Within the framework of the project The Persistence of Questioning, critical reflections for the future, and in response to the question ‘What is architecture?’ architect Chris Hildrey argues that buildings aren’t always the solution. Despite this, he believes architects have a unique skill set that makes them well-suited to tackle different societal issues. He introduces the concept of proxyaddress, a way to use the planning system to create a legal address for those who do not have one, as a possible solution to acute problems that arise with homelessness.
Cedric Price, the story goes, was once invited by an affluent couple to design their dream home. As an architect never shy of a challenge, he accepted and spoke with each of the couple for some time about what exactly they imagined in this dream. Having taken on the various requirements, he went away and worked on his proposal. Several weeks later, he visited the couple in their current home to present them with the fruits of his labour. His proposal: that they get a divorce.
Buildings, this suggests, are not always the answer. At least, they should not be the only answer. They are, after all, perhaps the most time-consuming, expensive, and carbon-intensive answer to any problem you might like to pose. And today, we have a lot of problems to consider.
Recent times have brought us a constant stream of crises involving the built environment: from the untethered subprime lending of the financial crisis to the enforced isolation of the pandemic, to rising levels of homelessness amid a cost-of-living crisis. Each of these issues has its own form of sprawl, originating from and extending across different industries, disciplines and populations without concern for the silos we like to place them in during more stable times. They are not specifically ‘architectural’ problems, and yet they impact our lives no less for it.
It is unreasonable to think that if we, as architects, want to truly shape a more enjoyable, accessible and equitable built environment, then we have to somehow train in macroeconomics, virology or social care. Lord knows we have enough to learn on the route to qualification as it is. But the training we already have, that rare mix of quantitative rigour and qualitative invention, critical research and synthesized solutions: that is what makes us remarkably well placed to have a voice in these issues – even if it occasionally means using a medium other than buildings.
We sometimes take for granted the strange worldview that architectural training gives us. This can happen when so much time is spent in the company of others with the same education. But it’s important to remember that, for those without this training, cities are often seen differently: as either static legacies made of stone and steel, or as a dance of unsolicited changes imposed upon them with no more dialogue than one would have with the weather.
Architects, however, exclusively occupy the point in which the city is in flux. The time between when first thoughts of change are mooted to completion of the alteration itself – that is where we belong. But only when invited. Unfortunately for us, the majority of changes to how our cities work today do not come with such an invitation.
When I graduated from university in the UK in 2009, I entered the profession at a time when it had incurred more job losses than any other in the country. A third of all architects were either under- or unemployed. And yet, this was not for a lack of flux in the built environment. In fact, in the years that followed, it changed more than ever: one in five regional museums closed; nearly 800 public libraries were shut down; more than half of councils in England sold off park land; over 2000 public toilets were closed (leaving cities such as Newcastle – a city of nearly a million people – without a single public toilet at all); and vast swathes of public land were sold off to private buyers – with even London’s own City Hall at the time left standing on privately-owned land which was managed by private security.
These were all built environment issues which fundamentally altered how we inhabitants live and work in our cities, no doubt. But, I soon learned, they were issues in which architects had little to no input. Our training had equipped us to recognize the ramifications of such changes and yet we didn’t have the agency to intervene.
As public facilities were stripped from our towns and cities, the situation reached a critical point in 2017 when homelessness in the UK soared to unprecedented levels. Those who were forced to rely on such public services found them not only more in demand than ever, but also less available.
Although statistics cannot fully convey the suffering and hardship experienced by those facing homelessness, they do offer a useful summary of the issue. Between 2010 and 2017, the amount of government-built social housing fell by 97% owing to reduced public investment and rising land and development costs. There are now 1.5 million fewer social homes in England today than there were in 1980, when the Right to Buy scheme was introduced by Margaret Thatcher – triggering one of the largest transfers of wealth from the public to private sector.
Also between 2010 and 2017, the number of people sleeping rough in England alone rose by 169%. The causes of this are complex but include: an eroding safety net (with funding for support services reduced nationwide); the combination of frozen levels of housing support and increasing costs of private rent and house prices; and a less forgiving climate of support, whereby missing a single welfare appointment could see all state-funded support removed for a period of between one month and three years.
As a result, the average age of death of a rough sleeper was just 47 (now 44) — nearly half the UK life expectancy and below any national life expectancy in the world. In 2013, the Red Cross launched its first national food aid programme in the UK since World War II.
Over the same period, the lack of new social and affordable homes being built throughout the country meant that those who were facing homelessness but could be housed by the local government (typically those with dependents, such as single mothers and their children) were usually placed in temporary accommodation, such as poorly maintained private bed and breakfasts. There were more than 80,000 households, including 120,000 children, living under these conditions and at constant risk of being moved on with as little as 24 hours’ notice. There are also those whose numbers can’t be counted: the so-called ‘hidden homeless’: people who move from sofa to sofa, floor to floor, in order to avoid sleeping rough. Though they are out of sight, they still suffer the same debilitating effects of instability. At any one time, one in two hundred people in the UK were facing some type of homelessness.
The built environment was changing beneath our feet in a way that was no longer just academically interesting, it was a humanitarian crisis.
But it still didn’t feel like something I was supposed to do anything about. It wasn’t in my remit. This changed one night at the Design Museum, where I was a Designer in Residence at the time. Given free rein of the Museum, I was wandering around late at night. The museum was closed, I had the place to myself. I decided to walk through the permanent exhibition. It was filled with design classics, products I’d been taught about at school. I saw a collection of chairs: Rietveld, Gehry, Mies; and I was hit with a sudden realization: surely, we as a society – as a civilization – have the chair problem solved? I’d never been short of a chair in my life. I’d certainly never been so inconvenienced by one that I felt the need to reject it. And yet, every day that I walked into the museum to work, I passed dozens of people bedding down on the streets because they didn’t have anywhere to live.
They didn’t have anywhere to live.
That, it seemed to me, was a very architectural problem. And one which was a better use of my time than trying to reinvent the wheel once again. Essentially: why on earth were we designing more chairs when we were walking past people who had didn’t have anywhere to live?
I desperately wanting to do something about this, but how could I? And who was I to think I could? I’m fortunate enough to have never been homeless myself and I didn’t want to intercede in a situation about which I had good intentions but a dangerous naivety.
I decided, in the end, that it was better to try. And so I spent eight months around my then job going up and down the country, speaking to as many people as I could. I talked with hundreds of people experiencing homelessness; I spoke with frontline charity workers, policymakers, financial regulators, postal operators, anyone who would spare me the time. What I found was injustice, heartbreak, broken spirits mixed with a level of determination, bravery and dignity the likes of which I had never seen before.
You see, despite assumptions to the contrary, the number one cause of homelessness in the UK today is not mental health or substance abuse issues but the end of private tenancy. The cause is simple: without enough affordable housing, rent prices have increased. As part of the Government’s austerity measures, housing benefit has been frozen at the same level since 2016, ensuring that in most cases welfare alone is not enough to cover rent payments. Issues of mental health and substance abuse tend to be caused by homelessness rather than the other way around. As a result, most people who enter into homelessness today do so fully capable of recovery if given access to the right support at an early stage. So why, then, are so few people recovering?
The problem, I found, was that when someone lost their home, not only did they lose their shelter, they also lost their address. And, today, an address has changed from being a description of a location to a de facto form of identification. As a result, when you become homeless you lose access to the services and support you need because of the very thing that put you in that position. To be isolated from the support of society due to losing an address represents an unnecessary Catch-22 and one which stems from the systems we use to organize our cities and perceive as immutable. But our addressing system is just one of many in the world. Other systems name blocks rather than streets (such as in Japan or Mannheim, Germany); some use dual addresses, with Prague buildings having two addresses each, one first based on age, the other based on position; others use distance, such as in rural Australia. The systems we take for granted are adaptable. My own architecture experience had taught me that, in the UK, buildings under construction on sites previously without an address are given ‘Not Yet Built’ addresses to allow for the delivery of construction materials. As with any system, when there are edge cases that suffer, workarounds can be found. In this case, the result was ProxyAddress.
ProxyAddress is a system which uses duplicated addresses to connect those facing homelessness with support. Whether one of the 500,000 empty homes in England already recorded by councils for council tax purposes, or one of 160,000 number 13 properties around the country that are missing due to superstition (two councils have actually banned the use of number 13s in all future housing developments) – ProxyAddress duplicates these addresses (with the owner’s consent where applicable) and provides them as stable proxy credentials to those facing the instability of homelessness. Unlike other systems, you don’t need to know the person at the address (those in such positions of vulnerability are often those without any social circle, family or friends).
By linking this address to the individual, it can be used to consistently demonstrate the person’s identity even though they don’t live there and no matter how much they move. It can be used to get a job, access a library, see a doctor, get welfare, receive post, open a bank account: each a vital service otherwise removed at the time of most need. The original property suffers no effects, either to its post or credit rating, and the individual user can engage with society without the stigma of being in a time of personal need. The system has recently completed its first pilot in London to establish its compliance with a range of regulations. Working with direct oversight of various organizations, from the financial regulator of the UK, the Financial Conduct Authority (owing to the fact that the strictest rules of anti-fraud compliance are financial), to national and local charities covering issues of homelessness and domestic abuse, fifty people at various stages of homelessness were given a ProxyAddress. Each was assessed after six months to check on progress. Participants included those facing homelessness for the first time, those entrenched for years, women escaping domestic abuse, people leaving the care system, and military veterans.
We had expected 25, perhaps 30 percent of participants to escape homelessness at the end of their time in the pilot. At final count, more than 95% of those taking part had escaped homelessness within six months with nothing more than the introduction of a ProxyAddress. We at ProxyAddress are now working to extend the service across the UK and, we hope, beyond. Our only measure of success is whether it helps those in need or not. Hopefully someday there will be no need for it at all.
Though the service is not as concrete as a building, nor as absolute as a divorce, it is – I believe – some type of architecture. Without my own training in the built environment – learning to place myself in a position to see behind the curtain of the stage that is the city – I wouldn’t have thought to challenge the systems which perpetuate the status quo. If I’m honest, as long as it can help those otherwise excluded by the built environment, it is at least the reason why I joined the profession.