Here’s a review of Kanye West’s new housing project, written by a professor of urban design

A giant inflatable Kanye West. Image: Getty.

There is a long history of patrons for architecture, who have ensured their legacy – and often enhanced their status – through the construction of lavish buildings. Of course, some of these have been philanthropic figures, such as Andrew Carnegie, who supported the construction of more than 2,500 libraries around the world, or Oprah Winfrey, whose many charitable causes include building schools for children in developing countries.

More recently, Brad Pitt has taken an interest in architecture. His support for the construction of new homes in New Orleans – via his Make It Right foundation – following Hurricane Katrina has continued to keep social and environmental concerns in the public eye. Clearly, this is a worthwhile endeavour, and hard to fault.

Now entering the arena is Kanye West, who recently announced on Twitter that his company Yeezy would be branching out into architecture. Early visualisations of West’s collaboration with architects Jalil Peraza and Petra Kustrin and 3D artist Nejc Škufca suggest the first project will be a prefabricated concrete “low income” housing scheme, arguably designed in a Brutalist style.

Questions arise, perhaps not least regarding whether the self-proclaimed polymath genius is the right person to create social housing for the masses. As a professor of urban design, it’s not immediately clear to me how the competing forces of real estate, fame and social concerns can be remixed to blend harmoniously in the modern urban landscape.

Form over content?

By putting his weight behind this project, West has drawn much-needed attention to a critical issue in a society that, for many years, allowed housing to divide communities and determine social status. In the US, public housing projects are much maligned – sometimes referred to as “the housing of last resort”. If West wants to enhance the reputation of public or affordable housing as something residents can take pride in, then his intentions are admirable.

But with Kanye West, the message can always overtake the medium. With typical bombast he has said:

I’m going to be one of the biggest real-estate developers of all time – what Howard Hughes was to air crafts and what Henry Ford was to cars … We gonna develop cities.

Having purchased 300 acres of land to develop five properties, it certainly seems he is committed to the idea at some level.

It may be unhelpful, at some level, to criticise West’s motives – but we can and should question the potential outcome. As West told a group of Harvard students: “I really do believe that the world can be saved through design, and everything needs to actually be ‘architected’.”

On the plus side, this kind of vision along with West’s high level connections, considerable resources and sheer force of personality could enable this development to actually happen – which, since the demolition of the dilapidated and crime ridden Pruitt-Igoe project of St Louis, Missouri in 1973 further plunged the public view of mass housing into disrepute, is no small achievement.

Yet West is seemingly impervious to constructive criticism or capable of being managed – as he has even said himself. We can reasonably assume community engagement and participatory processes will go out of the window. These are essential for public housing, especially in the US where their omission has contributed to terrible living conditions.

In their place, his love for the people is expected to be met by the appreciation and gratitude of the masses. His embrace of disruption does not acknowledge the consequences – in a lot of cases, innovation fails to favour with people living on low incomes. In the context of urban design, putting in place infrastructure such as train tracks and highways has typically served to provide sharp boundaries between different communities.

Hashtag ignorance

Recent outbursts – such as his statement regarding slavery being a choice – have done little to display his ability to understand the very people the Yeezy Home is being designed for. Further, his unwillingness to grapple with the complexity of politics and racism endemic in US urban development only highlight how removed from history and society he actually is.

Megalomaniacs have produced many visions for cities over the years, with mixed results: consider the contrasting schemes of Swiss Modernist architect Le Corbusier or Hitler’s personal architect Albert Speer, in their respective quests for a new urbanism. The neo-Brutalist aesthetic of the Yeezy homes is a sideshow in this arena, an Instagram-ready shorthand for contemporary cool. The real story is the grand vision into which the housing sits.

With West’s drive to build his utopia on behalf of others, while skirting around inconvenient issues such as social equity, spatial justice (determined by access and proximity to essential services, public funds and other features) and urban history, his success will be immense – just not in the way he imagines it.

By designing for – rather than with – people, ignoring important social and urban developments and assuming the role of great benefactor, West would enter the history books – but not as a pioneer for social good or innovative design. Instead, he would join an already crowded history of urban developers who designed black people out of the landscape.

For this particular entanglement of social housing and celebrity endorsement, the future of the Yeezy Home project looks likely to aid and abet gentrification processes, not resolve them. Another brand for him, in the guise of a concern for the many –– and that’s the brutal truth.

Nick Dunn, Professor of Urban Design, Lancaster University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.