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The Fællesgård

A Danish Saga about Cooperative Living

On 26 June 1968 the Danish architect Jan Gudmand-Høyer published a remarkable article in the Information newspaper under the title The Missing Link between Utopia and the Outdated One-Family House. In this mild polemic he describes how the lifestyles of many Danes have changed radically since the early 1950s as a result of consolidation in a number of social spheres (including consumption, health care and education), new family structures (double-income and single-parent families) and increased car use. The suburban neighbourhoods that were popping up all over Denmark in the 1950s and ’60s did not do enough to accommodate these changing lifestyle patterns, according to Gudmand-Høyer. Private developers were building monotonous neighbourhoods with single-family dwellings (parcelhus) while the government was experimenting with rational high-rises based on prefabrication. Both led to isolation and anonymity.1 Against this backdrop Gudmand-Høyer advocated the design of new neighbourhoods which would meet these contemporary lifestyles and in which community and identity would occupy centre stage.

Gudmand-Høyer was not alone in his views. They were shared by the Danish environmental psychologist Ingrid Gehl in Bomiljø (1971) and her husband, architectJan Gehl, in Livet mellem husene (1971). The English translation of the latter, Life Between Buildings, remains popular to this day.2 Working at the intersection of sociology, psychology, architecture and planning, they both advocated a focus on ‘life between buildings’ and pressed for the reintroduction of what they saw as more humane communal spaces.3 What constitutes the essence of a housing project is neither a particular type nor a rational layout but the collective space between houses, according to Ingrid and Jan Gehl. Inspired by Christopher Alexander’s research into a pattern language they went in search of concrete architectural elements that provide safe and child-friendly outdoor spaces, in which gathering and community life occupy centre stage.4 Their examples, many of which were illustrated with photographs, were taken from lively public spaces in urban contexts. The books by Ingrid and Jan Gehl were to leave an indelible imprint on the Danish debate about collective housing projects.


  • In the 1950s and early 1960s the Danish government commissioned a great many high-rises with prefabricated modules. A well-known example is Høje Gladsaxe, some 10 km north of Copenhagen, which was built in 1964 by Poul Ernst Hoff and Bennet Windinge.
  • Ingrid Gehl, Bo-miljø (Dwelling Environment) (Copenhagen: Teknisk Forlag, 1971) and Jan Gehl, Life Between Buildings – Using Public Space (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Publishers, 1995), original title: Livet mellem husene (Copenhagen: Arkitektens Forlag,1971).
  • In the words of Jan Gehl: ‘My wife and I set out to study the borderland between sociology, psychology, architecture, and planning.’ See also:, consulted on 19 January 2010.
  • For Alexander’s early research into patterns, see for example: Christopher Alexander, ‘The Pattern of Streets’, Journal of the American Institute of Planners, vol. 32 (1966), 273-78.


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Islands, Woodland Rooms, Cloister Gardens and Shards

How Relaxed is the New Style Woonerf?

In contemporary house-building practice there is no mention of the woonerf (a residential zone where cyclists and pedestrians have priority over motorized traffic). No developer would use this term to sell a new project and – let’s be honest – potential buyers would not be convinced by it either. The woonerf, unlike oversized sunglasses, does not seem to have been able to escape the 1970s and make a glorious comeback.

But is this really the case? Has the woonerf truly been banished to the past? Anyone who takes a good look at contemporary suburban housing projects might cautiously reach another conclusion. For what appears at first sight to be a uniform series of similar dwellings behind varying façades is found to incorporate small examples of districts and neighbourhoods that are decidedly different. These neighbourhoods have introduced a collective domain in a publicly accessible area, as woonerven once did. This has turned the immediate residential environment into a zone that can be claimed by those who live around it and form part of the home area. Although this zone between the private domain of the house and the public domain of the street may be accessed by the public, it is the collective responsibility of the people who live immediately around it, to whom the zone primarily belongs…




An Un-Dutch Housing Experiment

The extended 1990s, the period from 1989 to 2001, was not only an important period of growth for Dutch architecture but also a key moment for the Dutch in reflecting on their identity. Crucial to that reflection, according to critic Bart Lootsma, was the publication in 1987 of a book by British-American historian Simon Schama on the culture and mentality of the Dutch golden age: The Embarrassment of Riches.1 Schama argues in his book that Dutch culture since the golden age has been characterized by a collective fear that inflated egos would turn prosperity into adversity. Therefore, the great social dilemma in the Republic, according to Schama, was how to reconcile wealth and morals. With the help of Calvin and Erasmus, the Dutch chose to renounce outward show and pompous behaviour as much as possible…


  • Bart Lootsma, SuperDutch: New Architecture in the Netherlands (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000), 15

Mansion Flats and Middle-Class living

In E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End Margaret Schlegel, the central character of the novel, observes with a mixture of disgust and melancholia the emergence of large flat buildings taking over the street which for decades has been the adopted home of her liberal German immigrant family. It is the voice of the cultured foreigner, one may assume, that the writer uses to express his own deep resentment against the appearance of these large ‘promontories’ with their ‘cavernous entrance halls, full of concierges and palms’, sweeping away the politely inconspicuous Georgian houses with their graceful proportions and unostentatious demeanour.1 Forster’s rejection of the new large buildings is partly informed by a rejection of the brash commercialism and the nouveau-riche pretensions associated with them, and by the fear of the middle class of becoming the victim of yet another violent wave of speculative urban development. The destruction of the street represents the rapid and disturbing development of modern society in a period of rampant capitalism and imperial expansion; ‘the kind of scene that may be observed all over London, whatever the locality – bricks and mortar rising and falling with the restlessness of the water in a fountain, as the city receives more and more men upon her soil.’2 The mansion flats in Margaret Schlegel’s neighbourhood are not merely an eyesore, they attack the very foundations of the culture with which the writer and his character identify and testify to the congestion of the modern metropolis and its negligence towards honoured notions of Englishness and modest propriety…


  • E.M. Forster, Howard’s End (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968; original edition London: Edward Arnold, 1910), 23.
  • Ibid., 59.
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Exchanges, Adaptations and Borrowings

‘Soft Modernization’ during the Interbellum

Since it became the subject of scholarly reflection and theoretical debate, housing in France has been the subject of my research and my position consists of confronting spatial arrangements with the evolution of customs and life styles. The relations between architecture, culture and living practices are explored, combining the examination of architectural doctrines and the analysis of changes occurring at the same time in French society. These investigations, which are considered on the one hand as part of social history and of a reflection on architectural conception, for example in the two volumes of Architecture de la vie privée1 also concentrate on an ethnological examination aimed at understanding new ways of life and the modes of evolution of contemporary buildings, as in Urbanité, sociabilité, intimité.2


  • Monique Eleb (with Anne Debarre-Blanchard), Architectures de la vie priveé. Maisons et mentalités. XVIIe- XIXe siècles (Paris: Édition Archives de l’Architecture Moderne, 1989), 311 (new edition paris: Hazan, 1999); Monique Eleb (with Anne Debarre-Blanchard), L’invention de l’habitation moderne, Paris, 1880-1914, Architecture de la vie privée. Suite (Paris: Hazan/Archives de l’Architecture Moderne, 1995, new edition 2000), 550; third volume forthcoming
  • Monique Eleb (with A.M. Châtelet), Urbanité, sociabilité, intimité. Des logements d’aujourdhui (Éditions de l’Épure, 1997), 352; Monique Eleb (with A.M. Châtelet and T. Mandoul), Penser l’habiter. Le logements en questions (PAN 14, 1987) (Liège, Paris: Éditions Mardaga, 1990), 147.

New Open Space in Housing Ensembles

In the past few years, a new generation of housing ensembles has emerged. Despite great differences in appearance, these new complexes have one important characteristic in common: the ‘new open space’ within them that is created by the arrangement of the buildings and which gives the ensemble its architectural identity – as, for example, the central inner courtyard of the De Grote Hof in the Ypenburg district near The Hague, or the series of little squares that are part of the Mariaplaats in Utrecht, or the parterre1in Zwanenwoud near Heerenveen.

This open space is a new phenomenon within the Dutch tradition of residential blocks in several ways. In size, shape and architectural expression, it is different from what was previously built. Moreover, it is new in terms of layout and use: it would seem that the relation between the public and the private domain is changing. Finally, the new open space implies fundamental changes in housing conditions as a whole: in the relation between the home, its surroundings and the city. This investigation focuses on the composition of the new open space and its significance for architecture and urban design, with the aim of examining the new open space as an architectural answer to contemporary social developments.

Eight residential complexes have been taken as examples. At first sight, these projects seem to be completely different: some are in inner cities, others lie at the edge of a city or even in rural areas; they can be part of a residential block or form a block themselves. Most are primarily comprised of low-rise housing, but some also have combinations of mid-rise apartment blocks and high-rise residential towers. The common factor shared by these complexes, however, is not their morphological or typological characteristics, but their ‘unity of design’, the distinctive element upon which the design is based. Unity of design is one of the defining aspects of housing that changes over the course of time: from the lot to the row, from the block to the street, from urban renewal project to residential building, and now to the open space between the residential buildings. The housing ensembles discussed here are considered from this guiding theme of open space…


  • Parterre (±1650, French): flat, cultivated terrain.


Dutch Almshouses

The Convergence of Rich and Poor in Urban Treasures

A hof is an architectural unit of buildings surrounding a court with restricted traffic (Van Dale Dictionary of the Dutch Language)

Throughout the years, the hof has regularly been proposed as a model for urbanization in the Netherlands.1 In 1916, for example, the architect Mels Meijers pointed to the hofjes van liefdadigheid dating from the Middle Ages as the only Dutch example of residential blocks suited to the public housing task ensuing from the Dutch Housing Act of 1901. He predicted that the hof model would ‘find a new application’.2

The hof is also receiving lots of attention in contemporary residential architecture. One might propose the economic argument of high density in inner cities as reason for this, but there are also other considerations. Courts offer a semipublic, closed environment in which there are no cars. The social safety offered by this typology makes the hof increasingly attractive in a nation whose population is growing older and more individualized. The recent interest shown by architects and developers in the architectural representativeness of the residential environment is also a possible reason for the revaluation of the court model.

Hofjes van liefdadigheid are a typical Dutch phenomenon. This particular form of charitable housing for the poor, in which a courtyard is surrounded by almshouses, has existed since the 14th century and became popular in the Dutch Golden age of the 17th century and in the 18th century. The cities of Amsterdam, Leiden and Haarlem have the most hofjes, but they can be found from Groningen to Maastricht. A special characteristic of the hofje van liefdadigheid is that charitable housing was coupled with the fact that it represented the founder. Rich people from the upper classes who had no heirs would, while still alive, bequeath their capital to the construction of a new hofje, where poor elderly people (usually women) could live for free. Most of the hofjes are named after their founder, whose name would thus live on and whose reputation would be exemplified by the architecture. The ‘plainest’ of the hofjes are tucked away on an inner parcel of land and only accessible from the street via a nondescript gate. The ‘richest’ of the hofjes manifest themselves as stately buildings along the canals.

This article gives a brief overview of the charitable hofje as an architectural and urban artefact. The representative aspect is discussed on the basis of three hofjes in Haarlem, each with a distinctive character, that were founded by wealthy private individuals. The fourth example in this analysis is the Proveniershof in Haarlem, which was established by the municipal government. This overview is predicated upon a number of spatial elements that are considered characteristic of the hofje typology. They are found in all four examples, albeit in varying forms, materials and similarities. Moreover, the hof’s location in the urban fabric and its accessibility has been an important factor in the analysis of the hofjes in our study…


  • The ‘hof’, or court typology of building is found in the Netherlands in the following traditions: monasteries and convents, royal courts, almshouses (hofjes van liefdadigheid), speculative building and finally, as large housing projects in the form of a closed block of residential buildings. See also: W.Wilms Floet and E. Gramsbergen, Zakboek voor de woonomgeving (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2001). The extent to which Dutch architects at the beginning of the 20th century explicitly and/or implicitly referred to the historical hofjes in their public housing projects must still be investigated. In the extensively published and studied German public housing and the English garden city architecture of the late 19th century, courtyards had a different background. For an initial discussion of this, see F. Claessens, De stad als architectonische constructie. Het architectonisch discours van de stad (Duitsland 1871-1914), dissertation (Delft: Publicatieburo Bouwkunde, 2005); F. Smit and A. Mulder, De droom van Howard, verleden en toekomst van de tuindorpen (Rijswijk: Elmar, 1991).
  • M.J. Meijers, ‘De architectuur en de woningbouw’, instalments I-X, Bouwkundig Weekblad 27 (1916) through 9 (1917).


Between Seriality and Monumentality

The Architecture of the New Residential Court

The website of De Grote Hof in Ypenburg features the following recommendation alongside the building’s logo: ‘Hoffelijk wonen, vorstelijk leven’,1which translates roughly as ‘courtyard homes, royal living’. The website ascribes the distinctive living experience to the fact that the development is not like adjacent neighbour­ hoods. Whether its residences really merit the adjective ‘royal’ remains to be seen, considering the far from generous floor plans displayed on the website. The slogan appears to refer mainly to the development’s distinctive architecture: five monumental court­ yards, linked to form a large residential palace that can be recognized from a distance, thanks to the impressive sculptural aspect of the dark brick façades.

De Grote Hof is not unique. All over the Netherlands projects are realized in which an enclosed, communal space determines the character of living.2 The special design of the communal space is marketed as a unique selling point for the individual homes. This enclosed space is often set back from public routes and is only accessible via narrow alleyways or gates. The clear-cut architecture forms a contrast with its surroundings. Although the projects are mainly comprised of terraced houses – a constant in Dutch housing – the façades give nothing away. The communal space derives its distinctive character from a broad range of architectural modifications, which are neither unambiguous nor pure. This results in urban spaces with a certain ambiguity vis-à-vis the public and/or collective character of the area. This ambiguity also affects the traditional relationship between the private domain of the dwelling and the public domain of the city, and consequently also the internal layout of the dwelling.

In these recent projects, serially linked dwellings in a block or a row are enhanced by classic compositional devices such as hierarchy, symmetry, framing and monumentality. Architectural elements such as entrances, eaves and urban plinths are magnified, thus reinforcing the communal identity. This modification ties in with the housing tradition that has its origins in the city palace.3 The Southern European apartment building, the German Mehrfamilienhaus and the French maison à loyer are types of building that originated in this tradition. Architecturally, these buildings evoke the autonomy of a single, large villa, but they are designed to accommodate several families. This tradition contrasts with the Dutch model, in which individual homes adapt to the architecture of the urban block. The urban villa is an independent architectural entity in between the individual dwelling and urban architecture.

In order to decode the architecture of the new residential court­ yard,4 we set out to compare it to the typology and architecture of the Dutch terraced house and to that of the French courtyard building. How is collectivity shaped in these two models? How does the relationship between public and private crystallize? What is the urban signification of the communal space?…


  • See:
  • See, for instance, Stadscahiers, 2008, no. 2, ‘De nieuwe binnenwereld’.
  • For a detailed description of this housing tradition see: Bijlsma and Groenland: De Tussenmaat. Een handboek voor het collectieve woongebouw (Amsterdam: SUN, 2006).
  • In this article we interpret the communal space as an independent category between public and private, rather than as a special kind of public space. We therefore use the term courtyard instead of new open space.


The Private-Public Paradox of the New Open Space

The paradox of the new open space in housing ensembles is its ambiguity: it attempts to be both public and private.2 A stranger casually wandering into Mariaplaats, a modern labyrinth of alleys and little squares surrounded by sober reddish-brown walls and paving stones in the historic centre of Utrecht, might register a pleasant feeling of recognition but simultaneously of estrangement. Mariaplaats is reminiscent of the old Dutch hofjes, but this is not charitable housing – and there certainly are no neighbours here, chattering as they hang out the wash. On the contrary, the atmosphere could sooner be described as anonymous and distant. For what and for whom are these little squares intended? Who actually uses them and in what ways?

Newcomers who stroll around the ‘country estate’ of Zwanenwoud in Heerenveen will enjoy the French formal garden layout of the grounds and the castle-like silhouettes bordering the large green, but at the same time feel slightly confused: Is this a public park? A private garden for the residents of the adjacent villas? Or is it the other way around, and are passers-by invited to look at the residents on their terraces?

A visitor who enters the raised central court of De Grote Hof in Ypenburg most likely will gaze in amazement at the impressive space – it’s as if one is entering a courtyard like that of the Louvre – and at the same time might feel some hesitancy when confronted with the intimacy of a Sunday morning breakfast enjoyed by a group of residents under the colonnade.

Such paradoxical experiences are what make these spaces so fascinating. Moreover, the architectural solutions for these ambiguities turn out to be exceptionally ingenious and never twice the same. Mariaplaats is a small inner-city project with many different inner spaces and a variety of housing types built in high density; Zwanenwoud comprises a large area of land and dwellings that are few in number, and De Grote Hof is an isolated enclave of both low-priced and expensive homes.

As was stated in the introductory essay, this ambiguous new open space in the city is the result of several lengthy historical developments and contemporary issues, including the Dutch tradition of dwellings that directly border the street and a rising demand for urbanity and new public domain. These two central issues are in fact two sides of the same coin. And in the case of these ensembles they lead to new interpretations for housing (private life) and the public domain (public life). The old meanings of these categories shift and lose their unequivocalness.

The new open space brings urban life into the traditional perimeter block through visual links with the city and by permitting entry to other users, such as casual passers-by. These new public residential domains can contribute to a differentiation of public space that ranges in scale from voyeuristic intimacy to mass manifestations.3


  • During the roundtable discussion on the investigation into the new open space organized by the Chair of Architecture and Dwelling, Delft University of Technology, October 2007.
  • Private = pertaining to or affecting a particular person or a small group of persons; individual; personal. Public = of, pertaining to, or affecting a population or a community as a
    whole; open to all persons, generally known, open to the view of all. (Random House)
  • In an article I published earlier, I introduced the idea of differentiation of public space, in reference to the urban reconstruction plan for Austin, TX, USA of 1984 by Venturi Scott
    Brown and Associates, in which VSBA (re-)introduces a new, urban space within the block: the passage, the courtyard, the alleyway. At the time I called this differentiation ‘a diverse network of public, semi-public and private spaces, inside and outside of the building block’. In that article, written in 1999, I claimed: ‘The demand for new urban space – as an alternative for the crowded, perhaps unhospitable or dangerous, automobile-dominated street – especially a more secluded and protected publicness, is now also relevant in the Netherlands.’ See Karin Theunissen, ‘The Difficult Whole’, in: Leen van Duin (ed.), Hybrides, stedelijke architectuur tussen centrum en periferie (Delft: Delft University Press, 1999).