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Modern in Intention?

Paul Schmitthenner Revisited

In the period between the two World Wars, architect Paul Schmitthenner1 was a leading figure in the German ‘New Tradition’2 and instrumental in the establishment of the Stuttgart School. Alongside Bauhaus in Weimar and Dessau, it was the most influential German school of architecture of its day. It was formed in opposition to the avant-garde and fostered the concepts of building using crafts techniques and natural materials. Schmitthenner has appeared in a number of important discourses on modern architecture with some interesting suggestions. Strange but true; his prefabricated housing system, which has now fallen into obscurity, outdid the famous Törten estates close to Dessau designed by Walter Gropius in both cost and speed of assembly. In 1933, Schmitthenner made an agreement with the Nazis and attempted to bring the existing Prussian structures for the formal training of future architects under his control. Following the project’s failure he distanced himself from the regime and developed a subtle critique of the gigantism of Albert Speer’s official plans…

  1. Wolfgang Voigt and Hartmut Frank (eds.), Paul Schmitthenner 1884-1972 (Tübingen: Wasmuth, 2003).
  2. Until recently the terms ‘traditional moderns’ (Hartmut Frank) and ‘moder-ate moderns’ (Vittorio Lampugnani) were used to differentiate between the conservative movement and the modern avant-garde in Germany in the 1920s. Nowadays the term ‘new tradition’ is popular, already coined in 1929 by Henry Russell-Hitchcock; see: Kai Krauskopf, Hans-Georg Lippert and Kerstin Zaschek (eds.), Neue Tradition.Konzepte einer anti-modernen Moderne in Deutschland von 1920 bis 1960 (Dresden: Technische Universität Dresden, 2009).
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There’s No Such Thing as New!

Change is what the twentieth century was all about. Never before were so many utopias designed, hardly ever were they so radical. And what is more: thanks to the availability of new, rational management techniques, new technologies and – probably more important than anything else – the emergence of political ideologies willing to use them, many of these utopias were actually realized. Ushering in a new era, the twentieth century did not continue history, it broke away from it. Architecture and urbanism, the disciplines that helped to shape the new era, were no exception – rather, the trend to eradicate the past appeared to culminate in them.

If that is so, it would be logical to assume that these disciplines had no use for history; creating tomorrow’s society, they focused on the future, not on the past. No wonder, then, that twentieth-century architecture and urbanism were dominated by modernism, the philosophy that is usually credited for its ambition to transcend tradition and convention. This article questions this standard view, arguing that until the 1940s, history was a key element in both traditionalism and modernism.1

  • This article is based on the forth-coming book on 250 years of urban planning in the Netherlands: C. Wagenaar, Town Planning in the Netherlands since 1800. Responses to Enlighten-ment Ideas and Geopolitical Realities (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2011).

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From Critical Regionalism to Critical Realism

Challenging the Commodification of Tradition

In 1990, Dutch architecture critic Hans van Dijk declared that the concept of ‘critical regionalism’ had become obsolete. This was stated in his review of the debates that occurred during the seminar ‘Context and Modernity. The Delft International Working Seminar on Critical Regionalism’, held at the Faculty of Architecture of Delft University of Technology. ‘After being used for ten years’, van Dijk argued, ‘too many negative and incorrect meanings have become attached to this pair of notions for it to serve as a trustworthy vehicle for an idea anymore, let alone an attitude, code of ethics or a source of hope and expectation.’1 There is a precise moment when, according to van Dijk, the banner of critical regionalism was hauled down. It was when Alexander Tzonis, one of the inventors of the term, concluded his lecture at the seminar by crossing out some letters in ‘critical regionalism’, forming a new term: ‘critical realism’. Van Dijk reports that, for Tzonis, the word ‘region’ should be understood metaphorically and thus regionalism could be better expressed by realism.2

  • This review was originally published in the journal Archis (July 1990). Trans-lated to English in Hans van Dijk, ‘The banner Critical Regionalism hauled down’, in: Gerard Bergers (ed.), Context and Modernity. A Post-Seminar Reading (Delft: Stylos, 1991), 18.
  • Ibid., 19.

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Old Ways of Drawing and Thinking

The Currency of ‘Character’

In the spring of 2011, new street lamps were installed in Deventer’s protected townscape. As in other places, the public lighting is modern and consists of LEDs. That said, Deventer chose to fit them in replica nineteenth-century lamps. The city paradoxically chose a 150-year-old fitting for the most advanced twenty-first-century technology. Deventer appears to have so little faith in its twenty-first-century creative industry that it has resorted to that of the nineteenth century. Not so a few years ago when the manhole covers in the city centre were replaced and the chosen design was a subtle cast-iron one that brought the rich tradition of casting iron into the present. Now an old drawing appears to be favoured over and above a new one and there seems to be no desire to add to the cultural tradition: what was is better than what might be.

Oddly enough the fittings have branches for the lamplighter’s ladder (although the last lamplighter retired some 80 years ago). And another paradoxical side-effect: the railway and road bridges over the IJssel in Deventer were bombed during the Second World War; the adjacent neighbourhoods were rebuilt in the 1950s. The current set-up creates the impression that the nineteenth-century streetlamps miraculously survived those bombardments…

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The Barbican, City of London

The Second World War left great parts of many English cities badly damaged or in poor structural condition through lack of maintenance. The greatest need was for low-cost housing, for which a series of imaginative competitions were held. However, underlying the bid to build a better Britain there was a fundamental belief that everyone could benefit from better planning and housing, including the middle classes. This is exemplified by the building of the Barbican Development, and this is its great significance; that and the fact that such a very large and visionary scheme – for 1213 dwellings – was conceived and actually fully realized. First proposed in 1955, the housing was largely completed in 1974, although the related arts centre in the heart of the development was not opened until 1982. The whole complex was the work of the architects Chamberlin, Powell & Bon. The architecture, highly expressive of the 1960s, was carried out with great care and perseverance to the end. The Barbican’s architecture is one of brutalist, indeed baroque, power, albeit exquisitely finished. It stands bulky, big and severe in its surroundings, its three high-rise point blocks still among the tallest in London. The project’s sheer size begs for an investigation into how it came into being. Most importantly and perhaps most remarkably, the project seems to be a success.1

In 1945 the land north of St Paul’s lay devastated. The area had been the centre of London’s rag trade, rebuilt with large ware-houses over deep basements largely around 1900, where bales of fabric had burned merrily in the incendiary attacks of late 1940. The County of London Plan, produced for the London County Council in 1943 as the basis of the capital’s post-war reconstruction, envisaged a continued business use.2This vision was reinforced in the 1944 City of London Plan produced by the City of London Corporation (CLC), a historic and wealthy anomaly responsible for local government in the privileged Square Mile at the heart of the capital, that was always wary of allowing the county (though technically the planning authority) too great a hand there.3

The CLC had been the first local authority in England to develop social housing, in the 1860s, and in an amendment to the City of London Plan produced in 1947-1948, the authors Charles Holden and William Holford suggested incorporating residential buildings.4 There may have been more than a small measure of self-interest, as the Corporation feared it could lose its powers because its residential population had shrunk alarmingly since the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, to these concerns were added by the mid-1950s a wider belief that the area should not be entirely taken over by commerce, a remarkable vision at a time when opportunism so often took the upper hand…

Notes:

  • >David Heathcote, Barbican, Penthouse over the City (Chichester: Wiley-Academy, 2004), 63-66.
  • J.H. Forshaw and Patrick Abercrombie, The County of London Plan (London: Macmillan, 1943), 24-25.
  • 3   Francis J. Forty, Report of the Improvements and Town Planning Committee on the Preliminary Draft Proposals for Post-War Reconstruction in the City of London (London: Batsford, 1944).
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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.
Essays
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Master of Your Own Home

Time and Hierarchy in the Housing of John Habraken and the SAR

In the early 1960s John Habraken proposed a fundamental revision of the division of roles in house building. He defined housing as an act, rather than an object, and declared that people seeking housing deserved a larger role in the house-building process. He differentiated two levels of decision-making and responsibility in the house-building process, and associated these with two architectural terms, support and infill. It is this element in Habraken’s theoretical work for which he has chiefly become known. Over subsequent decades the Dutch Foundation for Architectural Research (Stichting Architecten Research, or SAR) developed the technical and organizational aspects of this concept.

Unlike many other theoreticians, Habraken has produced virtually no designs. While individuals such as Lucien Kroll, Constant Nieuwenhuys and Yona Friedmann translated their ideas into compelling images and designs, some utopian, Habraken has refrained from designing, on the grounds that the concept he has always propagated would otherwise become too associated with his person. ‘To build dwellings is par excellence a civilised activity, and our civilisation is by no means confined to the activities of a number of more or less talented architects. That is perhaps the least part of it, for civilisation is first and foremost rooted in everyday actions of ordinary people going about their business.’1 Habraken does not consider a design from the point of view of the designer, but from that of the designed object and the user. He belongs to a generation of investigators who research the built environment, the everyday, rather than specific, exceptional architecture; a generation that includes people such as Christopher Alexander and Kevin Lynch.

Habraken’s theory could be described as visionary. In 1961 he foresaw that the building industry would have to meet, and be able to meet, the wishes of residents/users, and that flexible layouts would also promote durability. The large-scale refurbishment of post-war housing estates currently in progress in the early years of the twenty-first century shows that Habraken was right. And although his idea of focusing on residents/users in the building process was highly ambitious and, given the commercial interests of system builders, unrealistic, 50 years on his theory still provides valuable pointers in the quest for new concepts in contemporary housing architecture, not only in the Netherlands but especially abroad…

Notes:

  • John Habraken, Supports: An Alternative to Mass Housing (London: The Urban Press, second edition 1999), 15.

 

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After-Images of an Avant-Garde

From Plan Analysis to SuperDutch in Dutch Housing (1980-2003)

Twentieth-century housing and modern mass culture were characterized by standardization, industrialization and repetition. These were not simply the consequences of production logistics, which, influenced by early management concepts such as Fordism and Taylorism, demanded optimized and efficient resource deployment, but also elements in political and aesthetic programmes. The new egalitarian society, whether a socialist model society or one of the many versions of the welfare state, sought to redistribute property and income, particularly through housing. Modern architecture drew up an aesthetic programme that manifested this society through the large-scale use of new organizational models and industrial building techniques. Le Corbusier’s Ville Contemporaine and Ville Radieuse are still some of the most radical expressions of this programme, together with a number of other plans such as those proposed by the Russian constructivists or Hilberseimer’s Hochhausstadt and his later regional urbanization models for the USA. In all these schemes uniformity and unity in typology and architectural expression are the logical consequences of incorporating both new production methods and a range of politico-ideological requirements…

 

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Blok City

From the standard urban block towards an Urban Block Standard

Probably the biggest revolution ever in architecture happened in 1954, when Nikita Khrushchev banned Stalinist classicism and demanded a radical industrialization of the building industry.1 Architects that had excelled in creating beautiful palaces for the people were put aside in favour of the building industry, which was assigned to improve construction quality and raise production figures. Khrushchev was certainly not the first to consider industrialization to be the only way to the lift the shortage of housing. While Stalin’s infamous ‘sugar pies’ were erected in Moscow, in Western Europe prefabricated housing systems were developed that were meant to serve the enormous demand for housing that resulted from the devastation of the Second World War. Not surprisingly it was Western Europe – France, to be more precise – that inspired Khrushchev to demand a de-Stalinization of architecture. Yet in the Soviet Union the industrialization of housing construction would find its most radical form. It fitted seamlessly into both the ideology and the economic system. Marxism promoted the application of scientific methods to find the right solutions to the needs of society, as opposed to capitalism, which promoted competition – a method that in the eyes of the Soviets only resulted in speculation and profit…

Notes:

  • The moment can be dated 7 December 1954, when Krushchev held a speech for the National Conference of Architects and Builders. The text of this speech was published in the Pravda newspaper. An abridged version in Russian and English was published in: Bart Goldhoorn (ed), ‘Microrayon’, PROJECT RUSSIA, no 25 (2002), 12-17.

 

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Communal versus Private

The unfinished Search for the Ideal Woonerf

The woonerf (roughly equivalent to the ‘home zone’, a residential zone in which cyclists and pedestrians have priority over motorized traffic) first appeared on the scene during the 1970s, at two different locations in the Netherlands: in the refurbished streets of Delft and in Emmerhout, a new development on the outskirts of Emmen. These two examples provide the starting point for two woonerf story lines.1 The initiatives in Delft were prompted by nostalgia for communal street activities that had been lost as a result of increasing traffic pressure, while the new residential districts in Emmen reflected a tradition in modern urban development associated with a new concept of collectivity. From the outset, therefore, the woonerf had a double character, as an expression of progress and of a wistful longing for things past…

Notes:

  • This article is an abridged and adapted version of a text published in ‘Studie Woonerven. Focus op kwaliteiten’, Lay-out 08 (Rotterdam: Stimuleringsfonds voor Architectuur, September 2009), a sociological and spatially typological study of the woonerf, conducted by Ivan Nio, Willemijn Lofvers and Nynke Jutten.
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The Heritage of the Woonerf

When urban designer Niek de Boer coined the term woonerf in Emmen in the 1960s, he linked his new residential vision to a universally recognized concept: the erf (literally yard or estate), which resonated in the collective consciousness as the open area around a freestanding house or the versatile external spaces of a farmyard. Thus, even in its name, this urban planning innovation evoked nostalgic impressions of village life, where all manner of activities could take place outdoors and on the streets. From this perspective, the woonerf can be seen as a typically Dutch development, which was later imitated around the world. Conversely, it cannot be viewed in isolation from parallel and earlier international developments. In the quest for relaxed, green residential areas, there are obvious precedents to be found in Ebenezer Howard’s ideas about garden cities (Garden Cities of Tomorrow, 1902) and their application in England and the USA, and also in earlier philanthropic plans for ideal working-class neighbourhoods, such as the Agnetapark in Delft (1885). Here, the houses were fused into small farm-like volumes, grouped around communal green spaces.

In the wake of these earlier developments, from the beginning of the twentieth century Scandinavia also built exceptional residential developments with a strong communal character. When, during the Netherlands’ post-war reconstruction, planners were looking for possibilities to build large-scale yet attractive residential neighbourhoods with collective green spaces and communal facilities, Dutch designers took their cue from the Scandinavian model. In the 1970s the woonerf became the dominant form for new residential developments and even adopted its own traffic laws. In the course of the 1980s the traffic engineering principles increasingly came to dominate and the woonerf lost much of its appeal.

Given the renewed interest in the woonerf as a future assignment for restructuring and the simultaneous search for ways to introduce the character of a communal residential environment within new housing projects, now is an opportune moment for a consideration of the origins and development of the woonerf. This article places several observations on the most striking aspects of the woonerf – such as communal outdoor spaces, and their relation to the private house, parking solutions, and the connection with the urban environment – in a historical and international perspective…

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Park Rozendaal versus Krekenbuurt

Creating Collectivity

Woonerf estates are currently attracting a great deal of attention. Not because of their spatial qualities, but on account of the imminent task of restructuring many of them, particularly the bulk of building production from the 1970s and ’80s. There are unexpected ‘gems’ hidden in the mass. The unmistakeable quality of these neighbourhoods is sometimes a product of their overall design and structure – or of the areas arranged as woonerven, although it can also stem from the architecture, or the spatial layout of individual homes.

Park Rozendaal in Leusden, Leyens in Zoetermeer and also Baggelhuizen in Assen and Krekenbuurt in Zwolle are examples of outstanding woonerven. The quality of these estates derives from a wealth of space, the distance between dwellings, the layout of the residential area and the way the residents are able to claim this for their own use. These neighbourhoods also accommodate unusual dwelling typologies, a consequence of horizontal and vertical connections that also create spatial quality. This designed additional space includes such features as hobby tables in the loft, play areas on the entresol and extra rooms for use as residents see fit.

An examination of the layout of these ‘gems’, large and small, reveals subtle transitions from the estate level down to the individual dwelling interior, while collective facilities contribute to solidarity at estate and neighbourhood level. How is collectivity organized or given form? And – perhaps an even more important issue nowadays – how is the residents’ privacy guarded?

This article focuses on the collective sphere of influence in Park Rozendaal in Leusden and Krekenbuurt in Zwolle.1The interaction between the private and the collective domain on both estates creates a deliberate balance, which is architecturally expressed by a series of structural elements. These meticulously designed transitional elements play a role in residents’ use and experience of the woonerven, and their spatial coherence. Such elements bring an individual quality to the woonerf’s typology, but are also dated and fragile, unless supported by a careful maintenance plan, as the examples of Park Rozendaal and Krekenbuurt show…