Giving sense to void spaces

Patrick Fransen
25 novembre 2014

Objective of workshop

The existence and persistence of phenomena of social and environmental deterioration in our cities, of voids that lack any quality, of underutilized “zoned” areas, all seem to be passively accepted by local municipal administrations, as the inevitable consequences of the onslaught of building development that has devastated regional landscapes from the Second World-War onwards into the 1980’s. 

researching grouping individual houses designed as one collective (house), positioned in a central courtyard of an urban block or any other void space in our cities, focussing on the relationship between existing and new houses also as on the social aspect of living together more than on the individual aspect of each individual needs. This might influence the urban tissue and the way we design our houses.

Course syllabus

Housing and social space

Only half a century ago many people in Western Europe lived in miserable conditions; the past is not far away but already forgotten. At this moment too much is focussed on the individual needs rather than on social aspects of living together.

The cities often consisted of dirty streets with open sewers. They were subjected to polluted water supplies, insufficient open spaces and large areas of squalid housing and suffered from congested circulation. The countless workers - often sons of farmers from the countryside - were faced with a shortage of cheap housing. They came to work in the new industries. The city centres of major cities quickly became overcrowded. Due to a large natural increase in the second half of the 19th century, the cities faced a housing shortage. If we want to define the living conditions accurately we should not only look at the quality of the houses themselves but also at the quality of urban design. The reduction of high density does necessarily imply a better and healthier city. Equally as important is the social bond that people have with the street, the neighbourhood and the city. It is this bond and the associated sense of responsibility concerning the immediate exterior together with a good construction quality that determines the housing conditions.

Cholera and typhus and other nasty diseases were still quite common in the first half of 20th century. Accordingly, Le Corbusier came up with a rigorous proposal for the centre of Paris: a garden-city, “Le Plan Voisin”. Although not conducted, there was a very large scale poor quality imitation of these plans in the sixties and seventies in the Western European suburbs. They were powered by an advanced industrialization and, again, a housing shortage, partly as a result of immigration to further rural depopulation. The park-like quality of the large-scale housing developments has been greatly reduced with the advent of the car. These are precisely the areas where there has been so much social turmoil. They are anonymous residential areas where the immigrant and native residents often do not understand each other. These urban structures have not anticipated social and environmental contexts.

Luckiliy good examples still exist. The main quality lies in the intermediate collective gardens, public spaces and sports facilities. The best known examples are the HBM by Henri Sauvage in Paris and Tony Garnier in Lyon based on garden-city ideas of Ebenezer Howard. "Siedlung Halen" (Bern, Atelier 5) is one of the best examples of modern social housing in Europe. Virtually a flattened Unité, clearly demonstrating the advantages of streets without traffic, creating social space. Nowadays social housing is becoming again more and more an emerging topic. Do not misunderstand it with housing for the poor.  In my opinion it stands for affordable housing with more attention to the social aspect of living together, rather than focusiing on each individual needs.

Dutch context

In the 19th and early 20th century, the living conditions of the Dutch working population in the cities was often appalling. In the Netherlands in 1901, the Housing Act came into force. The revolution construction of the late 19th century did not bring the necessary improvements in social housing. Some neighbourhoods were even notorious, such as the Jordaan in Amsterdam. Many The Hague and Rotterdam families lived crammed into slums and narrow corridors where there was almost no daylight. Children grew up in dilapidated shacks and dank cellar dwellings, small alcove housing or attics.

The purpose of the Housing Act was to make habitation of poor and unhealthy dwellings impossible and to stimulate good constructions. It is generally regarded as the beginning of the government involvement in housing in the Netherlands.

The government could now set rules to build quality and provide subsidies to homebuilders, with a special preference for corporations. Public Works became an important institution. In the “Plan Zuid” (1917), Berlage combined wide avenues and winding side-streets. His plan consisted of closed perimeter blocks, which tied in well with the characteristics of the 17th century Amsterdam. The houses ware largely built in Amsterdam School style. Seventy-five percent of all the buildings were intended to be working-class housing, making the plan an expression of the ideas, which were fundamental to the Housing Act. Providing both the poor and the rich with the same urban qualities appeared to work out very well.

Row-housing and Open Blocks

In the fifties and sixties the district Buitenveldert (Amsterdam South) was built not far from Plan Zuid. This district was the example of the urban vision of the Department of Urban Development led by Van Eesteren. The new development areas like Buitenveldert were, considered in the context of ‘the functional city’ not very radical and no more than an efficient ordening of functions. The district had a spacious design in strips with variation in low-rise building, row houses and gallery-flats. Basically due to its strategic location near the Zuidas (which is a location for amenities and employment) Buitenveldert is still popular, unlike the Bijlmermeer, which was built later. That district was a fiasco. Also other monotone ‘copy-paste’ districts failed after their early succes. Although the apartments are spaciously set up, it is clear that also good connections and facilities are essential to the success of a residential area. The traffic separation schemes in the Bijlmermeer also contributed to a disfunctional street environment and diminished social cohesion. It soon led to anonymity and social insecurity. Nowadays the Bijlmer is being reconstructed and rapidly becoming a popular neighbourhood.

The row-housing typology such as we find in Buitenveldert has been widely realized in the Netherlands in the form of low-rise housing. The single-family townhouse is the most comprehensive typology in the Netherlands. This means that the density of the expansion areas around the cities and in the villages can often be no more than 25 dwellings per hectare.

This leads to a typical street pattern and design of public space. More than fifty percent of my country looks like this, constructed for decades since the 1950’s. The row house typology is a popular one in the Netherlands. However, flooding in the nineties and evacuation of whole villages and towns showed how poor the urban quality is. The street provides space for cars, parking, pedestrians, even a small spot of green, and front gardens. All bravely positioned next to each other. It shows that it takes more or less 1/3 of the area, which is an enormous amount of pavement. Also it serves the individual needs and all departments in the local government responsible for a piece of the public space are served and satisfied. They are accustomed to this system. The distance between the houses is 25-30 meters in such a profile, which is fairly wide.

Social space

Although one might think that architects and urban planners would have united their cause leading to an attachment in the Declaration of Human Rights, which deals with minimum conditions for living and life around the world, they haven’t done, up to now. On the contrary, in many civilized countries the achievement of social housing has been minimized or has died out completely, whereas architects concentrated their efforts on what only well-off people are able to afford. This has led to a lot of good architectural performances. However, a revival of social space is lacking.

In town planning social space is the most important organizational tool to connect architecture and urbanism. Urbanism is fundamentally a richer and more important instrument than architecture. With Urban planning we have the possibility to influence society.
Although a house with a garden and a car upfront is considered as an ideal situation for many in the Netherlands, it is highly important to concentrate on a new concept of public space in future building design. The purpose of social space is to generate social cohesion. From this perspective, we design new typologies transforming public space into social space, where living is synonymous with good neighbourliness and respect for the environment and nature. In many of our projects we created apart from the social space a nature-like environment adapting to existing elements, or landscaping it ourselves completely.

Need for new initiatives

A big trend in our society is making re-use of what is already build. Our society is not growing anymore. We should keep up our city-life qualities by implementing new projects in existing urban tissue rather than expanding. Here is a big task for architects and developers organising their projects bottom-up.

Bibliography (Paswerk housing; bijlmer monument) (Kameleon building)
Koolhaas R. (1985). Le contexte: la splendeur terrifiante du XX siècle, L’Architecture d’aujour’hui, n. 238.
housing and emergency