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Oscar winner Parasite has parallels with UK housing crisis

Samuel Winton

This year's best film made Samuel Winton think about designing for successful multigenerational living. Here is the essay that won him the RIBAJ/Future Architects writing competition

Kim family home, left; Park family home, right.
Kim family home, left; Park family home, right. Credit: Vogue

As a self-confessed cinephile, whether I’m considering the portrayal of architects in cinema or how buildings and cityscapes become characters in films, there’s nothing quite like the joys of over analysing the architecture of films. Therefore, it will be of no surprise that after watching the now four-category Oscar-winning film Parasite I was in a giddy state.

Parasite is a tale of two houses, one lower class (the Kims), and one upper class (the Parks). Impoverished, the Kims plan to infiltrate the wealthy Parks household by posing as a loosely connected group of professionals aiming to adopt roles as tutors to the Park’s children and replacing the existing driver and housemaid.

Fifty minutes in, when the infiltration is complete and the existing employees removed, the Park house has been taken over. The Kims celebrate whilst the Parks are camping and it is at this point, with a doorbell, we discover that the former housekeeper has been hiding her husband in an elaborate basement and leeching off the food and warmth of the home above. Following the film’s big reveal, the housekeeper’s husband is shown scurrying into the kitchen for supplies and without a sound returning to his nest. As I am one of three brothers, this is a familiar sight to my parents. The Parks' house at this point is home to three families and four generations. The social gap between these families remains vast and hierarchical.

The meticulous planning of the film’s architecture creates a filmic metaphor for class separation, which is achieved through presenting a constant visual hierarchy and utilising building lines to separate characters into their respective social statuses. Homes within the film are characters in their own right and are filmed with almost comic consistency to cinematically present the message of the film.

But there is more to be drawn from the film than just its cinematic elements; we can look at the film in terms of the social implications of the British housing crisis.

  • Typical 3Gen flat floor plan.
    Typical 3Gen flat floor plan. Credit: iProperty
  • Artist's Impressions of Qingjian Realty's JadeScape, Singapore's first multigenerational residential development.
    Artist's Impressions of Qingjian Realty's JadeScape, Singapore's first multigenerational residential development. Credit: iProperty

Architecturally the Park house has become a Home of Multiple Generations (HoMG), a term used to describe a broadening range of housing typologies. There are two principal categories, homes with two to three generations of the same family and homes with two or more unrelated families or generations, consensually of course – hopefully. 

Reminiscent of the spatial nature of my return home after my Part 1 course, the film demonstrates the spatial dependence of the lower class families or generations, and the parasitic nature of their existence in HoMGs (I’m sure my parents would also describe my nightly kitchen raids as highly parasitic). This is emblematic of the social aspect of the housing crisis. This is not to say that this is always a truly ‘parasitic’ relationship, merely that the shared circulation, living, kitchen, and dining add to the sense of intrusion into the space of another generation within the home. The drawbacks of such circumstances can be explained by anyone who shared bathrooms in student accommodation.

With young adults unable to afford to leave home and the old at risk of isolation, more families are opting to live together, collapsing the generation segregation of modern housing. In our post-recession era, 20% of 25-34-year-olds live in their parental home, a 4% rise since 1991, which has largely been attributed to university students returning home, such as myself, or following divorce, not such as myself, yet. This is coupled with a lack of elderly housing for our ageing population, which according to the Centre for Towns think-tank and the RIBA will lead to saturation of small towns, particularly in East Sussex, Northamptonshire and Greater Manchester. It has been asserted that these influences have been a contributing factor to the increase of multigenerational homes.

The popularity of adaptable HoMGs is by all indications rising, however, it currently does not hold a significant enough percentage of the market for developers to explore this typology through new house types and design solutions. There is progression towards such a step. Redrow Homes have begun to market larger house types as ‘appropriate for the boomerang generation’ and Singapore's purpose-built multigenerational flats are designed specifically for this cultural phenomenon.

These Singaporean '3Gen flats' are approx. 115m² with four bedrooms, two of which are en-suite and one shared bathroom. Although this proposal has its sights on the problem, when reviewing the plans it is clear that the design has little variance from a standard three bedroom apartment, with only an increase from one en-suite bedroom to two, and maintaining the layout of shared spaces. It is unlikely this would address the social issue of the UK’s housing crisis.

Spatial autonomy will likely be the catalyst for HoMG to develop as a viable option in the UK. Allowing a non-hierarchical sense of ownership within these homes for all generations would be a step towards avoiding the relationships shown in Parasite. Speculatively, in such homes, privacy would be treated as a game of Tetris, with boundaries fading in and out of the generations and services provided to respect the autonomy of each adult generation, reminiscent of Van Eyck’s Mother’s House.

The trends and numbers on this subject suggest that there may soon be a market opportunity in the UK housebuilding sector. Through choice and pragmatism, the number of HoMGs is rising. Depending on circumstances, families may choose to retroactively accommodate multiple generations in the home, or seek homes with the potential for such flexibility in the future. Existing larger house types may only require ‘small tweaks’ to enable housebuilders to market homes towards multi-generational households. By demonstrating the value of additional en-suite rooms, or through adaptability and privacy controls, housebuilders would be tapping into this growing number of UK households. This will likely address the immediate issue; still, a redesign of how we look at HoMG as a typology is required to accommodate the flux of our current societal condition and avoid repeating the power dynamic shown in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite.

See other winners from the future writers competition