Sunday, June 28, 2015

Fall and Rise of the "Euro Block"

In a recent post, Urban Kchoze's Simon Vallee discusses the traditional "Euro block," that characteristic urban form of European cities from the late 18th to the mid-20th century.  He makes the observation that although the earliest urban development in North American cities adhered somewhat closely to the European pattern, it gradually diverged over time, such that by the wave of industrial-era urbanization in the mid- and late-19th century, the form that apartment blocks took (where they were built at all) was quite different.

Since he focuses mainly on the process that produced these buildings, I wanted to instead examine the form of these various European and American block styles, looking at the particulars of design, density and scale, partly out of curiosity, and partly to see if it is possible to discern any design trends over time.  A good starting point for comparison is a typical Euro block, in this case a Berlin apartment block from the Gründerzeit era, showing the characteristic form that prevailed throughout many of the larger cities of Europe from the late 1700s to the mid 20th century.

I can't pretend to know the exact process that went into the construction of these mietskaserne, but in general, the focus seems to have been on providing for spacious but enclosed courtyards as part of an integrated, block-wide plan.  Although minimum courtyard sizes were established by German building laws in the late 1850s, these were regularly exceeded by the housing associations or cooperatives that built the structures.  Apartment buildings take interlocking forms, with each leaving a blank party wall for future neighbors to build against.  The apartments have good access to natural light, and there are no narrow airshafts.  They were unsanitary and massively overcrowded in the late 19th century, just as the tenements of Manhattan were, but seem to have avoided some of the worst design failings of the New York apartments.  Moreover, the density and integrated nature of the design, combined with the lack of residential-only zoning, was such that each block was capable of establishing small businesses to serve its own residential population.  The specifics are set out below.

Berlin Block
Block Area: 2.23 acres        Block Length: 482 ft.
Stories: 5.5                             Building Depth: 45 ft          
Block Coverage: 78%         F.A.R.: 4.3                              

For contrast, let's examine a typical block of the same era from New York City, in this case from the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn:

Bushwick Block
Block Area: 2.07 acres        Block Length: 468 ft.
Stories: 3                                Building Depth: 70 ft.         
Block Coverage: 81%         F.A.R.: 2.4                             

Although the Bushwick block is much lower density than the Berlin block due to a lesser number of stories, it actually has greater lot coverage and significantly inferior natural illumination.  As the building depth is so much greater than in the case of the Berlin block, the architect has punched airshafts (approx. 8'x13') at intervals down the middle of the row in order to avoid a large number of completely windowless rooms.  Although these airshafts collectively take up over 3,000 sq. ft., that space is inaccessible and unusable.  The long, narrow interior courtyard is sectioned off into small fenced parcels that appear to have little recreational value.

Overall, despite the lower density, the Bushwick block must feel denser and more cramped than the Berlin block due to lack of natural light and paucity of common space.  It is a design that cannot be scaled upwards, either, as much above three stories the airshafts will become useless for the lower floors.  This block design, despite its obvious flaws, was replicated many hundreds of times over Brooklyn and Queens.  Other common approaches included narrowing building depth, which further reduced F.A.R., or breaking up the block into duplexes and their variants, which again left a large amount of airshaft-like unusable space in between buildings.

New York's city planners were well aware of these issues in the late 19th century, as I've written about before, and attempted to address them through the "New Law" building mandates of 1901.  Included among these regulations were minimum dimensional requirements for light shafts of 24', a dimension larger than that set by German building codes, yet still much smaller than the typical Berlin courtyard of 80'x38'.  These dimensions appear to have been designed for purposes of admitting light, rather than for creating usable spaces.

Washington Heights Block
Block Area: 2.06 acres        Block Length: 458 ft.
Stories: 5-6                            Building Depth: 75 ft.         
Block Coverage: 72%         F.A.R.: 4.1                             

The result of these regulations is in some ways even worse than the Bushwick block.  The central courtyard space has shrunk to a narrow corridor which, while it might make a reasonably pleasant narrow street, is here relegated to being a concrete-surfaced no man's land.  Interior open space constituting 28% of the block area, more than in the Berlin block, has been entirely squandered.  This block represents the culmination of a half century of regulations purportedly intended to improve the arrangement of residential quarters, and yet the quality of mid-rise apartment design could hardly fall any lower.  Richard Plunz, in A History of Housing in New York, summarizes the efforts of New York architects and builders, as compared to those of Europe:
"In Europe by the turn of the century, the development of new prototypes for reduced [lot] coverage had reached a level of sophistication unknown in New York until the 1920s . . .  In all cases, the European efforts far surpassed the scale and quality of anything that could be found in New York."  History of Housing in New York, p. 138.
Plunz' assertion is a bold one, and could be quibbled with in the details, but one which seems essentially accurate.  Compared to even the mietskaserne, the sullen apartment blocks of Washington Heights and the Bronx inspired little affection and did not retain middle-class residents or entice new ones.  Following the failure of the New Law regulations to create blocks that rivaled the quality of even the average Euro block, New York planners and indeed the entire planning profession gradually abandoned the concept of the enclosed block, instead adopting either the garden apartment or the tower-in-the-park concept (the first such plan being drawn up in 1917, according to Plunz). Although both of these featured large quantities of landscaped space, very little of it was private and enclosed.

In most American cities, apartment blocks of either the European or New York types were rare, and apartment buildings outside central city areas tended to adopt garden apartment forms.  The dense industrial cities of the northeast, for instance,  accommodated virtually all of their population growth in the 1860-1920 period in cottages and three-deckers, or in slightly larger, but standalone, apartment buildings.  Oddly enough, the Euro block form was very well known and used in these cities at the time, but only for manufacturing plants, as shown in these old illustrations:

The Winchester Arms factory in New Haven, CT, top, and
factories on the east side of Bridgeport, CT, via BIG Map Blog
The suitability of this form for residential use was belatedly discovered some one hundred years later.  The Winchester Repeating Arms Factory, shown in an 1879 illustration above, is undergoing conversion to an apartment block that would not look out of place in contemporary Berlin.  Bridgeport itself did eventually discover the cooperative ownership form for apartment complexes using a somewhat similar design, but not until almost a century later.

Revival of the concept is not limited to loft conversions of former industrial facilities, as the form has lately begun to proliferate throughout the Sunbelt cities.  Simon notices this in his post, too, but I think the form-based similarities are worth exploring.  Below is an apartment "complex" in Dallas, Texas, that is representative of a type found throughout Sunbelt cities.  Even a glance at the overall layout immediately tells us that the form here is much closer to the 19th century Berlin block than to any of the New York examples shown previously: the building uses interior wings to define enclosed but spacious courtyards which serve recreational purposes.

Dallas Block
Block Area: 2.42 acres        Block Length: 330 ft.
Stories: 3                                Building Depth: 75 ft.         
Block Coverage: 81%         F.A.R.: 2.4                            

Very often, decked parking garages are incorporated within these buildings in the familiar "Texas doughnut" configuration, but using a ground level parking area, with courtyard placed over it, seems to also be popular.  Were the buildings made taller and somewhat narrower, as in Berlin, an even better result could be obtained, but this might not be as economical in light of modern construction mandates for fireproof construction above a certain number of stories.

Are there any editorial comments to make in closing?  The American experience with apartment-building seems to have been characterized by planning interventions that were about mitigating perceived shortcomings or excesses rather than pursuing any clear idea of good design.  The Euro block form, in the absence of large developers or cooperatives with access to capital and who are able to design entire blocks from scratch, relies on top-down and forward-looking coordination of a sort which was generally absent in 19th century American cities.  Its complete absence from the wealthy industrial cities of the northeast and midwest is conspicuous.  In spite of that, the Euro block, with its restrained density, generous interior spaces and focus on harmony and aesthetic unity, is a form of urbanism well-suited to American sensibilities.  Its rediscovery in the late 20th and early 20th shouldn't come as a great surprise.

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  1. This is a wonderful post, and I've been pondering the contrasts it discussed ever since I used to download and create custom buildings for SimCity 4, where I first noticed the stark difference between the European tenements and the New York tenements!

    I later got to experience the difference between the two types of tenements in person, and the contrast was always striking: while it's possible to make apartments within NYC tenements charming, even appealing, these days thanks to electric lighting and other amenities, I still find it odd to wake up, go about, and go to sleep in some of the deeper-within-the-tenement NYC apartments because the different times of the day *all feel the same* due to the body's reduced ability to sense the position of the sun and other elements.

    Contrarily, I was amazed the first time I stayed in a Warsaw hostel located towards the back of an old Mietskasern (of which the city unfortunately has few left, thanks to WWII). Every morning I woke up in rooms flooded with sunlight, and throughout the day the apartment-turned-hostel - which faced the courtyard and had no street frontage - felt every bit as bright and airy as a freestanding building! I can't forget the shock at how different that place felt from the typical NYC tenement!

    As discussed in the post, I'm always amazed at how *useless* NYC airshafts and light wells really are in contrast with Mietskaserne courtyards. They may offer light and ventilation (and I suppose back before there were dryers you could hang your laundry in them as well), but otherwise they offer *none* of the benefits of a courtyard. Note that we can't even fully credit the shafts for offering light and ventilation: in the NYC tenement apartments I've stayed in, almost all the inhabitants had gotten into the habit of perpetually screening the windows facing the light shifts; their awkward, narrow shapes make privacy difficult.

    I too wonder what led to the divergent habits: American regulations, as discussed, were entirely *proscriptive* (describing what *not* to do rather than setting an example for what *to* do), but European regulations weren't particularly *pre*scriptive either.

    There's an additional benefit to Mietskaserne: their ability to provide shortcuts across blocks (essentially reducing block size) by offering one or more courtyard porticoes that connect to the courtyards of adjacent Mietskaserne, allowing one to pass through a block from courtyard to courtyard. This was a particularly thrilling discovery of mine in Wroclaw, and I liked to see how far I could get without having to traverse any streets!

    This ability is almost nonexistent in NYC tenement blocks, which is very unfortunate because it's something the city's long blocks sorely need. Instead the city is saddled with mostly-inaccessible leftover space - that perennial "open space" that we Americans love to fetishize but don't actually know how to put to good use.

    Finally, I'm wondering if there are any examples of contemporary Mietskaserne-like developments done at the *small scale* (i.e. multiple Mietskaserne contributing to a single block, as in the Berlin example)? The Texas Donut format is an encouraging trend, but due to regulations (parking mins, FAR, building codes, etc.), financing policies, and plain old habit, these donuts almost always are built at the scale of an entire (very large) block, as the example above shows! Moreover, their courtyards are often not accessible to the public like those of prewar Mietskaserne, eliminating any possibility for nonresidents to cut through very large blocks.

    1. "I too wonder what led to the divergent habits: American regulations, as discussed, were entirely *proscriptive* (describing what *not* to do rather than setting an example for what *to* do), but European regulations weren't particularly *pre*scriptive either. "

      Sorry for the late reply, Marc. I've been pondering this also. The European regulations weren't really all that different so far as I can glean. One possibility that bears further exploration is that the courtyard buildings seem to have been built, in many though not all cases, by cooperative associations of citizens (as reflected today in the contemporary German "baugruppen"). When multifamily buildings are the product of citizen initiative, the resulting design generally seems to be better than what you get with pure speculative apartment construction. Just one possibility.

      And yes, there is one example I am aware of of contemporary Mietskaserne-style development -- look at the northwest quadrant of Hoboken, NJ on Google maps. The courtyards are not publicly accessible though, at least not for the most part.

    2. I think it's because the tenements were genuinely constructed as free-market operations to house the low-income. The Euro blocks were constructed by would-be residents.

      The tenements were constructed by money-grubbing developers looking to maximize return on investment, and serving customers with very little income -- so maxing out bedrooms-per-square-foot without worrying about amenities (because their customers' alternatives were shacks without plumbing). I commented on another post that tenements are an example of market-driven housing specifically designed to serve the low income.

      I don't think the tenement would have arisen if not for a genuine and very fast *boom* in New York's population and jobs. Slower-growing cities built nicer factory housing because they had to attract workers who had the option of going to another city.

  2. I wonder how much this has to do with land subdivision practices in the US compared to Europe. In the US, it seems like almost always, there's just one house centered on a lot, and if you want to build two houses on a piece of land that fronts a street, you have split the frontage in half, giving you narrow strips. In Europe and older parts of the Boston area, it feels like subdivision was a lot more ad hoc, and it was a lot more common to have two houses on a lot (front and back), or flagpole lots, or other such arrangements. As cities got denser, it also meant things like having a separate building in the courtyard in the center of a block, and from there, it's not a huge leap to the standard mietskaserne.

    1. It probably does count for something... although I think in NYC the first phase of development was typically row houses with little to no front setbacks (or even tenements in the Bronx/upper Manhattah?).

      In Australia and New Zealand lots often seem pretty deep so you can build an additional house in the back as you describe, but in Canada and I guess the United States they tend to be shallower.

      In Hungary (and formerly Hungarian towns in Transylvania, Serbia and I think Slovakia), the traditional development style, even in tiny villages was narrow but often very deep lots. The house was single storey and built right up to the street and sometimes touching it's neighbours. They often had an "L" shape with a single room wide extension stretching well into the lot, sometimes that's where the livestock was kept.

      Before even converting the property to a second storey, it seems the homes would often expand into multi-family forms with courtyards, or something similar to a half "bungalow court" but with the individual units attached together.,23.590146,283m/data=!3m1!1e3

      The point is, sharing walls along side or rear lot lines, and having shared courtyards, and zero front-setback, was already established as a building pattern before even the second storey was added. As a result, building 3-7 storey courtyard buildings, a stage mostly just reached in Budapest, probably seemed like a natural evolution of similar single storey formats.

      There are American cities where you had 2nd units behind single family homes, either attached or detached. You see this in older working class parts of Cleveland and Buffalo, and I also saw it in small towns in Vermont and New Hampshire, and Fredericton, New Brunswick seems to have these too. Perhaps the overall pattern of these is still "single family-like" so courtyard apartments would have been too much of a contrast, or maybe it's just a matter of these neighbourhoods never having reached that point in intensification. It does seem like subdivision has occurred in cities like San Francisco and Philadelphia, and possibly Pittsburgh and Salt Lake City, but at the level of the block.

      One interesting city to look at is Los Angeles. There it's quite common to have 2nd units behind existing ones, and some neighbourhoods have reached the stage of further intensification. That has meant courtyard buildings, but with small side setbacks, and front setbacks that often match those of the remaining neighbourhood SFHs. The LA courtyards seem to be narrower, perhaps because they can still get light from the side and rear lot lines.

  3. Thank you for writing this post! I lived in a courtyard building in Munich for 2 years and marveled at how pleasant it was. I would love to see developers in the U.S. adopt this style.

  4. I agree with most of the post, but not with the end, where you're blaming the inferiority of the New Law tenement for American urban renewal and suburbanization. Postwar developments on this side of the Atlantic have abandoned the euroblock, just as those of New York abandoned the New Law tenement. Stockholm's turn-of-the-century housing stock, including my building (built 1907), is all euroblocks, but once you go to the 1940s-era and newer neighborhoods, you get much more inert modernistic green space, and then towers in the park.


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  6. I've noticed that there is another kind of use of the EuroBlock or enclosed courtyard in America: college campuses. They're not as dense as their European counterparts, but they're there.