Out & About: Gimme Shelter

Vienna’s opera house and palaces may be the big tourist draws, but the Austrian capital has also become known as a hub of modern architectural innovation.

That much is clear from a new exhibit—organized by the Architectural League of New York— currently on display in the lower level of the Left Bank. “Urban Life: Housing in the Contemporary City” showcases a dozen affordable housing projects from Vienna and other spots on the globe hand picked for their bold, daring approaches to a universal problem.

Though the projects range from spacious contemporary lofts in San Francisco to government sponsored housing wedged into dilapidated neighborhoods in Paris, they share some basic features: affordability, sustainability and, perhaps most important, dignity.

The Viennese project, amply illustrated with photographs and floor plans, involved the conversion of four 102-year-old gasometers into a new urban complex. The 250-foot high gasometers—originally used to store gas for the city—now house 615 modern flats, an event hall for 4,000 people and a shopping mall. The housing floors, which begin about 100 feet above ground level, hug the perimeter of the gas tank’s circular shell, with views out to the city—through arched openings in the historic structure—as well as windows that give onto interior courtyards, complete with imported turf. Gasometer City, as it’s known, even has its own Metro station, and it’s spurred other new adaptive reuse projects—of an abattoir, as well as rail yards owned by the Austrian State Railway.

Eugénie Birch, chair of Penn’s City and Regional Planning Department, hopes this exhibit will inspire her students both in terms of specifics—materials, forms, techniques—and also the broader picture.

“In older industrial cities in the U.S. where there are vacant properties,” she says, “we now have an opportunity to rethink things ... and can learn from European innovation.”

Happy Postal Workers

All is not quite equal, though, in the world of affordable housing, and several of the projects in the exhibit clearly demonstrate how much more involved government and regulatory agencies outside the U.S. are in finding solutions. One such initiative, in Paris, was launched in 1989 by France’s Minister of Postal and Telecommunication Services.

Realizing that postal workers, who clock in early and often work late, were enduring long commutes because they couldn’t find affordable housing in the city, he set out to provide them with housing closer to their jobs. The resulting apartments are chic, naturally, and light filled, with sliding metal shutters and lots of glass, black brick and aluminum.

In Osaka, Japan, the Osaka Gas Company also built housing for its employees, emphasizing energy self-sufficiency and abundant greenery. The layouts of the apartments are designed for maximum adaptability—thanks to flexible piping, residents can even change the position of their kitchens and bathrooms.

BedZED, an urban development project in London gets nature on its side from the outset by orienting the apartments to the south. Power is produced through an on-site wood chip burning plant.

Plentiful bicycle storage encourages residents to go carless, though a fleet of electric cars is available on a co-operative basis. (The cars are recharged at hookups powered by rooftop photovoltaic panels.) As Birch points out, “There’s much more of a culture” of reducing energy consumption and waste production in Europe. “It’s inbred in the society at all levels of housing, and then there’s the whole tradition of the walkable city.” Looking to Europe for inspiration is nothing new, says Birch.

Back in the 1930s, she says, affordable housing advocates like Catherine Bauer were touring Europe to look at the modern housing, searching for ways to be innovative. “We’ve had a long tradition of looking in that direction.”

“Urban Life: Housing in the Contemporary City” is on display at the Left Bank, 3103 Walnut Street, through Dec. 10. For more information, call 215-898-2295.

Originally published on November 4, 2004