Friday, January 27, 2012

Friday Read: Mixed-Income Housing, Prussian-Style

In the response to Wednesday's post, commenter Marc mentioned the example of the Mietskaserne (roughly, "tenement"), the mid-rise courtyard apartment blocks that were built in the tens of thousands throughout central Europe during the 19th century.  Europe's answer to the tenements of the Lower East Side, the designers of these apartment buildings attempted to accommodate density with a degree of open space and residential with commercial and industrial uses.  Notably, they even aspired to integrate the wealthy with the poor and middle-class, all within the same buildings or cluster or buildings.

The Berlin city planner James Hobrecht, who played the role of Pierre L'Enfant, Andrew Haswell Green and Frederick Law Olmsted all rolled into one, had already distinguished himself from his counterparts in Washington and New York by incorporating existing roads into his plan, rather than blotting them out under an orthogonal grid.  His approach toward residential development, also, represented a quite different approach from the consensus emerging in mid-19th century London and New York, as this study describes:
"In a 1868 publication Hobrecht reveals his position on housing. He describes a situation in English cities where wealthy inhabitants would live in their villas in West-end districts. They would be completely separated - spatially and socially - from workers. Hobrecht rejects the English model with its strict spatial separation of classes on the scale of districts. Instead he illustrates the Berlin model, in which Mietskasernen play a crucial role. He describes the Mietskaserne as a multi-storey building with the following structure
of dwelling units and respective rent prices:
  • Floor IV: 3 units à 100 Taler
  • Floor III: 2 units à 150 Taler
  • Floor II: 3 units à 200 Taler
  • Floor I: 1 unit à 500 Taler
  • Ground floor: 2 units à 200 Taler
  • Basement or rear building: units à 50 Taler"
The study criticizes this arrangement for potentially exploiting the poor for rent, in substandard accommodations, and under the watchful eyes of the agents of the building owners and the wealthy residents on the étage noble, yet it's not clear, based on the facts given, whether the fourth floor or basement apartments actually paid for themselves (although it's said that the poorest residents often failed to pay their rent altogether).  Were the wealthier residents effectively subsidizing those in the basement and fourth floor?  Hobrecht's discussion of how he envisioned the residents living together, moreover, sounds like it was excerpted directly from The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Berlin Mietskaserne.
As for the quality of the accommodations, Hobrecht's plans do concede a measure of comfort for the sake of affordability, a tradeoff which appears to reflect a market-based and realistic approach to affordable housing that contrasts with the garden city idealism of English and American planners.  Even so, certain pseudo-utilitarian fetishes of the day do make an appearance: an obsession with light and air, for one, excessively wide streets, and a requirement that courtyards be large enough for a fireman's wagon to make a u-turn.  Use-based zoning was absent, however, at least initially, with the buildings serving as residences, small-business incubators and manufactories all in one.

The study contrasts the positive and negative views of these apartments as being simultaneously "palaces" and "prisons", but even this dualistic interpretation contrasts with the almost uniformly negative appraisal of the tenements of Manhattan (although the tenants' own views probably differed from those of the most vocal critics).  Marc, in his comment, speculates that the design and quality of these dwellings may have played a role in the divergent attitudes of 19th century continental Europeans and Americans toward high-density living.  At the very least, this shows one alternative approach to planning, and to an integration of uses and incomes, that still has relevance for today's planners.


  1. One interesting attribute of these building is their courtyards, which tend to be partly or totally enclosed by the buildings, which gives the space a sense of ownership, as opposed to various setbacks and side yards in American cities, which are more of a buffer space. I also wonder to what extent these ideas from Berlin influenced planners in Russia and the Soviet Union, and whether this would explain some of the differences between Moscow apartment blocks and NYC housing projects. The former tend to use the space between buildings as courtyards, with buildings arranged around them and all sorts of amenities, while the latter tend to have randomly configured and fenced off "green space" designed to not be used for anything at all. On that note: there's an important difference between space that is designed to not be used for anything, and space that not designed for anything. The latter is an invitation to use the space for whatever you need, while the former is an angry prohibition: even if you desperately need some space, you can't have this one, because it's reserved for mandatory wasted space.

  2. I don't think anyone was subsidizing anyone…the basement was horrible for the obvious reasons, but other than that, the closer to the ground, the better – after all, they didn't have elevators. (For us today, it's the opposite, at least for skyscrapers.) I am surprised at the differential, though.

  3. @Stephen: not a literal subsidy, but perhaps the steady and high rental income from the first couple floors made offering lower total rents on the upper floors a less risky proposition.

    @Anonymous: Good points -- the study describes how these courtyard spaces were adapted over time for all sorts of purposes, many of which were never foreseen by the builders, but which were possible because of the enclosed design space (recreation space for children, for instance).

  4. This design sounds very much like the traditional Italian palazzo -- and I'm guessing the pattern was common elsewhere in Europe. A noble family in Rome, say, would have their grand city palace with the coat of arms over the front door, but there was commercial space on the ground floor and rental apartments upstairs, even some pretty tenementish space in the attics. It wasn't a straight commercial arrangement because there was also a feudal/political patron-client dimension as well. But the idea was around for a long time before the 1860s.

  5. Great follow-up on Mietskaserne! The example image from Berlin is actually pretty "loose" and airy - I've been in courtyard blocks that are even denser...,+poland&hl=en&ll=52.228552,21.009099&spn=0.001349,0.00217&sll=40.748234,-73.887501&sspn=0.001668,0.00217&hnear=Warsaw,+Warszawa,+Masovian+Voivodeship,+Poland&t=k&z=19

    ...but which are still remarkably bright and pleasant (nothing like one of those dim, gloomy NYC "dumbbell" tenements). Unfortunately very little of this kind of fabric survives in Warsaw (most of it was leveled in WWII).

    Anonymous, your point on the difference between "owned" enclosed spaces (like courtyards) and "ownerless" buffer spaces (like those around tower-in-the-park developments) was great. I think this is a crucial design feature that determines whether a resident feels he/she has control over the physical environment in which they live.

    You also brought up an interesting point about the different ways "green space" was treated in Eastern European tower block developments and American housing projects. The Eastern European tendency to loosely cluster their tower blocks around pseudo-courtyards was probably a holdover from the "perimeter block" form of 19th century urban development (many of East Berlin's earliest postwar housing blocks - Frankfurter Tor, for example - famously took on an almost-Baroque perimeter block form). Still, these pseudo-courtyards (and their accompanying buildings) were done on too large, bland, and alienating a scale to really feel comforting and "ownable." Of course in the US there wasn't even a mere vestige/gesture of the perimeter block typlogy in postwar urban development. Le Corbusier's placeless, anithuman ideologies reigned supreme.

  6. Charlie, Stephen: for what it's worth, in both 19th century Paris and Ancient Rome, apartments closer to the ground floor were more expensive and inhabited by richer people. Kunstler has an article somewhere (attacking Bruegmann's book, I think) contrasting Paris with London about this - London was much less dense and tended toward rowhouses, so there was less income mixing.

  7. BTW I think a more accurate, literal translation for "Mietskaserne" would be "rental barracks," not "tenements." (Miete = Rent, Kasernen = Barracks). The term lacks elegance and grace, but it makes up for that with typical German clarity and straightforwardness.

  8. And the article Alon is referring to is here...

    There is a longer, more nuanced discussion on this in the Paris and London chapters of 'The City in Mind.' Basically the rowhouse is often - but not always - a clunky urban form if it's done on a mass, speculative basis (as was the case in the late 19th century). Not only do shops have to be retrofitted into the rowhouses later (I'm sure this led to a lot of proto-NIMBYism!), but the income segregation Alon mentioned was also more pronounced.

    Of course the elevator has since obviated the rent "gradations" of old apartment buildings: it used to be the upper floors were cheaper because you had to walk up 5, 6, 7, or even 8 flights of stairs to get to them. Now you can quickly whisk up to them in a elevator and have a great penthouse view.

  9. By the way, the courtyard in Mietskasernen allows all sorts of future flexibility. I've seen a building that had an external elevator retrofitted, in the courtyard. That's a bit harder to do when you only have street frontage or a backyard that's not easily accessible from the front without going through someone's apartment.

  10. To my mind the building form is the most interesting feature. It allows for density, adaptation over time and enclosed green space all at a reasonable building height.

  11. @Alon: I've read (I think it was in Robert Fishman's book) that England adopted its rowhouse form from the Dutch, who had been rowhouse-dwellers for many centuries before that form really took off in 19th century Britain. French-speaking areas generally appear to have been more apartment-friendly, although there's no sharp dividing line.

    @Marc: thanks for that translation. The Prussians were not much for euphemisms, I guess. Thanks also for the link to the Kunstler article, which I'd read a long time ago but forgotten about. One quick observation is that Kunstler claims that New York "went crazy for Paris-style apartment living," which, to the extent he means New York also had a vertical integration of incomes, I'm not so sure about. Anecdotally I have read stories of tenement builders living in the first floor apartments of their own buildings, but Fogelson's "Downtown" suggests the very word ("downtown") emerged from income-based, and use-based, segregation that emerged in the mid 1800s.

  12. "Anecdotally I have read stories of tenement builders living in the first floor apartments of their own buildings, but Fogelson's "Downtown" suggests the very word ("downtown") emerged from income-based, and use-based, segregation that emerged in the mid 1800s."

    The anecdotal stories may have indeed been a lot more common - "downtown" in the very old East Coast cities was still a "mixed use" place even in the 19th century:

    Even relatively-small eastern cities - like Troy, NY - had a fine grain of rowhouses and small apartment buildings built right into or immediately adjacent to their CBDs. But I do agree that the 'CBD downtown + skirt of "cottage homes"' template is overwhelmingly common elsewhere in the US.

  13. Sorry, the correct link for the post above should be:

  14. Great Post!

    BTW Mietskaserne accurately translated means Rental Barracks

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