At a time when architectural production is dominated by cultural heterogeneity and exalted individualism, our instinctive ambition to work on the city as a collective object appears a nostalgic fantasy. A small project in Vienna, developed as a collaboration between local architect Werner Neuwirth, Zürich's von Ballmoos Krucker Architekten and London office Sergison Bates architects, indicates a possible reorientation in this matter. The project reminds us, that in the ordinariness of urban housing, when approached in the spirit of a dialogue based on shared cultural values, lies the potential to reactivate the fundamental principles of an architecture of the city.
The 75 hectare former train station site close to the Vienna Prater is in the process of being transformed into an urban business and residential district. Designed by Heinz Tesar and Boris Podrecca in the early 1990s, the original master plan, was based on a perimeter block structure consisting of tree-lined boulevards and public parks. Bearing a strong resemblance to Wagner's 1911 "Grossstadt" urban design project for Vienna, its notion of urbanity was firmly rooted in the nineteenth century European city. However, now with approximately half of the total district complete, the resulting urban fabric bears very little similarity to the traditional Viennese urban block structure. Instead, a diffuse urban form has materialised, where each building is positioned in a way that make them seem wilfully isolated. There seems to be no common ambition of articulating clearly defined public spaces. On the contrary, every building follows its own eccentric set of rules for the sake of individuality, masking the ordinary nature of its purpose behind a flimsy layer of decorative elements.
Like most other projects in the Nordbahnhof area, this too involves subsidised social housing. It was developed by the housing association 'Neues Leben', who was awarded the right to build the project through a competition in 2010. In addition to the basic requirements, the competition brief asked for a response to the challenges of 'intercultural living'. While Vienna is a city where this issue is ever-present, specifically pinning down an architectural attitude towards 'intercultural living' without falling into the trap of folkloristic clichés, is difficult. As an alternative strategy, Viennese architect Werner Neuwirth convinced the housing association to invite two offices from other European cities – where housing architecture also plays a central role – to form a team for the competition. Joined by Sergison Bates architects and von Ballmoos Krucker Architekten a highly specific project and truly intercultural discourse on urban living in Vienna was born.
The housing ensemble, consisting of three cubic building volumes, occupies a corner site near the south east corner of the Rudolf Bednar Park. Essentially free-standing, the buildings are positioned so close together that they appear as one compound element. One is reminded of Auguste Rodin's famous sculpture groups and his exploration of the relationship between the figure’s corporality and the charged space around and between them. The rotational figure of the composition, and the precise off-set positioning of the buildings, makes the gaps between the buildings one of the main motifs of the project. Falling outside the traditional housing categories of perimeter block, court, and free-standing block, this ensemble somehow embodies selective qualities of each typology. The result is an urban form that feels familiar, and simultaneously has an unusual monumental openness. On closer inspection, a set of formal rules that all three buildings adhere to, become apparent: all three buildings are compact volumes with no protruding balconies or bay windows. In plan, each building has two facets softening the compact composition. All three buildings have articulated bases and their profiles are stepped so that the parapet lines of the inner facades are lower than the ones oriented towards the outside. The defining element lending this ensemble such a high degree of urban quality is the narrow hard paved space, at the centre of the site, between the buildings. Counterbalanced by the cave like entrance-loggia spaces carved into the volumes, a complex spatial figure of compression and release is formed that presents the visitor with a positively singular experience.
The main characteristic that these three offices have in common is their continued pursuit of a pragmatic and at the same time lyrical approach to building. For this reason, it was inevitable that the articulation of materiality came to serve as both the shared focus and main principle of differentiation. The primary materiality of the buildings is stucco render – likely a homage to Adolf Loos whose influence is recognisable in multiple aspects of the project. However, in contrast with the thin-coat synthetic stucco - synonymous with mainstream housing today – the surface quality of this project is much richer in appearance due to the thick-coat mineral type used. Especially in oblique sunlight, the scratched surface with its exposed colour pigment and the quartz aggregate makes the facade glow with a velvety sheen. The second material defining the external appearance of the buildings is the grey-dyed precast concrete elements used primarily for the bases. The two buildings facing the street have a storey-high base whereas the building set back towards the centre of the site, has a lower and more subtle base. Finally, working exclusively with traditional punch window fenestration provided the architects with an opportunity to explore different forms of window reveals – von Ballmoos Krucker articulate the window openings with a lintel element, Sergison Bates extend the window at the bottom frame articulating the parapet, whilst Werner Neuwirth creates an embossed frame around the opening by stopping the thick finishing layer of the stucco render short and exposing the white undercoat render.
Seen from afar, the buildings have more similarities than differences. However, like a tailored suit, on closer inspection the differences become apparent and their individual character is brought to the fore. The entrance-loggia of each building is where their uniqueness becomes apparent. The one storey entrance-loggia of the building by von Ballmoos Krucker is dominated by a polychromatic tiled pattern; with its seating area and delicate glass pendant lamps it is the space with the most intimate atmosphere. The entrance-loggia of the building by Sergison Bates, boasting a Douglas fir block floor and a ceiling covered with mirror polished brass disc lights, echoes the atmosphere of grand entrances found in Viennese palaces, yet in this version it is open and accessible to the public. Equivalent to the volume of a single family house, the largest entrance space that also marks the centre of the ensemble is the loggia of the building by Werner Neuwirth. Here the use of concrete flagstones and a glossy dark golden stucco accentuates the monumental scale of the space and underlines the overall urban ambition of the project.
Comprising approximately 100 dwellings, a wide array of different split level and maisonette configurations is the defining theme of the internal organisation. A favourable relationship between the legal maximum floor area and building height for the site, allowed the architects to literally stretch the volumes like an accordion. In turn, above-average floor to ceiling height could be realised, with each office choosing a different approach. Having refrained from the use of balconies, the outdoor private space of each dwelling is formed by a cut-in glazed loggia. In the building by von Ballmoos Krucker the loggia is typically located in the corner of the main living room, defining a dominant element that stretches the main space in a diagonal direction. In the building by Sergison Bates, the loggia is typically a three-sided glazed volume that subdivides the main space into four areas with the kitchen, living and sitting areas distributed around the loggia space itself. In the building by Werner Neuwirth, the cut-in loggia, together with the centrally located bathroom and kitchen block, are the structuring elements of the almost double-height living space. The three individual responses to the principles of Raumplan, have resulted in a wide collection of different dwelling types ranging from straightforward to convoluted and eccentric ‘inner forms’. The uncontrived individuality of the dwellings echoes one of the main qualities of traditional residential housing, i.e. variety without rhetoric, so that the project feels embedded in urban culture.
This housing ensemble is an example of collaboration where the result amounts to more than the sum of the individual parts. At the beginning of the process, the three offices collectively defined a number of design principles that would ensure a formal coherence to the project whilst allowing them to work independently. Yet, rather than owing its success to a forcefully curated commonness, the strength of the collaboration lies in the genuine interest in engaging in a dialogue based on a shared set of architectural values. In this sense the buildings also demonstrate that the concept of ordinariness can have a defining relevance for new urban housing when approached in a cultivated manner. This is what makes the project truly urban.