Published in DASH #05 - The Urban Enclave
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Grossform

Since the late twentieth century, urban projects have increased significantly in size, reintroducing some mid-century ideas on mega-structures and habitat. In this light, a return to some of the founding ideas of the 1960s may prove illuminating. In particular, the notion of Grossform, put forward by Oswald Mathias Ungers in his 1966 essay ‘Grossformen im Wohnungsbau’, seems remarkably topical.1 Although Grossform, or ‘megaform’, is literally about ‘large form’, this definition of ‘large’ is based on the strength of its form more than on scale.2 ‘Only when a new quality arises beyond the mere sum of individual parts, and a higher level is achieved, does a Grossform arise. The primary characteristic is not numerical size. A small house can just as well be a Grossform as a housing block, a city district, or an entire city.’3 In retrospect, it appears to prefigure the importance of architectural form in urban planning and the rise of many contemporary urban enclaves, marked by a specific formal expression.4

Notes:

  • O.M. Ungers, ‘Grossformen im Wohnungsbau’, Veröffentlichungen zur Architektur5 (December 1966). Originally presented as a lecture in Moscow. The notion of Grossform prefigures the 1994 essay ‘Bigness, or the Problem of Large’ by Rem Koolhaas, which argues that beyond a certain scale, urban projects require a different approach (the logic of Bigness). These projects then no longer relate to the traditional tools of architecture. The relation between Bigness and Grossform is addressed in my article ‘The Archipelago City: Piecing Together Collectivities’, OASE, no. 71 (Nijmegen: SUN, 2008), 18-36.
  • Although Ungers himself translated Grossform as megaform, I will continue to use the original German term, also to distinguish it from megastructure.
  • ‘Erst wenn zu der Summe von Einzelteilen eine neue Qualität hinzu-kommt und eine höhere Entwicklungsstufe erreicht wird, entsteht eine Gross-form. Kennzeichend ist nicht die numerische Grösse. Ein im Volumen kleines Haus kann ebensogut eine Grossform sein wie ein Häuserblock, ein Stadtteil oder eine ganze Stadt.’ Ungers, ‘Grossformen im Wohnungs-bau’, op. cit. (note 1),5 (unpaginated).
  • Ironically, although the formal coherence of many contemporary enclaves suggests a similarity to Ungers’ ideas on Grossform, they are nevertheless at cross purposes. Gross-form remains independent of the social in favour of a cultural fabric that transcends (temporary) social concerns. The most expressive of con-temporary enclaves such as Brandevoort employ specific forms in order to define and emphasize social cohesion.