Housing Atlas, Europe 20th Century review: ‘No named female architects’

Housing, and what constitutes good housing, is an ever-popular topic in architectural publishing. Housing Atlas: Europe 20th Century, a new book co-written by European academics Orsina Simona Pierini, Carmen Espegel, Dick van Gameren and Mark Swenarton, offers a fresh perspective on this genre. More of a compendium or handbook, it promises the reader an ‘essential’ survey of 20th century housing projects through the medium of drawings.

It is in this respect that the book really shines. The authors present the 87 selected schemes in three standard scales and formats with incisive graphic clarity. The beautiful drawings explore the relationship between public and private realms, the urban and the domestic, the city and the dwelling place. The spatial ideas presented feel new and innovative in this time of futile arguments about ‘beauty’ and the ever-present value engineering that arises on projects due to construction cost inflation.

The projects featured include well-known examples such as the colossal Karl Marx Hof in Vienna, Ricardo Bofill’s Walden-7 in Barcelona and the beloved Barbican in London by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon. These sit cheek-by-jowl with projects that may be new to the reader. I enjoyed coming across the wild organicism of  Torres Blancas in Madrid (by Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oiza) and the carefully conceived character and precise fragmentation of the urban block and ‘street-curtain’ of Christian de Portzamparc’s Les Hautes Formes in Paris.

Barbican Estate, London, by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, 1959 (Drawing: Dick van Gameren)

I was particularly taken by two unassuming projects with robust approaches to defining streets. Jan Wils’ Papaverhof in The Hague is an especially forward-thinking urban approach to the garden city movement, featuring an ingenious design for dual-aspect, back-to-back terraces defining a communal courtyard. An early James Stirling project, Avensham in Preston, offered a dynamic approach to active frontages and articulation in an architecture of modest means. Now demolished, it feels even more vital that it has at least been preserved in this tome.

Presented with the projects chronologically and with such graphical rigour, the reader is able to compare and contrast schemes that are not normally thought of together, as well as make connections between projects across time. Through the book’s timeline, it becomes apparent that Atelier 5’s Siedlung Halen is the natural predecessor to Benson & Forsyth’s Branch Hill. Both are inspired by Le Corbusier’s 1940s ‘mat’ projects.

The chronological format also helps bring to mind other projects that aren’t featured in the book. For example, you can see how the rational approach to urban infill of JJP Oud’s De Kiefhoek and the lessons learned there form a throughline to contemporary housing projects such as Peter Barber’s Donnybrook Quarter.

Torres Blancas, Madrid, by Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oiza, 1961 (Drawing: Carmen Espegel)

The only real bone of contention with this impressive book is that there are no named female architects attributed to any of the 87 projects selected. This isn’t to ignore the contributions of female architects such as Nathalie de Vries, for example, who was a lead in the team for MVRDV’s Silodam, which is featured towards the end of the book. She, like her fellow founding partners, Winy Maas and Jacob van Rijs, goes unnamed. But it is baffling that the authors did not see fit to include any projects with a named female architect as a lead designer.

An easy win would have been to include a Peter and Alison Smithson project, such as Robin Hood Gardens. To the authors’ credit, the Smithsons’ contributions are discussed in Swenarton’s excellent essay on the rise and fall of the street in 20th century housing. The foreword also expresses the authors’ wish to showcase both well-known and unfamiliar projects – and Robin Hood Gardens has perhaps had its fair share of pages dedicated to its innovation and untimely demise.

A particularly glaring omission, however, is Kate Macintosh’s monumental Dawson Heights in Southwark. The project is representative of many of the approaches to housing design explored by Pierini in her opening essay, exemplifying her ideas around the house as monument, scale, variation and complexity through fragmentation.

Down the road in Lambeth, Rosemary Stjernstedt’s Central Hill Estate is a brilliant example of Zeilenbau (slab row housing) that utilises its dramatic site to full effect. Elsewhere in Europe, Jadwiga Grabowska-Hawrylak’s iconic Grunwaldzki Square development in Wrocław springs to mind as another project that could have been featured, exploring as it does immense scale and technological innovation through prefabrication, allowing for new spatial economies.

Torres Blancas, Madrid, by Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oiza, 1961 (Drawing: Carmen Espegel)

While reading Housing Atlas I couldn’t help but think about the recent campaign Women’s Work by the Part W collective, which seeks to address the gap in how projects by women are missed off maps and in archives. The book, for all its strengths, is a reminder that the work of female designers throughout history has not been granted the same status and recognition as that of their male contemporaries. By, in effect, erasing the contributions of women (in the context of the traditional Western architectural canon) from this collection of projects, Housing Atlas unwittingly reflects historical biases and underscores the need for a more inclusive, diverse and critically reflective approach to architectural history.

Housing Atlas: Europe 20th Century is published by Lund Humphries, 384pp, RRP £65.00.

Betty Owoo is an architectural designer at Be First and co-founder of PATCH Collective. She is an alumna of the third cohort of New Architecture Writers