“What kind of house is this,” he said
“Where I have come to roam?”
“It’s not a house,” said Judas Priest
“It’s not a house . . . it’s a home”
The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest – Bob Dylan
The research I am undertaking in Bathore, Albania is the first part of a larger project that looks into self-build housing in conditions of austerity in the UK. The aim of the project is to translate knowledge across borders: mobilising methods and approaches of self-build house construction from Albania to the UK to examine whether participation in housing offers a progressive stance on the shaping of homes and the urban environment, enabling the empowerment of residents and giving them more of a stake in their immediate environment.Through examining self-build housing and participatory upgrading processes (completed with the NGO Co-Plan) in Bathore, I will translate the knowledge and methodologies gained from this settlement into a self-build housing model with ex-homeless individuals in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.
But how can Bathore be a model for housing, for community-led planning? The problems that this community has faced and continues to face are multiple. Edi Rama, the Albanian Prime Minister, recently said about the legalisation of informal settlements in Albania:
“And they [the Berisha-Democrat government] left them there, in the middle of the sewer water, in isolation, without infrastructure, without nothing. The babies who were brought here on the shoulders of their mothers or who were born here, now have become grown ups and have no certificate of ownership yet.” [Translated by Ilir Ikonomi]
So how can this place, this divisive location, that grips the greasy hems of Tirana, be any kind of model? Did I wake up crazy? Am I being paid by Berisha’s cronies? I don’t think so. Instead, I am trying to question how and where the so-called ‘legitimate’ knowledge is produced. The West is seen as being at the heart of modern-day knowledge production, but it is stuttering. It is tripping and faltering in every step. So why is the West continually seen as ‘the viable model’ for development, and in the context of this research, ‘the viable model’ for housing?
In the UK, like other European countries, we are feeling the effects of a deep recession. Couple this with a conservative government and that’s quite a dangerous recipe. We are clinging onto the last dregs of the welfare state; a system that is being eroded before our eyes. In housing, homelessness is growing and we are out of ideas. The government’s neoliberal ideas to get the ‘market moving’ – Help to Buy, Community Right to Build – ignore the poorest in society. Thatcher’s marketisation of housing transformed our imagination of housing; removed it from being a basic human right, connected with home and shelter, to one aligned with monetary policy, investment and boom and bust. Our obsessions with the housing market are all too evident. Everyday there are endless newspaper articles on the rise and fall of the housing market: the boom of the London market or the depression of the northern one. An ex-council house sold for £500,000, Russian billionaires buying London property, gazumping and homesteading, stararchitects gentrifying ex-social housing. My sister, after stepping onto the first rung of the housing ladder, tells me that people now want to have ‘housing market chat’ with her. This is telling; telling of a country that is obsessed with the monetary value of housing – as a commodity to be bought and sold – full stop. But how can we blame? Pensions are stagnant and our generation, who were once cradled in the arms of the baby boomers, are now floundering. The welfare system has gone into enforced hiding and we now find ourselves sucking from the nipple of a dead woman who will not be revived.
So what happens when the government ‘pulls out’? Where are our ‘coping strategies’ for a limping welfare state? We take our weekly benefit but it comes at a cost. We can’t turn to self-help strategies because of regulation and bureaucracy. The fact remains, that when the welfare state is pulled from under us we have no options. We cannot build for ourselves; instead we rely on rogue landlords and over-priced housing. The stranglehold of the system has us in chains, invisible chains that pinch us every so often; an irritating pinch that erodes the ability of our hands, to stop them from building, from creating. The hand of the Englishman rests on his desk, his finger pressing ‘return’ over and over again. A clunk of the forefinger on the keys, eyes glazed from the dim light of the screen. Radiohead said it, he is:
“concerned (but powerless)
an empowered and informed member of society (pragmatism not idealism)
fitter, healthier and more productive
in a cage
So the West needs to search for new solutions by zooming the lens out, looking across and between the margins of Europe, to search for alternative methods. To places and practices deemed insignificant and unworkable because they are not deemed financially ‘sound’, because theirs is a vision of the urban that is irrational, unplanned, ‘problematic’. But we need to question, on whose terms is informal housing problematic? And who created the categories that order places into developed, developing and undeveloped? The answer is the West: a place itself built upon the backs of slaves and the toil of their own people in the shipyards and the mines. The sweat from their brows was transformed into our very own pound coin. And the empire is still with us: still in the Daily Mail slur, still in the flag-waving and the royalty embracing, still in the imagined gap between ‘here’ and ‘there’, between West and East.
So, in the face of all of the above, how can the West’s current imagination of housing be any kind of progressive model? We need new methods not only for housing, but whole new conceptual approaches to what a house is, what it means and what role it plays in society. A dialogue must be enabled that connects housing with home, with participation and co-operation, thereby challenging the focus on markets and money. And here, in Bathore, I have seen this. People came to Bathore to physically build a new life, not to build a new suburbia or a gated community, not to make a killing on the property market. They built because there was nothing else, firstly, for shelter from the rain and then a place to raise children, grow vegetables; a place to be home. And in doing so they built a community that became a home for tens of thousands of people. This is a viable community built from the ground up. “This whole town has been built by people. Mostly the need made people learn new things. The need for new work, the need for something to do” one twenty-one year old man told me. Another twenty-one year old girl said: “It’s a place which we can develop”. In both of these quotes lies a sense of a community built by their own hands where making, crafting and building – the work of the hand – can inform the work of the mind, connecting people back to processes of creation. Thus co-operative rituals that connect people with making and people with people have been formed through these processes.
So by utilising practices of self-build housing and settlement upgrading in Albania to interrogate conventional, non-participatory methods of housing in the UK, this research probes how we can challenge the preoccupation with the monetisation of housing, and begin once again to conceptualise it as community-building.
It must be stressed that this is not a direct transfer of self-build or community upgrading practices from Albania to the UK; the particularities of place make this impossible. When the knowledge from Bathore travels, it will adapt to fit a new context – no model can ever be transferred directly, instead there needs to be room for adjustment. This is an experiment in non-linear thinking; an attempt to observe the creative possibilities of urban space. Yes, the outcome is uncertain, but only through testing and evaluating can we begin to generate new methodologies and question old ones. Yet these participatory processes of making and co-operating can only be practiced thoroughly if we confront the dualisms of the ‘professional’ and the ‘amateur’. If we question these imaginaries then we may be able to overcome housing’s current disembeddedness from life, to begin a dialogue that connects housing with participation and co-operation, as I have witnessed in Bathore, thereby challenging the current preoccupations with market-led processes of capitalist production and accumulation.
This indicates a real need for the West to unlearn and relearn ways of imagining and creating cities by looking further afield to places deemed ‘insignificant’ on the world stage; places that do not fit ‘the clean and safe agenda’ of glittering financial districts or corporate capital. Furthermore, for too long the Western academy has maintained control over the production and dissemination of knowledge, therefore through translating community-based practices from Albania to the UK I will attempt to question the ownership of knowledge; how it is produced, for what purpose and for whom.
In the same way that in the last article I urged people in Albania to take the hand of their neighbour and connect ‘here’ with ‘there’, this project, in its entirety, aims to traverse some of the psychological and imaginary boundaries that surround place on a local and a global level, deconstructing predominant ideas about what is a ‘viable model’ and who holds the knowledge.