Many people associate affordable or ‘social’ housing with characterless standardized dormitory district on the edge of large cities – districts which are lacking in either attractive architecture or individuality of any kind.
Areas of such mass-built, multi-storey, prefab development are usually considered a refuge for socially less well-off strata of the population such as foreign workers and immigrants.
However, in most countries ‘affordable housing’ means apartments for rent. In Germany, for instance, young families are unable to afford a city home of their own which would meet their requirements, income, and prospects.
The exhibition in Hamburg in 2013 held on the previously undeveloped peninsula of Wilhelmsburg, an area several minutes’ travel from the city centre and linked to the latter by a metro line and bus routes, dealt with a diversity of types of housing.
Projects involving experimental affordable housing included ‘New Hamburg Terraces’ by LAN (Paris). According to LAN, the aim of this project was to adapt experimental architecture to the needs of families today and future.
For the construction of the project’s four residential blocks a baugruppe (‘construction team’) of 20 families (subsequently expanded to 30 families) was established. The complex has a Ï-shaped layout with the open side facing west, towards a car park; to its east it looks out over a low-rise development standing on the banks of a steam. Between the two rows of housing is a narrow street whose lack of width is intended to check the flow of traffic. Two public squares link the street with its surroundings.
For residents’ cars there are personal garages in the corners of the ground floors of all four blocks. All the houses are clad in wooden planks. On the one hand, this gives the complex a homogeneous appearance; on the other, each house is different due to the different patterns in which the planks have been laid out. Each residential block contains between 6 and 10 apartments.
These include multilevel apartments with floor areas of between 50 and 90 square meters and apartments for people with limited mobility; the latter are situated on the ground floor and have unimpeded access to the street. The apartments with floor areas of 120 and 160 square meters possess loggias and terraces facing the street or the courtyard. Each house offers three types of social interaction – public (in the street and squares), collective (the open courtyards, lawns, and so on), and private (the courtyards and the terraces adjoining the apartments). The residential blocks have integrated non-residential spaces accommodating offices, a design firm, and so on. The architects worked on the layout and decoration of each apartment together with its future owner(s); this means that all the apartments are utterly individual and no two are the same.
Social housing is an extremely important instrument of urban - planning policy. While most countries have long since rejected the idea of erecting standardized monofunctional dormitory districts on the outskirts of cities, the construction of housing in densely developed historical cities requires a very well thought-out approach and presents architects with more complex tasks. At the same time, it is precisely such urban districts that still possess a sufficiently of vacant lots, disused areas alongside railway lines, or simply buildings requiring reconstruction, conversion, or demolition. In Paris, for instance, it is possible to find several successful examples of the construction of affordable housing in the historical centre.
Decision – making on construction of affordable housing in the city centre is often based on political considerations. This has its roots in the desire not just for social mixing (with regard to age, family status, social and material position), but also for positive changes in ‘depressive’ and deprived districts which have the benefit of a good location. Most ‘affordable’ houses which are being built today are divided into apartments for rent and for purchase as private property. So we see a mixing of different types of population under one roof. The influx of working, materially well-off inhabitants results in the ‘animation’ of districts and in the improvement of infrastructure to meet the new residents’ needs and capabilities.
In its HipHouse project in Zwolle the Dutch firm Kempe Thill decided to prove that, in spite all the financial restrictions it faces, social housing too can be beautiful and comfortable.
The building consists of glass cube in which 64 social apartments are placed around a staircase atrium. The cube is 23x32 meters with eight apartments on each floor. The glazed facades and slender aluminium profiles make the building seem either transparent or reflective. The apartments are light-filled and very spacious. According to the architects, floor-to-ceiling windows, which allow the light and weather to determine the character of the interior, and large living rooms with open kitchens are not to be seen as the exclusive privilege of elite housing, but can also embellish apartments in social housing if the latter are viewed as architectural spaces removed from their context. All this serves to overturn the established view that “housing for less well-off social strata should be small, narrow, dark, of poor build quality, and ugly.” The above examples are eloquent proof of the contrary.