by Charlotte Thomas
The goal of an engineered city is not a recent aspiration. A glance at the history books reveals that architects and urban planners have for decades tried to find the ultimate solution for built happiness. To them, the built environment would shape urban society. Social housing was, and still is, the testing ground for new design methods and ideas. The progressive architecture and urbanism of the past resulted in unique housing experiments that have become icons of living.
A Workers’ Palace
The Spaarndammerbuurt district in Amsterdam is the location of an icon of social housing, created in 1919 during the Amsterdam School era. Commissioned by the Eigen Haard housing association, the workers’ palace by Michel de Klerk brought ‘good living’ within reach of disadvantaged people, something that had never happened before. The ideological conviction to elevate workers through beauty might seem naïve today, but back then it was a genuine motive. By means of better architecture, planners wanted to create better people and, hence, a better society. Beauty was not reserved for the elite but was available to everybody. The entire building illustrates this right down to the smallest detail. It is an organic castle full of imaginative features and subtleties.
The documentary of the same name by Wilma Kuijvenhoven examines the complex restoration of ‘The Ship’. Blood, sweat and tears were needed to restore the building to its former glory. Original drawings were dug up, the craftsmanship of the time was copied, and traces of wear and tear were erased. Now this icon of social housing shines once again. But has this pursuit of authenticity not come at the expense of certain historical layers of the building? The dividing line between restoration and imitation is thin. Where does that line actually lie?
The Shining City
The documentary Grandma and Le Corbusier by Marjolaine Normier perfectly reflects this theme. The lead character is this story of restoration is Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation (Cité Radieuse) in Marseille. This utopian design for an urban housing block was Le Corbusier’s answer to the post-war housing crisis. He abandoned the tradition of distributing dwellings horizontally and, instead, built skywards. And thus the vertical garden city was born. Lifting up his high-rise structures on ‘pilotis’ minimized the loss of space and freed up a zone for circulation and a shared garden at ground level. Although Le Corbusier’s idea of a ‘city in a city’ might look somewhat ambitious for today’s society, at the time everything possible was done to make it a success. Social interaction among residents was a top priority. The eighteen-floor tower contains 337 duplex apartments (based on the Modulor system) for small families. To make it really autonomous, the building also contained medical facilities, shops, sports areas, childcare centres and suchlike. The Unité d’Habitation became a unique experiment in functional living, setting the tone for later housing schemes. From the 1960s onwards, high-rise was deployed as a practical solution for housing shortages. However, Le Corbusier’s modern ideas about society were ignored, and cities acted naively. People assumed that living in a tower or in a social neighbourhood would automatically create a sense of identity and togetherness among residents.
From Social Integration to Loneliness
By the 1970s, the utopia of reconstruction had vanished and cheap housing prevailed. Cities were squeezing the less privileged out of the centre and pushing them towards cheaper areas on the fringes. The authorities back then thought they were working in a modern and solution-oriented way, but the concentration of certain strata of society in particular areas did not prove as smooth as envisaged. The documentary Rabot by Christina Vandekerckhove shows how post-war modernism in Ghent reached a controversial highlight with the construction of the three Rabot towers.
These colossal residential towers designed by Jules Trenteseau were built rapidly in the years 1972‒1974. The project aimed for social integration with a mixture of 840 residents housed in 573 social apartments. An ideologically innovative idea in principle, but the building missed the mark completely. Each tower had just one entrance hall, with a single lift serving seventeen floors. Unsurprisingly, residents felt unsafe and isolated. In addition, the housing association ‘Gentse Maatschappij voor de Huisvesting’, deviated from the proposed plan. It filled the towers with solitary souls such as seniors, singles and migrants living on social welfare instead of young families and workers. Cultural and demographic shifts resulted in social problems in the community. The Rabot towers missed their target. Intended for the modern working family, they turned the area into an isolated neighbourhood rife with crime. Christina Vandekerckhove’s lucid images painfully convey the bleak loneliness and desolation of life in the towers.
The problematic social housing in the Rabot towers was tackled drastically. It is not a success story like The Ship or the Unité d’Habitation. Well past their sell-by date, the towers were run down and no longer met standards of comfort. A superficial restoration offered no solution and the infrastructural shortcomings needed to be dealt with thoroughly. Dividing them up into functional zones for social housing and offices proved unfeasible. Demolition appeared to be the only course of action. But wasn’t that a little too easy? Too drastic a measure? After all, the towering icons formed part of the image of Ghent. Our present-day idea of an engineered city considers social housing in a broader sense. Today we examine the option of repurposing of buildings and take the living environment into account when planning a long-term vision. The field of social housing must remain a testing ground for brave new visions of the quality of urban life. In my view, today’s planners and designers should embrace more radical schemes.
Look and learn from the past and create in the present.
For icons are there to live in.