Paternalism, Emancipation, Lifestyle. Mass Housing as a Contested Housing Concept


Housing development during modernism was a means of emancipation which not only offered many people a healthy and comfortable home environment for the first time, but also helped them gain independence from private landlords and the related interests.

Three developments are introduced here. The first two, the Mainfeld und Nordweststadt housing complexes in Frankfurt, have a very different planning history even though they are located in the same city and were built at almost the same time. The Nordweststadt was designed according to the principle of the spatial city (Raumstadt) and enjoyed intensive reception (the responsible planners were Walter Schwagenscheidt and Tassilo Sittmann), while the Mainfeld complex was created without any claim to great design and now comprises ten tower blocks, with one offering sheltered housing to elderly people, three belonging to groups of apartment owners, and six accommodating only social housing units. Both settlements were financially supported by the program “Soziale Stadt” (Social City) and are popular with their residents. While the continued existence of the much larger Nordweststadt with its roughly 7,000 apartments was never called into question, after the Soziale Stadt funding for the Mainfeld complex ran out, the idea arose to tear down the high-rises with social housing and replace them with buildings facilitating a more socially mixed residential structure. Only after extended protests by the residents and a new mayor were the demolition plans abandoned, and the buildings are now being renovated. These two housing developments illustrate the different ways of dealing with the heritage of modernist housing, which in many cases attests to a strong ignorance on the part of the involved planners, architects, and owners. Yet the two examples also show that negative perception in specialist discourse is slowly changing and that developments which were especially carefully designed tend to experience a new wave of appreciation, although the differences in perception on the part of the residents are much less evident.

The Trellick Tower in London is introduced as a third example. This case involves a single building that attained a very poor reputation shortly after its completion. Yet in contrast to many large modernist housing developments, today Trellick Tower is in high demand and is considered to be strongly gentrified, which does not really equate to reality. Trellick Tower thus exemplarily represents a whole series of social housing buildings in London that were planned by the London County Council and have become popular icons today. The popularity of Trellick Tower is, among other factors, based on the social agenda it embodies, fostered by the London municipal government in the postwar period. Despite the fact that social-democratic interventions today are often perceived as prescriptive, Trellick Tower’s popularity shows that they are not necessarily considered flawed, even by financially sound residents who are not reliant upon support from the social state.

Maren Harnack, Prof. Dr.-Ing. studied architecture, urban design and social sciences in Stuttgart, Delft and London. After working at TU Darmstadt and at HafenCity University Hamburg where she received her doctorate under Michael Koch and Martina Löw in 2010. Maren Harnack is currently teaching Urban Design at Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences. With Marion Tvrtkovic she is a founding member of the urban design practice and consultancy urbanorbit and has been involved in various research projects funded by the German government and the Wüstenrot Foundation.