14 October – 31 December 2011

Calculus of forms: building and erasing utopias
Adrian Blackwell and Jane Hutton

Calculus of forms examines the relationship between the quantitative and qualitative dimensions of urban form. Cities have certain shapes which hold us in particular ways and allow us to move along specific paths. They are historical, changing over time according to political and economic vicissitudes.

The exhibition presents a set of stacked models that illustrate the changing urban form of seven public housing sites on The Great Lakes: Regent Park, Alexandra Park and Lawrence Heights in Toronto; Jeffries Homes in Detroit; and Robert Taylor Homes, Cabrini Green and Henry Horner Homes in Chicago. Each site is housed on a different shelving unit with three shelves: the lowest shows the site before public housing was built, the middle shelf illustrates the completed public housing project, and the highest presents either the proposed or present state of its redevelopment.

The work has two axes: a horizontal axis which organizes space and locates the housing in the region, the city, and within the public housing neighbourhood, and a vertical axis which measures time, rising from the floor at 1880 in one centimeter increments each year. This temporal axis illustrates the close relationship between urban form and the political and economic regimes that guide the construction of these successive utopian projects.

After the Second World War, North American governments produced plans to revitalize decaying city downtowns through urban renewal. As part of this initiative, cities built public housing for people living in what were named blighted neighbourhoods. Through this policy, thousands of units of housing for low income residents were built in large cities across the continent, improving living conditions for many, but at the same time erasing older areas and destroying the social support networks that proliferated in them. Over the fifty years after these public housing projects were built, they fell into disrepair as governments stopped maintaining them.

In 1992, the United States’ federal government initiated HOPE VI (Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere) to fund the demolition and reconstruction of the most dilapidated public housing projects. The legislation mandated that modernist housing was to be erased and replaced with low rise, mixed income communities designed in neo-traditional style according to the architectural principles of New Urbanism. As a result it was impossible to replace the number of previously subsidized units, so that federal grants were allocated to fund a substantial reduction in the actual number of subsidized housing units.

Canada followed these US policies approximately a decade later. While Canada’s redevelopment projects have diverged from their US precedents, in that they tend to strive for full replacement of subsidized units and as a result are built to much higher densities than the original public housing, they are similar in that they also attempt to engineer a mix of subsidized and market units at ratios of approximately one quarter to one third public units. This has meant that large tracts of publicly owned land are being privatized, and that the neighbourhoods surrounding public housing are being gentrified, decreasing the amount of affordable housing in the area.

These seven sets of models trace the physical demolition of modernist public housing neighborhoods. that has followed from the ideological repudiation of public housing that began in the 1970s and reached full force in the early 1990s. The hard push towards homeownership as a solution to the housing challenges of low income people has been the most recent point of this trajectory and its repercussions were felt in the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007, and in its derivative effects in 2008’sfinancial crisis. The people most affected by each of these historical moments, from the devastation of urban renewal when public housing was first built, to the long period of neglect of public housing, to the displacement caused by contemporary redevelopment plans and the foreclosures of the subprime crisis, have been the city’s lowest income residents.

Calculus of forms was made with the assistance of Adrienne Ball, Tomek Bartczak, Elizabeth Belina-Brzozowski, Michael Easler, Josh Hall, Rebekka Hutton, Marcin Kedzior, Skanda Lin, Alejandro Lopez Hernandez, Mahsa Majidian, Gene Mastrangeli, Kateryna Nesbena, Stephen Ng, Zoe Renaud, Nicolas Roland, Ariel Shepherd and Kika Thorne.

Adrian Blackwell is an urbanist and artist whose work responds to the uneven development of Postfordist urbanization. His public spaces, sculptures, maps, films, and photography have been exhibited at artist-run-centres and public institutions across Canada, and in international venues including the Shenzhen Biennale, Chengdu Biennale and London’s Architectural Association. Adrian Blackwell Urban Projects won the international competition to renovate Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square in collaboration with three other design offices. Blackwell has curated exhibitions, including Detours: Tactical Approaches to Urbanization in China, organized symposia, and writes critical essays about art, architecture, and urbanism. He is currently an assistant professor at the University of Toronto and a member of the Toronto School of Creativity and Inquiry.

Jane Hutton is a landscape architect and assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Her practice focuses on collaborations with organizations re-thinking urban landscapes including a prototype soil regeneration project with FoodCycles at Parc Downsview Park, Toronto’s first community orchard on public land, and collaborations with Toronto Community Housing residents and staff at Alexandra Park and Lawrence Heights on proposals for retrofitting under- utilized land. At PLANT Architect Inc., she worked on the renovation of Nathan Phillips Square, the Royal Ontario Museum roof garden, and Market Square in Stratford, Ontario. Jane and Adrian are both editors of the journal Scapegoat: Architecture / Landscape / Political Economy.

University of Toronto artist talk information.