Editorial DASH #04

The concepts ‘standard’ and ‘ideal’ are inextricably associated in housing design. Efforts by various architects in the twentieth century to create standardized and affordable dwellings produced an endlessly varied series of ideal homes, some of which were built, others not. While large-scale housing is based to a high degree on optimization and repetition, residential floor plans have nevertheless proven to be the subject of continuous development. Roughly speaking, two approaches can be distinguished: on the one hand, the search for new typologies familiar to us from modern architecture, and on the other, the search for typological invention, which takes the conventions of existing house building practice as its starting point.

The recent collapse of our economic growth model has given renewed relevance to the call to reformulate housing ideals. With less money available and companies, government agencies and consumers avoiding major risks, the most obvious prediction seems that we are on the threshold of a new austerity. The question arises, however, whether it is actually advisable in these circumstances to fall back on existing standards. Now is perhaps the moment to develop new standards for the residential floor plan. At any rate, the present crisis will certainly compel architects to undertake a new search for better fitting solutions.

In this fourth edition of DASH we explore a possible direction in which these solutions might be found. Using classic and lesser known projects from inside and outside the Netherlands we study the oscillating movement of the residential floor plan, and the topical question of how to relate individual solutions and large-scale stacked housing developments. Although mass customization has for some time been the magic charm for banishing the spectre of twentieth-century mass production, ‘standard’ solutions are still common in day-to-day building practice. This begs the question of how and to what extent differences can be usefully incorporated in mass housing.

In contrast with the worlds of music or the visual arts, thinking in terms of differences in the housing sphere appears of relatively recent date. The avant-garde in both socialist model societies and the many versions of the welfare state long regarded mass housing as the pre-eminent way to express equality. The turning point came during the 1970s. In the preceding decade architects such as John Habraken had developed a body of ideas now designated visionary. To meet the (changing) wishes of residents, he differentiated two levels of decision making and responsibility in accommodation, which he associated with two architectural terms, support and infill. The commercial interests of system builders were partly responsible for the fact that Habraken’s idea of according residents a central role in housing proved too ambitious. Nevertheless, his fundamental revision of time and hierarchy in the construction process is proving more relevant than ever in the current debate on flexibility and durability.

However international the approach taken by late twentieth-century architectural discourse towards the city and the language of architecture – in which the (residential) floor plan was virtually ignored – difference-oriented thinking in mass housing was chiefly adopted in Dutch architectural practice. It is possible to point to two clear, almost simultaneous moments when this began, namely the Kruisplein competition for youth housing in Rotterdam and the design for the IJplein housing estate in Amsterdam-Noord. These projects mark the start of a development that would culminate in the 1990s in an unprecedentedly successful period in Dutch architecture – better known as SuperDutch – in which the scenographing of differences through typological recombinations constituted an important gain.

On the world stage the iconic event of the 1990s was, of course, the fall of the Berlin Wall, which led to the prying open of a housing policy taken to extremes. The brutal confrontation between totally standardized Soviet mass housing and the custom design of free-market thinking raises the question of whether a ‘best of both worlds’ is not conceivable: a form of housing that meets individual demands while profiting from the production and scale advantages associated with standard house building.