Conference reports Do it yourself urbanism. Vertical building extensions
Working-class neighborhoods in post-communist countries have often been depicted as unable to adapt to the new economic situation. Stefan Bouzarovski has studied urban development and reached the conclusion that residents in working-class areas may, in fact, display considerable resilience and adaptability to the new housing market. One coping mechanism has been to enlarge apartments by building so-called vertical building extensions.
Published on balticworlds.com on maj 26, 2010
Since 1989, post-communist Central and Eastern Europe have experienced a movement towards a market-based regulation of housing. Neo-liberal market practices have entered into almost all aspects of the housing sector. In many respects, this development has led to the polarization of society and of urban space, as some areas are gentrified while others, often working-class districts, have gone into decline. The inhabitants of such working-class neighborhoods have often been depicted as unable to adapt to the new economic situation. It has been argued that they lack the economic and social resources required to cope with changing circumstances.
Stefan Bouzarovski, a guest researcher at CBEES during the fall of 2009, has studied urban development in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Macedonia. Together with colleagues Michael Gentile and Joseph Salukvadze, he has reached the conclusion that residents in working-class areas may, in fact, display considerable resilience and adaptability to the new housing market, in spite of their very limited economic resources. One coping mechanism has been to enlarge apartments by building so-called vertical building extensions. These extensions are often of an improvised and temporary character, although some of them include concrete frame constructions that often resemble those of the “host building” in terms of size and function.
Much of this inventiveness is associated with changing values and power structures. One evident trend is the influx of new ideas and values in connection with the second demographic transition. The second demographic transition had entailed, among other things, substantial cultural changes with respect to family values and family structure. It began in North-West Europe (the Nordic countries and the Netherlands) in the 1960s and then spread to other Western countries. Signs of the transition, discernible as early as the 1980s, have become more obvious after 1989. At the nucleus of this new value system are the concepts of individualism, autonomy, and self fulfillment. The expansion of economic and political opportunities inherent in the collapse of the authoritarian rule and the planned economy, combined with increased normative pressure to strive for self-realization, including more individualized living conditions and more fluid family relations and household compositions, have led to a paradox. People desire more fluidity; but buildings are fixed. At the same time a housing career is not an option. Vertical building extensions can therefore be seen as temporally — and spatially — specific material manifestations of post-socialist coping strategies. They have provided a form of in situ residential mobility that significantly improves the living conditions of most of their residents, without those residents actually having to move. The extensions are, further, viewed as an investment at a time when trust in banks is at a low ebb.
In one of Bouzarovski’s interviews, the following was the response of a city-dweller with experience in vertical building extensions:
“It really changed our life. We used to live in a one-bedroom, 60-squaremeter apartment, with our son and his wife. Being unemployed, they can’t afford to move to a different home. Thanks to the addition of a new 20-squaremeter room, which is used as a kitchen, we could convert the old kitchen into an additional bedroom. They are considering having a child now.”
The vertical building extensions are not only reflections of socio-economic and cultural change. They have also had an impact on social and economic life. The response from architects and other elite groups has, for aesthetic and security reasons, been largely negative (the extensions may imperil a building’s resistance to earthquakes). Local authorities, however, sometimes motivated by considerations of financial nature, have often chosen to ignore the ongoing development. An entirely new semi-formal economy has grown out of these urban structures. There are construction companies that specialize in vertical building expansions. Many people have also started to use them for private businesses.
Thus, the case of vertical building expansions shows that non-market transactions constitute a source of socio-spatial flexibility for marginalized groups. This flexibility provides these groups with limited but nonetheless real power with which they can counterbalance the structural-societal power that resides in the architecture itself. ≈