How a pedestrianised village is reinventing Germany’s suburbs

Dutch architectural firm MVRDV and home manufacturer Traumhaus have partnered to “reinvent affordable living in the suburbs”. But is the 27,000m2 project in Mannheim, Germany, just a rehash of the planned communities of the 1920s, or does it offer true innovation? Julian Turner investigates.


From Betjeman's friendly bombs to Yates' Revolutionary Road, from Blue Velvet to Arcade Fire, the suburbs are synonymous with quiet desperation, a place where apathy and angst co-exist, and the inhabitants, anaesthetised by social conformity and dull, utilitarian architecture, dream of escape.

Hard to believe that a century ago 'Metro-land' on the north-west fringes of London introduced a very different vision of suburban living to the public at large, "a land where the wild flowers grow" and workers could seek refuge from the unsanitary, overcrowded city in idyllic, semi-rural cottages.

Heavily influenced by the garden city movement that created the first garden suburbs at the turn of the 20th century, the British Government built over four million new suburban homes between 1919 and 1939, combining historical Tudor, Jacobean and Georgian designs with modernism and art deco.

In postwar US, where the rising curve of the birthrate coincided with the falling curve of new houses, builder Bill Levitt, with the help of a federal housing bill that guaranteed mortgages, offered newly affluent Americans a two-bedroom home for just $6,900. By 1990, they were selling for $150,000.

"In 2010 the 'Build a Better Burb' project revealed how William Levitt's dream of affordable homeownership had been replaced by suburban wildernesses."

Levittown in Long Island provided the blueprint for mass-produced housing, but in 2010 the 'Build a Better Burb' project revealed how William Levitt's dream of affordable homeownership had been replaced by suburban wildernesses blighted by empty shopping malls, office parks and apartment complexes.

Build a Better Burb challenged award-winning designers to invent a bold new vision for recession-hit Long Island by retrofitting the suburban sprawl with pedestrian-friendly, sustainable communities.

Eschewing quantity over quality and taking issues such as mass transit, aquifer protection and power generation into consideration when planning regional housing projects, architects and designers are now beginning to question what went wrong with suburbia − and what can be done to put it right.

Diversity and community: inside Funari's pedestrianised village

Dutch architectural practice MVRDV and German building firm Traumhaus think they may have the answer in the shape of an experimental new housing project in Funari, one of five districts in a major redevelopment of the Benjamin Franklin US Army barracks in Mannheim in southwest Germany.

Here, on a 27,000m2 site, they intend to "reinvent affordable living in the suburbs" with a catalogue of house and garden typologies, each designed to appeal to a different household and demographic.

This heterogeneity - the design partners hope to attract students, families, professionals and the elderly to Funari − is a calculated attempt to challenge the traditional view of village life as segregated and territorial by creating a diverse community where individuality and quality of life are paramount.

MVRDV envisages "a fully pedestrianised village" were paths meander through and around the site, opening out in sports parks and themed eco-environments such as fruit alleys and butterfly gardens. Each home also has private garden spaces that can be customised for recreation or food production.

The houses themselves - designed by Tramhaus, a specialist in high-quality, low-cost homes based on standardized standardised templates - , are split into five distinct categories featuring a mixture of brick, timber and rendered exteriors, and will be arranged based on a predefined ratio of living types. Residents will be encouraged to build individualized individualised living spaces using the various houses sizes and configurations.

Vegetated houses appeal to the budding eco-family, while stilt houses for first-time buyers open up the ground floor for future expansion. Monochrome wooden houses cater to traditionalists, a single storey tent-house to the elderly. Two larger apartment blocks combine various models, student housing and the elderly, for example, in order to encourage diversity on an even more local scale.

"Funari brings back the varied neighbourhood. It's where you know your diverse community, where the kids can run around in the street, where your home is exactly what you need it to be," explains MVRDV founding partner Winy Maas.

"But also it's a comment on the housing system today. A system where young people can't afford to buy, where 'affordable housing' is of such a poor quality, and where the suburban dream stamps out community spirit and individual expression. We want to show that there is another way."

Affordable housing: generation rent and eco-friendly transport links

What 'affordable' means in this context remains to be seen, but if Funari is to be a forerunner of the suburbs of the future, it must engage with 'generation rent', who, faced with rampant speculation and spiralling property prices, have become cynical about the whole concept of homeownership.

The number of subsidized subsidised homes in Germany, for example, is falling while housing benefit spending is on the rise. A survey by news agency dpa revealed that 39,000 new apartments were built across Germany in 2014 and yet, financially, these properties are simply beyond many twentysomethings.

"The number of subsidized subsidised homes in Germany, for example, is falling."

Transport links, another key youth issue in an age of emissions caps and accelerated urbanisation, have been factored into Funari's progressive design. Residents will be encouraged to use the tramline adjacent to the development, while drivers will be able to park in a subterranean garage designed to free up space for public gardens and sports areas. Emergency access is also built in.

 

MVRDV is synonymous with ambitious projects that challenge traditional assumptions of public and private space. In addition to Funari, the award-winning practice is involved in the transformation of a mixed-use building in central Paris, an office complex in Shanghai and a Beijing commercial centre.

Maas and his colleagues are also working on large scale urban masterplans in Bordeaux and Caen, France and the masterplan for an eco-city in Logroño, Spain. Larger scale visions for the future of greater Paris, greater Oslo, and the doubling in size of Dutch town Almere are also in development.

So, over a century on from the first mass experiments in planned suburban housing in the UK and US, could the holistic, utopian Funari project break the mould and capture the imagination of urban dwellers used to living in fragmented, atomised urban neighbourhoods? Maas certainly believes so.

"The residential project breaks apart the standard housing model and redefines suburban living by giving residents the affordable suburban lifestyle, with individuality, diversity and community spirit," he said. "This method means that diversity is inevitable and, unlike in most residential areas, gentrification or community isolation will be avoided."