By JUDY WEST
Viennas 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 exhibitorganized 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 gasometersoriginally used to store gas
for the citynow 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 tanks circular
shell, with views out to the citythrough arched openings in the
historic structureas well as windows that give onto interior courtyards,
complete with imported turf. Gasometer City, as its known, even
has its own Metro station, and its spurred other new adaptive reuse
projectsof an abattoir, as well as rail yards owned by the Austrian
Eugénie Birch, chair of Penns City and Regional Planning
Department, hopes this exhibit will inspire her students both in terms
of specificsmaterials, forms, techniquesand also the broader
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 Frances
Minister of Postal and Telecommunication Services.
Realizing that postal workers, who clock in early and often work late,
were enduring long commutes because they couldnt 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 adaptabilitythanks to
flexible piping, residents can even change the position of their kitchens
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, Theres much more of a culture of reducing
energy consumption and waste production in Europe. Its inbred
in the society at all levels of housing, and then theres 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. Weve 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