After the 1940 bombing of the Oude Haven port, urban regeneration and housing became the priority in Rotterdam. With the objective of “architecture with life” instead of utilitarian architecture, the city planners approached Piet Blom to apply for his Cube housing in Helmond to a more urban context. Piet Blom, a Dutch architect and an important pioneer of the Structuralist movement known for his desire to challenge conventions, believed strongly that a building does not have to be recognizable as housing for it to qualify as such.
The Cube Houses are located on Overblaak Street in Rotterdam, Holland, near the Rotterdam Blaak train station, and are surrounded by other well-known works such as MVRDV’s Markthall and KCAP’s Red Apple, as well as historic survivors of the German bombing of 1940, Witte Huis and Sint-Laurenskerk, in an area that could easily be identified as another one of the city’s architectural experimentation nodes. The “Overblaak,” a path at the foot of the cube houses that has four small squares, is a distinctive place with diverse places for small businesses and also shapes the nearby environment. Various cultural activities, such as the Overblaak Fashion Walk, were held here in the 1980s.
Piet Blom designed the housing development such that it would not be discerned as the work of just one architect. Blom was fascinated with urban planning and felt that urban communities should have the sense of villages. To avoid making it a dominating intervention, he divided it into three projects, Blaaktoren, a 13-story hexagonal apartment tower resembling a pencil; Spaanse Kade, a complex of terraced buildings that surround an inner courtyard; and the Kubuswoningen, an exploration of cube houses in an urban context.
Blom was not a fan of stacking dwellings but to achieve the required housing density of 205 dwellings per hectare, both Blaaktoren and Spaanse Kade needed to be vertical. However, this compromise allowed him the freedom to design Kubuswoningen as he liked. Blom realized that elevating inhabitable masses on narrow trunks would maximize public space below while providing perfect vistas from above; a notion influenced by Le Corbusier’s work. Blom tilted the cube of a conventional house corner upwards and placed it on a hexagon-shaped pylon. Metaphorically, the triangular top of each individual house depicts an abstract tree, which becomes a sea of trees when joined to its neighbor, a yellow and manufactured forest.
A pedestrian bridge over one of the main traffic roads was required by the city council, including houses and shops. Piet Blom furnished this bridge with his main source of inspiration being Ponte Vecchio.
“Architecture is more than creating a place to live; you create a society.”- Piet Blom.
The “urban forest” is made up of 38 small cubes and two super cubes that are all interlinked. A cube poised upon one corner and raised atop a hollow pylon comprises the basic unit, although adjacent units could be joined to create larger dwellings. While the housing was considered to be an important element of the urban fabric, it was also recognized, after discussions with the stakeholders, the desirability of introducing a strong focus on cultural activities accessible to the entire community. The pedestrian zone that connects the cubes has a small playground for children as well as small offices and studios, in addition to serving as a bridge.
Some houses have a hexagon-shaped core or trunk composed of three concrete pillars and concrete block walls at the ground level. This “trunk” has two levels: a storage room with its own door on the street level and side stairs leading to the second level, where the entrance of the house is. Commercial stores can be found in the spaces between the cores.
The entry is on the ground floor, with a triangular area serving as a living room and open kitchen. This level was called “alley” by Piet Blom because the windows facing down provide a visual link to the happenings on the street. The sleeping space, with two bedrooms, a small living room, and a bathroom, is on the second level, with its windows looking skyward and dubbed “sky-house” by the architect. The upper story is accessed through a platform with storage underneath and a stairway that leads to the tabernacle, a three-sided pyramid with 18 windows and three vents that provide a panoramic view of the surroundings. Depending on the demands of the occupant, this area may be utilized as a bedroom, a children’s room, or a solarium. The only disadvantage is that, although the dwellings’ total area of 100 square meters, the angled roofs of the structure prevent a quarter of that space from being utilized.
There are two bigger “super cubes” in addition to the residential cubes. The southernmost super cube was designed as an architectural school, whereas the northernmost super cube was designed for commercial purposes but never completed.
The cube is inclined, balancing on its hexagonal trunk such that three sides are facing the ground and the other three are facing the sky. The angle between the floors and the walls is 54.7 degrees, a deviation from the expected 45 degrees, so the cube is pushed slightly inwards. Not counting the hexagonal pillar, the houses have a height of 22 meters, with each of its sides measuring 7.5 meters.
Much of the construction was done on-site, with very few prefabricated elements as a result. Each cube is constructed as a timber-frame skeleton, insulated with rock wool, and sheathed with 18mm cement and wood-fibre board inside out. The reinforced concrete floors and pillars were made in place. All windows had double glass panels and wire glass where necessary. Due to its location, sound and thermal insulation were of importance. The Blaak’s 70dB noise level meant that the few windows facing it could not be opened. The form and placement of the houses, fortunately, afforded several options for moveable windows and ventilation.
Since Kubuswoningen’s completion in 1984, the complex has been subjected to various restoration processes over the years. During 1997-98, new zinc roofs were added, mounted over the original shingles to improve insulation. The exteriors that formerly alternated between yellow and purple were repainted, giving a new appearance to one of the most recognized promenades in the Netherlands. In 2000, the Overblaak interior promenade was renovated with the stairs, cobblestones, and street lighting updated.
Because of the low foot traffic, the original retail spaces were reconfigured into studio spaces for small offices, thus forming a live-work community. As a reaction to interested tourists, one apartment cube has been offered to the public so that visitors may experience the unusual spatial volume. The school of architecture has recently been transformed into a youth hostel, and the remaining commercial space has been converted into transitional social housing.
- ArchDaily. 2022. AD Classics: Kubuswoningen / Piet Blom. [online] Available at: <https://www.archdaily.com/482339/ad-classics-kubuswoningen-piet-blom> [Accessed 16 April 2022].
- Architectural Visits. 2022. KUBUSWONINGEN. The eccentric cube | Architectural Visits. [online] Available at: <https://architecturalvisits.com/en/kubuswoning-kijk-kubus/> [Accessed 16 April 2022].
- Fourth Wall. 2022. CUBE HOUSES I PIET BLOM. [YouTube Video] Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dfx9ZCeLSU> [Accessed 16 April 2022].
- Hidden Architecture. 2022. Speelhuis – Hidden Architecture. [online] Available at: <http://hiddenarchitecture.net/speelhuis/> [Accessed 16 April 2022].
- Metalocus. 2022. RESIDENTIAL URBAN FOREST IN THE HEART OF ROTTERDAM. KUBUSWONINGEN BY PIET BLOM. [online] Available at: <https://www.metalocus.es/en/news/residential-urban-forest-heart-rotterdam-kubuswoningen-piet-blom> [Accessed 16 April 2022].
- WikiArquitectura. 2022. Cube Houses – Data, Photos & Plans – WikiArquitectura. [online] Available at: <https://en.wikiarquitectura.com/building/cube-houses/> [Accessed 16 April 2022].