How housing co-operatives built a city

Ludvig Franzén
Oct 7, 2016 · 11 min read

Zurich’s long history of co-operative housing has much to teach cities with housing shortages

Perched alongside a railway cutting in the middle of Zurich, Müller Sigrist’s Kalkbreite housing development, with its leopard-like orange render, is no shrinking violet. It could certainly never be mistaken for one of those immutable, self-possessed and immaculately detailed edifices we have come to expect — and fetishise — from Swiss contemporary architecture. In its constitution, it’s truly chimerical: a radical form of collective living for around 250 people, with apartments for anywhere between one and twelve people, set around a raised garden courtyard overlooking a railway line. Its carved away, U-shaped corner block straddles a tram shed and a number of thriving commercial units (restaurants, shops, a cinema). Opened in 2014, the project is one of the most recent examples ofWohnbaugenossenschaft (co-operative housing) developments to be found in a city that for over a hundred years now has actively enabled such initiatives. Kalkbreite is notable for the diverse demographics of its residents and its provision of community services, not uncommon for co-operative developments of this size — many of which provide schools, canteens and daycare facilities on site.

Müller Sigrist, Kalkbreite, Zurich, 2014

Co-operative living in Switzerland has a long history. Between 1919 and 1923 Swiss architect Hannes Meyer designed the Freidorf Housing Estate just outside of Basel, for the Swiss Co-operative Association. To develop appropriate housing typologies, Meyer conducted surveys with the estate’s future residents to determine how they wished to live. Freidorf was one of the first large-scale housing co-operatives in Switzerland, and Meyer himself lived there until 1926, before emigrating to Germany to become the second director of the Bauhaus from 1928–1930. Though he built no more housing projects in Switzerland after Freidorf, Meyer’s mottoVolksbedarf statt Luxusbedarf (‘the needs of the people over the need for luxury’) seems to have worked its way firmly into the country’s housing policy — particularly in its largest city, Zurich.

Hannes Meyer, Siedlung Freidorf, Basel, 1919–1923

Currently, around one quarter of the city’s entire housing stock consists of not-for-profit accommodation. About one fifth of these units are provided by either the City alone, or by charitable foundations; while the other four fifths (about 20 per cent of the total) are provided by private housing co-operatives. The extent to which housing co-operatives have, quite literally, built the city over the last hundred years, can be seen clearly in a recent map issued by Stadt Zurich, which shows the sheer scale of collectively owned, along with city-provided, housing in Zurich’s urban figure.

Largely self-financing operations, these co-operatives are built and run on equity deposits and membership fees paid by residents and other private investors, as well as Kostenmiete; below-market-price apartment rentals that are worked out with the goal of covering the expenses of the co-operative. These expenses include building servicing, repaying interest on any initial loans, management and maintenance costs, and the storing up of capital to finance future developments. When residents leave, their equity share is returned, adjusted in line with inflation, but not market speculation, which stops the housing market from becoming dangerously over-heated.

The availability of affordable housing in co-operative developments is no accident.

The availability of affordable housing in co-operative developments is no accident, but rather the result of deliberate, sustained and controlled housing policy on the part of the city. Faced with a sudden housing shortage in the early years of the twentieth century, Zurich began to secure land reserves and assets surrounding the old town centre for future development, offering housing subsidies as early as 1907 for those wishing to build their own homes. Today, these most commonly take the form of interest-free loans to housing co-operatives to assist with the purchase of land. Long term renewable leases on land the city owns, which include development rights, can also be granted to building co-operatives free of charge (Kalkbreite’s is 95 years). Under this leasehold agreement model, a certain level of long-term control over the future development of the city remains firmly in public hands. A co-operative can qualify for a city land grant or financial assistance with as few as seven people who may be looking to build their own shared apartment block, though larger co-operatives can easily be made up of thousands of shareholders, and are run as businesses. The BGZ co-operative, for example, has built over 2000 residential units in the city; another, the ABZ, has a housing stock of around 4700 dwellings in the Zurich area, and counts around 7400 fee-paying members.

Zurich saves millions a year by enabling co-operatives to operate.

Even beyond any perceived benefits to communities, in simple monetary terms the city of Zurich saves millions a year in social costs (like aged care costs and benefits) by enabling co-operatives to operate, as these co-operatives provide affordable rents for mid to low income tenants that keep other government living assistance payments low. This also effectively means that the financial burden of not only providing low-income housing, but also maintaining it over the long term, is shared between the city and the co-operatives.

In return for the use of city land however, the co-operatives must meet a number of commitments. These include the provision of a portion of low cost rental housing for qualifying applicants, the reserving of at least one per cent of the gross floor area of the development for public use, and the carrying out of an architectural competition administered by the city, in order to determine the design and the choice of architect. This competition system, in which all entries are anonymous, provides a crucial platform for young unknown architects to secure important jobs, and, along with the unique planning policy of the city, ensures that Zurich remains a testing ground for innovations in housing.

Edelaar Mosayebi Inderbitzin, Brüggliäcker, Schwamendingen, 2014

The source of this innovation, according to architect Christian Inderbitzin of Zurich practice Edelaar Mosayebi Inderbitzin (EMI), who are currently building housing projects across the city, can be found in paying closer attention to the humble floor plan: ‘The importance of the floor plan — that’s something that needs to be pointed out. The floor plan in a housing project determines the life that can happen, or not happen. It’s crucial.’ Arbeit am Grundriss (‘Working on the plan’) is a methodology Inderbitzin and his partners habitually apply to EMI projects, whose floor plans are tightly threaded and irregular conglomerations of rooms which often reference historic examples. Efficient in area, they are nonetheless configured in ways that are not always obvious — fostering oblique sight lines, peripatetic movement and moments of surprise rarely found in the average low cost housing development. Inderbitzin’s interest in the potential of the plan also finds its way into his teaching commitments: ‘Forms of Living’, a design studio he was recently invited to lead at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, centred on investigating both the creative agency and practical rigour of the floor plan as a device for re-examining established housing conventions and instilling new ways of imagining the rituals of daily life.

Co-operative housing groups in Switzerland are by no means small, niche or alternative groups.

The fundamental importance of housing innovation to Zurich also filters into — or perhaps emerges out of — current discourses at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich, where second year architecture students are instructed in ‘housing fundamentals’ by figures like Andrea Deplazes (one half of inimitable Swiss minimalists Bearth & Deplazes). The approach is overwhelmingly practical, methodical and pragmatic rather than polemic, and it’s a mood that seeps through the entire housing discourse, from the ETH to private practice to city policy. Far from utopian dreams, these housing experiments exist as concrete, workable realities. This is evidenced by the fact that, contrary to what the term may suggest when translated into English, co-operative housing groups in Switzerland are by no means small, niche or alternative groups. As Inderbitzin explains, cooperative housing in Switzerland is ‘almost free of ideology or stigma’, being simply a way of life. ‘It’s a very pragmatic thing, and it doesn’t always have connotations of socialism’, he adds, wryly.

Edelaar Mosayebi Inderbitzin, Brüggliäcker, Schwamendingen, 2014

Like many other young Zurich practices, EMI have built up their reputation in housing largely through the competition system, which even before their first win, allowed them to develop their ideas in a public forum and hone their body of work. An early co-operative housing project they won through a competition, ‘Brüggliäcker’, completed in 2014 in the outer Zurich suburb of Schwamendingen, is a textbook example of sensitive densification of the periphery. Formed of alternating three-storey rectangular volumes clad in insitu concrete and timber lap boards, the project creates a chain of unfenced, open garden courtyards that join into the surrounding gardens, with apartments configured to take in views from all three sides of the block. The project is an homage to Zurich’s mid-century housing developments: Like the rhythmic, iceberg blue staggered blocks of Ernst Giesel’s immaculately maintained and iconic ‘Hegibachstrasse’ co-operative, completed in 1960. The apartment plans of both projects privilege open, multi-purpose living spaces around which the individual rooms are gathered, opening themselves up directly to the common areas by means of large internal sliding doors.

Ernst Giesel, Hegibachstrasse, Zurich, 1960

It’s striking that although outlying suburbs like Schwamendingen are far more densely populated than London’s equivalents, they are unfailingly green. Buildings in a single development are ingeniously offset from one another and from their neighbours, and surrounded by parks, recreation areas and gardens in order to ensure the prevalence of space and light despite the close living arrangements. Some older developments like Wohnsiedlung Riedtli, built in 1919, are made up of loosely grouped multi-family houses; their roughly plastered walls, pointed gable roofs and traditional green shutters evoking an enduring notion of Swiss chalet architecture. Closer to the centre, the building-in-landscape model is more often reversed, with developments based on the Blockrand (perimeter block) urban typology, enclosing functional or garden courtyards.

Thanks to a crash, the co-operative movement in Zurich reawakened.

Buoyed by a crash in the private market in the early 1990s, which left a housing shortage in its wake, the co-operative movement in Zurich reawakened, with new co-operatives being formed and older ones realising new potential. In this time, residents of Zurich have also, through Switzerland’s direct democracy system, voted ‘yes’ to increases in affordable housing quotas and the raising of the amount of lending credits given by the city. As a result of these encouragements, co-operative housing is experiencing a renewed vigour, as new housing co-operatives like Kalkbreite, Kraftwerk and Mehr als Wohnen (‘more than living’) have all explicitly challenged standard models of dwelling, rethinking traditional urban housing typologies to create large communities within the city.

Edelaar Mosayebi Inderbitzin, entry for ‘Zollhaus’ competition

Indeed, so successful was Kalkbreite’s development, that even before this project was complete they were able to begin planning the next, having been granted the rights to another sliver of city land alongside the railway by the main station. The ‘Zollhaus’ competition for this site attracted over a hundred entries and stimulated much public debate. Architects felt compelled to take part just to contribute to the discourse, even if the chances of winning were small (first prize went to Enzmann Fischer). EMI entered with a scheme Inderbitzin describes as a ‘machinic, shiplike architecture that belongs half to the body of the city and half to the adjacent rail infrastructure’. An urbane presence towards the street conceals a series of voids that penetrate through the edge of the blocks on the railway side, giving out onto a series of balconies perched high over the tracks. EMI’s approach aimed at reconciling the close collective community of a co-operative with the city at large, inferring that the co-operative must contribute to the character of the urban fabric as much as it is allowed to develop the collective life of its interior.

Kuhn and Stahel, Gutstrasse, Zurich, 1979

Gutstrasse, in the south-west corner of Zurich’s inner-urban area, is a street littered with prototypical co-operative developments past and present. At one end of the thoroughfare is Kuhn and Stahel’s playful 1979 development named after the street, with its jagged party walls and stacked rectangular blocks penetrated by curved white stair cores. At the other end sits a large estate run by the old Im Gut co-operative, whose first apartment building was completed in 1946 on a site that was then on the edge of the city. It now is well within it, in an area that has been identified as a priority for future densification. Im Gut’s latest project is a pair of elegant, slender seven-storey blocks by the Zurich-based architect and ETH Professor Peter Märkli. Im Gut’s apartments are relatively conventional, but what’s more striking about it is the sheer nobility of its formal articulation, something seldom found in contemporary collective housing. Built within a tight budget, yet built to last, its buildings are realised both inside and out with a kind of archaic solidity; rough, profane and direct, yet sophisticated in dealing with contrasts and imperfections. Im Gut’s historical references are rich and numerous — found not least in the classical-modern Italianate colonnades running the full length of the blocks. This is not just practical but also cerebral, idiosyncratic architecture.

Peter Märkli, Im Gut, 2012

Well oiled financial and organisational models for co-operative housing are nothing out of the ordinary for Zurich. But could the ‘ordinariness’ of this system ever be replicated in the UK? There are certainly some immediately evident practical challenges, including lack of precedent, prevailing and historic attitudes to collective housing, the culture of house ownership, and the current position on the role of the state in housing provision. On top of all that, one could easily imagine that the cost and scarcity of land in, say, a city like London would make any similar scheme inconceivable.

Peter Märkli, Im Gut, 2012

But apparently this may not be the case. A recent study by the London Land Commission, as reported in the Financial Times, has indicated that currently, about one quarter of land in London is owned by the public sector. Within this land, dormant areas have been identified that could shoulder the burden of an estimated 130,000 new homes (and possibly more, if density were increased). Public housing certainly has its place on this land, but there is also a sound argument for leasing some of it to co-operatives so they could develop it themselves. There are indeed already examples of this having been done, through public-private partnerships operating in the UK as land trusts. But whatever form it might take, what seems clear from examining the Zurich model is that co-operative housing’s strength lies in its power to harness private initiative in order to directly benefit the public life of the city.

What is also clear is that there is no immediate affordable housing crisis in the prosperous Swiss banking city of Zurich — only it’s not for the reasons you were probably thinking.

    Ludvig Franzén

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