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12 November 2018

Garden and Agora

Schillerpark Housing Estate in Berlin-Wedding. Photo by Marbot [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikipedia Commons

Review of some avant-garde projects for public space drawn up in Europe, the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s.

A good part of avant-garde architectural innovation of the 1920s and 1930s was devoted to the question of housing. The main guidelines for the design of space were redefined in terms of its functionality, the relationship between form and content, materiality, and the construction of new residential areas. The problem of lack of housing for the lower and middle classes had been exacerbated by the war and there was an urgent need to remedy the situation, although it was also true that insufficient housing had been the reality throughout the process of industrialisation and urban expansion. Building fast and economically, defining minimum housing—surface area and equipment—organising housing units into residential complexes, and setting out the terms of collective life were the challenges faced by the Amsterdam school, Bauhaus, Le Corbusier, and Soviet Constructivism, and they were all explored at the first CIAM (International Congress of Modern Architecture) meetings. Both the private home and the way it fitted into the setting of the growing metropolis were analysed and solutions were proposed.

Apart from all the functional, construction and formal questions that defined housing as a key urban factor, the important legacy of architectural and urban planning research between the two world wars was that focused on redefining public space. The Fourth CIAM Congress (CIAM4) is known for its deliberations on urban zoning in which the green zone appeared as the most transversal feature, embracing areas of work, housing and transit. In the socialist city, the green zone also had an organisational value—of connection or separation—with regard to different urban functions. The CIAM concept of green zone represented public space shared between buildings, blocks and neighbourhoods, although the definition of neighbourhood as it was traditionally understood was blurred in the large scale of the functional city. The residential zone surrounded by a large public park envisaged by Le Corbusier—from his plan for “A Contemporary City of Three Million People” through to the Macià Plan (working with GATCPAC – Group of Catalan Architects and Technicians for the Progress of Contemporary Architecture)—is one of the options, the culminating version of a series of proposals drawn up in the 1920s and 1930s for a variety of projects in Europe, the United States and the Soviet Union. This text will now revisit some of these outstanding examples in order to trace different elements and to inquire into the nature and value of public space shaped around residential planning.

The 1920s were years of recovery after the war and, in Germany and Austria in particular, introduction of large-scale residential programmes. The Siedlungen—subsidised housing estates in new neighbourhoods of big cities—in the Weimar Republic were, at the same time, a field for architectural, technological and urban planning experimentation. Between 1926 and 1928 functionalist housing estates like Weisenhof, Törten and Dammerstock, designed by Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius, were built on the outskirts of Stuttgart, Dessau and Karlsruhe. Taking the low-density Garden City as a starting point, these neighbourhoods consisted of parallel rows of housing, with optimal orientation and distance between the buildings in accordance with the size of the shadow they cast. Public space, shared by vehicles and pedestrians took the form of a street bordered with gardens, some of them private and some for community use.

In contrast with this, the large housing estates which typified the expansion of Berlin in the 1920s, covering the area of its seven adjoining municipalities and several agricultural villages, were based on the closed-block model and expressionist architecture. The project of the big Siedlungen promoted by the municipal architect Martin Wagner centred community life in public space that was given different kinds of treatments with the idea of conferring identity on these groups in such a way as to complement their architecture. Hence, with the Hufeisensiedlung (the horseshoe-shaped Siedlung) housing estate in Britz, which he designed together with Bruno Taut (1925-1933), Wagner created a community of 1,230 homes in low horseshoe-shaped buildings with an oval pond in the centre of a green public zone which defined the use and nature of the whole.

Between 1929 and 1931 Hans Scharoun was commissioned to design the Siemmensstadt housing estate near the Siemens factories in Spandau not far from Berlin. Several architects took part in the project, namely Gropius, Häring, Bartning, Hennig, Forbart and Scharoun himself, who constructed several housing blocks. The 1,370 homes were organised into blocks of four or five storeys and the single-family dwelling which had been traditional form in the Siedlungen was discarded. The key to the organisation of Siemens City was the central park which broke up the longitudinal rows and was divided up into smaller, more private areas between the blocks. The entrance to the estate was defined by blocks designed by Scharoun which, shunning orthogonality, indicated access to the central park from the municipal railway station.

The Hufeisensiedlung and Siemmensstadt housing estates are both in line with the principles summed up by Bruno Taut as “outdoor living space” and applied in Schillerpark Siedlung, Berlin (1924-1928), his first public housing project. Here, the design of community housing is given the same importance as the design of open space offering residents a quality area for recreation and community activities. Nature ceases to be a secondary actor and comes to occupy centre stage together with the built-up space.

Taut set out these ideas in his book Die Auflösung der Städte (The Dissolution of Cities, 1920) which explored the coming together of rural and urban spheres, a relationship which was also to become an important part of urban planning doctrine in socialist countries. The city of the future emerges in direct contact with nature, offering open space for different individual and collective uses for all inhabitants, independently of their social class. In the planning, public space and natural space are not understood as ornamentation but are transformed into active areas which people use and redefine according to their needs. Hence, in Schillerpark Siedlung, architecture is also part of this free space in which access points, stairways, balconies and loggias were conceived in relation with the design of open areas.

For Taut, Scharoun and Wagner, the identity of the Siedlungen was defined both by the form of their buildings and by the quality and design of their public space. Taut’s scheme was inspired by the Tusschendijken Municipal Housing Scheme in Rotterdam (1921-1923) designed by Jacobus Johannes Pieter Oud, in which the inner spaces of the blocks offered different, more open or more restricted areas for public use, with demarcated routes and points for group activities. This feature had previously been developed by the Amsterdam School in a design where the semi-open block with a green inner courtyard was the organising principle of Berlage’s master plan for Amsterdam South. Projects by Michel de Klerk and Piet Kramer, or by Het Schip and De Dageraad were designed around community public space. The identity of these projects was defined both by expressionist architecture and active use of community space complemented by facilities for public use like shops or a post office, the latter being a point of intense social activity in the first half of the twentieth century.

The typology of social housing with outside public space designed as an extension to the buildings was also the conceptual base of the Viennese Höfe, which were multi-family housing complexes constructed in response to the lack of housing for workers after the First World War. Perhaps the best known of these is the Karl-Marx-Hof (Hof means courtyard), constructed between 1927 and 1930 in the north of the city near the railway station and the Danube Canal. It took the form of a super-block, 1.2 kilometres long with construction around the perimeter leaving the inside area free as a green space to be used in different ways by the community. The varying heights of the blocks of between four and six storeys responded to the elements of the surrounding context. The block opposite the railway station is given the symbolic role of gateway to the complex as a whole, with rectangular towers, greater height, and archways providing access to the interior spaces. In fact, the complex has the form of a fortress, a feature seized upon by the political opposition which dubbed it the “Red Bastion” or referred to it as a voters’ castle. Similar to the blocks in Amsterdam, this was a multifunctional complex with facilities, equipment and services on the ground floor or in free-standing constructions in the central space. Residents had access to an outpatient clinic, shops and businesses, a library, crèche, bathhouse, and spaces for leisure and sports. This variety of uses activated the free spaces and conferred character on the different parts of the complex, while also contributing to the community’s self-sufficiency. Since it was so large, the complex was divided into different sections to create smaller communities which would allow more personal connection with their surroundings.

A residential block or set of blocks built around public space with facilities for public use was theorised by Clarence Perry as a neighbourhood unit in the United States. Initially envisioned as a consequence of the plan for organising playgrounds in New York in the 1920s, the concept—formulated towards the end of the decade—identified a series of social needs inherent to the organisation of urban space. This meant responding to the form and size of the unit in keeping with proximity to supply centres and primary schools. The important point was strict separation of roads used by vehicles—a growing phenomenon in the 1920s which, owing to lack of organisation and signals represented a danger in big cities—from thoroughfares giving access to housing and community centres.

The community of family residences was envisaged as being restricted to between 5,000 and 9,000 inhabitants in an area of some 65 hectares, which would allow people access to basic facilities within twenty minutes’ walking distance and without having to cross busy roads. The model took into account the need to introduce a hierarchy of road connections between interior and outside thoroughfares, with commercial elements being situated on the outside roads. A minimum of 10% of the area of the neighbourhood units was to be given to public parks. 

A similar model—although this time based on collective housing—was used in the socialist countries to define micro-districts which, especially in the post-war years, were extended as the main type used for residential zones. The identity of the micro-districts was defined by public space in the form of squares and courtyards, sports fields and parks together with architectural elements of the recurring pattern of housing blocks. Public facilities, the centre of social activity, were situated in public space and in close proximity for all users.

One of the main formal characteristics of the micro-district is the open block and public space shared by different residential complexes in which the physical bounds of the block blurs into the green zone. With the predominance of vehicular transport and the need to design a healthier, more natural city, Le Corbusier, in the 1930s, called for “Freeing cities from the tyranny, the coercion of the street!” He suggested defining urban space as a set of units of landscape, an idea which was widespread in the residential neighbourhoods constructed in Europe after the Second World War. His functionalist model was defined taking as a starting point the “Ville” buildings of 1922, also closed blocks with community space in the centre which were designed for the Ville Contemporaine project for three million inhabitants. The interest of this concept resides in the array of outside spaces with a variety of uses from private areas (garden or terrace), more or less restricted zones for the community (walkways or rooftop gardens), to public space in the centre of the block. Their subsequent development into the meandriform blocks of the Radiant City was embodied in the Casa Bloc (1932-1936) by Josep Lluís Sert, Josep Torres Clavé, and Joan Baptista Subirana. These three architects, all of them members of GATCPAC, worked with Le Corbusier on the Macià Plan which was presented as a proposal for the future growth of Barcelona at the CIAM4 Congress. The open block of the Casa Bloc design defines squares for public use which are accessible through the building’s arcades and designed for social activities of the whole neighbourhood. Facilities like the library, crèche, sports centre, cafes and workshops specify the character and intensity of uses for the courtyards and arcades. Access to residences is provided by inside streets, shared spaces which foster interaction and integration of the community.

This journey through the projects of the 1920s and 1930s which link collective housing with public space gives an account of the origins and development of ideas which have shaped the residential neighbourhoods constructed in Europe after the Second World War. Starting out from the detached house with garden, public space has been integrated into residential complexes not only as an outside extension to living space but also as a defining element in the identity of city blocks and neighbourhoods: space which determines the intensity, quality, and character of social interaction.

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