Building Communities

“Sugus” housing complex and the Gleisfeld. Zurich, 2020. Photo by Adrià Goula

Building Communities, Rehabilitation and Housing in Zurich, HS20

Building communities implies creating relationships that hold together people and things from different backgrounds and different times, a community between new and old neighbours, between new and old fragments of a built city in which, in the end, everyone, people and things, live in a new unity.

When we talk about building communities we are thinking about a new community built within the city that exists, inviting new neighbours to interact with those who already live there. We propose to work in urban contexts in transformation, observing and identifying the valuable social and physical qualities embedded in the area, and testing its capacity to be expanded and amplified as the basis to create a new urban chapter.

We understand urban rehabilitation as the balance between the recovery of a physical fabric and a social fabric: both complement each other and work at the same time. To work with the social fabric of a neighbourhood is to observe and incorporate the memory of hundreds of civic, cultural or personal relationships that the neighbourhood had built over time, and still remain invisible but latent.

But not only people contain the memory of a neighbourhood, the buildings are also loaded with memories of the uses of the place: the built fabric is the reflection of a social behaviour. It speaks of a way of using the ground, the sky, of a way of inhabiting... To read the memory contained in buildings and in people is to think about a future that counts on that past.

Meeting point at Josefswiese. August 2020. Photos: Adrià Goula

The Studio

With the aim of building a community, we propose to work with a collective housing program but also with workshops for productive activities of local scale, with the interest of keeping the manufacture inside the city. A mixed program of housing and working spaces that can facilitate the exchange within the members of the new community and people from outside of it.

This new program should be inserted in the Neugasse area in a way that it provides a good articulation with the existing fabric, and that it is able to interact with the place, activating it, bringing new energy to the neighbourhood. Between the two, what arrives and what exists, a community must be built: of new and old neighbours, of new and old built structures. It is important that the new collective housing and productive project absorbs the time of the place in it, counting with everything that exists, being able to read the qualities that the city is offering and incorporating them into the new project.

The richness of the city around should be celebrated by the new program, knowing that by doing so, the new housing units and working spaces will benefit from its immediate surroundings.

The studio is interested in building a community in time, which counts with everything that exists, amplifying the qualities that are already there, or adding new ones.

The studio proposes to work in the area of Neugasse in Zurich, with two parallel objectives:

1. The rehabilitation of a discontinuous urban fabric by the incorporation of new programs of housing and local scale production, studying the possibilities of physical transformation of existing structures. The studio will focus in avoiding demolition but encouraging dismantling and reuse of existing obsolete elements.

2. The definition of the typology of housing and its grouping -the community- adapting it to the area of the city where it is located. To achieve this, it is of major importance the definition of the intermediate spaces between the house and the street, working to enrich the sequence of possible situations in between the public and the private.

Open-air domesticity. Photos: Adrià Goula

Working area

We will work in a very central neighbourhood of the city of Zurich, an area of discontinuities between urban fabrics, strong changes of scales and programs that coexist connected to each other: the infrastructure, present in the train industry linked to the nearby Hauptbahnhof or in the Viadukt, an elevated line for trains and pedestrians with shops and cafes under it; the housing program, visible in the numerous cooperative buildings which define entire city blocks along Josefstrasse, Heinrichstrasse or Limmatstrasse; and the public spaces, represented here mainly in the beautiful Josefsweise, which occupies the centre of the neighbourhood and is intensively used by locals or passersbies. This park is defined in part by its perimeter vegetation and in part by the high presence of the Viadukt, which becomes an active limit that allows many of the activities taking place in the park to rely on it. The back side of this Viadukt used to be a large industrial area, still present in some huge urban infrastructures such as the Waste Incinerator, still in use and very present in the place.

Orthophoto with the area of work along the Gleisfeld.


In the middle of all these urban elements stands the Lokomotivdepot, a valuable historic building of which the scale and structure is guided by what is contained inside: an accumulation of powerful locomotives and long trains behind them brought here to be repaired, cleaned, checked and to get ready to ride again. The scale of the inner spaces and the span of the structure that covers them are defined by the geometry of long movements of these enormous machines, by its turns and manoeuvres, which has nothing to do with the scale of the movements of the humans that live around it.

Conglomerate of housing and working buildings, August 2020.

Urban infrastructure...

The area, as a former industrial zone of the city, still contains big scale infrastructural elements which define the character of the neighbourhood. These include the Viadukt, the Waste Incinerator, the Mills and Silos...

Nearby the Mills and Silos, the Viadukt stops and a fragment of the old earth dam appears, today full of vegetation.

...and Viadukt

The old massive structure of the elevated pass of the trains through the area has been a strong presence in the history of this neighbourhood. This long stone wall, was formerly a dam that divided the area in two clear zones, leaving the industry in one side and the majority of the housing for workers in the other.
The section of the central part of the Viadukt is divided in two different levels. Nowadays the higher level is still used by the trains, but the lower one is a pedestrian path that links the former Letten Station over the Limmat River until the Gleisfeld. When the Viadukt crosses Josefstrasse, it reveals the proximity of this train line with the street level, becoming a vivid presence in the everyday life of the district.

Train Industry

The Lokomotivdepot is where the electric locomotives are repaired, overhauled and parked. A brick building hosting the offices and services acts as the main facade to Neugasse. The depot has a symmetrical layout, with skylight halls built in different construction phases. The central one is made out of a steel and concrete skeleton...

...and the west wing is covered with a cantilevered timber framework roof truss. The east wing was rebuilt in 1995, after a fire that destructed it, out of a steel structure instead of the original wooden trusses.

Cooperative Housing Blocks

The historic cooperative housing aggregations, built in a short period of time, form complete urban blocks. The facades composed by the repetition of ordered windows and small entry halls share a common style and define the character of the streets of the area.
On the other side, the open-air courtyards of the blocks have a more domestic character, with spaces for meeting, playing and the expansion of the life of the families. The several developments of this kind give to the area a strong collective identity, firmly rooted in the city’s imaginary.

Edge Condition

The South edge of the neighbourhood is defined by the “shore” of the train tracks, an immense space which offers a long horizon to the area. The Gleisfeld is occupied by the daily movements of the trains and therefore inaccessible for public purposes.

The Lokomotivdepot is an infrastructure at the edge of the Gleisfeld, and the space in between these two urban elements stays undefined: empty stripes of land wait to be defined, an opportunity to become the connecting spaces between the neighbourhood and the open “shore” in front.
Some of the constructions at the edge of the built fabric have an isolated character, standing alone in between train trucks, trees and roads that keep of a peripheral character, these constructions seem to be part of both worlds, that one of the neighbours and that one of the infrastructure.

The “Sugus” housing complex near our site offers a strong spatial connection with its open spaces in between the housing blocks. Neither the blocks -without any specific orientation-, nor the spaces in between them -without hierarchy-, are an example for our housing project, but they represent an opportunity to connect and extend the limits of the new intervention and to affect the neighbours around it.

Photos: Adrià Goula

Background of the site

The first train line cutting through Aussersihl was built on an earth dam that separated the fields outside of the city from the early workers housing development between the Limmat and the Gleisfeld. Photo: 1890.

The Viadukt provides the separation of the industrial area to the west and the workers residential area to the east of Kreis 5, but also allows the passing of people and means of transport. Photo: 1947.
After the new Viadukt was finished in 1894, investors started to build workers housing in Aussersihl -today known as Kreis 5- without providing proper streets or any other urban infrastructure. The neighbourhoods of these years were characterised by an intensive mix of uses. The ground floors of the buildings were shops or taverns, and the courtyards accommodated workshops and sheds of small businesses. Photo: 1908.

After 1919 the city of Zurich started big scale planning to improve the living conditions of the people living in the area. Large building plots were given to cooperatives and the Josefwiese was built as a recreational area. Still some industry and production remained along the track field, including the large Lokomotivedepot of SBB. Photo: 1929.

Observing historical maps

Observing historic plans during the design process expresses an interest in considering the current city as a place in evolution, with changes and reconstructions, understanding time as a design tool. This will allow having more freedom in continuing to modify the territory and in incorporating personal interests as the project evolves.

At the beginning of the exercise, one can decide at what point in the evolution of the site to start working, at what time of its chronology should we locate, and what is the nature of the site at this particular time: are the fields or streets worth more?

Looking at the historical plans of Zurich, we see how much the city started to change after the introduction of the railway. This massive infrastructure divided the city but also acted as a motor for its development. Focusing our curiosity in the Neugasse area, we can distinguish in its morphological evolution the geometrical logic implied in the movements of the trains, its manoeuvres and turns.

The world of this infrastructure and its scale influence the area, both in formal and in programmatic terms, as until recent times the industrial condition of the area has been determined by the production related to this infrastructure, and it is still present today with the daily very slow crossing of the Mills train on Hardstrasse, under the Hardbrücke.

Plan of the Area of Aussersihl with the old train dam. Today Röntgenstrasse still follows the curve of the
old dam, 1886
 Plan of Kreis 5 with the new Viadukt built in 1894, Plan from 1936.

Interests of the Studio

1. To recognize the qualities of the built fabric. The exercise will focus in recuperating existing urban structures by occupying them new activities.Therefore, a key aspect will be to observe carefully its physical and spatial qualities, beyond the use for which they were built.

2. Assess collective housing with its ability to generate community. Taking this aspect into account will allow the design of meeting and social areas, understanding the community as the place that will help its members to gain confidence.

3. To intensify the city. Considering collective housing as an activator, an intensifier of the city and trusting in its capacity of adaptation, this program will be incorporated into existing urban systems in order to prevent social exclusion and be absorbed into the actual dynamics of the city.

4. The limits of the project. Define the area of influence of the project, its scale, limits and position, always in relation to the conditions that we find and that we want to care. The quality of the future project is implicit both on the selection of a working area and the way of occupying it.

5. To understand the project as research. The studio investigates and questions on the basis of the design, considering this as a research and experimentation tool to recognize the limits and possibilities of the material with which we work.

6. Intermediate spaces. Study which are the limits of housing, considered not only as the area that is within the house itself, but in the sequence of spaces that joins it with the city.

7. The typology is always specific. Housing typology and its variations are always linked to the urban, social and historical form of the urban context in which it is inserted. Understand the ability of variation of the housing typologies according to urban, solar or social orientation, the size and relationship with the common spaces, is the basis of the project of collective housing which creates community.

Trespassing through shadow and light. Photos: Adrià Goula


Observational Cartographies, FS20

The Design Studio is a combination of individual and group work. In the first part of the Studio, a general Master Plan proposal for the area of work including collective housing, a primary school and places of production will be developed in groups of three students. Later, each student should develop a part of the housing program, sharing with the other two team members the proposal in order to agree in an overall idea of community. Both scales of the project for a community -the housing and the aggregation of them-, should be coordinated and worked on in correspondence.

Tracing paper over historical plans, HS19

Periods of work in the classroom are combined with periods of work in the street:

1. Classroom. This is where the students will get introduced to the site at the start of the semester, from documents and cartography of the city, readings and data with which to find and relate themes...

2. Street. Subsequently, the site is visited to observe it directly and find neigh-bours who explain the everyday and contribute with opinions... To observe and to know a fragment of the city of Zurich through a physical contact with the different realities that make it up, be it a constructed, social or historical reality... Only when incorporating the complex and multiple condition of the place will be possible to understand and define a project that can be truly inclusive.

Students and neighbours. Collecting data in the streets of Barcelona, HS19

3. Collect data from historical maps, photographs, site visits, neighbours’ comments... in order to incorporate the multiple qualities of the place into the project, synthesizing them into a proposal which does not lose the intensity and complexity of the reality.

4. Scales of work. Every thought has a graphical scale to develop. Work at various scales in order to understand the site and the program as a whole.

5. Documentation and discussion. Documents collected by the different students will be shared and discussed in class, paying attention to the value of the documents. Collect and present the documents with which things are done, recognizing its material character, identical at any time of a process.

6. Representation techniques. Investigate and experience how different representation methods can be relevant to each aspect of the project. Use different techniques for the development of the project. Hand drawings, models, collages, short film...

7. Visits. Travel to see examples of collective housing which build communities of varied social and cultural groups. Approaching directly the issues proposed by the project, taking data in situ through drawings, films...

8. All the documents produced in the design process are already presentation material. The material of work has its own value, independent of any further use. A project is also the sum of all these, and thus the project can be narrated through all the documents that form its evolution.

Axonometric Drawing, Angela Volken, FS20

The program in two objectives

Objective 1: Rehabilitation

The studio proposes the option that the new housing, education and production program could be placed in an existing structure or in a vacant plot, or a combination of both. In any case, the decision of the location of the new program must involve activation of the existing urban fabric. The program consists of three different parts that are to be organized in relation to each other with the public spaces in between them:

Housing Units 35.000m2 approx.

Production Spaces 15.000m2 approx.

Primary School 6.000m2 (40% indoor spaces + 60% open air)

Total 56.000m2 approx.

All these programs will be developed in groups of three students in a Master Plan at scale 1/500. Later, within the Master Plan, each of the three students will work on around 2000m2 of a Collective Housing program at the scale 1/200. One exemplary Housing Unit will be studied individually in detail at the scale 1/50. The newly inserted dwellings developed by each student will be distributed together or scattered depending on each project:

Dwellings for 2 people: 400m2, 8 units of approx. 50m2 each.

Dwellings for 3 people: 880m2, 11 units of approx. 80m2 each.

Dwellings for 5 people: 720m2, 6 units of approx. 120m2 each.

Total 2000m2, 25 units.

The type of housing will vary according to the social profiles we will meet in the area, designing them in order to respond to these profiles: single seniors, artists or craftsmen, single-parent families, families with young children...

Model pictures 1/50 by Lorain Bernasconi and Lucie Delacoste, FS20

Objective 2: Building communities

One of the objectives of the program coincides with the title of the studio: the dwellings proposed should invite to build a community. One first stage to build a community will be inside the collective housing itself: the exercise has to develop with special interest the qualities of the spaces that are for communitarian uses, spaces of circulation, of gathering, or spaces just to stay, which invite neighbours to casual encounters, a salute, a short talk... to get to know who lives around you.

There is a second stage that the design should take into account, which is the relationship of the new building with the neighbourhood around. The outdoor spaces surrounding the project, the doorways to the street, the sequence of access to the building, the orientation of the openings in its facade, not only in relationship to the sun, but also to the urban situation... Here, the Primary School, which will have an area of around 6.000m2, should help the neighbours living around and the newcomers to gather together.

And there is a third stage in this circle of communities. The proposal will also include spaces of productions, workshops or factories of small scale, which will cover a total area of around 15.000m2. These spaces should help preserve the productive identity of the neighbourhood that has been historically prevailing in the area and the city of Zurich for over a century. The disaffected locomotive halls can represent an opportunity to welcome these productive uses. It will be up to each group to define which activities will happen there and how they can involve the neighbours.

The Freitag factory in Oerlikon. Photo: Spillmann Echsle Architekten

︎Brief HS20

︎Brief FS20
︎Brief HS19


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