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Learning from the Terrassenhaussiedlung in St. Peter-Graz, Austria

Yes, I spent my Thanksgiving talking about Human Cities and my past projects working as an urban planner in San Francisco.

Yes, I spent my Thanksgiving talking about Human Cities and my past projects working as an urban planner in San Francisco.

Over the Thanksgiving break, I traveled to Graz, the second largest city in Austria (population: 270,000) to be part of the Architectural Research Lecture Series organized by the Institute of Architectural Theory, Art History and Cultural Studies at the Technische Universität Graz.

Similar to the Urban Studies Program and the Human Cities Initiative, the Institute approaches theoretical and historical questions in architecture from inter- and transdisciplinary perspectives and works across disciplines and methods. Getting there took a 13+ hour journey and two flights, but I was thrilled for the opportunity to share my work with faculty and students.

My talk was entitled, “Approaching a Human City: Frameworks and Methods”, and I focused on three areas:

  1. FRAMEWORKS: How might we define and conceptualize the human city? The human city, rather than viewed as a top-down, one-size-fits-all vision, depends on local context and the process of citizen engagement and participatory design. It is supported by four pillars: environmental quality, economic vitality, social equity, and cultural continuity.

  2. METHODS: Once we have defined the human city, what methods might we use to envision, build, and design the human city? I discussed the creation of a human city through human-centered design and the design thinking mindsets: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

  3. APPLICATIONS: I concluded with a few concrete applications of our programs and empirical examples of progress towards a human city.

Giving this talk and hearing from people during Q&A was valuable, as it allowed me to refine the framework in my mind and to future audiences.

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Since co-founding the Human Cities Initiative four years ago, I am often asked to give examples of an ideal city, or a human city, as if these were the same. But perhaps we just need to reframe the question. Perhaps the human city does not have toexist in its ideal format. As the title of my talk suggests — Approaching — a Human City, the Human City has yet to be achieved, although we have seen evidence of this growing movement.

But most importantly, the human city is not simply a goal or an end-state, as something that we can complete, congratulate ourselves, and walk away.

Instead, we should think of the human city as a framework that consists of a series of tensions as we strive to achieve environmental quality, economic vitality, social equity, and cultural continuity. The human city is a dynamic entity, a set of indicators or guidelines in which we measure our progress, with the understanding that it is an evolving journey, and one that involves constant push and pull in multiple directions. If we find ourselves too far in the direction of one pillar in which another pillar starts to suffer, then it is an opportunity to self-correct and to make adjustments until we achieve balance.

Many people asked about implementation and whether the small-scale and local nature of neighborhood projects are truly enough to affect large-scale project implementation. In part, this is exactly the point: if we adjust the scale in which we approach urban projects and find a way to connect urban solutions to the process of uncovering and meeting human needs, we will be closer to a pathway of urban development that is humane and inclusive. But that alone is not enough; we would also need to leverage these processes to apply pressure with the intent to inform and ultimately transform the culture and practices of the institutions responsible for designing and building cities.

For the second half of my visit, I co-organized a workshop with my collaborator Andrea Jany, who is based at TU Graz and whom we first met at Stanford where she was completing several visiting fellowships. The idea was to bring to life and test some of the concepts that I had discussed in my talk the evening before, in a real physical site of an ongoing research project.

The workshop took place at the Terrassenhaussiedlung, a housing estate constructed in the 1970s and an exemplary model of the larger participatory housing movement in Styria, Austria from the 1960s-1990s. For more than a year, Andrea at the Institute of Housing Research has led the research project SONTE, which assesses residents’ housing needs and their ideas for the estate’s modernization. The project has organized workshops and initiated surveys to engage residents in discussions about their housing requirements.

On the rooftop of the  Terrassenhaussiedlung with Andrea Jany, my collaborator at TU Graz.

On the rooftop of the Terrassenhaussiedlung with Andrea Jany, my collaborator at TU Graz.

We chose to conduct the workshop here given SONTE’s existing relationships and because of the unique history of the estate. The Terrassenhaussiedlung later served as a model for the Modell Steiermark from 1980s-1990s, a productive time of co-design and participatory design. Yes, the architects of the Terrassenhaussiedlung sat down with each household to painstakingly (and back then, by hand) customize the blueprint of each unit according to their needs. The residents were offered the right to purchase their homes at a subsidized price, and many of the original residents still live there today.

Working with Andrea, we designed a „Kaffeeklatsch“ — an informal social gathering of neighbors over coffee and cake — in which residents would share their favorite memories of the Terrassenhaussiedlung. We designed the workshop to be facilitated by SONTE members and students from the Institute, with the goal to achieve the following objectives:

1. Strengthen exchange and interaction among residents. We sought to do this by having residents conduct oral histories with each other using a list of guided questions. This empathy interviewing was intended to bridge the intergenerational divide between long-time, older residents, and families with children who have moved into the housing complex more recently. Following the interviews, the residents collectively synthesized their learnings as a group. One of the core goals of the workshop was to create an opportunity so that residents could establish a foundation in which they could get to know each other and acknowledge each others’ experiences through exchange.

Residents creating a visual synthesis of what they heard during the interviews.

Residents creating a visual synthesis of what they heard during the interviews.

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2. Integrate an educational component, in which the TU Graz students were responsible for facilitating the exercises, taking notes, guiding residents to synthesize their results, and presenting the final results to the group. A secondary, and also important, outcome of this workshop was to inform urban researchers and practitioners on how they can use the methods of human-centered design as part of their research and design process.

TU Graz students engaging in empathy interviews and presenting the synthesis outcome to the group.

TU Graz students engaging in empathy interviews and presenting the synthesis outcome to the group.

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3. Practice cultural humility. Finally, this was an exercise in figuring out the right level of contribution for myself, a non-German speaking American of Chinese descent, entering this community as an outsider. While I was happy to develop the workshop content, I understood that I would take a different role on the day of the workshop and that it was important to enable others to carry on the process after I leave. As we find ourselves invited to do work in communities that are not our own, the broader lesson here is how we can be aware of these dynamics and adapt accordingly in order to be effective.

Andrea and I welcoming residents to the workshop. Later, I took on the role as a documentarian.

Andrea and I welcoming residents to the workshop. Later, I took on the role as a documentarian.

One of the greatest privileges was meeting Eugen Gross, one of the original architects who remains committed to housing provision as a right and a priority. Mr. Gross continues to draw by hand, creating renderings just like the ones that hang on the walls in the community room, and even after four decades, understands that first and foremost, his work is to engage residents in learning about the history and creation of their shared estate.


One of the original architects, Eugen Gross, continues his work and passion for high-quality housing.

One of the original architects, Eugen Gross, continues his work and passion for high-quality housing.

In Austria, the Modell Steiermark is often spoken in the past tense, as a time when the Styrian government for almost three decades prioritized an overall attempt to address the housing needs of society. One result was high-quality social housing, which matched the design with processes of need-finding and participatory design. The irony is not lost on me to speak about these very same processes as something that we would need to revive today in setting a pathway towards the creation of a human city. After all, the Terrassenhaussiedlung was a place where this was tried, tested, and done. The evidence is right before my eyes and in the physical buildings that I entered.

As I boarded my flight home, I thought about what was waiting on the other side: tax reform, debates about what government should or should not provide, and the lives of real people impacted by these decisions.

Our social housing strategy exists in the form of leveraging market corrections. We ask residents to find housing on the market and offer subsidies through the provision of Section 8 vouchers. We incentivize homeownership through the Housing Mortgage Interest Deduction and raise money for affordable housing by reducing the tax liability of private investors through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program.

Public housing built by the Department of Housing and Urban Development still largely exists as rental housing. In recent years, HUD has placed its efforts behind the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) Project, which involves transferring existing public housing inventory to private entities. In reality, “public” housing is provided through private investment and the market.

They say this is because the government lacks the budget, will, and expertise.

In Graz, the Terrassenhaussiedlung was designed and constructed unit by unit. Each unit came to exist through a process of discovering and meeting human needs. Each component took place at a small-scale that led to eventual large-scale project implementation. It came to exist because there was a budget, will, and expertise. These projects were built, and people still live there.

At some point, this ceases to be a design exercise. At some point, we’ll need to talk about the intersection where design meets advocacy, methods of applying pressure, and doing the work to change the institutions that create cities.

It has been done.

It can be done.