Social housing, 2 McIntyre Drive Altona, winner of the 2013 Victorian Architecture Award for Multiple unit Housing. Designed by MGS Architects.

The exhibit shows the winner of the Residential Architecture (Multiple Housing) category in the 2013 Victorian Architecture Awards. It’s a complex of 69 dwellings at No. 2 McIntyre Drive Altona in Melbourne’s west. It was designed by MGS Architects and beat out four other new housing projects for the gong.

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The Jury Chair’s report describes it as “a large building that comfortably sits within its residential context. Despite its size it is cleverly broken down to a domestic scale…”. I think that claim’s inflated (this is what McIntyre Drive actually looks like in Street View) but that’s not what I’m interested in.

The important thing about this complex is it’s social housing. It provides independent living for residents with disabilities.

The other four short-listed contenders for the award are all private housing. They’re commercial projects. They’re also presumably exemplary projects, however they look nothing like 2 McIntyre Drive – they’re more mainstream in appearance.

Here’s what the Serrata apartments, designed by Hayball, look like. Here’s what Aerial apartments, designed by Woods/Marsh Architecture look like. Here’s what Leopold Apartments, designed by Fender Katsilidis Architects, look like. And here’s what the Malvern Hill apartments, designed by SJB Architects, look like.

These four are of course more “up-market” than social housing and they’re of different densities and in different locations. But what’s important about them is they’re relatively conventional in appearance compared to McIntyre Drive. They’re the kinds of buildings that people who have a choice elect to live in.

The residents of McIntyre Drive, on the other hand, don’t have much of a choice – they’re essentially captive to their (institutional) landlord. They get an architectural form that’s unconventional and would likely have limited appeal on the open market. They get a building that architects like the look of. In fact architects like it so much it won the gong!

According to the Awards Jury, residents of McIntyre Drive get a building that’s expressed as “an abstraction of the surrounding vernacular.” Moreover, the “mediation of the building mass, the expressive use of inexpensive materials and the incorporation of landscaping have successfully created a building that belies its size.”

I’ve no reason to doubt McIntyre Drive functions brilliantly as social housing and was delivered to the Department of Human Services in a timely and cost-effective way. I think, however, that its architectural form expresses the current tastes and interests of the profession more than those of the people who actually have to live in it.

And if it says one thing loud and clear to neighbours and passers-by, it says “social housing”. There might as well be a big sign. Applying novel architectural forms to social housing has a long history in Victoria – it’s always been easy to pick them from commercial medium density developments. But it’s doubtful if it’s an effective way of promoting residents’ dignity or of integrating social housing residents with the neighbourhood.

Social housing, 2 McIntyre Drive Altona. Designed by MGS Architects