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Review | Peter Cachola Schmal at the November Talks 2017 in Graz

Wanted: affordable living heroes

"Build, build, build! But build affordable houses!" With this call Peter Cachola Schmal both started and concluded his lecture on 3 November 2017 in the Alten Technik auditorium at TU Graz. An emphatic statement that, in an era of migratory movements, demographic shifts and social pressure, is more controversial than ever before. His plea for affordable housing constituted the second part of the Sto Foundation's November Talks 2017 in Graz.

September 2015 in Austria – and Germany – witnessed a turning point in migration policy. People marched down the motorways, crossing boundaries both in terms of national borders and in their minds. In his appeal for affordable living, Peter Cachola Schmal, architect, architecture critic and since 2006 Director of the German Architecture Museum in Frankfurt am Main, steered awareness towards a specific aspect of migration and indeed life: the issue of housing. "We don't have a migrant crisis," he said, quickly coming to the point, "we have a housing crisis." Soundly underpinned with facts and figures, his talk first transported the audience back to the 15th International Architecture Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia. That was in 2016, when he was commissary general of the German pavilion. The German entry was entitled 'Making Heimat. Germany, Arrival Country', which is currently on show at the Architecture Museum. This exhibition has to manage with posters, given that the pavilion has no doors: a fact reflected by the most prominent exhibit. In 2016, before anyone realised how extensive the migration was, Germany had no doors.

Based on Doug Saunders’ book "Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History is Reshaping our World", the exhibition presents eight assertions in relation to "Arrival Cities", whereby the focus remains on architecture and urban planning. Saunders himself focused on favelas and slums – by contrast, in Europe migrant quarters offer opportunities, explained Schmal. "Don't be afraid of ethnically homogeneous neighbourhoods," is one of his more controversial assertions. In Frankfurt am Main, currently 50 percent of residents stem from outside Germany. "That enables the creation of networks," stressed Schmal, "you only have to look at Chinatown." New immigrants are attracted by the urban density, where the same 'rules' apply as for rural exodus. The consequences: a lack of housing, made worse by demographic shifts, which are frequently based on false projections, said Schmal. Even though the population is shrinking, the housing (living) density in popular cities such as Munich in Germany is increasing, with rent and purchase prices going through the roof. The situation is exacerbated by the increasing popularity of single-person dwellings, whereby widows in particular reside alone within relatively large living spaces. "Frankfurt lacks around 50,000 houses and apartments," emphasised Schmal, "we need heroes who are daring enough to build affordable housing." The buildings actually being built are often unaffordable or can only be purchased by someone who has inherited a fortune. That an 'Arrival City' has to offer favourable rents as well as jobs in close proximity were another two assertions.

Moving on to Amsterdam, Peter Cachola Schmal shifts his focus to urban planning and residential construction. The Bijlmermeer quarter, southeast of the renowned Old Quarter of Amsterdam, was designed in the 1960s as a showcase project that included separated traffic on flyovers. Following the independence of Surinam, large sways of people migrated here from the former colony. Today more than 100,000 people spanning 150 nationalities live here. What used to be a showcase project for the middle-classes became a classic migrant quarter, with all the accompanying problems. The crash of a Boeing 747 freight aircraft into the neighbourhood in 1992 was promptly followed by radical reconstruction of the entire quarter. Thanks to the architectural project 'deFlat', at least one of the old buildings was spared the demolition ball. The curved – and gutted – building and its 500 apartments were put up for sale. Purchasers bought apartments at basement prices, albeit without fixtures and sanitary facilities. They called the deal 'Klussen': Do it yourself! Today Bijlmermeer has been transformed; from a problem area to a highly diversified residential area with excellent traffic links and access to public transport – a further 'Arrival City' assertion. Work is created where there is already work. And where it is within reach.

Compartmentalisation and the priority of ground floors is also on the list of 'Arrival City' assertions. Such aspects enable newcomers to exchange dialogue and afford direct contact, effectively providing the opportunity for upward social mobility. Nonetheless, all this is only possible through further urban densification, explained Peter Cachola Schmal. Space within cities is limited and extremely expensive. Bordering nature reserves further limit the potential for expansion. Further densification, however, frequently translates to problems with neighbours. This so-called NIMBY behaviour is a problem: i.e. "not in my backyard". "Of course you can build, but somewhere else please!" Schmal draws attention to a counter-movement that understands the meaning of the future of urban planning: "YIMBY, Yes in my backyard! We need affordable housing!"

In 2018, in cooperation with the Planning and Housing Department, the German Architecture Museum in Frankfurt will be offering an award for 'affordable and good quality housing' for the first time. 'Housing for everyone: Frankfurt 2018' will be honouring projects from all over Europe that have been carried out within the last four years.

Peter Cachola Schmal

Born in Altötting in 1960, Peter Cachola Schmal has been the Director of the German Architecture Museum (DAM) in Frankfurt am Main since 2006. Having grown up in Multan, Pakistan and Mülheim an der Ruhr, he studied architecture at TU Darmstadt. After successfully finishing his studies he worked as an in-house architect until 1993. Between 1992 and 1997 Peter Cachola Schmal worked on a research team specialising in building design and construction at TU Darmstadt. Since that time he has worked as a freelance architecture critic for trade magazines and art sections. He lectured design at Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences between 1997 and 2000.

November Talks

The successful “November Reihen”, a lecture series on contemporary architecture, has been funded by the non-profit Sto Foundation since its launch in 2006. Stuttgart, Graz, Milan, Paris, Prague and London are the six venues . Exciting work reports by renowned architects can be experienced there.