Monday, 8 April 2013

Recycled Ideas - 50 years on, Habraken catches on

IBA Hamburg / Bernadette Grimmenstein

IBA Hamburg began last month, and lasts for the rest of 2013. Building exhibitions have been held in Germany since 1901.  They are events at a scale, both physical and intellectual, that we here in Australia have neither achieved, nor contemplated.  OK, that's a bit below the belt – it's a bit hard to compete, when you think of the sort of political rivalry that gave us the East German 1952 Stalinallee and West Berlin's response in the 1957 Interbau – with an international who is who including le Corbusier, Gropius, Jacobsen, Niemeyer, Aalto, Bakema and 42 other eminent architects, commissioned to execute a huge range of accommodation, both low- and high-rise.

The Hamburg 2013 “Building Exhibition within the Building Exhibition” is not quite as ambitious as that.  But it's still a remarkable contrast to our celebration of the status quo in Homeworld, Kellyville, or that whimper of adventure, the Houses of the Future we held back in 2000.  The 130 apartments in Hamburg are built as case studies, around four themes:
  • Smart Material Houses demonstrate building using innovative construction materials.
  • Smart Price Houses set out cost-effective, inner-city building solutions.
  • Hybrid Houses, exploring how flexible living will look in the future with dwellings adapting to the needs of the residents. 
  • WaterHouses illustrate building concepts that are centred around and incorporate water, both as a resource and a risk factor.
But by coincidence, what drew my attention to the Hamburg show just now, was "Grundbau und Siedler" (Basic Building and Settlers) by BeL Associates, picked up by DETAIL magazine, highlighting it as the only architectural project among the 61 winners of the universal design award in 2013.  For some of us, it triggers deja vu, and consequently incredulity that the project should be considered original enough to be premiated in any category.  It is a very literal concrete example of specific proposals by John N. Habraken, whose Supports, an Alternative to Mass Housing was first published in 1962 . In the book, Habraken proposes the separation of 'support' or base building from 'infill' or interior fit-out in residential construction and design as a means of giving inhabitants a meaningful participative role in the design process.

Indeed, it takes a little digging to find even tacit acknowledgement of this uncomfortably close precedent.  It comes in "In with the Old, out with the New", a more wide-ranging piece by Oliver Elser, writing in Frieze. Elser argues elegantly that the project is driven by a subtly different zeitgeist.  In his view, during the 1960's and 70's, 'participation' topped the agenda, and as part of the process of emancipation from all manner of dependencies, homes were also to be revolutionized. Whereas now these strategies are making a comeback, with less ideological baggage, based purely on the need to be able to offer affordable accommodation to an increasingly poor middle class. From a German perspective, Elser suggests that:
".....the architecture scene in Germany (and elsewhere) is gradually coming to the conclusion that augmenting, repairing, extending and improvising can be more important than the never-ending quest for the new and the unprecedented....."
If so, I am more than happy to suppress my knee jerk indignation at the poorly acknowledged recycling of 50-year old ideas (not to mention, most of the references to the Grundbau un Siedler project are in German, and I may be missing the relevant citations), and agree that the time has finally come for those ideas to be implemented as part of a more sustainable future.

Do It Yourself: Affordable DIY Housing here.
In with the Old, out with the New here.
Basic Building and Do-It-Yourself Builders IBA_Hamburg web site, here.
IBA_Hamburg home page.


Marten said...

Having read your post I set myself to dig deeper into the issue of the lack of ackowledgement of pre-existing ideas. There is an obvious resemblance to Habraken’s work but not even in any of the German publications that I read (German being my native tongue) could I find any ackowledgement apart from general references to the ideology of the participation movement of the 1960’s and 70’s.
The „Grundbau und Siedler“ project is generally referred to as an alternative when it comes to affordable housing - in times when prices for appartments (especially in Germany’s larger cities) have been rising for years. Thus, I have come to the same conclusion that the lack of acknowledgement may be excused as the approach that has led to the design has been quite different.

In contrast to the movement for citizen’s participation some fifty years ago, all publications seem to separate the „Grundbau und Siedler“ project from any ideological aspects – other than financial and economic considerations. BeL Associates in their project flyer (, however, strive to emphasize that in addition to offering affordable housing the Do it yourself-approach has the strong advantage of resulting in a feeling of accomplishment and (to a certain extent) pride in the settlers. Furthermore, the architects expect a comparatively strong community to form within each structure, as neighbours will often help each other in getting settled. Thus, there are to be found some ideological considerations after all. Interestingly enough, the project (being part of the IBA Hamburg) is set in an area characterized by both, large appartment blocks from the 70’s and accumulations of „Lauben“ (best translated by „gazebos“; referring to small houses found anywhere near German cities, where cititzens, who often live in small appartments tend to spend their afternoons or weekends, enjoying the opportunity to work on their own small piece of land). Thus, the „Grundbau und Siedler“ project is an interesting combination of the two typologies and may profit from this very German search for personal accomplishment.

It may well be that indeed, now the time has come for those pre-existing ideas to be recycled, applied to a new need and, consequently, be implemented successfully.

Steve King said...

I strongly suspected what you write.....Google is a wonderful thing; I searched for Habraken, this project and language German, with no more success than in English. But thanks for checking into the German articles and posts. That said, we both seem more interested in the timeliness of those ideas coming to fruition, than in academic niceties, hey?

Interesting you describing the area as one with 'allotments'. I remember them vividly, seeing them from train windows on the outskirts of most German cities. Definitely adds to my grasp of the project.