How does the 99% live? The Global Age of Mass Housing

Independent Book Project

Kenny Cupers

During the twentieth century, the world’s population increased more than in any other period in history, from about 1.6 billion in 1900 to over 6 billion in 2000. It is impossible to fathom where all those people came to live—if and how they came to house themselves, or come to be housed. What history then could possibly account for the myriad social practices and materialities of dwelling that have emerged in this period? To answer this question, this study focuses on three major kinds of housing that have accommodated the unprecedented population growth and in doing so, shaped the vast expansion of our urbanized world in the past century.

A first paradigmatic case is the suburban house. Often, though not always, speculatively built, privately owned, and grouped in subdivisions, the single-family house continues to be a widespread ideal for middle- and working-class families. Its sprawling reality from California to Brazil or Australia, however, is far more diverse than mass media tend to suggest. A second typical category consists of slabs and blocks of flats, often, though not always, aggregated in state-subsidized and/or publicly owned estates. In France, Russia, or Singapore, inhabitants have celebrated these prevalent housing forms as achievements in modern comfort and public provision, but they have also denounced them as traps of relegation and exclusion. A third, and perhaps the most characteristic, category of housing in the twentieth century is the shantytown. From Istanbul to Mumbai or Lima, shack dwellings on squatted or pirated land have become a dominant mode of contemporary urbanization, and force us to rethink the future of urban life globally.

In the twentieth century, dwelling was no longer just a matter of individual needs, local traditions, or national law; it also became a product and an engine of our increasingly global political economy. In this development, houses became housing, an integral part of the process of moulding social and economic relations. Subdivisions offered one way of doing so, slabs another, and shantytowns can be understood as the failure of both, even if it functions as a system in itself.

House designed by Charles Correa, PREVI, Peru.
© Sharif S. Kahatt