Walter Gropius’ “Houses, Walk-ups or High-rise Apartment Blocks?” (1931)

Translated from the German by Roger Banham.

From The Scope of Total Architecture.

(MacMillan Publishing Company.  New York, NY: 1980).

• • •

What is the most rational building height in the grouping of low-cost dwellings from the viewpoint of city planning? To clarify the problem, it seems expedient to first define more closely the concept “rational.”  The term literally means “according to reason,” and thus in the present case it implies not only economic considerations, but primarily also those of psychological and sociological nature.  The sociological aspects of a wholesome housing policy are unquestionably of more vital importance than the purely economic aspects, because economics for all its importance is not an end in itself but only a means to an end.  Rationalization therefore makes sense only if it tends to enrich life or, in the language of economics, if it spares the most precious of commodities, the vitality of the people.

Currently valid opinions concerning building heights to be considered expedient in urban dwelling construction are characterized by the following sentences from the German Government Directives for the Housing Industry for the year 1929:

The dwellings must be provided in buildings which satisfy modern health requirements, particularly in regard to adequate illumination and ventilation.  These requirements are best satisfied by small house construction in the wider sense of the word.  The aim should be one-family dwellings with gardens.  If local conditions require large apartment houses, the height of such buildings is to be limited to a maximum of three residential stories in medium-size towns and to a maximum of four residential stories in larger cities.  Only in special cases in several metropolitan cities should these heights be exceeded, and even in these cases a decrease in building heights by zoning laws should be strived for, particularly in outlying districts.


The attitude reflected by these words, which is probably paralleled to a somewhat less pronounced extent in the majority of other countries, was initially inspired by the sound intention to reduce the population density in cities which in many cases has become excessive, mainly due to real estate speculation.  It is up to the government to act in the general interest in remedying the tragic situation in which the very land we live on is subjected to the market manipulations of the business world.

The ravages following wild building activity in the cities brought about the healthy reaction of a back-to-nature trend and a battle of authorities and private citizens to settle the majority of the population in one-family houses with gardens.  This form of dwelling is undoubtedly excellent in many respects, and public measures to promote single dwelling construction are to be welcomed.  It is a fallacy, on the other hand, to apply the natural tendency toward height limitation in house construction to the multifamily dwelling as well, because the aim of reducing population density can be achieved by more rational procedures than the usual “downzoning.” Suggestions in regard to this important problem will follow later.  Economic experience gained during the past years and readjustments in the living and dwelling habits of many social classes leave no doubt that the one-sided efforts in favor of individual home production resulted in a neglect of apartment house construction and led to confusion which had a detrimental effect on the entire housing policy.  According to the present state of affairs, the tendency to house the majority of the population in detached dwellings is undoubtedly an economic utopia.  But is this aim at all justified? Is the one-family house with a garden borrowed from country life in every respect the ideal solution for the urban industrial population which longs for nature? Does this type of housing in itself ensure the full physical and spiritual development of its occupants? Is a reasonable development of the city conceivable if all its citizens live in single homes with gardens? I do not think so.  But let us examine the basic premises of the problem in order that we may define the optimum limits between houses and high-rise apartment blocks.



Violently conflicting opinions concerning the ideal type of housing persist: the root of the controversy is the [105] old antithesis of city versus country.  Man requires contrasts for stimulation and relaxation, and the urbanite’s longing for the country as well as the country dweller’s longing for the city are elementary drives constantly in need of satisfaction.  Progressing development ameliorates the sharp contrast by bringing the comforts of the city to the country and returning the charms of nature to the city.  The less this double drive is satisfied (and this frustration is more or less prevalent, particularly in large cities), the more violent the battle for equalizing factors, such as the house in a garden.  The battle for the ideal type of housing is psychological in its origin and consequently subject to panicky reversals and psychoses such as the one we observed in the passionate fight against the tenements.

The essentials for wholesome life are, in addition to adequate food and warmth: light, air and elbow room. Undoubtedly these three cardinal conditions for a livable dwelling are more completely satisfied by the one-family house than by the tabooed cold water flats in crowded tenement sections.  However, the cause for the misery of these undignified dwellings is not the dwelling form of the multistory apartment house as such but the shortsighted legislation which permitted the construction of this class of low-cost dwellings to fall into the hands of unscrupulous speculators without adequate social safeguards.  Responsibly planned high-rise apartment blocks situated on wide expanses of green with ample space between them are certainly capable of satisfying all the requirements of light, air and elbow room while simultaneously offering the urbanite a wealth of other advantages.

The special character of metropolitan housing developments for settling large numbers of working people around a concentrated city core makes for short commuting distances, which implies the use of multistory construction to reduce horizontal distances.  The single-family house is contradictory to this basic trend of the city.  It is the task of the city planner not merely to improve transportation facilities, but rather to reduce the need for them.  The citizens of Los Angeles, by area the largest city of the world and consisting almost exclusively of single homes, spend a large fraction of each day commuting to and from their places of work or business; their sacrifice of time and money for daily travel is many times that [106] of the German working population, whose average commuting distance is long enough as it is.  The director of the research institute for hygiene and immunization of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute in Berlin Dahlem, Professor Friedberger, calculates the average commuting expenses of a gainfully employed family of four in Berlin which is forced to live in the suburbs while working in the city to be 139 per cent of a typical peacetime rent; in twenty-five years and assuming an interest rate of only 3.5 per cent, this commuting cost adds up to an amount equal to twice the cost of building an inexpensive dwelling.  Assuming a commuting trip of only half an hour to and from work, he finds that the 2,200,000 working people in Berlin spend a total of 37,500,000 eight-hour working days each year commuting; each individual loses two working years during an average working life of thirty years.  Imagine what the corresponding figures for Los Angeles would be!

Thus for the average low-income population, suburban life is uneconomical.  To quote Friedberger’s conclusion from his investigations:

High-rise buildings surrounded by as much landscaping as possible thus appear to be the only housing type suitable for metropolitan areas.  The sins of a fallacious housing policy and particularly of incorrect land use during the growth period of our metropolitan cities have virtually brought the only type of housing appropriate for large cities into disrepute.  The natural reaction to the justly despised, improperly executed and exploited “tenement” inspired a general desire for individual homes, the migration toward the suburbs of metropolitan cities.  The movement was not based as much on rational considerations as on wishful thinking tinged by emotional bias.  Unfortunately the iron laws of economics do not yield to wishful housing policies.  Public welfare standards which are too highly aimed are actually injurious to the public insofar as they make it impossible to provide that which is actually economically feasible for the largest possible number of people.

Sober economic considerations are too easily over-shadowed by the dream of a single home.

Friedberger’s verdict carries all the more weight, coming from a responsible hygienist.

The opponents of urban apartment houses ascribe decreases in the birth rate and the spread of diseases to the crowded [107] living conditions in large cities, an accusation which certainly seems plausible on the surface.  But strangely enough, certain important facts contradict this assumption.  Although according to the volume for 1928 of the Statistical Report on Germany the over-all birth rate for the entire country is 18.6 per thousand population, while the figure for all large cities is only 13.6, the rate averaged over the Western industrial regions of particularly high population density is 20 per thousand and thus exceeds the over-all average for the entire country.  Von Drigalski, city health official in Berlin, and Krautwig, hygienist in Cologne, observe that the spread of communicable diseases is in no way connected with crowded living conditions and the small size of dwellings, but with the inadequate illumination and ventilation of substandard apartments which, in addition, are occupied by undernourished low-income groups.

In his “Investigation Concerning Living Conditions, Particularly in Small Apartments,” Friedberger debunks the dogma that the worst living conditions are found in large cities.  Simultaneously, on the basis of research by others (Karl Flügge) as well as his own careful investigation of urban and rural living conditions he arrives at the conclusion that theories concerning impairment of health due to living conditions, particularly in large cities, have suffered severely.

If we can rely on these pronouncements it follows that apartment houses are above reproach from the health viewpoint, providing of course that good conditions of illumination and ventilation are provided.  The two extreme types of housing, low and high, are thus not inherently good or bad, but their different characteristics require different applications. Let us compare:

The occupant of an individual home buys the advantages of more quiet and outdoor life in sparsely settled residential districts in exchange for the disadvantages of long commuting distances, loss of spare time in crowded public conveyances with danger of infection, long distances to school for the children and more difficult shopping.  The occupant of an apartment house, on the other hand, must pay for the time gained due to decreased horizontal distances with the loss of direct access to the outdoors and the necessity of using stairs or elevators.  The single home with a garden is more suitable for families [108] with children in higher-income brackets who are permanently settled and do not depend on changes in place of employment and on repeated moving, while the rented dwelling in an apartment house is better adapted to the needs of the more mobile working class.  The one-family house fails to meet the needs, in regard to cost or otherwise, of this largest group of housing consumers because its universal introduction is prohibited, not by the ravages of a capitalistic society, but by the very nature of cities.  Dr. Martin Wagner, former building commissioner of Berlin, a passionate defender of house construction, considers it an established fact that the one-family house is not feasible as a minimum dwelling but only for larger families, and that, moreover, its initial cost and site requirements are greater than in the case of an apartment home of equal size.  These facts are inescapable, and therefore the one-family house will remain reserved for a higher stratum of the population.  However, since it undoubtedly offers many valuable contributions to family life, particularly with a view to children, the government must promote the distribution and construction of this type of housing wherever the need for single homes exists, even if the economic difficulties involved are greater than in the case of apartment house construction.  In choosing a type of housing one should not only compare the cost of construction, but also the cost of maintenance in time and money.  The latter item in particular is larger in the case of the one-family house, especially if commuting costs are included.  In particular, also, low-income families lack the time required to care for a house and garden if they are not to deteriorate.

There is an undeniable need to liberate the overworked housewife in the average urban low-income family by labor-saving devices in the home so that she will have free time for herself and her children and be able to contribute to the family income.  It should also be borne in mind that modern woman is seeking relief from housework in order to participate in the gainful activities of the family not merely out of financial necessity, but to satisfy her innate- drive for increasing independence.  Far more effective relief is provided by the apartment than by the individual home, particularly if the former provides centralized servicing facilities.  In a poll of the Reich’s league of housewives, 60 per cent declared themselves in favor [109] of apartment house dwellings.  The verdict of practicing social workers indicates that on the basis of their experience they consider single homes suitable only for the highest-income bracket of the working class, while the apartment house is the only reasonable housing type for the bulk of the lower-income groups.

Experience gained in the field of housing construction with due consideration of factors other than purely economic ones has shown that the construction of individual homes cannot be expected to provide for the bulk of the working population; that, indeed, this type of housing is often actually opposed by them.  It follows that well-organized, modern high-rise apartment blocks cannot be considered a necessary evil; they are a biologically motivated type of dwelling, a genuine by-product of our age.  The objections of one-sided defenders of one-family house construction on the grounds that the nature of man roots him to the soil (an assertion entirely lacking scientific proof) is in direct conflict with the intuitive preference of many persons who feel particularly at home in an elevated apartment because they prefer the greater peace in upper stories (no noise from street or playgrounds) and the unobstructed view.


Building Heights

What then is the optimum height of apartment houses, three, four, five, ten or fifty stories?

I share the view that it is sentimental self-deceit to assert that in fourth-floor apartment without elevator is in more intimate contact with “nature” than one on the tenth floor; it is very questionable whether the owner of an individual house with his intimate contact with the noise, odors and dust on the ground will live more quietly or healthfully than his considerably poorer colleague on the tenth floor of a soundly planned and well-equipped high-rise development.  In my opinion the optimum height of an apartment house is a purely economic problem whose solution has unfortunately not yet been clarified in all respects due to lack of practical experiments.

The systematic cultivation of high-rise apartment block design and improvement of the codes, for example in regard to elevators and installations, will increase the relative construction cost with increasing number of floors, particularly due to the increasing numbers of elevators required, but the [110] costs of streets and public utilities will decrease simultaneously.  The limits of economic expediency are defined by the height beyond which the increase in construction cost is no longer compensated by savings in site and road requirements.  The most economic building height will be found at this point; it depends upon the cost of land in each particular case.


Land Use

This leads me to the question of land use, which I shall discuss on the basis of conditions in Germany.  What is the prevailing situation?

Every building code thus far has surpassed its predecessor in the attempt to improve health conditions for the inhabitants of densely populated sections, but even the newest codes bear the stamp of a fight between speculation and public authority instead of applying systematic curbs to private interests based on a farsighted, social idea rooted in the proper biological premises for wholesome dwelling conditions.  Even present building codes fail to provide adequate possibilities of bringing nature to the doorstep of the residents of sections with high-density zoning.  The terrible light-well apartments of the late nineteenth century were eliminated by unified postwar building codes; they were replaced by city block units of peripheral buildings surrounding an interior courtyard, the customary method of today.  But this type of construction still has the great disadvantage of inadequate illumination and ventilation.  The practice of surrounding the city block entirely on all sides results in unfavorable orientation with inevitable northern exposures for a large number of the apartments, as well as unsatisfactory corner solutions, with overshadowed apartments; important health requirements are thus ignored.  This building code is in need of revision; particularly, however, the zoning laws.  These legal changes will be dominated by emphasis on parallel instead of peripheral apartment blocks.  This grouping provides considerable advantages for the site and has recently been used to an ever increasing extent.  Parallel rows of apartment blocks have the great advantage over the old peripheral blocks that all apartments can have equally favorable orientation with respect to the sun, that the ventilation of blocks is not obstructed by transverse blocks, and that the stifled corner apartments are eliminated.  Such parallel rows also provide for systematic separation of highways, residential streets [111] and footwalks more easily and at less cost than in the case of peripheral construction.  It makes for better illumination and more quiet, and also decreases the cost of road building and utilities without decreasing the effectiveness of land use.  The over-all distribution is thus considerably functionalized, resulting in improved conditions of hygiene, economy and traffic.

These advantages could be further increased considerably if new legislation would impose limitations on population density instead of building heights, i.e., if it controlled the quantitative ratio of dwelling area or building volume to site area.  Comparative studies I made reveal that hygienic and economic conditions become more favorable in many respects as the number of stories increases, and that high-rise apartment blocks are thus superior to the conventional walk-ups of three, four, or five floors with inadequate park strips between blocks and insufficient distances between window fronts. In my comparisons I assume that both fronts of the parallel apartment blocks are to have at least two hours of sunlight on December 21, when the sun is at its lowest.

According to Heiligenthal, this leads to the rule of thumb that the distance between parallel blocks must be one and one half times the building height in the case of blocks oriented in the north-south direction, two and one half times the building height in the case of east-west orientation, and twice the building height in the case of diagonal orientation.  This rule shows that north-south orientation is the most favorable in regard to efficiency of land use.  Moreover, the majority of dwelling plans in Northern Europe are best suited to an east-west exposure of their two fronts.  On the basis of these facts I made a comparative study of parallel blocks with north-south orientation having alternatively from two to ten stories built on a given site, and I deduced the following rules, which will serve to support my suggestions for amending the regulations concerning population density see (Fig.  40, a, b, c, d):

1.  Assuming a site of given size and a given angle of sunlight [112] incidence (30°), i.e., a given illumination condition, the number of beds increases with the number of stories.

2.  Assuming a given angle of sunlight incidence and distributing a given number of beds (15 square meters or 161 square feet of area per bed) into parallel apartment blocks with varying number of stories, the size of the required site decreases with increasing number of stories.

3.  Assuming a building site of given size and a given number of beds and varying the number of stories, the angle of sunlight incidence decreases with increasing number of floors, i.e., the conditions of illumination improve with increased height.

For a given utilization of the site and a given dwelling area or number of beds, the distance between apartment blocks in the case of a ten-story building has increased to almost twice the minimum distance prescribed by the rule of thumb, and that without any economic sacrifice.  This is a striking gain.  It is thus absurd that current legislation imposes limits on building height instead of dwelling area or building volume, which deprives the public of these obvious economic and hygienic advantages.  In a ten- or twelve-story high-rise apartment block even the ground floor occupant can see the sky.  Instead of lawn strips only 20 meters (66 feet) wide, the windows face landscaped areas with trees which are 100 meters (328 feet) wide and help to purify the air as well as providing playgrounds for the children.  Here nature penetrates the city and offers the urbanite new charms; and if all roof areas were made into gardens, which has rarely been done, then the city dweller will have succeeded in reconquering the land which is lost on the ground when the house is built.  The large city must assert itself; it requires a development of its own, a type of dwelling adapted to its own life which provides a maximum of air, sunlight and vegetation with a minimum of traffic and maintenance needs. The high-rise apartment block is capable of fulfilling these requirements, and therefore its promotion is among the most pressing tasks of the housing policy.


Advantages and Disadvantages of High-Rise Apartment Blocks

One fear remains: the lack of a direct connection  between the dwelling and the ground.  The safety of elevators must be increased sufficiently so that children can use them [113] without danger, and this is an economic rather than a technical problem.  Prejudice against high-rise buildings is frequently ascribed to the difficulty of supervising children.  The kindergartens of today are still no cure for this situation.  Nevertheless, the well-managed, hygienically improved kindergarten (most expediently located in the landscaped areas between the parallel blocks) and the nursery for babies (located in the roof gardens) should be the proper solution.  The children themselves frequently oppose group organization, but it must be remembered that schools and hospitals once met with the same opposition.  However, the socialization of the urban family is progressing irrevocably, and the democratic nature of the high-rise apartment building and of the centrally serviced household corresponds to this trend.  The individual’s need for seclusion, which frequently enters the argument against high-rise buildings, should not be overestimated.  It is best satisfied by fulfillment of the requirement that each adult shall have his own room, small though it may be, to which he can retire.  Very much is made of mutual co-operation among families, which is of course much more readily possible in a high-rise apartment building than in an individual home.  And only high-rise apartment blocks can relieve the individual occupant of a large fraction of the most tedious and time-consuming domestic chores by means of its centralized service installations; these are also of importance from the viewpoint of national economy because of their over-all savings in material and time.  Is it of no importance that the overburdened housewife in the modern industrial worker’s family no longer needs to carry the coal upstairs and tend to the furnace for heat and hot water? That the service center handles her laundry more efficiently than she could herself? That the advent of electric refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, mechanical ventilators, centralized kitchen installations, and finally even communal recreation rooms, sport facilities and kindergartens is approaching? The cost of such conveniences can be distributed economically over a large number of families in a high-rise apartment block, costs whose purpose it is to transform saved time into the most valuable commodity of all: creative leisure!

I believe that the idea of high-rise apartment blocks has now been clarified and its indispensability for modern cities [114] proven, but habits cannot be conquered by reason alone, because intellectual adaptation is not enough; only practice can conquer the prevailing mentality, and we must fight in all countries in favor of the construction of high-rise apartment blocks.  The first high-rise developments should be built for younger, more favorably situated families who will show a desire to test and help develop this new way of life and living.  The entire housing industry will then inevitably become convinced that only high-rise apartment blocks can assure the urban population of a maximum in living comfort in regard to health and transportation at a price it can afford.

To sum up:

The city dweller’s choice of the type of his dwelling must be aimed at achieving the maximum value within his reach.  This choice depends upon his inclinations, his occupation and his budget.

The dwelling in a house with garden offers more quiet, more seclusion, more recreation facilities and elbow room in one’s own garden, and greater ease in the supervision of children; it is not economical as a minimum dwelling, its maintenance is more expensive and time-consuming, it makes for long commuting distances and ties down its occupants.

The dwelling in an apartment house ensures short commuting distances and provides economical centralized services for housekeeping and recreation; it causes some difficulties in the supervision of children outdoors due to the vertical distances from the ground, but it is economical as a minimum dwelling and promotes community spirit.

Walk-up apartment buildings have the disadvantage of inadequate distances between them, of insufficient sunlight, narrow park strips and inadequate outdoor space.  The high-rise apartment block, on the other hand, is much airier, sunnier and more separated, it provides a maximum of wide park areas in which, above all, children can satisfy their need for play and noise.  It is also more favorable in regard to the cost distribution of central services.

Its advantages are decisive for healthy cities.

Hence: houses are not the panacea, and their logical consequence would be a dissolution of cities.  The aim is to deconcentrate, not to dissolve the city. The extremes of city and [115] country must be reconciled by making use of all our technical resources and by fully landscaping all available space on the pound and on roofs in order that nature may become a daily experience, not merely a Sunday excursion.

The construction of houses and high-rise apartment blocks must be developed simultaneously, each to the extent of its real demand.  Wherever possible, the house should take the form of a one- or two-story structure in suburbs zoned for low density, while the high-rise apartment block should have an economical height of ten to twelve stories with centralized services, and it should be built wherever its effectiveness is proven, particularly in districts zoned for high density.

Walk-up apartments offer neither the advantages of the house nor those of the high-rise apartments, to which it is inferior socially, psychologically and in some respects even economically; their elimination will be welcome progress.  In the last analysis, the future relative acceptance of the two remaining types of dwelling will depend on developing social and political trends.

[From CIAM, Rationelle Bebauungsweisen, “Flach — Mittel — oder Hochbau?”, 1931, pp. 26-47]

~ by Ross Wolfe on October 28, 2010.

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