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The 1+1/2 Floor Apartment

The first time a one-and-a-half floor apartment featuring a double-height space crossed the architectural horizon was Richard M. Hunt’s Tenth Street Studio building in New York in 1857.

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Designed specifically for artists, it had large windows lighting double-height spaces. Apartments were arranged around a central gallery space that was skylit and that served as an exhibition space. Some apartments also had rooms offside for the artist to live.

As the first American to attend the Ecole des Beux-Arts in Paris, Richard Hunt and his Tenth Street Studios had cred. His new building typology linked ‘the mythic lifestyle of the artist with larger cultural ideals in relation to housing.’* What those larger cultural ideals were, was still unclear however, as New York circa 1865 had a population of about one million and about 15,000 tenement buildings. Society patrons of said artists soon brought some clarity to the matter. Having seen what excellent receptions populated by charming and cultured people could be held in rooms with high ceilings and north light, they began to want some of the space and light they saw in those studios.

Sherwood Studios was completed in 1880 on 57th Street which was soon to become an art and residential hotspot. Its studios were designed specifically for living and included a parlour and bedrooms but no kitchens. Residents, married and single alike, ate at the restaurant downstairs in a successful co-living and working arrangement. First residents were artists but this was soon to change.

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The Sixty Seventh Street Studios were completed in 1901.

Gainsborough Studios, completed 1908, at 222 Central Park South on Central Park South is still a fine place to live or paint.

By 1920, artists were the minority in studio apartment developments. Over in Europe, artists and architects alike were attuned to the New York art market that had so enthusiastically kept the French Impressionists alive but, as far as architecture was concerned, light and a feeling of spaciousness were now a commodity and the new standard by which modern living as set by the fashionable affluent was to be judged. 

Le Corbusier had designed and completed Maison Ozenfant in Paris in 1922. Ozenfant was a mere painter though, but apparently a successful one for his studio was merely a large and well-illuminated room above a sizeable house. It was fit for purpose and implied no new way of living even though there is a mezzanine. You can just see the handrail leading up to it on the right in the photograph below.

maison-ozenfant-corbusier-1

Corbusier’s 1922 Villa Besnus had no mezzanine or studio but studios soon came thick and fast. Villas Lipchitz-Miestchaninoff 1923. Villas La Roche-Jeanneret 1923. Maison Ternisien 1923. All had mezzanine studio spaces for artists we don’t know whether they cared that much for space and light or whether they wanted to attract same patrons in they same way their New York colleagues were.

LC’s 1924 Artisan/Workman Houses were a classic example of a one-and-a-half-floor dwelling. We don’t know if this project was genuinely intended for artists but, if artists studios were being designed for the general market in New York in 1920 then we shouldn’t assume Le Corbusier’s artisan houses of 1924 were any different.

The curious little proposal is nevertheless an inspired marketing masterclass in covering all bases. It was mass produced but for artisans or craftsmen. It could be for workmen if society went that way as it had just in Russia, but could be brought into service for the fashionably wealthy as was the case in America.

Any need for ambiguity was gone by 1925. The Pavilion de L’Esprit Nouveau at the Paris Exhibition was one-and-three-quarter floors of bourgeois housing. Mezzanine floors and the life of artists had arrived as a housing product in Europe!

The painting displayed on the easel in Pierre Chareau’s 1928-31 Maision de Verre now makes perfect sense. It’s not as if the Dalsaces couldn’t have afforded an extra wall.

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Farther east, Russian architects saw the potential of increased vertical volume to compensate for reduced floor area by way of better lighting, ventilation and this new sense of spaciousness. Double-height spaces and half floors featured in many of the proposals for the 1927 USSR Comradely Competition for Communal Housing. Moisei Ginzburg’s team proposed apartments that began life as one downstairs apartment having a bathroom that could be shared by two people upstairs and one more across the hall. It was a one-floor apartment with about one quarter of the living space double height.

A-1 plans

When the economic situation of the people occupying the main space improved, all three spaces were to be combined to make a one and 3/4 floor apartment with a spiral stair leading to a mezzanine above the grand piano.

A-1 plans

The proposal by Alexander Nikolsky’s team also had a living room double the height of its connecting rooms.

nikolsky-plan

Nina Vorotynzeva and Raissa Polyak reasoned that if the living space is double height, it doesn’t need to be twice is high as a full-height kitchen, bathroom and bedrooms. Their proposal saves volume by having reduced heights for these spaces and by the living room having a height less than the combined height of those spaces. Reversing the plan on alternate floors repeats that advantage but duplicates vertical pipes.

The proposal of the Ohl team also duplicated servicing but this time all pipes and, importantly, corridors weren’t running along the outside of the building anymore. This made private balconies possible and was a better use of window space. The downside was a reliance on mechanical ventilation for the internal rooms now sharing a shaft.

This idea of a corridor connecting interlocking apartments of one and a half floors was also developed by Ivan Sobolev’s team for the same 1927 competition. Their proposal featured a double-height living room and a design and construction module that could provide 2-, 4- or 6-bedroom apartments.

Sobolov axo

Sobolev correctly reasoned that bathrooms need to go above and below the corridor but this wasn’t possible for the kitchen as it needed to be adjacent to the dining area and also to share the floor of the living space and not its ceiling.

sobolev section

The problem is better seen in this next plan. If we enter from the corridor into the half-floor living room having a kitchen then there is no problem. We go up the stairs to a bedroom level that unfortunately has some space not used very well. However, if we enter from the corridor into the top half of the living room then we have to immediately go downstairs for everything. The kitchen can now go in a that unused space which is good, and although the living room is still double height there is now no mezzanine.

Sobolev.jpg

The competition results were published but, instead of a clear winner, Ginzburg was asked to form and lead a team to continue developing apartment building prototypes by . These developments combined advantages of the competition proposals and created new types of apartments. (See 1928: The Types Study for more.)

The B-Type took the volumetric advantage of the Vorotynzeva and Polyak proposal and simplified its construction. The disadvantage of duplicated pipes still remained.

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The Type F is a combination of all of these ideas plus some more. The middle of the three levels is the corridor from which you either go up one third of a flight of stairs to the living level of the upper apartment, or down two thirds of a flight to the living level of the lower apartment. The lower apartment has a sleeping area on the same level but of reduced height beneath the corridor. The upper apartment has a sleeping area up another third of a flight of stairs at a raised level above the corridor.

This arrangement produced three main advantages.

  • The reduced ceiling heights for non-essential areas resulted in a lower percentage of corridor space for the building as a whole, and thus economies of materials and construction costs.
  • Servicing was more efficient and less expensive as all pipes are down one wall only.
  • All living rooms could be on the same side having afternoon/evening sun and all sleeping areas on the side of the building having morning sun.

As with the Sobolev proposal, inverting the apartments around a shared corridor is always going to produce different results for the two apartments. Paired apartment volumes can be rotationally symmetrical around a shared corridor but staircases can’t because of humans and gravity being how they are.

The Type F appeared in four buildings, most famously at Ginzburg’s Narkomfin  in Moscow where it occurs along with Type K apartments that have a double-height living areas and attendant advantages for heating and illumination but no special volumetric savings other than shorter and fewer corridors.

Welles Coates’ 1939 10 Palace Gate is the next entry in this history of split level apartments.

They have three floors of regular height rooms but the height of one quarter of the apartment is split between the living room and the room above it. The height changes occur on the line of a split in plan but this isn’t used to any spatial advantage. [Here’s one that was on the market.]

The apartment Welles Coates designed and remodelled for himself in 1935 is more interesting. It doesn’t return the idea of artist to the space but it does return the idea of living with reorganised priorities in a smaller space.

The advantages of the Type F were to live on for a while longer. If he is remembered, Serge Chermayeff, is usually remembered as the architect of De La Warr Pavilion of the same 1935 in Bexhill-On-Sea, UK.

delawarr

In 1943, and now in America, Chermayeff published the Park-Type Apartments study that showed how a wide range of apartment sizes and types could be contained within the massing of a conventional apartment block. Here’s a closer look. They’re good.

Park Type Apartments-1

Adding some more width to the corridor level enables the kitchen and dining areas to stay together on that level as a functional unit. The lower apartments have no division between dining and living and the upper apartments have the dining area overlooking the living area in an equally sensible arrangement. This neatly solves the problems Sobolev faced. Moreover, the stair with split flights side by side can be used for both apartments and with the same advantages for internal circulation.

Le Corbusier may have known of Chermayeff’s study for, unlike Sobolev, the apartments in the 1949 Unité d’Habitations in Marseilles are entered on the level of the kitchen-dining area and the relationship with the living area discounted since, as with Chermayeff’s solutions, it is either on the same level as the living room or overlooking it, albeit from a full level above.

CORBGRAPHIC

Rotating a section in this way is all very well but the problem is that humans, unlike flies, can’t flip between walking on floors and walking on ceilings. It’s fine for the main bedroom to overlook the living room in an upper apartment but in a lower apartment the kitchen/dining overlooks the combined main bedroom and living area.

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This next image is of an apartment of that type, although the master bedroom appears to now be being used as the living room. Judging from the plan above, the master bedroom has been lengthened to where the stair begins. The apartment seems to be available for the holiday season so that bookcase might yet be concealing a bed.

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The Sobolev and Corbusier proposals share this flaw of rotating an apartment section vertically and horizontally around a double-loaded corridor even though the apartment plan can’t be inverted without some loss of functionality. The problem with the Unité planning is that kitchen/dining and main bedroom spaces are spatially but not functionally swappable.

As with the Artisan Housing or Pavilion de L’Espirit Nouveau, there’s no problem having a mezzanine if it is not inverted. Or as Chermayeff and Ginzburg showed, there’s no problem with mirrored double-height spaces if they occur on the line of a split in plan. Le Corbusier’s desire to reprise the mezzanine at Pavilion de L’Espirit Nouveau is what screwed everything up. He wasn’t one to admit an error. The same flawed arrangement is repeated in the ‘classic’ unité apartments at Nantes-Rezé of 1952-5, Briey-en-Foret in 1956, Berlin in 1957 and Firminy in 1960.

Despite Chermayeff’s study showing how spatial efficiencies could be pursued in high-rise housing, 1960s experiments focussed on creating a sense of space through complex internal planning confounding any perception of an enclosing envelope.

The stated rationale for the diabolically complex internal planning at Corringham by Douglas Stephen & Partners in 1960 is to give all residents a view of the communal garden.

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With Giovanni Pasanella’s Twin Parks West completed in the Bronx in 1974, the goal again seems to have been internal spatial diversity confounding the perception of an enclosing envelope.

The one and a half floor apartment makes a re-appearance in Charles Correa’s 1983 Kanchanjunga Apartments. A single-level apartment changes into a one-and-a-half floor apartment and then into a two-storey apartment and then a double height outdoor space which becomes a primary living space for this different climate. 

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All these historic ideas and techniques for making life better are still valid .  

Reversing the plan to squeeze the apartment on alternately opposite sides is precisely what  Nina Vorotynzeva and Raissa Polyak were doing in 1928 and Ginzburg too with the Type B a year later. There is still the same principle of having less height where it is least needed and diverting that height to reversed apartments above and/or below.

Many of the other ideas seen in the historic examples feature in this next contemporary proposal having one and a half floors and a double height living space.

  • The sleeping area, bathroom and kitchen have lower heights than usual but the greater height of the living rooms is presented as compensation but, in terms of priorities and benefits, more than compensates. Its anticipated benefits are the same as those seen by many of the Comradely Competition entrants.
  • The double height is not a mezzanine but a split-level and the staircase sensibly follows that split as Chermayeff found best.
  • The corridor is single sided to allow light and cross ventilation to the upper level, but also to the corridor itself.
  • The corridor is more of an enclosed balcony than a conventional corridor.

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You could ask ‘Why not extend the bedroom over the corridor so it can have a full window? And while you’re at it invert the apartments around the same corridor so it’s double loaded for better efficiency? – like Corbusier did in Marseilles.’ This would be possible if the entrance corridor / kitchen activity space came down the centre of the apartment to also access the stair and bathroom.

In fact, it would be a better solution internally as the kitchen activity space would then overlap more circulation space and produce more useable area. Doing this would create no problem for the upper apartments. As ever however, the lower apartments would have the kitchen separated from the table below, this time by eleven rather tricky stairs.

For now, you can’t get any better than the one-and-a-half floor apartment as devised by Ginzburg and perfected by Charmayeff

but let’s not forget Richard M. Hunt and the Tenth Street Studio for causing this whole space and light thing to kick off. 

Who’d have thought the person to first realize the value of what were to become the essential qualities of modern architecture would turn out to be a Beaux-Arts alumnus?

Tenth Street Studios

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Further reading:

4 thoughts on “The 1+1/2 Floor Apartment

    1. Graham McKay

      Hello Iago and thanks so much for that – it’s a perfect inclined mat building and from 1963! It’s amazing how relaxed it all looks. Your Iberian climate makes it seem so natural and obvious a solution. I’m so glad there were plans and sections as it helps to work out what windows are close to others above and below. Inclined mat buildings are a real challenge to design as every planning decision gets multiplied across and up and down the site. I’ll search, but if ever you see some images of the interiors or how it feels being on those terraces, please let me know. Thanks again, Graham.

      Reply
  1. Tom

    Fascinating article. Thanks for the exposition. Can’t muster your animus against LC. I’ve seen a few of his buildings including super-willful ones like La Tourette, and been delighted. OK – I was a tourist. Not in a permanent relationship you might say. That’s one criterion, not that clever if forever narrowing the perspective. Be interesting to look at modernist housing like Benson & Forsyth’s London terracing for Camden. Efficient sections or new spatial sensibility? Efficiency is a peculiar yardstick for architecture.

    Reply
    1. Graham McKay

      Thanks Tom for your comment and also for introducing me to Benson & Forsyth’s work for Camden. Not only are they masters of the split-level terrace but their Branch Hill housing is, along with Kikutake’s Pasadena Heights, the only other example of the inclined mat building for housing I’ve ever seen.

      As for Le Corbusier, it’s LC as a cult figure/media construct that I take repeated issue with. Of course the man himself is largely responsible for that (as shown by the name change, for one) but, after his death, this media construct seems to have grown and grown increasingly resistant to any sort of critical comment. As I did last week with Venice Hospital, I do object to buildings being praised for qualities that exist only because they are fundamentally flawed in some way they really shouldn’t be. So when I say the downstairs UdH plans are messy and flawed, I’m disapproving of sloppy planning (for I’m a planning geek like that) but it’s really a comment on the fact that comments like that aren’t welcome. I’m still not sure why that should be that case. Obviously, there’s something I’m not understanding – the misfits’ curse.

      I may have to do a special post on Benson & Forsyth by way of apology for their omission. Thanks again, Graham.

      Reply

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