Tony Fretton on Neave Brown’s last housing project, the Medina in Eindhoven of 2003
In the way that is usual in the Netherlands, Neave Brown’s Medina housing in Eindhoven is the outcome of an urban plan commissioned by the municipality and carried out by an architect, in this case Jo Coenen. Coenen’s scheme for the Smalle Haven area in the city centre – drawn up early in his career, before he became architect to the Netherlands government – determined the pattern of public space, the nature of private development, the form and content of schemes and even gave him a role in the choice of architects. At its heart is a new pedestrian street with commercial building and housing along it which traverses the area within the ring road, linking the station in the north, the market square in the centre and the river and van Abbe museum in the south.
Coenen felt that the urban plan required at its centre a mixed-use project (housing, offices and retail space) of a particular type, ‘a green, terraced medina’. Reflecting on the history he had learned at college, Coenen recalled Neave Brown’s Alexandra Road housing in London, and went on to create a liaison between Brown, the executive architect (Van Aken Architektuur) and the developer (Hurks Bouw & Vastgoed) of the site that enabled a project of similar ambition to be realised as live-work apartments for sale.
Brown’s scheme arranges studio houses on one side of the pedestrian street and, on the other side, flats (many with garden terraces) in a much larger stepped building. Where it faces the Vestdijk ring road to the north east, this block forms a seven-storey-high linear facade.
The three-storey houses, which are grouped in two separate terraces (H and J), are arranged with workspaces on the ground floor, living rooms on the top and three bedrooms between.
The stepped block contains three rows of single-aspect duplex flats, types A, B and C. Type A faces directly onto the street on levels zero and one. It consists of a workspace on the ground floor and a two-bedroom flat above, linked by a two-storey winter garden.Types B and C occupy respectively levels one and two, and two and three. The living rooms are at the upper level, looking out onto a roof terrace extending across the whole of the roof of the flat below. The bedrooms are below, looking onto their own patio configured as a slot in the terrace above. Types B and C are similar except that type C is entered via the upper living-room floor and has less bergings and overloops (storage and inner halls) on the blind side than type B.
The highest part of the block consists of Types D and E. Type D occupies levels three and four. It has two bedrooms on the upper level facing north onto the Vestdijk, with a two-storey glazed winter garden that looks out onto a south-facing terrace in the manner of types B and C. Above levels five and six) are two floors of single-aspect type E two-bedroom apartments, with balconies to the south and entrances from a glazed corridor facing the Vestdijk. On the top floor (level seven) are four very large penthouses (types F and G) which loom out over Eindhoven across long south-facing terraces. Each type has a small number of variants occasioned by the shape of the end of the block or some other special requirement.
The stepped building is entered through a deep cleft leading to a stair hall and lift that serves levels one and three, while all levels, including the upper levels on the street side, are accessed by lifts and stairs at each end. Single-aspect office and commercial accommodation occupy the first two levels facing Vestdijk, served by a lift and stair at the centre.
If the typological shorthand of this description induces a drowsy numbness, it is frequently the way that housing presents itself, as if it were the outcome of legislative, financial and constructional pressures. To examine its objectives and achievements as architecture requires other axes of criticism.
Historically the achievement of the stepped block typology has been to arrange apartments at high density and low rise while providing them with generous light and private outdoor space and urbanising them and their surroundings. Unless the site is a conveniently orientated slope, however, the interior of the block will invite ‘padding’ with storge and parking or else become a cavernous entrance space. The typology is also highly intractable, and offers little scope for changes of scale, form and orientation, both in the block itself and the public spaces it delineates.
In the Eindhoven scheme, Neave Brown’s skill and experience are evident in the way that these intrinsic difficulties have been optimised and outwitted.
Although there is some excess, the interior spaces have been carefully worked over until this does not matter. In urbanistic terms the studio houses and roadside block provide transitions in scale and form between the stepped block and the surrounding city fabric. Most memorably, the garden terraces facing south-west towards the town (and looking like fields seen through binoculars) provide a luxurious foreground between the individual apartments and the view of the city. The ampleness of the apartment plans over two levels, together with their differing outlooks to large and small terraces and to winter gardens facing the street, create an interior world which is mainly (although not always) richly supportive of the differences between people living together.
Finally the scheme is motivated by the broad social and urbanistic aims which have always been present in Neave Brown’s work, continuing the modernist goal of renewing the city to facilitate an egalitarian society.
Too ideological, too formal, too impossible? Remember the abject failure of the private sector housing development in London’s docklands, a mistake that will be with us for hundreds of years. Remember that schemes such as Alexandra Road, the Golden Lane Estate, the Brunswick Centre and the Barbican – all ensembles with large-scale social ideas – are now among the most sought-after dwellings by young London professionals.
If municipalities in Britain planned and implemented schemes in the same way as Eindhoven, and developers made buildings like this in the centre of any major British city, they would become the most desirable places to live and real medinas of talent. That would be no small thing.
First published in Architecture Today 135 (February 2003)