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Housing specific for certain categories of workers isn’t a new thing. Once upon a time we all worked from home if we weren’t out in the fields and it was in the best interests of landowners to provide housing for the people who worked those fields. This was known as the feudal system and peasants farmed the land and paid taxes and received food, shelter and protection in return. The system had its faults, but it wasn’t so bad. In fact it wasn’t that much different from what we have now, except the food, shelter and protection aren’t part of the deal anymore.

More sophisticated in scope and utopian in vision was the phalanstère – a communal house for workers engaged in some kind of virtuous work to sustain the community within. The idea was put forward by Charles Fourier in the early 19th century. A phalanstère contained dining rooms, libraries, ballrooms, carpentry and metalworking workshops as well as its own hotel for visitors. They were meant to be sited in the countryside and we assume they were meant to be self sufficient. It seems to be all about the building which appears rather palatial. Due to lack of financial interest, the idea never took off.

I confess to only having just learned of phalanstères in the collection of writings that is The Countryside: A Report. It’s no page turner.

Back in reality, the Industrial Revolution made the link between workforce and housing more crucial as it was in everybody’s [?] best interests for miners and factory workers to live near the mines and factories where they had to work. These next images are back-to-back houses in Nottingham circa 1844. Back-to-back houses are thought of as unhealthy because they have windows on only one side but then so do many contemporary apartments. Washrooms however, are shared, as is the group of toilets called a “privy”. It’s grim, but still employer-supplied. We excuse the poor standard of the accommodation because it was a long time ago but forget that what industry there was, was the high-tech, cutting-edge, disruptive industry of its time.

L0011651 Plans an pictures of back-to-back houses in Nottingham. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Plans an pictures of back-to-back houses in Nottingham. Engraving circa 1844 Commission on the state of large towns First Report G. B. Roy Published: 1844 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Industry wasn’t going away. Workers still needed to be housed and the next advance in employee housing isn’t some new typology but about making it available and affordable. In 1893 George Cadbury relocated his chocolate factory to a location he named Bourneville and built a village of decent quality homes at prices industrial workers could afford and, to his credit, not exclusively for Cadbury workers. Most of the original buildings were in the Arts & Crafts style and, by 1900, the estate included 313 cottages and houses set on 330 acres (1.3 km2) of land. Quantitatively, it’s not much but, qualitatively, it’s world’s apart from anything else at the time. Or even now. Parks and recreation areas were incorporated and, in the early 1920s, sporting facilities such as a football field, hockey fields and a running track were added. In 1924 came Rowheath Pavilion to serve as clubhouse and changing rooms for the facilities as well as serve the bowling greens, fishing lake and outdoor swimming pool. All this was all provided at no charge to Cadbury’s employees.

The village of Bourneville remains a high point in the employer provision of housing. Cadbury also introduced pension schemes and full medical coverage for his workers. The remainder of the 19th century had improved housing for the workers required to operate more sophisticated machinery but the next great leap in worker housing was the Soviet communal house. These buildings not only housed the required workers but also gave architectural representation to a social and political unity of purpose. This was not appreciated by those in charge.

The industrial city of Ivrea is located in the Piedmont region of Italy and was developed as the testing ground for Olivetti, manufacturer of typewriters, mechanical calculators and office computers. It comprises a large factory and buildings designed to serve the administration and social services, as well as residential units. Designed by leading Italian urban planners and architects, mostly between the 1930s and the 1960s, this architectural ensemble reflects the ideas of the Community Movement (Movimento Comunità). It was a model social project that articulated a modern vision of the relationship between industrial production and architecture. This is unimaginable today.

Founded in 1908 by Camillo Olivetti, the Industrial City of Ivrea is a 20th century industrial and socio-cultural project. The Olivetti Company manufactured typewriters, mechanical calculators and desktop computers. Ivrea represents a model of the modern industrial city and a response to the challenges posed by rapid industrial change. It is therefore a response and contribution to 20th century theories of urbanism and industrialisation. Ivrea’s urban form and buildings were designed by some of the best-known Italian architects and town-planners of the period from the 1930s to the 1960s, under the direction of Adriano Olivetti. The city is comprised of buildings for manufacturing, administration, social services and residential uses, reflecting the ideas of the Movimento Comunità (Community Movement) which was founded in Ivrea in 1947 based on Adriano Olivetti’s 1945 book l’Ordine politico delle Comunità (The Political Order of Communities). [c.f.]

Corso Jervis (with the Officine ICO and the Social Services Centre in the foreground) photo: Maurizio Gjivovich © Guelpa Foundation
Building With 18 Apartments photo: Maurizio Gjivovich, © Guelpa Foundation

Overlapping Ivrea in the 20th century is the Japanese system of Shataku – housing maintained or at least made available by Japanese companies at reduced rents to new employees. Depending upon company policy, this can be for the first three to five years or longer. The system was devised after World War II as a way to attract new employees and provide a minimum standard of living. In 2003, there were nearly 1.5 million shataku units in Japan. Shataku apartments may be predominantly studio or 1-bed apartments in purpose-built or leased blocks conveniently located for the place of employment but, as a system, it’s a type of tenancy rather than an architectural typology.

The Shataku system still exists as it’s basic role of making it easier to recruit workers still holds, and it also makes it easier to transfer employees around the country. In 2003, there were approximately 1.3 million Shataku dwellings in Japan.

And that’s about it for employee housing in the 20th and 21st centuries. Certain employers may provide housing for their employees but mostly, this is because being readily on call is part of the job such as with the armed forces housing their personnel in specialized accommodation called barracks. In Dubai, entire apartment towers are leased by Emirates Airlines for their locally-based cabin crew. This time last year, the airline had about 22,000 cabin crew worldwide housed in a non-Japanese version of shataku. Again, this system is a matter of tenancy and not of architecture.

Universities have their company housing equivalents, with leased off-campus accommodation supplementing that provided on-campus. University provision of on-campus accommodation may be traditional but it’s expensive to build and can’t respond quickly to demand.

The private rental market is typically used to absorb fluctuations of supply and demand but the problem is that the large workforces of certain employers can distort local housing markets, as has happened in Silicon Valley and San Francisco. Facebook and Google have recently proposed employee housing as largely self-contained towns near their headquarters. It’s said these towns will include grocery stores, shops, cafes, movie theaters, gyms, and hundreds of apartments. This takes us back full circle to mining towns and their economies of proximity, and to Mr. Cadbury and his sprinkling of amenities.

A new mixed-use neighborhood proposed by Google.
Facebook’s version

Why am I reminded of this?

It remains to be seen if these residential communities will ever be realized. In May this year, Twitter announced it would give all employees the option of working from home permanently,The workplace has moved into living space that is personally owned or rented while Apple and Google both announced employees would have the option of working from home until June 30, 2020. Self-employed persons could always claim part of the cost of their accommodation and utilities back as a deduction but, now that the workplace has moved into living space that is individually owned or rented, we are yet to learn what the tax and health insurance implications of not being self-employed yet working from home will be. Nobody is in a hurry to propose modern phalanstère in which people live in an employer provided building in which they work. The economics of building phalanstères probably still refuse to stack up.

Instead, we have proposals to take office space in newly deserted city centres and convert it into housing. This will satisfy property managers who abhor a vacuum whether it’s in office space or those bars and restaurants usually empty on weekends. In terms of corporate productivity, it would also mean that people will effectively be doing the same work in the same spaces to which they formerly commuted. We live in a post-ironic world. Having employees pay for their own workspace may turn out to be less expensive and more desirable for employees but nowhere near as much as it will be for employers.

more on Ivrea

8th December 2020 update: René in Switzerland kindly emailed to say this post made her think of “Batapark“ in Möhlin nearby. The founder of Bata shows, Mr. Tomáš Baťa created worker villages and schools around his factories. There’s Batadorp in the Netherlands, Baťovany (present-day Partizánske) and Svit in Slovakia, Baťov (now Bahňák, part of Otrokovice) in the Czech Republic, Borovo-Bata (now Borovo Naselje, part of Vukovar in Croatia then in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia), Bata Park in Möhlin, Switzerland, Bataville in Lorraine, France, Batawa (Ontario) in Canada, Batatuba (São Paulo), Batayporã and Bataguassu (Mato Grosso do Sul) in Brazil. East Tilbury in Essex, England, Batapur in Pakistan and Batanagar and Bataganj in India. There was also a factory in Belcamp, Maryland, USA, northeast of Baltimore on U.S. Route 40 in Harford County. [W]

I remember Bata schoolshoes. I once had a pair of Bata Scouts, with animal tracks on the sole and a compass in a secret compartment in the heel.


  • Hi Graham and David –

    I’ve posted the USHC Report to a Dropbox folder here in case it can’t be found on line, see link below.

    I can still remember the day in the 1996 when I came across this large hardbound volume in the musty Dewey Decimal section of the PCL library at UT Austin, and was stunned by the sensitivity of the effort. I had been looking for information on shipyards built in the run-up to war (am generally fascinated by WWI) and came across this pattern book of housing tucked amid the Navy technical reports. I’ve since seen it mentioned in a housing book from the 1940s, but never a peep in my architectural education.

    The US Federal Govt was fairly silent on housing for the first few years after WWI, but when they re-entered the domain, it was with the sledgehammer of “Slum Eradication”, marching in firm alliance with the growing undercurrent of Eugencis that was taking over conversations about where (and how) people live. So many old parts of cities across the USA were demolished in the late 1920s up to WWII under the banner of “housing betterment”, and the pictures of what was lost from that time are heartbreaking. Manhattan has great expanses of space that were cleared at this time (for a variety of projects) and of course the neighborhoods that were left alone are today the most desirable.

    That paternalistic (at best) tinge of Eugenics is still there in the planning community, and perhaps gotten worse in recent years with the rise of Big Tech and “smart cities” and other invasive ways of manipulating individual behavior. My sense is that there are clues in these never-part-of-history projects.

    Finally Graham, among the innumerable jewels you have written here, I keep thinking of: The Best Way to Accommodate the Present is to Build Better Buildings in the Past. Your exposure and thoughts on all things Misfit are a great help in this effort, and I am inspired by your work.

  • The USA’s housing experience at Pullman, IL is topical to today’s prospects of tech companies becoming paternalistic controllers of their employees (and to increasing extent, ours) living arrangements. In the 1880s Pullman created a lovely town, with lovely housing, for the “betterment” of their employees – but when, a decade later, the company found itself on the losing end of passenger rail declines, and began laying off their employees, yet keeping their rents at the same pre-crash levels, it fomented a strike of national impact, severely disrupting rail service, not to mention the model community. One wonders how this will play out when today’s tech employees become equally disenfranchised (perhaps we’re seeing it…)

    Another topical USA housing experiment worth knowing about: worker communities built by the United States Housing Corporation during WWI. This Govt Corp was thrown together just after the Declaration of War in April 1917 in response to anticipated housing shortages among munition workers, driven by a fear of labor unrest and strikes.

    Within months had hired dozens of design firms – many at the top of their game – to create worker communities around the country. As opposed to almost all later Federal housing efforts, this one designed very nice housing in a variety of configurations (single family home, attached dwellings, apartments, etc) and generally in a suburban model. They felt they had to: they were trying to persuade workers to live in them, people who they treated as if they had some choice / agency.

    I have visited a few of these communities in CT and VA and they have held up well, with residents who have some knowledge that they were built for WWI, but not realizing that they were living in the first – and possibly last – nationwide Federal housing project.

    One can find the PDF of their report on line, and may be surprised by the scope of the project, and the delicacy of so much of the design. It also dispels the notion that the USA wasn’t suburban until after WWII – as the USHC projects demonstrate, the suburban model was already the model for the masses by WWI.

    Finally, its worth noting: despite taking several housing classes during my architectural education, neither of these important projects were part of the curriculum. Perhaps there is an applicable Misfit’s category to these unheralded projects ;’)

    • Hello David – this is all fantastic stuff. I’ll be looking into all of these and you can be sure there’ll be a post to make some more people aware of these projects. I’m wondering what category they would fall into? HISTORY seems inadequate and, worse, dismissive, as if labelling something as history is a way of fixing how people regard it and so ensure it won’t happen again. PERFORMANCE is also not a good fit. One post several years ago was Unsung Hero: Yoshikatsu Tsuboi, about Kenzo Tange’s structural engineer and these projects have something in common. The elephant in the room is that these projects are very close to what this blog is about. They are good and worthwhile projects that are ignored because they are inconvenient. They didn’t fall out of history because they were never included in the history we have in the first place, and even that history is getting thinner and thinner. “Unheralded” is a good word, and is probably key. Few governments retain an interest in housing their people and, accordingly, public housing has long ceased to be a topic for architectural development. One can pointlessly wish the clock turned back but there must be something we can still learn today from these projects. I’ll try to find out what it is. Thanks for all this David.

      • Just to clarify, there are two Davids here 🙂 – I also found David Grider’s post fascinating. If I may make a few additional suggestions, both Forest Hills Gardens, a vast development intended to provide working-class housing in suburban Queens, New York, is an amazing environment, as is the once beautiful community of Marktown, Indiana. The latter is currently facing wholesale demolition by the gas refineries next door while the former has fallen prey to increasingly genteel gentrification. For categories, would “Utopias” or “Societies” be useful?

      • Thanks for setting me straight on that davidvg5th! Company housing is a subset of worker housing which is a long-discarded topic in architecture. If and when the Facebook and Google “communities” finally get built I doubt they’ll be any different from any other kind of housing typology currently on offer. They’ll be a kind of tenure and that’s okay – as long as you want housing and health insurance dependent on you having a job requiring your on-site presence. Does everyone sit or lie around all day brainstorming? In its heyday, the Japanese system of company housing was just one part of the company being everything to an employee. It was part of a career and a future and for life. It intensified Mr. Bourneville’s efforts except this time the social and sporting activities took place closer to the factory than the home. When it’s safer to travel outside the province in which I’m resident, I want to check out those factory towns in Shenzen where everything in the world seems to get made. Western countries with manufacturing industries don’t like to extend their responsibilities towards housing their working populations so I’d like to see how it plays out here. Accommodation still remains a huge attractor for employees whether they work for google, a university or some factory in south-east China. That’s bordering on UTOPIAS these days but we have to have some sense of a better way of working everything out together. SOCIETIES is neutral on that, although it shouldn’t be. It ought to be the best word to describe what we have in mind.

      • prof. graham, the two davids, misfits. i was looking at hashima island as a good company housing example for your consideration. was reading some of those earlier concrete apt. blocks are dated 1916. while researching the density, came across this pretty cool site:

        plan voisin versions are even on there, which pretty much made my
        mullet go straight up.

        some comparable approximate densities (pop./acre):

        sf, ca = 24 and falling
        plan voisin (entire master plan) = 129
        hashima island = 312 in it’s heyday
        kowloon walled city = 7788

        happy holidays

  • I’d look up Pullman, IL; Strathglass Park, ME; and probably the most famous, the housing associated with Lowell, MA, for American examples.

    • Thanks David! I will, and will amend the post. I’m glad the 20th century history of company housing wasn’t as bleak as I thought. Thanks again, Graham.

      • Lowell is an amazing, stern and severe city, full of Very Serious Buildings, including a round stone mansion designed by a scientist and the world’s only steam-powered ceiling fan. Strathglass Park is a wonder for being designed by Cass Gilbert, who was the architect of the Woolworth Building – the town was company-owned until 1948, and is entirely intact minus one building, which burned in the 1970s. There are other instances dotted throughout the country, particularly in the Southwest and California. Unfortunately one of the greatest, in New Mexico was bulldozed when the company it served went bust – it was built in emulation of the Native American pueblo houses.

        In terms of low cost and social housing, you might be interested in the Williamsburg Houses and the fascinating Cobble Hill Towers, both in Brooklyn – the latter dates to 1878 and is one of the world’s first “social housing projects”. It remains intact and is a vigorous example of “Modern Gothic” somewhat in a muted variation of the style associated with Frank Furness.

      • This all sounds fantastic David. I’ll be looking into it all. It sounds like it deserves a post of its own! Thanks again, Graham.

  • I never really thought about it, but like you say, the Feudal system did have its neo-communal advantages. How lower-tier, Maslow needs of a population are met, is a personal interest. Once again, you write, and I learn. Thank you…my liege.