Mass housing projects are a collection of repetitive housing units. From the medieval almshouses of Europe to the blocks of Pruitt-Igoe, mass housing has changed in function and texture. The reasons for erecting housing estates have varied over time along with the political, social, and economical influences and their role in defining the urban fabric of modern cities. The major shifts in the architecture of mass housing projects can be divided into three major periods: the pre-war years, the inter-war years, and the post-war years.

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Pre-War Years 

In the foremost years, housing estates were a disciplinary mechanism in the service of penitent aristocrats and the meddling bourgeois. These institutions functioned with conditional tenure and clarification of interstitial spaces: the central courtyard overlooked by master’s lodging or the bare courtyards of Peabody tenement estates.  

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Winsley Square Almshouses, Colchester, Essex ©Winsleys Charity

The upper and middle classes committed to providing improved housing conditions to the lower two-thirds of the population that strived in miserable living conditions with the rise of industrialization. Housing Policies and Town Planning associations were formed, mostly in European nations and the US regarding the same. London’s Boundary Estate was one of the first housing estates by the British municipality, meant to replace the slum and the cramped living conditions. 

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London Boundary Estate, East London, 1900 ©London Metropolitan Archives

The garden suburbs were seen as an inexpensive solution for the new middle class and this was quickly adopted by the paternalistic employers of Cadbury and Lever who maintained a supervised workforce henceforth. The design of the Bournville town by Cadbury was used as a blueprint for many other model estates. These also brought along facilities of bathrooms, running water, and central heating.

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Bournville Town, Birmingham, 1900 ©Christopher Furlong 

However, most of the time, people moving from slums couldn’t afford the replacements and which resulted in making the slums more crowded. Under capitalism, the provision of housing mostly had a social cleansing effect. 

Inter-War Years

The First World War presented the European government with the urgent need to provide dwellings on a large scale; intending to create employment as much as housing. The new standards of living that fulfilled minimum requirements were put forth by CIAM, who formalized Modern Architecture and saw it as a social service amidst economic crises. 

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Figures like Le Corbusier had already proposed higher density projects like Ville Radieuse, which emphasized the need for modular mass housing along with the provision of community spaces. His city plans that strictly segregated housing units from parkland studded with perimeter blocks; with slabs on pilotis recessing in a zigzag manner were to have a marked impact on later mass housing models. 

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Proposal for Villa Radieuse, Le Corbusier, 1924 ©arch3100designprimer.com

While England prefers suburban cottage estates priced for the more affluent working class, in terms of realized design; it was Germany that took the lead. The largest cottage estates, the Becontree in Essex, were completed in 1935 that consisted of 26000 homes that lacked topography and center. Berlin Modernism Housing Estates constructed during the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), with leading architects like Bruno Taut, Walter Gropius are fine examples of building reform movements to improve housing and living conditions. Not only did they provide fresh design solutions but also started defining new urban and architectural typologies that took impressions from the ongoing Bauhaus movement.

Berlin had many Siedlungen constructed in and around the city which arranged low-rise blocks in garden suburb layouts. The Onkel Toms Hütte has tree-lined streets whereas the horseshoe block at Britz (one of the six Berlin Modernism Housing Estates) with formal radiating terraces is impressive in its monumentality. In Frankfurt, Ernst May overlooked the erection of Römerstadt which ornated a hillside with high-tech, low rise blocks. In contrast, Zeilenbauten by Gropius at Dammerstock was strictly orthogonal, pertaining to the Bauhaus simplicity.

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Contemporarily, mass housing estates even came up as a part of the Viennese experiment, ‘socialism in a city’. The Karl-Marx Hof, part of it, is one of the longest municipal housing estates spanning four tram stops. 

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Becontree Estate, England, 1935 ©Getty Images
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Horseshoe Estate, Berlin-Britz, 1925-33 ©Alamy
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Römerstadt, Frankfurt ©tandfonline.com
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Karl-Marx Hof, Vienna, 1930 ©Alamy

Post-War Years

Post World War 2, the mass housing projects received an impetus like never before to house the marginalized communities and meet with the post-war developments. Variations of low-rise and high-rise came into the picture along with the terms prefabricated and modularity. The projects, as a result, also played a major role in setting examples of the ongoing architectural movements and trends.

Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation was one of the first modernist, residential high-rises that attempted to solve the social housing crisis with the provision of ample communal gathering spaces. However, not all Corbusieran estates were successful in solving the housing crisis, and many faced demolition for being poorly designed, cheaply built, or under-maintenance. Pruitt-Igoe is one of the examples of towers-in-parkland typology where enforced architectural changes and housing policies led to its failure. In the Soviet Union, Stalin’s encrusted prefabs were deserted for Khrushchev’s unadorned prefabs were occupied, owing to the ongoing Brutalism.

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Unité d’Habitation, France, 1952 ©Wojtek Gurak
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Pruitt Igoe, St. Louis, 1955-1976 ©Wojtek Gurak
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Khrushev’s Prefab, Moscow ©Novosti

The mass housing after the second world war boomed all over the world. One of the notable experimentation of the prefabricated modular megastructure was the Habitat 67 by Moshe Safdie. The attempt was to integrate light, fresh air, and open space, in the context of a dense, urban community prototype. While in Japan, the Metabolism movement was adopted which depended on flexibility, modularity, and interchangeable units. The Nakagin capsule consisted of micro-apartments which were envisioned to be replaced if need be; however, the tower stands in threat of demolition for the past 10 years. 

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Habitat 67, Montréal, 1967 ©Safdie Architects
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Nakagin Capsule Tower, Japan, 1972 ©Arcspace

Asian cities such as Singapore and Hong Kong are famous for their extensive provision of social housing, if not for the quality of its design. However, projects like Bedok Court take care of the community aspect along with the sustainability of the building. In the Indian context, mass housing has tried to incorporate the vernacular, like in Aranya Housing by Doshi which is a low-rise, and Kanchanjunga apartments by Correa which are high-rise. 

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Aranya Low Cost Housing, India, 1989 ©Vastushilp Foundation
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Kanchanjunga Apartments, India, 1974 ©Courtesy of Charles Correa

The timeline of mass housing architecture thus isn’t entirely linear. Industrialization, population rise, and the world wars were the major aspects that impacted the architecture of mass housing projects worldwide. The high-rise and low-rise mass housing projects are equally popular. These projects, facilitated by experimentations over time, have incorporated the various aspects of community and sustainability.

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References: 

https://www.architectural-review.com/essays/typology/typology-housing-estate?tkn=1

https://99percentinvisible.org/article/modularity-modern-history-modular-mass-housing-schemes/

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Author

A compulsive overthinker and a sky lover, Parita is often found entangled in her paradoxical theories by a window. She believes that a feeling heart and a thinking mind is a disastrous combination worth having. Currently exploring and articulating design through words, she also alternatively outbursts and romanticizes life with them.

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