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Column Marianne Loof | Past and future of the residential utopia

20 February 2017

Cobouw marianne loof 170214 verleden en toekomst van de woon utopie 3

Last week, at minus 28 degrees, I walked around the freezing Russian city of Yekaterinburg which is just across the border between Europe and Asia. Architect Boris Dimidov showed me several constructivist architectural highlights in the city. The optimism, openness, and great belief in a new society is still present, regardless of how differently the constructivist utopia turned out.

Dimidov is an expert and cannot stop talking as we are walking through a snowy ‘Chekists’, a ‘miniature city’ with small houses, a day-care centre, a polyclinic, and a cultural centre. I am immediately inspired by his enthusiasm, and recall my study-period at Delft University of Technology. There, the Russian constructivists were thoroughly studied and analysed. It made a lasting impression on me, and I still have a soft spot for the social ideas of living together, the innovative forms of housing, and the clear and self-conscious designs.

Uraloblsovnarkhoz Dormitory, in the centre, is a small version of the classic Narkomfin Building in Moscow. These residential community-buildings by the architect Ginzburg are characterized by a legendary cross-section, where one half has three low-level floors and the other half has two high-level floors. The split-level cross-section creates a unique sense of space. Today, Uraloblsovnarkhoz Dormitory houses several creative companies, such as Dimidov’s own architectural firm.

Sjoerd Soeters likes to position the ‘Delft modernist’ generation in his lectures as stray spirits who are responsible for the Bijlmer and other disasters. That is an attractive formulation, but it predominantly is about style and neglects the value of the underlying commitment for social values and spacious houses; a commitment that today sounds utopian once again.

Present-day housing in the Netherlands comes down to producing as many square meters as possible. Social vision and spaciousness have become secondary to maximizing the saleable surface and standardizing the floor plan. But there are a few relentless pioneers of course. Not the housing corporations, but private individuals demonstrate with their loft-apartments and do-it-yourself-projects that the desire for spaciousness and alternative forms of housing still exists.

February 2017,