Apartments can be better than mere boxes

Key schemes elsewhere offer lessons for the apartments Ireland needs


Last September I travelled back to the 1920s – like the screenwriter in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris – but in my case to Berlin. The Horseshoe housing estate, named for an arc of apartments surrounding a natural pool, has become a Unesco world heritage site, and the original colours and plantings have been meticulously restored. You can rent a tiny house that looks exactly as it did in 1928, buy croissants at the local bakery and stroll around, greeting the neighbours as though you lived here. The apartments are modest in scale, but they are eagerly sought after, because this is a congenial community and an oasis of greenery in a grey, intimidatingly large metropolis.

I’m lucky enough to live in an even nicer apartment in Los Angeles, one of eight that Richard Neutra – an architect who began his career in Berlin – designed around a landscaped courtyard on a hillside in 1937. Money was tight in the Great Depression, and these apartments were inexpensively built, but the quality of their design drew creative residents, most notably Charles and Ray Eames. I live alone, but my neighbours feel like family.

Horseshoe was designed by two talented architects, Bruno Taut and Martin Wagner, as part of an ambitious, city-funded programme to rehouse the working population. My apartment cluster was built on spec by an architect who needed the rental income. Both are models of their kind that have enriched lives over several generations. Why are there so few others that provide as good a balance of privacy and community, well-planned interiors and leafy views?

Urgent need

Nearly two-thirds of the world’s population live in cities, where the price of houses and building plots are soaring. There’s an urgent need to build many more apartments – to relieve an acute shortage of housing, use scarce land more productively, save the energy wasted on long commutes and revitalise inner cities. From Sydney to Los Angeles, young people are moving back into urban centres and giving them a fresh jolt of energy. They view suburbia as a backwater, neither city nor countryside, dependent on the car, and increasingly isolated by traffic congestion. Sadly, just as the demand for apartments is growing, the supply and quality are lagging.

We’ve lost the spirit of idealism that briefly flourished after the two world wars, in Europe and even in the United States in the 1950s. Then, governments, local authorities and non-profit housing associations hired the best talent to design humane, affordable apartment blocks and estates, often on a huge scale. They felt an obligation to repair the ravages of war and rehouse slum dwellers.

In retrospect we can see that they over-reached. Thriving communities were displaced by urban renewal, tower blocks were poorly maintained and became vertical slums, and the exodus to suburbia impoverished city centres. But the best work of those eras has been renewed and updated to become even more desirable – from the 2,800-unit Cité du Lignon in Geneva, to Park Hill in Sheffield, and Le Corbusier’s Unité in Marseilles.

Generic blocks

There is little to match those achievements today. Nearly all apartments are shoehorned into generic blocks and towers: faceless, placeless and differing only in the expense of the decorative veneer. Claustrophobic cells, as uniform as those in a cheap hotel, open off double-loaded corridors. Light and air come from one side only, and balconies are usually vestigial. “Luxury”, a word beloved by property owners, has lost all its meaning: upscale condominiums are nearly as uniform and badly proportioned as those mere mortals endure. Europe has followed the lead of the US in shutting down social housing programmes, selling off rent-controlled apartments and foolishly putting its trust in the market. Risk-averse developers, concerned only to make a quick profit, stick with safe formulas – preferably for the affluent.

A few glimmers of creativity relieve the gloom. Social housing, even shelter for the homeless, has challenged conscientious individuals to break out of the box and augment minimal interiors with shared spaces and greenery. Inventive architects have created wonderful living environments at no greater cost than conventional solutions.

There’s one across the street from where I live. A group of neighbours persuaded a developer to abandon the eyesore he was planning and hire Lorcan O’Herlihy (the architect son of the actor Dan O’Herlihy) to make better use of a narrow, sloping wedge of land. He split the 31-unit block in the middle and stepped it down to the tip, so that every resident has cross-ventilation and access to three rooftop terraces.

Sense of place

On the other side of the world, Ole Scheeren, a German architect, persuaded a Singapore developer to build the Interlace, where 31 horizontal bars of apartments are stacked at their ends to define landscaped courtyards, and house as many people as a forest of towers. The open spaces break down the massive scale, and give each of the 3,000 residents a sense of place and even intimacy.

Bjarke Ingels, a Danish architect who heads the firm of BIG, made his reputation with 8 House in Copenhagen. Like the Interlace, it’s a large-scale complex that is humanised by its two publicly accessible courtyards. It slopes down to give everyone a view of meadows and water, and ramps encircle each courtyard to provide a street in the sky for bikes, prams, service deliveries and children’s games. The complex includes studios for singles, townhouses for families and many options in between.

Each of these projects offers a superior living environment. Well-proportioned interiors are infused with natural light, and are well insulated to reduce energy consumption and keep noise at bay. The balance of privacy and sociability turns proximity to advantage. In 8 House and other urban locations, ground-floor retail and restaurants serve residents, stimulate street life and raise apartments above the traffic flow. Plantings provide shade, absorb carbon dioxide and mediate between the interior and the city. Everyone gains from such developments. Why are they so rare?

Michael Webb is an architectural writer whose latest book, Building Community: New Apartment Architecture, will be published by Thames & Hudson in February

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