#1 The Untouchables – Scandinavia

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In September 2014 ANA has been travelling and researching through Denmark, Sweden and Norway We have talked to various stakeholders in housing architecture; architects, municipalities, projectdevelopers, housing corporations, private clients, architecture schools, builders etcetera.
In 2,5 weeks we had 40 meetings, visited 8 cities and saw numerous projects. This first pilot trip was very inspiring in many different ways.

 

A different context generates new perspectives.

In recent years, the housing debate in the Netherlands has been strongly determined by de financial crisis. This crisis has not affected Denmark, Sweden and Norway as much as it did the Netherlands. In these Scandinavian countries, the debate on housing architecture has focused on other issues. For instance, the high pressure on the housing market has both in Sweden and Norway strongly  dominated the debate. Also in these countries (architectural) quality is under pressure, but for other reasons and with other outcomes.

ANA at Dutch Ambassy in Stockholm

ANA at Dutch Ambassy in Stockholm

The Dutch have a good reputation for innovative architecture. One of our research questions is what will happen with innovation under the new more restrained circumstances. If you look at the Dutch situation from abroad there is still much innovation. The new circumstances have caused a vacuum that has generated innovative solutions. To name one example, the introduction of the smaller scale in developments, that is clearly visible in Amsterdam (Houthavens, Buiksloterham, Zeeburgereiland), is something that the Danes also want very much, but are unable to develop due to high market pressure.

 

Architects reclaiming their role

During our first trip to Scandinavia we have met many passionate architects that have the ambition to make good housing projects. The role of architects in housing is under pressure in all countries we have visited, but in some more then in others. Some of the architects we met are developing interesting strategies to reclaim their role.
Especially in Sweden architects involved in housing complain very much about their limited role. In Sweden builders have a very dominant role and determine construction methods up to a detailed level. Architects are often not commissioned for the later stages of the design and the building process. For instance Tengbom, a firm with around 500 employees and offices in twelve cities, is focusing on how they can add value for the client. They offer performance instead of hours, in order to reclaim and strengthen their role. White architects, an even bigger firm with over 700 employees  and offices in thirteen cities, has shown us another way in which they are able to make high quality housing. In Äppelträdgården they have taken over the role of the client and worked together with a building company to design, build and sell innovative housing types in a poor neighborhood.

 

The new housing assignments

During the meetings we have focused on the future housing assignment. We found several issues that overlap with the Dutch situation, but also many differences in the way these issues are addressed.
Making livable and divers cities that provide housing for all social groups is an important issue in all the places we have visited. Building affordable housing is a recurrent topic, but the solutions differ very much, going from building small & clever, new financial strategies to using prefab building systems. Related themes are keeping families in the city, creating housing for the new generation elderly Europeans and providing affordable student housing.

Taking care of environmental issues is also a returning topic that has different emphasis in the different countries; the Swedes are taking good care of waste, whereas the Danes focus more on mobility issues.
Quality under pressure was in every meeting we had a recurring topic. Even in good economic circumstances that all three Scandinavia countries are blessed with, quality is not taken for granted. Quality has numerous definitions, defined very much by what is missed. For instance in Norway quality is defined as space, in Sweden it’s experiment and in Denmark quality is defined as creating good public/private relations.

Striking was also that we missed some themes that are part of the Dutch debate: the participation of citizens,  populism in housing architecture, private plot development, dealing with the existing housing stock. These themes are not necessarily not relevant, but they are not being debated.

 

 

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Norway, the downside of growth

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Oslo is the fastest growing major city of Europe. The city grows 2% each year and has grown 17% in the last 15 years.
The urbanisation process is relatively new in Norway, were living with nature is in the genes of the people.  But work has brought people to the city, and the city has to provide houses for those who want to move in. The unemployment rate in Norway is very low. Although some people fear a collapsing  bubble after the oil, most people don’t worry too much about the economy, Norway has oil and huge reserves from that. Oslo is ranked number one in terms of quality of life, among European large cities in the European Cities of the future 2012 report by fDi magazine. It is also the second most expensive city in the world, in terms of living expenses (after Tokio).

But there is definitely a downside to this positive story. Building production cannot keep up with the population growth. Therefor the prizes of land and houses are continuously rising. Developers, contractors and also architects make good business in this context. But to build houses that people can afford the tendency is to build smaller and denser. Of course the municipality is trying to regulate this, but the fact is that a family apartment is almost unaffordable for a regular family. One can imagine that lower income families are all pushed to the outer neighbourhoods of the city, whereas the new harbour front developments that form the main part of the city’s building land become inhabited by higher incomes and smaller households.

We have visited Sørenga, one of the newest development areas along the harbour front, close to the Opera and still under construction. Here you can buy a bigger apartment of 110m2 or even 140m2, but the costs are extremely high: 9.900.000 NK for 113m2 (ca. 1,1 miljoen euro).

sorenga

Housing in Sørenga

Since the newly build areas are all very much concentrated along the Fjord this automatically leads to stronger segregation in the city. The new areas are hardly mixed in social terms and lack real life. This is also one of the points of critique in the debate among professionals and the public in Oslo. One of the representatives of this opinion is Johnny Aspen, associated professor at the Oslo architecture school, who  talks about ‘zombie urbanism’.

The regulations for building housing in Norway are also quit strict. Bathrooms, master bedrooms and storage space in the apartment are all defined in minimum size. One of the consequences of this is, according to all the architects we have spoken is that, especially in the big mass of smaller apartments, one ends up with relatively big bathrooms, bedrooms and storagerooms and a very tiny living space with a big kitchen and just enough room for a sofa.

Another consequence is that the new areas are very dense. It is obvious that a lot of these very expensive apartments hardly get any sun, especially considering the low position of the sun in Olso. The Barcode project seems to beat all records. Although the area contains mainly office buildings, there are some housing slabs in this masterplan. MAD architects have designed an apartment slab in this area. They have tried to optimize living qualities by making very thin apartments with long facades, but these facades are rather closed and very shaded due to the urban plan. Apparently this is all well accepted in the tight housing market of Oslo. Bu it is also no wonder that all Norwegians dream of a small weekend house in the countryside, and in the middle and upper class the majority has one.

 

Green House

Green House

There are some other more positive stories to tell about Oslo. In terms of densifying the city the work of developer Infill is interesting. Infill limits itself to develop the leftover spaces, the holes in the city’s fabric. On these tiny spots they develop attractive architecture and high living qualities. All their projects have serious roof terraces with real grass, real trees in real soil. We visited the project Green House, that was designed by Element architects. This building definitely adds quality to the neighbourhood. A zone around the building on street level integrates private outdoor spaces, but also public benches and therefor generates interaction with its surroundings. The projects of Infill do not offer more m2 for less money unfortunatly, because they have to work within the same land prize system, but they do add quality and diversity to existing older neighbourhoods.

green house roof

Green House roof terrace

green house interaction

Green House