Flat design from the (mostly) 1950s: Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Switzerland

Posted on 9 october 2011 0 comments

Systemhuset in Ordrup in Copenhagen
Systemhuset in Ordrup in Copenhagen. Photo from Flickr by SEIER+SEIER

This is the second post in a series looking at flat design from the 1950s. The first post looked at flats in England; this post looks at examples of flat layouts from Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Switzerland.

To repeat what I wrote in part one of this series, the purpose of posting these floor plans is as an aid to the study of flat layout and configuration. What ideas and inspiration can we take from these 1950s designs for housing today?

The examples posted here are from a book called Modern Flats by the English architects F.R.S. Yorke (1906-1962) and Frederick Gibberd (1908-1984). The book was published in 1958 by Architectural Press London and features examples of post-war housing.

In this series of posts, I make no evaluation of the success (or otherwise) of the example housing blocks. The focus is on the flat layouts and configuration; we can still learn something from their design irrespective of the fate of the actual housing developments.

As I also said in part one of this series, it’s possible to separate the flat layouts from their original setting and design something of completely different scale and appearance. In fact, flat design in Britain today provides a good example of this: no matter what the shape, height or appearance of a residential housing block, the interior flat layouts all tend to follow the same uninspiring design.

One final note: perhaps the most famous and influential European housing block from the 1950s is the Unite D’Habitation in Marseille (1947-1952) designed by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965). I haven’t included it in the examples here as I’ve already written about it in a previous post.


Droixhe, Liege, Belgium, 1957

Housing blocks in Droixhe in the Belgian city of Liege
Housing blocks in Droixhe in the Belgian city of Liege. Photo from Wikipedia.

This expansive development of multi-storey housing blocks sits on the banks of the river Meuse in the Belgian city of Liege in an area called Droixhe. The 1950s blocks were designed by Ch. Carlier, H. Lhoest and J. Mozin.

The 1950s buildings are mostly twelve-storey blocks sited north and south. The flats are mainly designed for families although there are some one-room flats. There are also some four-storey blocks for families that link the tall buildings.

Model of the Droixhe site from the 1950s
Model of the site from the 1950s as seen from the north. This image is from the Modern Flats book (apologies for the poor quality scan).

Work on the Droixhe housing development continued until the 1970s and some of the later slab blocks would rise to an imposing 21 storeys.

Today, the neighbourhoods in which these blocks sit have a run-down and dilapidated feel to them and some of the 1970s housing blocks have been demolished. Many people consider the development to be an unattractive place to live. However, some flats have been renovated and plans for regeneration have been proposed.

Looking at the floor plans of the 1950s blocks, the flats are mostly single aspect.

Ground floor and typical upper floor plan for 1950s housing blocks in Droixhe, Liege
Ground floor and typical upper floor plan for 1950s housing blocks in Droixhe, Liege. Click image for larger view.

There’s an interesting feature in the upper floor layouts: a combined laundry and bathroom with two entrances. One entrance is from the kitchen and takes you into the laundry space; the other entrance is from the hallway and leads you into the bathroom. The WC is in a separate cubicle. I can’t see any kind of partition between the laundry space and the bathroom which would be considered a necessity today (perhaps there’s a curtain?).

The addition of a laundry/utility space is a welcome addition in a family flat given that in most new build homes and flats in Britain today, utility spaces are either miniscule or non-existent.

For more pictures of the Droixhe development, see this 2009 discussion thread on Skyscrapercity.com.

You can also see an aerial view of the 1950s blocks on Google Maps.


Ordrup, Copenhagen, Denmark, 1937

Systemhuset in Ordrup in Copenhagen
Systemhuset in Ordrup in Copenhagen. Photo from Flickr by SEIER+SEIER

This block of flats was designed by the Danish architect Mogens Lassen (1901–1987). Although it isn’t from the 1950s I’ve included it anyway because of an interesting feature in its layout.

According to the Danish Wikipedia entry for the architect, the block was built in 1937. However, the Modern Flats book states it was built in 1948 which I presume is an error.

The building contains 16 one bedroom flats. There are four floors of flats above shops at ground level. Access to the flats is by staircase with each staircase serving two flats.

Floor plan and section for Systemhuset, Ordrup
Floor plan and section for Systemhuset, Ordrup. Click image for larger view.

The neat and uniform layouts throughout the block allow service pipes to run straight down the building through the kitchens and bathrooms.

The flats have a simple dual-aspect design with one unusual feature: each flat is connected to two staircases – one at the front of the flat and one at the rear. Just as the kitchen door in a house leads to the back garden or yard, so here the kitchen door leads directly to…a flight of steps that takes you to the rear of the block. Today, some people might consider this a security risk. However, in the case of fire or evacuation, the staircases give you a choice of two exits.

The rear of the Systemhuset in Ordrup
The rear of the Systemhuset in Ordrup. This image is from the Modern Flats book (apologies for the poor quality scan).

Take a look at the flats on Google Street View.


Breda, the Netherlands, 1957

The rear of the Systemhuset in Ordrup
1950s housing in Breda in the Netherlands. The photos show front and rear of the block. Images from appartementbreda.nl.

These low-rise blocks of flats were designed by the Dutch architects J.H. van den Broek (1898-1978) and J. Bakema (1914-1981) in the city of Breda in the Netherlands.

The blocks are set at right angles to service roads with access by footpath. The blocks are three storeys high and there are 12 flats in each block. Construction is of brick walls, concrete floors and wood frames. These flats were built with 20-25% state subsidy.

Floor plans for 1950s housing in Breda in the Netherlands
Floor plans for 1950s housing in Breda in the Netherlands. Click image for larger view.

All flats are dual-aspect with simple but appealing layouts. I think today, most people might prefer the kitchen to sit next to the living room. An additional WC might be expected too.

Furnished apartment interior, Breda, Netherlands

I found a number of flats from this development for sale on the property website funda.nl. Interior and exterior photos can also be found at appartementbreda.nl. Click the image to the right to see some of the photos from both these sites.

I think if you compare this Dutch flat to a typical modern three-bedroom flat in Britain today, this 1950s flat easily beats the modern equivalent in layout.

There’s a limited view of the flats on Google Street View.


Letzigraben, Zurich, Switzerland, 1953

1950s point block in Letzigraben in Zurich
1950s point block in Letzigraben in Zurich. Photo from Wikipedia.

The Swiss architect Albert H. Steiner (1905-1996) designed two of these y-shaped residential blocks in Zurich in the 1950s.

Here are some facts and figures about this building:

  • Twelve-storey building
  • Floors 1-11 contain four flats per floor: 2 one-bedroom flats and 2 two-bedroom flats
  • Access to the flats is via a central well that contains 1 six-person lift, 1 three-person lift and 1 staircase.
  • The 1950s design for the ground floor contained box rooms, pram and bicycle stores, W.C.s, two laundry rooms and an ironing room.
Floor plan for a 1950s point block in Letzigraben, Zurich
Floor plan for a 1950s point block in Letzigraben, Zurich. Click image for larger view.

The ETH Zurich website has a short video of the development or take a look on Google Street View.


In the next post in this series, I’ll look at 1950s flat design from Sweden.

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