1927: The Competition
1927 was the year of the Weissenhoff Exhibition mainly remembered by history and architecture students for showcasing products by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Mercedes Benz.
Depending on who you believe, LC’s Maison Citrohan was a compact, low-cost house for three people, a cook and a driver, or an artist, two guests, someone who sleeps next to the kitchen and someone who sleeps next to the car. Oh those crazy artists!
Weissenhof Siedlung Houses 14 and 15 result from LC having to split his original house into two as it was too bourgeois for the competition brief of “a new vision of society through architecture based around the ideals of reducing costs, simplifying housekeeping, and improving living conditions.” Very curious stairwells. Note the extra person snuck in downstairs.
The exhibition organisers had a hard time trying to get the participating architects to adhere to the guidelines for cost, building regulations and area. The architects tended to treat the exhibition as an opportunity to showcase themselves rather than produce useful solutions in accordance with the exhibition brief and objectives. Oh those crazy architects!
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Meanwhile, in addition to a huge economic problem, the Soviet Union also had a huge housing problem as a result of population influx to cities after the Russian Civil War. Solutions were required and part of the solution was seen as bringing women into the workforce. Childcare was to become a duty of the state and the plan was for cooking and eating to go the same way.
In 1925, the Moscow City Council organised a design competition for communal housing. The brief stated that auxiliary facilities such as common dining halls and kitchens, laundry and recreational facilities were expected to become standard. Despite this progressive brief, entries tended towards the rural.
Entries in a 1925-26 second competition tended towards the palatial.
In 1926, the Soviet architectural journal Sovremennaia Arkhitektura (SA, “Contemporary Architecture”) announced a “Comradely Competition for Communal Housing” and invited architects to design highly efficient and mass-buildable buildings to facilitate communal living. After having been sidelined in the 1925 competition, it was also an attempt to secure a place for architects and architecture in the new society for what’s the point of architects if they don’t, won’t or can’t improve mass housing? There were eight teams.
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1. The Moisei Ginzburg team proposal
This proposal had every unit comprising three dwellings. The largest is on the lower level and is a minimum dwelling for 2-4 persons. On opposite sides of the corridor above are a room for 2 persons and a room for one person. This situation is represented by these three plans.
These next plans show how the apartment of the lower floor residents could be expanded to appropriate the space of the other two rooms when the economic situation of its occupants improved.
This proposal is a moderately successful attempt to design for two different realities. However, considering the housing situations it was designed to replace, it is not much of an improvement for the upstairs people to have to use a shared bathroom along the corridor. When the rooms become the one apartment, the “single” room becomes a room with no defined purpose other than perhaps as a guest room or library/study.
2. The Georgy Wegman team proposal
The inventive step of the proposal of the Wegman team was to have apartments accessed from alternate stair landings at bathroom height, meaning that bathrooms could be stacked down the centre of the plan.
This complex section has the volumetric advantage of eliminating corridors. The “downside” is that living areas are twice the height of the bathrooms. This isn’t a bad thing but it’s prompted by the desire to eliminate inefficient building volume and not by aesthetic reasons. The “minus” of the added volume in the living area must be more than compensated for by the volume gained through complete elimination of the corridor.
However, there is inefficiently used half-height enclosed volume at ground level, and semi-enclosed volume is also used to ventilate the bathrooms. These appear as openings on the elevations. [05/15 Attentive misfits’ reader Daniel put me right. “The void areas behind the bathrooms are the little double-height sections in each room (according to the perspective sketch). The living rooms have a larger double-height section, and the bedrooms a little less-than-bathroom-width one. The openings in the facade are just really deep window openings allowing natural light into the stairwells (the stairwell schematic shows it).] This means bathrooms aren’t naturally ventilated or lit. The narrow voids across the bedrooms now seem strange.
3. The Alexander Pasternak proposal
Apart from including an elevator, this proposal is unremarkable – perhaps even bad. It is the only other proposal that attempts to fit two situations, this time on alternating floors. The first situation is for six rooms accessed from a stairwell where there is a shared wc.
The second situation is for two apartments having two and three rooms but the amount of corridor space remains much the same.
4. The Vyatcheslav Vladimirov team proposal
This proposal also eliminates the corridor by making full use of stair landings.
In the left plan, four doors open off a landing and it is impossible to make a stair landing do any more than that. Again, the height of bathrooms determines the height of the lower portion of the room, and the height of the living area is the height of two bathrooms. A similar arrangement is used twice at the half-landings.
Corridors have been eliminated and the stair landings are used as efficiently as is possible. Again, double-height spaces result from the reduced volume of bathrooms stacked. As with the previous proposal making use of half landings, there is underused volume at ground level.
5. The Alexander Nikolsky team proposal
The Nikolsky proposal was submitted without accompanying text. It also has no corridors but no corresponding advantage. If the norm in the U.S.S.R. was two apartments per landing, then it doesn’t make sense to design two landings with two doors leading to the same apartment – unless of course the layout is designed to be divided, and then combined back into a single apartment. Sweet elevations.
6. The Nina Vorotynzeva and Raissa Polyak proposal
Firstly, the fact two women were invited to participate is noteworthy. The inventiveness of their proposal is also in the section where the kitchen, bathroom and the sleeping areas have reduced heights that, when stacked, are more than the height of the living area. Alternating floors interlock to repeat this advantage. This is shown in the section, but not in the following plan.
On the other hand, corridors aren’t shown in the section. Living rooms extend over corridors in one plan yet don’t in the other.
7. The Ivan Sobolev team proposal
These one-and a half storey plans come in 2-, 4- and 6-room variations, each sharing a living room and kitchen on the lower, entry level and a bathroom on the upper level. Plans are logical and clear. However, what happens on the other side of the corridor isn’t shown. If those plans are upside-down versions, then the entry and kitchen become separated from the living room (floor) which is now the space not occupied by bedrooms. Not great.
8. The Ohl team proposal
This proposal also has two full-height floors accessed by internal stairs.
This is the only proposal with individual balconies but those balconies result from too much internal space.
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THE RELEVANCE THIS 1927 COMPETITION HAS FOR US TODAY
Combining rooms to form larger apartments was considered in the Ginzburg proposal, and perhaps in the Nikolsky proposal.
Combining rooms, apartments and houses still continues today. A proposal to combine Nos. 1, 2 and 3 Cornwall Terrace, London into a single palace made the news recently.
An example of dividing a dwelling is this proposal for splitting a house when its owners divorced.
Despite these two first-world examples, housing that can appropriate or shed neighbouring volumes is still an under-explored building type.
Increased ceiling heights may “compensate for” reduced floor area but that is not why they are there. They are the natural result of attempts to minimise building volume by reducing the height of non-habitable rooms and the number of corridors in turn. This occurs in three proposals.
Modern micro-flat proposals such as this next one attempt the same thing but solve the corridor problem by simplifying its construction rather than reducing the amount required.
In the current market, an important variable setting the price of apartments is the floor area but better use of resources and real estate might result from re-integrating the volume of corridors into apartment plans.
Elimination of corridors occurs in the same two proposals
and may also occur in the Ohl proposal as a variant in which one-and-a-half storey apartments are accessed from both levels. In theory, elevators could eliminate the need for corridors but fire escape stairs are still required. Apartment buildings having one apartment per floor do not waste corridor space – even that leading to fire stairs. This is not quite in the spirit of 1920s U.S.S.R. but the same principle of extracting maximum value per unit area still applies.
Communal facilities were encouraged by the directive following the 1925 competition. As it was anticipated that meals would be eaten outside, the kitchens of all proposals were fitted into a single unit about 1.5m long that was hidden when not in use. The main reason for this was to save on space that isn’t used full-time. We’re almost back to where we were in 1927. Hopefully we won’t go down the same wrong path again.
Minimal areas feature in the majority of proposals, some using a minimum of 9 sqm per person.
New York Department of Housing Preservation & Development recommended an internal area of approx. 300 sqft. for its 2013 adAPT NYC microflat competition. This is equal to the 27 sqm. recommended in the U.S.S.R. in 1927.
One and a half-storey apartments occur in seven of the eight proposals but only in the Wegman and the Vorotynzeva and Polyak proposals repurpose excess height from non-habitable rooms.
With the Ohl proposal, enclosing the balconies and removing the floor of one and the soffit of the other will give you the sectional configuration used by Le Corbusier in various Unités 1949-onwards. Both the Ohl proposal and the classic Ud’H plan have the same flaw of the double-height space formed by removing a ceiling being preferable to the one formed by removing a floor. Another flaw they share is that despite the cross ventilation, bathrooms and kitchens are located where there is least of it.
If doubIe height spaces result from repurposing underused space elsewhere to arrive at overall efficiencies in building volume, then so be it. Otherwise, they are are a waste of space.
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One thing I noticed when trying to decipher these sometimes diabolical plans and sections was how drawing conventions have changed. Having no section lines doesn’t help.
- In the Wegman proposal for example, try to use only the following information to work out how the bridge intersects the top floor.
- This schematic section drawing for the Vorotyntseva and Polyak proposal appears to be a combined section showing all floor levels. I’m still unable to reconcile it with the plans.
[05/14 “The schematic section drawing is showing the stairwells at the the ends of the building. The living rooms of the end units have a little extra space (see the perspective sketch just under the schematic). Each flight of stairs ends in a little landing that either has a short hall connecting to the exterior corridor, a blind landing whose wall is the the little bit of extra space that the end-units have, or a little balcony overlooking the short hall leading to the corridor.”]
I can’t help thinking these architects did not need section lines because it was obvious to them where the section was taken. I suspect they had a stronger connection between the conceiving of space and the communicating of it than we currently have. I fear that relying on 3D visualisations to interpret spatial proposals has made us lazy, and that our/my spatial ability is atrophying. Daniel’s observations seem to be proving my point. This is not good.