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Atira Women's Resource Centre is redefining Vancouver's architecture

There's a real estate developer in Vancouver whose target market is people who can't afford to pay rent. Atira Women's Resource Society is thinking outside the box, with the help of some rather large boxes. Providing affordable accommodation to vulnerable citizens is also giving Vancouver better architecture.

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“These are women who, as a result of their experience with violence, for a variety of reasons, need non-market housing.” “We’re housing women who are struggling with poverty, struggling with substance use, struggling with mental and spiritual wellness, almost exclusively related to their experiences with violence, often from a time when they were very little.”

Imouto (いもうと) is "little sister" in Japanese.

From shit to "Shit, yeah!"

A tear in her eye, Abbot says, “Just knowing what it’s like to offer someone who’s had shitty housing all her life and paid too much for it, giving them a unit they can afford, it’s awesome. The best part of the project is that moment."

In a city of cranes and showrooms, rental apartments for the minimum-wage set remains thin on the ground. “We turn away almost three times as many women as we are actually able to house," says Abbott. "This is an especially expensive city.”

For the women Atira supports, “paying rent and supporting themselves and their kids is a challenge.” Abbott continues, “Until women stop calling us and asking us to help them find housing, or stop needing non market housing, we will continue to look for opportunities to build more housing.”

She leans forward. “That’s what we do.”

Thinking inside the box

Here is what that mission looks like. Meet some of the women who live in the 12-unit Imouto complex, and get a glimpse of how beautiful a steel box can be: sleek, modern, and cat-friendly.

The nature of our economy is such that that there will always be a need for non market housing. “The system sucks," remarks Abbott, possibly speaking for you as well, "but it’s the system we’re living in.”

In a capitalist system, we are cogs in a machine. It is what it is. Just as, in a city, we’re corpuscles in a bloodstream that feeds a massive beast.

If the transit system is that beast’s circulatory system, then what would an individual building be? 

Architect Kisho Kurokawa saw buildings as organic structures, capable of growing and changing along with their cities. Kurokawa was a founder of the Metabolism Movement (pdf), which has been around since roughly 1960. Look at the Nagakin Capsule Tower, an iconic building just south of Tokyo’s high-end shopping playground of Ginza. 

I photographed this building last autumn, and came to two conclusions:

  1. A building whose height and density could be adjusted on the fly is incredibly forward-thinking for today, never mind for 1972, when the Nagakin Capsule Tower was built.
  2. Stealing a cable TV feed in this building would be really easy.

Units can be angled to minimize the building's footprint, while still allowing residents to maintain privacy. You're no more prone to peeping Toms than had you lived in a typical high-rise.

At the International Robot Exhibition, also in Tokyo, one exhibitor was showing off some quick-to-deploy worksite structures. They're cheap and fast to assemble, since the rooms are already built.

The intro of the Metabolism manifesto includes this provocative statement:

“We regard human society as a vital process - a continuous development from atom to nebula.”

Here’s the late Kisho Kurokawa discussing his modular creation.

Across the ocean and forward in time, Janice Abbott was not thinking about architectural theory when pushing the Imouto project: she was thinking about how to make beautiful living spaces affordable to build, and how to bring them within the realm of possibility for Atira's clients to rent.

“If we can make a project financially sustainable, then long after I’m gone, someone can leverage the equity in that property  to build more housing, " says Abbott; who is more focused these days on projects which Atira will actually own. These projects take several years to bear fruit, and the magnitude of the headache involved requires some light at the end of the tunnel.

Real-estate judo

Atira is using the very dynamics that push housing out of reach to bring it back down to those who need it most.

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