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February 22, 2007 By:
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In our overly complex and sophisticated societies, where buildings soar to greater and greater heights -- and with designs that seem to shoot off at more and more fanciful angles -- we often forget that the very first kind of architecture was residential, that is, the simple roof people chose to put over their heads. In his introductory remarks to a beautiful and challenging book called Housing in the 20th and 21st Centuries, published with customary care by Prestel, Wolfgang Förster notes that people first built homes for themselves, then for their gods, even though cultural historians may try to tell us otherwise, since all that tends to survive from such ancient societies are the temples.

Once human beings shifted from being part of nomadic tribes to establishing more settled societies, "the construction of housing as buildings began," writes Förster, "their basic characteristics changing later only in essential features -- in urban compactness, as standardized or regulated by law. In fact, the two forms of housing that were the subject of sharp ideological and urban planning controversy in the 20th century already appeared in the cities of antiquity -- dense and low (as in the famous hanging houses of Ephesus in Asia Minor, the atrium houses of the Roman upper classes, or the courtyard houses of the Chinese) or high-rise (as in the Roman port of Ostia or the proletarian districts of Rome).

"Even mixed types," he goes on, "such as are typical of modern, large cities, are found in the cultures of antiquity. The temporary housing that a hostel or inn constitutes and the functionally mixed type of the residential-cum-commercial block were commonplace in the rich trading metropolises along the transcontinental caravan routes such as Palmyra (Syria). However, in no antique or medieval town do you find the detached, single-family home type. Urban land was too valuable for that, and the necessity to defend cities demanded compactness and density."

According to Förster, zoning was a factor in even the earliest living areas. Even though ancient cities were a good deal smaller than those of the industrial age, living in the administrative district or the port area was not the norm, mostly because it was far too expensive. Residential districts arose at the same time as the agora, or marketplace, which was the "arena and 'body' of democratic development." Public space, stresses Förster, became the definitive factor of cities, and the relationship between the public and private spheres is still a problem that architects face and must solve.

Writes the author: "The withdrawal into privacy and participation in public life reflect different social and political developments and can be clearly distinguished in the architecture of residential buildings. More recent examples of this can be seen in the fluid transition between private and public in the social housing of the 1920s, or the open superstructures of the 1960s, on the one hand, and privatization of public space in England during the [Margaret] Thatcher years ... of the 1980s."

So, if residential building constitutes such an old and important kind of architecture, you might think that it also is held in high regard when it comes to architectural theory. It's not so, says the author. "Keying in housing or residential buildings on Internet search engines brings up hardly anything of much use," writes Förster, "and a recent overview of contemporary architecture documents 86 structures of all conceivable types -- but not a single, multi-storeyed residential building. At the same time, there are an enormous number of publications on the market about other types of building such as museums, hotels, theatres, office blocks, transport and sports facilities."

Housing in the 20th and 21st Centuries was written to help fill a portion of this considerable gap. Though it is by no means a "Jewish" text of any sort, it does examine the work of various Jewish architects, such as Moshe Safdie, and since it moves on a city-by-city basis, it considers some of the pioneering work done in Tel Aviv -- such as Arieh Sharon's Meneot Ovdim workers' flats, very much in the Bauhaus style -- which were completed in the 1930s.

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