the Congrès internationaux d’architecture modern (CIAM; 1928–59), or even the less public-spirited forces of nostalgia, colonialism, and Orientalism have provided configurations of space that are not entirely appropriate or comfortable for housing occupants.

State housing often emerges as an element of nationalist discourse. Eliana Abu-Hamdi writes of the emerging view of the state as “an agent of social transformation” in planning debates of 1980s Jordan (37). Mohamed Elshahed elucidates the career of architect Mahmoud Riad, who sought to create policy as the means to solve Egypt’s mid-twentieth-century workers’ housing crisis. Bülent Batuman studies growing trends of Islamic religiosity in the Turkish government and its impact on the development of housing serving wealthy Muslims in Ankara and Istanbul in the early twenty-first century. Batuman concludes that, while religion was intended to be a unifying factor in these urban settings, the Islamist government “aimed at controlling poverty rather than reducing it” through these neoliberal projects (107).

Nancy Demerdash parses Tunisia’s postcolonial housing efforts following independence from France in the 1950s. The “discourses of primitivism” within the government prioritized the appearance of modernization over the immediate needs of the workers, whose bidonville laborer settlements were demolished but not replaced. Yael Allweil presents the ways in which a “social contract” emerged via the state’s responsibility to provide housing to new immigrants to Israel. Allweil’s focus on the period between 1948 and 1953 draws attention to the ways in which the settlers, in turn, were made responsible for nation-building efforts, maintaining Israel’s borderlands with their bodies and dwellings.

Michalis Sioulas and Panayiota Pyla trace the development of the housing effort begun in Cyprus under colonial British rule in the 1940s. Subsequent housing proposals, put forth by municipal and local governments, were met with the combination of British funding in a postcolonial setting and bubbling Cypriot sociopolitical aspirations. Designs for workers’ quarters were reconsidered in light of their potential to foster unrest among crowded, urban residents. Mae al-Ansari describes the fallout from a housing site in Kuwait, constructed in the mid-1980s, which was rejected by its intended occupants and eventually designated for families headed by women. The distance from the city center and inauthentic applications of ostensibly traditional design features created feelings of alienation and humiliation, thereby exacerbating the already marginalized place of unmarried women in Kuwaiti society at the dilapidated site and ultimately generating public protests in 2006.

Noam Shoked explains the process of creating the Immanuel and Beitar Illit housing projects in the 1970s and 1980s for ultra-Orthodox Jewish residents, who were encouraged to move to the West Bank in spite of their opposition to settlements constructed on Palestinian lands. Residents began to enclose themselves and create “spaces of exclusion” (259) through a combination of old daily practices (prayer and study) and new (security details) in the Arab vernacular-style units. The author suggests that the ideological shift away from tolerance within these hillside homes bordering Palestinian villages may be a cautionary tale against the “much-lauded triumph of the user” (242). Jaleh Jalili and Farshid Emami, writing of the Chaharsad-Dastgah housing project in Tehran, Iran (1945–60), note that “rather than a smooth negotiation of the local and international, the design process is indicative of a tension between idealized images of modern housing and a presumed set of local customs” (273). The desire to preserve the supposed Iranian traditions of individual houses with multipurpose rooms rather than public housing apartment blocks with defined bedrooms, salons, and kitchens may have appealed to lower economic strata rather than bourgeois occupants. Gülsüm Baydar, Kıvanç Kılınç, and Ahenk Yılmaz conclude the book with their chapter on Örnekköy and Uzundere, planned housing constructed in 2005 and 2010 on the urban peripheries of Izmir, Turkey. The authors aim to inform future planning projects through their study of the displacement of Izmir’s poor to these substandard housing blocks. They call for the prioritization of long-term, useful housing over the economic return to contractors, and look to the postconstruction spatial production that impacts Izmir on a local level, and the Middle East on a transnational level.

A glossary of terms spanning the sociological, economic, and architectural topics within the book, as well as improved quality for the images (several of which have lost informative details in the grayscale printing of the paperback edition), are small suggestions for an excellent publication, which will hopefully become the first in a series on this subject by the same editors. Social housing is an architectural effort to engage social issues, and that places this well-edited, clearly organized, tightly written book firmly on essential reading lists for architectural and social historians, planners, and policy makers. 

Angela Andersen
Fellow, Centre for Studies in Religion and Society, University of Victoria