Tag Archives: housing

retrofitting suburbia in 3 steps

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(photo: flickr)

This month, everybody talks about suburbs (and about the prominent feature of suburbs, cars): some posts on RSR website (here, here and here), the last edition of the forum Ecoparc: So, it’s the right moment to talk about this subject, and to propose a strategy to align autorities and developers’ interests.

1 – Complete the streets

First step, completely in the hands of public powers, is completing the streets. In many cases, people drive instead of walking because roads are designed for cars rather than for people. Let’s see some examples:

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Aigle. Sidewalks are too small. Pedestrians are not protected from traffic

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Aigle. Vehicles-only road

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Aigle. Crossing forbidden (but people cross here anyway)

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Aigle. Pedestrian underpass, not very appealing.

And here, some good examples:

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Aigle. Trees, sidewalks and outdoor cafés.

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Aigle. side street.

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Aigle. Landscaped entrance to the shopping center (with bus shelter included)

2 – Allow and promote mixed-use developments

In this case too, public powers have the choice. A good zoning code should allow suburbs to be reconverted into  mixed-use districts, in order to reduce distances between houses, shops and workplaces.

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Aigle: houses on this side street could be easily turned into shops.

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Garages: this space could be easily be turned into shops or ateliers

(image: flickr)

3 – Crowdsourcing

The first two steps were were dedicated to public powers, the third one is dedicated to developers. Single-family houses and cars are, above all, industrial products, sold with a well-established marketing policy. So, mixed-use development should be marketed focusing on things that single-family houses couldn’t offer: common spaces, a vibrant community, walkable neighborhoods. At the same time, mixed-use development should keep the image of a customized house in a natural environment, image that made the single-family house so popular.

A good way to achieve this goal could be crowdsourcing: build a Cohousing or Coworking community, organize events in order to make future cohousers/coworker meet (i.e. a few-days trip) then go on all together to a developer  in order to build our dream’s  home. And the community could create new synergies and promote new features, like co-buying and mobility plans.

The rise and fall of the “Unité d’Habitation” – 7/7

50 years after the first Unité, this model seems already belonging to another era. The strong separation between the building and its surroundings, the sensation of living in an all-artificial environment, and an almost complete identification of the Unité d’Habitation with social housing have made this model quite undesirable. The destiny of the millions of Unités scattered around the world will be one of the major problems for XXI century urbanists.

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Rome, Theatre of Marcellus, probably a model for the evolution of the Unités (image: wikimedia commons). Originally a Roman Theater, in the Middle Ages it was reused as a mixed residential-commercial building.

Rome, Corviale, 1972-1982. Just like in the Theatre of Marcellus, spaces have been reused over time: the abandoned commercial spaces have been squatted and turned into dwellings.

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Rome, Laurentino 38, 1973 (image: flickr). When it was conceived, the district followed the rules of the Urbanisme sur dalle: the road network at the lower level was supposed to be dedicated to cars, while, on the upper level, 11 elevated roads (the so-called “bridges”) were supposed to be dedicated to pedestrians and filled with shops. At the moment, shops have moved to street level (note the kiosk at the extreme left) while the upper level has been squatted and turned into dwellings. In 2006, 3 over 11 elevated roads have been demolished.

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Paris, Beaugrenelle, another case of Urbanisme sur dalle (image: flickr). Shops and activities have deserted the pedestrian level and moved at street level.

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Paris, Beaugrenelle. the street level (image: flickr).

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Paris, Beaugrenelle, shopping center (image: flickr). All the complex is undergoing a major renovation: the slabs covering the roads at the grounds have been removed, and the shopping centers have been rebuilt, with new entrances at street level. All the details about this project can be found here.

The rise and fall of the “Unité d’Habitation” – 6/7

Promoted as a standard, easy-to-build product, The Unité d’Habitation concept spread all over the world after WWII. The first 5 units (Marseille, Firminy, Rezé, Briey and Berlin) built by Le Corbusier himself became the standard for almost all public housing project between 1950 and 1990.

The more the model was spread along the world, the more it changed from the original concept. Most examples use a simplified version, colloquially known as Panelák or Plattenbau.

Another transformation of the Unité d’Habitation was the so-called Urbanisme sur dalle (urbanisme on slabs). Instead of being raised on pillars one by one, buildings were raised in groups, with an elevated ground floor between them.

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Paris, Les Olympiades, 1969-1974. The elevated ground floor, dedicated to pedestrians (image: wikipedia).

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Paris, les Olympiades, 1969-1974 (image: wikipedia). The whole district is raised on pillars. Roads pass under the district and lead to garages.

The rise and fall of the “Unité d’Habitation” – 5/7

Promoted as a standard, easy-to-build product, The Unité d’Habitation concept spread all over the world after WWII. The first 5 units (Marseille, Firminy, Rezé, Briey and Berlin) built by Le Corbusier himself became the standard for almost all public housing project between 1950 and 1990.

The more the model was spread along the world, the more it changed from the original concept. Most examples use a simplified version, colloquially known as Panelák or Plattenbau. From the original Unité, the Panelák kept:

  • The concept of building as indipendent, serial units floating over a green landscape
  • the absence of decorations
  • flat roof (even though they were no longer used as public spaces)
  • large windows and balconies.

On the other side, some features were discarded:

  • buildings suspended over pillars
  • multi-functional buildings (commerces and services were put aside, in small, low-rise buildings)

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Gdańsk, Falowiek, 1970. 11 storey, 850 m long, 6000 inhabitants (image: wikimedia commons).

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An example of Panelák in Prague (image: wikimedia commons).

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tower-shaped Panelák in Prague (image: wikipedia).

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Gdańsk, typical windows pattern on a Panelák (image: wikipedia).

The rise and fall of the “Unité d’Habitation” – 4/7

Promoted as a standard, easy-to-build product, The Unité d’Habitation concept spread all over the world after WWII. The first 5 units (Marseille, Firminy, Rezé, Briey and Berlin) built by Le Corbusier himself became the standard for almost all public housing project between 1950 and 1990.

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Rome, Corviale, 1972-1982 (image: flickr). Strict translation of the Unité d’Habitation principles in a 980 m, 11 storey building. 1200 apartments, about 6000 inhabitants. Probably the biggest Unité in the world.

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Rome, Corviale, 1972-1982. The building, seen from the countryside (image: flickr).

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Rome, Corviale, 1972-1982. the internal staircase and corridors (image: flickr).

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Geneva, le Lignon, 1963-1971. The complex, 1060 m long, hosts 5581 people (image: wikimedia commons).

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Geneva, le Lignon, 1963-1971. One of the ends of the 1060 m long building (image: Flickr).

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Geneva, le Lignon, 1963-1971. the two towers, 26 storey and 30 storey high (image: flickr). The highest of the two towers hosts two swimming pools on its roof.

The rise and fall of the “Unité d’Habitation” – 3/7

In the beginning of the XX century, steamships were crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Each one of them could carry 2000 passengers for a 15-days trip between Europe and America, and in these days it became for them a sort of new house.

The image of all these people living, loving, fighting, making business, all in this big floating superstructure entered the social imagery of the time and little by little, more and more nautical elements were integrated into architecture.

In the first building, this integration was limited to decorative elements, then it became more substantial: all steamships’ characteristical elements were analyzed and transposed into architectural elements. The result of this work was the Unité d’Habitation.

Just like a steamship, the Unité d’Habitation floats over the landscape, suspended over a series of pillars. Apartments, hotels, shops, schools and hospitals lie in rows just like cabins, while the roof (the building’s deck) hosts public spaces, sport facilities and swimming pools. Inhabitants of the Unité have whatever they need within the building, and could spend all their life without going out of it.

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MS Kungsholm, section showing the superposed decks (image: wikimedia commons).

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Berlin Unité d’Habitation, floating over a park, 1957 (image: flickr).

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Marseille Unité d’Habitation’ s hull, suspended on pillars, 1947-1952 (image by Emma Mykytyn on flickr ).

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Apartments and shops on the sides of Marseille Unité , 1947-1952 (image by Emma Mykytyn on flickr).

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Marseille Unité‘s deck, with view over the city, 1947-1952 (image: flickr).

The rise and fall of the “Unité d’Habitation” – 2/7

In the beginning of the XX century, steamships were crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Each one of them could carry 2000 passengers for a 15-days trip between Europe and America, and in these days it became for them a sort of new house.

The image of all these people living, loving, fighting, making business, all in this big floating superstructure entered the social imagery of the time and little by little, more and more nautical elements were integrated into architecture.

In the first buildings, this integration was limited to decorative elements, as we can see in the examples here below.

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A tipycal steamship’s deck (image: wikipedia).

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Mies van der Rohe, house in Weissenhof, Stuttgart, 1927 (image: wikipedia). Note the stairway parapets, directly inspired from the Steamship’s deck.

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Giuseppe Terragni, Casa del Fascio, Como, 1936 (image: wikipedia). while the image of the buildings recalls steamships’ multiple decks, its plan still recalls renaissance palaces.

The rise and fall of the “Unité d’Habitation” – 1/7

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SS Empress of britain, pre-1924 (image: wikimedia commons).

In the beginning of the XX century, steamships were crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Each one of them could carry 2000 passengers for a 15-days trip between Europe and America, and in these days it became for them a sort of new house.

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MS Kungsholm, entrance to 1st class room, 1928 (image: wikimedia commons).

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MS Kungsholm, 1st class room, 1928 (image: wikimedia commons).

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MS Kungsholm, 1st class smoke room, 1928 (image: wikimedia commons).
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MS Kungsholm, swimming pool, 1928 (image: wikimedia commons).

The image of all these people living, loving, fighting, making business, all in this big floating superstructure entered the social imagery of the time and little by little, more and more nautical elements were integrated into architecture.

Architecture and complexity

One of the things that create a great built environment is complexity. When facing big projects, most of the architects have tried to recreate a complexity in their buildings, with a big effort and not very satisfying results.

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Moshe Safdie, Habitat 67 (image: wikipedia)

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Frank Gehry, MIT Stata Center (image: wikipedia)

Another option allows a better result with lower effort. Instead of planning every single element, we can just design some “seeds” of the building, then wait. Even when seeds are simple, the result turns often amazingly complex.

An example of this kind of architecture is the Quinta Monroy housing project by Elemental.

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Quinta Monroy, just before the arrival of the dwellers (image: ArchDaily)

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The same view, some months later. dwellers have arrived, and have modified houses to match their needs. As a result, all houses are different from each other.  (image: ArchDaily)

For further reading:

clubhouse living – Architecture of Togetherness

In the last days I was wondering how houses and cities would look in a “social network society”. Today I found an answer in this post from Creative Class and this article from New york Times,

They talk about a house built by Clive Wilkinson, the architect of Google headquarters. While in the “Magic Highway” movie the family went almost everywhere without meeting anyone, in Clive Wilkinson’s architecture everything is made in order to facilitate informal meetings.  A big door puts the visitor directly into the heart of the house, a Living room-Garden-Swimming pool. All the other rooms revolve around this space: the kitchen, the guestroom and the master bedroom.