Population growth and the increasing density of cities created a housing crisis in the 20th
century. The apartment building emerged as a solution for housing large numbers of
people in small areas. Although a preexisting type, during the 20th century the
development of the apartment building dramatically reshaped the built environment of
cities and their surrounding suburbs. Apartment buildings developed in locations
convenient to transportation networks and services that encouraged dense residential land
use. The increase in apartment living subsequently inspired continued international
dissemination of the modern apartment building type.
An apartment building contains multiple dwelling units of one or more rooms. Other
basic aspects of the 20th-century apartment building’s program are a bathroom and
kitchen for each unit and the provision of heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and other
systems. As with other commercial building types, efficient use of space is integral to
good apartment building design. Public areas of the apartment building are normally
minimal, with a small lobby and laundry room or, in more luxurious examples, a roof
deck, recreation room, or swimming pool. All apartment buildings share the basic
function of providing shelter for numerous household groups, but the features and
appointments of a building can vary greatly, depending on the socioeconomic level of the
intended residents. Apartment buildings need to balance efficiency with comfort; this
requirement is challenging, especially when building for low-income tenants.
In the early 20th century, most architecturally notable apartment buildings were
intended for upper-class tenants. Living in a full-service apartment building could
provide a luxurious home at much smaller cost than maintaining a single-family house.
Rising land values in many cities made sole ownership prohibitively expensive even for
the relatively well off. Use of Classical Revival and Italian Renaissance Revival
decorative modes was prevalent, as evidenced by the lavish examples built in cities such
as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, London, Paris, and Vienna. The dominance of
Encyclopedia of 20th-century architecture 98
historical styles in apartment building design indicated the fashionable design mode for
most commercial and domestic structures during the early part of the century.
For low- and middle-income tenants, apartment building design was characterized by
tension between aesthetics and economic viability. Tenement house design frequently
sacrificed aesthetic and sanitary concerns to create a profitable investment. By the 1920s,
apartment buildings were integral to the international debate over housing and social
reform. European avantgarde architects used the apartment building type to explore the
potential of modernism and prefabricated structural systems for providing affordable
worker housing. Government sponsorship of housing projects provided important
opportunities for architectural experimentation not available in the commercial real estate
market of the United States despite housing reform efforts. The housing policy of the
Weimar Republic generated pioneering modern apartment buildings for German cities,
such as Breslau, Hamburg, Celle, Berlin, and Frankfurt. Another example is J.J.P.Oud’s
Kiefhoek housing (1925), an International Style garden apartment complex built in
Rotterdam. Both the garden apartment and the high-rise form of the apartment building
were explored by architects throughout the mid-20th century. A key high-rise example in
London is Highpoint I (1933–35), designed by Berthold Lubetkin and Tecton.
These two primary apartment building forms—the mainly urban high-rise and the
suburban garden apartment—became internationally prevalent by the 1930s. High-rise
apartment buildings, alone and later in planned groups, capitalized on an economy of
scale. They distributed the rising cost of elevators, ventilation, and other systems-related
apparatus by using modern building materials to create taller structures with more living
units. Garden apartments were suitable for lower-density development on the urban
periphery, where land was less expensive. Groups of two- or three-story buildings
arranged on landscaped sites contained units that shared an entrance stairwell. The garden
apartment form did not require formal public areas or expensive elevators but was not as
efficient in land use or building materials as a more compact high-rise apartment
building. In the post-World War II period, the housing crisis became more acute owing to
years of postponed building and wartime destruction. European governments again
sponsored the construction of major apartment housing projects. In the United States, the
new Federal Housing Administration and later the Department of Housing and Urban
Development began to fulfill a role similar to that of their European counterparts,
although more limited in scope. International Style modernism, particularly the slab-form
high-rise developed by Le Corbusier, dominated these construction efforts.
The key postwar example is Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation (1947–53) at
Marseilles, France. Unite d’Habitation is a 12-story horizontal slab raised on heavy
tapered pilotis . A roof deck and an interior commercial “street” seek to create a unified
community, but this quality of self-containment also separates the building from its
neighborhood context. Other large apartment buildings based on this model experience
mixed results when applied in other contexts.

Noteworthy examples of apartment
buildings done in a postwar modernist vocabulary include ATBAT housing (1951–56,
Shadrach Woods and J.Bodiansky) in Morocco and Peabody Terraces (1964, José Luis
Sert) in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
During the postwar period, large-scale developments, including multiple high-rise
apartment buildings, site planning, and amenities such as shopping and recreational
facilities, became more prevalent. In the United States, federal urban-renewal funding
cleared sizable portions of blighted urban neighborhoods to be replaced by large public
housing projects. These projects reflected the modernist vision of social reform through
environmental determinism. Commercial interests built more luxurious and wellmaintained
versions of these high-rises for middle-class and wealthier tenants. These
projects could be successful when integrated into existing community services, but they
failed miserably when they isolated poor residents from economically stable parts of the
urban landscape.
Apartment buildings have been a source of controversy over zoning and land use in
the United States. As a multi-dwelling structure, the apartment building threatens the
American ideal of the single-family house. However, economic reality, even in the
United States and the prosperous nations of Europe, is that apartments fulfill an important
need. The apartment building has transformed the urban and suburban landscape of the
20th-century city and by extension the lived experience of many residents.

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