Building Communities

House and train at Kreis 4, Zurich, January 2021. Photo: Adrià Goula
Building Communities, Rehabilitation and Housing in Zurich, FS21

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.

Art Gallery at Brauerstrasse. January 2021. Photo: Adrià Goula

The Studio

With the aim of building a community, we propose to work with a Collective Housing program combined with a Community Sports Centre: a mixed program 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 an area of Kreis 4 in Zurich next to the Gleisfeld and Langstrasse, 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 Sports Centre 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 us should be celebrated by the new program, knowing that by doing so, the new Housing Units and Sports Centre 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 between FeldstrasseSchöneggstrasse and the train tracks, with two parallel objectives:

1. The rehabilitation of a discontinuous urban fabric by the incorporation of new Housing Units and a Sports Centre, studying the possibilities of physical transformation of existing structures, or the addition of a new construction that envisions a good relationship with the existing. 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.

Corner of Rolandstrasse with Langstrasse, Zurich. Photo: 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 and the new bridge of the Durchmesserlinie, defining a hard edge along Neufrankengasse; the housing program, visible in the dense city blocks around Langstrasse and Feldstrasse, that were all built during the same period; the few but valued public spaces, under the trees of Schöneggplatz, in the historical park of Bäckeranlage, at the large square of Helvetiaplatz and more recently along Europaallee; informal programs such as the numerous garden-restaurants, motorbike shops and car retailers; undefined spaces in-between isolated buildings, today occupied mainly by parking spots, many of them remaining empty.

Orthophoto with the area of work along the Gleisfeld.

The enormous scale of the Europaallee development and its long pedestrian axis is colliding with the smaller, domestic scale of the old neighbourhood around Langstrasse and Neufrankengasse. This area of Kreis 4, characterised by its fragmentary character and “backyard” condition that has prevailed for over a century, suddenly receives a new exposure in the city that should be addressed.

Our working area is focused on two triangular plots formed by the curve of the train tracks and the Seebahn-line on the one side, the Feldstrasse and the Schöneggstrasse on the other, meeting on the perpendicular hinge of Schöneggplatz.

Schöneggplatz. Photo: Adrià Goula

Urban discontinuities

We will work in an area that has grown by the addition of small developments, without the coordination of a Master Plan. Each plot has been developed within its own logic. Along Neufrankengasse, alone-standing buildings and low-rise structures characterise the image of the area, with its many undefined, vacant stripes of land in-between.

This led to a very fragmented neighbourhood with a lot of collisions, where an uncompleted perimeter block of six floors stands right next to a two-floor high workshop. These spaces give a change of rhythm and orientation that becomes characteristic of the area.

“Backyard” condition

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 elongated concrete building shielding the tracks forms an inner courtyard space at the back with its immediate neighbours, which lack any kind of dialogue or communitarian quality.

Hierarchy of Streets...

Because of the speculative history of the area, streets are on top of the hierarchy defining spaces. The ground-floors of the buildings used to have public uses such as restaurants, but very few of them offer generous spaces open to the streets.

The main public spaces of the area are Bäckeranlage and Helvetiaplatz that are highly valued in the city. The self-referential character of the new development of Europaallee, with its long diagonal axis, is not yet appropriated by the neighbours.

...and Spaces

The remaining vacant spaces, with its accidental geometry, are mainly used for manoeuvres and parking cars and garbage bins.

The random position among buildings defines a variety of open air spaces with a domestic scale, which could become rich communitarian spaces.

Edge Condition

The North 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 Langstrasse is able to cross the Gleisfeld by becoming a tunnel.

Some of the constructions at the edge of the built fabric have an isolated character, standing alone in between train tracks, trees and roads, keeping a peripheral character.

Open-air activities

Some of the remaining open spaces in the area are occupied by restaurants, bars and clubs, making the area very lively during the nights of the weekend and on warm summer evenings.

Some others of the open plots are appropriated by businesses, as the motor bike seller on Schöneggplatz.

Photos: Adrià Goula

Background of the site

Between 1888 and 1900, the number of residential buildings in Aussersihl doubled from 970 to 1890 units. By around 1910, the compact structure of building blocks had reached the Seebahn-line, opened in 1875, and crossed it in a few places. In this dense carpet of houses there were only two larger green spaces; the parade ground near the barracks, usually reserved for the military, and the Bäckeranlage. Aerial Photo: 1903. Right side: houses next to the train tracks. Photo: 1927.

“If social segregation meant exclusion from the bourgeois way of life on the one hand, on the other hand it brought about solidarity among those living here, the emergence of a proletarian consciousness and an own working-class culture, all the more so because life here did not take place, as bourgeois voices disapprovingly remarked, in the bosom of the family, but on the streets and in the numerous bars. Aussersihl became the stronghold of the workers’ movement and the centre of the class struggle.” (Baukultur in Zürich: Aussersihl, 2004, Hochbaudepartement Stadt Zürich)

Bäckeranlage. Photo: 1910.
Neufrankengasse and its inhabitants. Photo: 1925.

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, the historical maps will help to 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 an area of Kreis 4 close to the Seebahn-line, 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.

Area of Aussersihl, plan from 1880.
The Hauptbahnhof built in 1871 and the train line to the lake’s south side implied new urban developments, Plan from 1880.

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 with 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.

Bachelor houses with gardens along the tracks. Photo: 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 and a Community Sports Centre 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.

Tracing paper over historical plans in the classroom, HS19

Periods of work in the online class are combined with periods of work in the street:

1. Online Class. 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. On the Street. Subsequently, the site is visited to observe it directly and find neighbours 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... incorporating the complex and multiple condition of the place in order to define a project that can be truly inclusive.

Students and neighbours. Collecting data in the streets of Kreis 5 Zürich, HS20

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 online, paying attention to the value of the documents. Collect and present the documents 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. 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, Elena Geser, HS20

The program in two objectives

Objective 1: Rehabilitation

The studio proposes the option that the new Housing and Community Sports Centre 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 two different parts that are to be organized in relation to each other with the public spaces in between them:

Housing Units   

Community Sports Centre (could be open air or closed)

4.800m2 approx.

1.500m2 approx.

6300m2 approx.

All these programs will be developed in one group 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 1600m2 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:

Dwellings for 3 people:

Dwellings for 5 people:

200m2, 4 units of approx. 50m2 each.

700m2, 10 units of approx. 70m2 each.

720m2, 6 units of approx. 120m2 each.

±1600m2, 20 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...

Quartier Gleisquai. Gabriel Eggenschwyler, Elena Geser, Robin Staubli, Liuba Kharisova. HS20

Objective 2: Building communities

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, to salute, to a short talk... to get to know who lives around you.

There is a second phase in the definition of the community, 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...

And there is a third scale of the community, which is the one that includes the Sports Centre. Here, the Sports Centre should help the existing neighbours and the newcomers to gather together.

These three scales of spaces for the community should help to preserve the rich and diverse mix of uses that is inherent to the neighbourhood of Kreis 4. In that sense, all work-related activities found on site should be maintained or integrated into the new buildings. It will be up to each group to define which uses will happen there and how they can involve the neighbours.

︎︎︎ Semester Program FS21 as pdf to download


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