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A lot of historical collective housing forms have stood the test of time, while others have tragically failed. How did architectural models evolve along with changing user generations and social models? What has proven to be robust and what hasn’t? On the basis of a few examples of similar typologies – terraced houses connected to an ‘intermediate space’ – this article will attempt to distil a few basic guidelines for the architecture of contemporary collective housing forms.
In 1902 architect Raymond Unwin published Cottage Plans and Common Sense, probably the very first design treatise for collective housing forms. Building on Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City theory, the author puts forward an architectural vocabulary that forms the basis of a sustainable alternative to the dreary living conditions in the city. By linking compact homes to ‘common-pool resources’ – from cricket fields and vegetable gardens to dining areas, wash houses, playrooms and even household help – he believed that more high-quality living in harmony with nature could be made available to a large part of the population. Aware of the social and economic impact of ‘sharing space’, he later devoted an entire chapter in his better-known Town Planning in Practice (1907) to the importance of so-called ‘tenants’ societies’: cooperative associations that had to protect both the qualities of the commons and the privacy of the individual. However, this would not prove essential to the viability of his designs.
The tragedy of Sunnyside
Thanks to the success of Unwin’s built Garden Suburbs, his social design ideas soon resonated around the world. This was also the case in New York, where in the late 1920s, Sunnyside Gardens was one of the first garden cities to be completed in the US. To solve the issue of high real-estate prices for lower incomes, the City Housing Corporation developed 1200 affordable owner-occupied houses and rental apartments on cheap land outside Manhattan. A team of well-known (landscape) architects and urban planners divided the area into 15 clusters in which housing units are systematically arranged around a ‘common green’. In line with Unwin’s design guidelines, home-owner associations had to ensure high-quality tailored management for each housing cluster. These applied strict rules around the use and layout of the greens, including the nature of the property divisions and possibilities for housing adaptations. For 30 years, Sunnyside was a hit, especially among young families with children who only saw benefits in the proximity of the safe, green playgrounds.
In the early 1960s, however, Sunnyside underwent some unforeseen changes. White middle-class families at the time preferred to live in more luxurious neighbourhoods further outside the city, as a result of which less affluent and more heterogeneous household profiles moved into the homes that were by then dilapidated. These newcomers did not seem to identify with the cooperative history of the neighbourhood, however; conflicting interests regarding the management of the clusters and the lack of financial resources gradually generated a general state of neglect and social deprivation. When in the 1980s most owners’ associations were dissolved, individual families began to appropriate parts of the commons as they saw fit. Because the houses have their official entrance on the street side, the communal greens, accessible via passageways, could be destroyed easily and at virtually no cost without this affecting the accessibility of the dwellings.
From gated community to urban poche
And yet, many collective housing forms can be identified throughout history that have proved to be resistant to such tragic land division. Take the Flemish beguinages, for instance, of which the most archetypal examples, in terms of form, do not differ all that much from the Sunnyside Gardens: a series of terraced houses (with or without a private garden) arranged around a bleekweide or common green. In the Middle Ages, the beguinage formed a suburban gated community in which a homogeneous group of vulnerable women ensured their own social security on common ground and according to strict community rules. Slowly but surely, these beguines launched into a vital socio-economic interaction with the outside world (e.g. tailoring, nursing and education), as a result of which the gates of these urban commons were opened more and more often. When the emerging nation-state began to organize its own forms of care and social security, however, their relevance decreased visibly and they were systematically abandoned.
Although their cooperative social model underwent over a period of several centuries a series of drastic, often abrupt changes imposed from outside, the intermediate space of the beguinage proved to be remarkably robust in its resistance. Today, they still form sought-after green and intimate enclaves, right in the middle of the city. The dwellings are generally rented out to a range of households that are completely relieved of the burden of collective management. Because the municipal services are now responsible for the maintenance of the greenery, the courtyard is accessible to the general public during the day and is an important addition to the public street space.
Capsular intermediate space
Other small-scale collective housing forms also developed in large numbers in our cities and for various reasons, from philanthropic to speculative in nature. Just Google the Dutch hofjes van liefdadigheid, the Flemish arbeidersbeluiken, the Corrales of Seville or the Terrassenbauten of Hamburg. Over the years, these have proven to be tried and tested building types: despite the fact that they often do not comply with current housing standards and regulations, they are much in demand on the property market as sheltered, often green and (so far) affordable housing environments. These inward-expansion models, usually developed within existing urban blocks, are characterized by their rational configuration of small one-façade houses, unfolded along a structuring open space, and the fact that their accessibility through a gate, underpass and/or narrowed crossing is easy and controllable by the residents at no great cost.
At the same time, the question arises as to whether a city consisting only of residential commons that are turned away from the street is desirable. In their Formes urbaines: De l’ilôt à la barre (1977), architects Castex, Panerai and Depaule were already critical of Unwin’s so-called ‘close’typology because, in their view, it ‘takes meaningful practices away from the street and reduces it to a purely technical traffic route’. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), activist Jane Jacobs was also strongly opposed to closed collective housing projects like Sunnyside – according to her, ‘exclusive forms of commodification with more eyes focused on itself than on the street’.
The street as common
Perhaps Jacobs would have been seduced more by the recent examples of colonization of the public street. Take a look at the Leefstraten in Ghent, where streets closed to car traffic for a few months are used by residents as a social agora. A more structural example in this sense is the Kartoffelraekkerne in Copenhagen, a nineteenth-century neighbourhood that comprises 480 dwellings, distributed over 11 parallel streets that stretch between two main thoroughfares like secondary shortcuts. Although the streets remain accessible to pedestrians and cyclists, a private car-free residential zone was set up in the centre. Together with the front yards, it is managed by an association of residents that has placed picnic benches, sandpits, playhouses, bicycle sheds and storage cabinets here. While children play in the streets to their hearts’ content; the front gardens – arranged as habitable spaces – are a source of social control. Although developed in 1885 by a workers’ cooperative that realized affordable rental apartments here for decades, Kartoffelraekkerne is today – ironically enough – an exclusive district with only privately owned properties. Despite this gentrification, the streets have never been as ‘collectivized’ as they are today. This condition can be traced back to a chance combination of resident activism and a progressive mobility policy, on the one hand, but also to the specific architectural characteristics of the neighbourhood, on the other.
Intermediate space as urban building stone
When stripped of its nostalgic moments, Unwins writings and drawings are still relevant today. As a practising architect, he was convinced that architecture could only facilitate rather than determine a cooperative life. At the same time, he seemed to be aware of the fact that a well-considered, formally designed intermediate space could absorb the unpredictable volatility of social dynamics. And so it apparently happened: the communal interior spaces and cooperative spirit may have disappeared, but his ‘closes’ still contain the collective green landscapes that have been saved up amid suburban privatization. They teach us that the study and adaptation of tried-and-tested historical types can result in a guarantee of quality in the long term: an indivisible collective intermediate space, in-between house and street. Undeniably, design variables such as context, scale, orientation, materiality, façade detailing, etc. play an important role in the ultimate quality of the collective experience in that intermediate space, but the key to its robustness will lie in its typological, and more specific, configurative qualities.
Whether it concerns a (semi-)enclosed common green, alley, square or street, within the spatial configuration of the above precedents, the collective intermediate space is a conditio sine qua non: it is functionally necessary to open up the private dwellings from the public space. The fact that it is always inherently subject to appropriation and forms a potential locus of both ‘intimate’, closed communality (res communa) and, if necessary, more complex publicness (res publica) ensures it is a building stone for urbanity. The social nature of robust intermediate space can hardly be lost irreversibly; the collective is inevitable in a certain sense, but not overly compelling. Robust collective intermediate space offers opportunities to find a social balance at all times. Let that be an inspiration for contemporary forms of collective housing.