Architectural Ponderings

The Walkway, the Front Door and the Justus van Effen Complex

The walkway as a method of accessing apartments is one of the most common systems in the Netherlands. It allows for multiple layers of houses on the same piece of land without a central distribution point and the illusion of less vertical circulation points. It results into long and narrow balconies which are promoted as helpful for social interaction and as nice outdoor semi-private spaces. However, most of the time, they end up as dead spaces that can’t be used for anything else but circulation. The building administration forbids the placement of anything that could interfere with the evacuation of the building (Which makes perfect sense!) as well as any plants on the railings as not to risk any of them falling down. (You know! Lawsuits and all! Which again makes perfect sense.)

Nijmegen, the Netherlands (Completed 1987)Utrecht, the Netherlands (Completed 1966)

There pictures above showcase the linear version of the system. However there is also the version of the interior courtyard. Here the walkways are layered on the interior side, the courtyard. The base concept is that the space becomes private and residents can fully enjoy the privacy of the space and build connections.

Utrecht, the Netherlands (Completed: 2005) 

Utrecht, the Netherlands (Completed: 2014)

What unfortunately happens in both cases is:
• The bedrooms are located towards the walkway. The beautiful large windows become surfaces that need to be covered instead of being used to enjoy the views. I am well aware that the Dutch culture is a culture of no curtains, however, when it comes to bedrooms, not many people are eager to showcase their underwear.
• The walkways are the access points to the front doors of the apartments. This means that at any given moment (day or night) somebody can come or depart. Obviously!
This means noise, slammed doors and as much as people might behave, loud conversations in the middle of the night when saying good bye or having a party. The issue is, that as people can have completely different schedules, those that need to wake up at 5AM will never be fans of those coming home at 2AM.
There is of course the solution of better sound isolating walls, however that implies higher costs which by now, we know will not make investors happy.
• Biology and many scientists have been telling us that the morning light is one of the most important for the human body. Thus, ideally, mornings would imply being woken up by the morning light.
Technology and fancy gadgets can easily solve the transition from dark-curtains to light-sun exposure, but they can’t yet solve the discomfort of waking up with somebody staring at you from the other side of the window. (If anybody is interested in taking on that challenge, do please let me know!)
• The interior courtyards rarely become centers of socialization. They are somewhat used by the residents of that level and mostly ignored by the rest.
• The concept of the buildings with interior courtyards, of having the living rooms space towards the outside (noisiest part) and the bedrooms towards the interior (quiet) is in theory, a good one. However, in practice, the issues of visual privacy and noise drastically decrease its qualities.


If you haven’t figured it out by now, I am not the biggest fan of this system. I feel it creates dead space and constraints on privacy. That being said, one of my biggest drives is understanding how things got to a certain point:

The Justus van Effen Complex is a project created between 1919-1922 by Michiel Brinkman in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
At the time, the working class housing consisted of badly ventilated dwellings with alcove rooms, so there was a dire need for better social housing design. Michiel Brinkman’s design combined the social tradition and desire of each house having its own independent entrance with the new trend of the garden city with row houses. He worked to recreate the social communal spaces that were lost to the street and, in the same time, provide independence and privacy for each one of the residences.

What I find beautifully intriguing about this project is the concept of an elevated street for the residences on the higher level. The concept allows for much more space and implicitly for more privacy as people do not have to walk right next to the windows. Obviously, the project is far from perfect, however that is not the point. The point is the concept of personal space on an elevated street bringing equal importance to the space of the higher apartments as to those on the garden level.

The concept has been used by many architects and in many places around the globe. One of the more famous ones due to its success, is the 8 House by BIG. However the 8 House is a city in itself. It is at a completely different scale than the constructions that are now being realized in the Netherlands.

[clickToTweet tweet=”How can we bring the familiarity and belonging specific to open residential areas/houses to crowded blocks of flats? ” quote=”So how can we bring that sense of familiarity and belonging that is specific to houses and open residential areas to crowded blocks of flats? “]
The elevated street designed by Michiel Brinkman aimed to have a generous width of 3m, which is more than enough to create privacy and “street life”. However, in today’s economic climate, this would be a sure way to make an investor cringe and back away. Under the excuse of the lack of space and financial investment, the walkways have been reduced, ever since the beginning, to the bare minimum: circulation space. As much as people might try, like or want to, the space does not invite socialization. As a result, and in order to compensate, the interior yards are “sold” as community spaces. And if in the original design of the Justus Complex, this space was divided into gardens used to grow vegetables, now these yards belong to everyone and no one. They can not be personalized and used by specific families for a prolonged period of time without raising eyebrows or complains. Large scale events are rare and difficult to organize. And so, the space “spends its days” empty, alone and ineffectively used.

This raises the obvious questions of how can we make better spaces for people to actually get to know each other while providing as much privacy as possible for each one of the units. Would, creating smaller communal outdoor spaces spread through out the surface of the building better help the residents instead of a large concrete interior yard? And if so, at what scale and how should they be placed? And no, the example below, does not count as a successful communal space.
And last but not least, I think it is important to look at how effective the communal space is used. The interior courtyards have a tendency of becoming wasted space. How can we better use them?

Utrecht, the Netherlands (Completed 2014)

Interesting links:

New and renovated Justus van Effen Complex
Restoring Justus van Effen
Justus van Effencomplex (Video)
10 Stories of Collective Housing 

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