Post-War Middle-Class Housing

Models, Construction and Change

by Gaia Caramellino (Volume editor) Federico Zanfi (Volume editor)
©2015 Edited Collection 448 Pages


Post-war middle-class housing played a key role in constructing and transforming the cities of Europe and America, deeply impacting today’s urban landscape. And yet, this stock has been underrepresented in a literature mostly focused on public housing and the work of a few master architects.
This book is the first attempt to explore such housing from an international perspective. It provides a comparative insight into the processes of construction, occupation and transformation of residential architecture built for the middle-classes in 12 different countries between the 1950s and 1970s. It investigates the role of models, actors and policies that shaped the middle-class city, tracing geographies, chronologies and forms of development that often cross national frontiers.
This study is particularly relevant today within the context of «fragilization» which affects the middle-classes, challenging, as it does, the urban role played by this residential heritage in the light of technological obsolescence, trends in patterns of homeownership, as well as social and generational changes.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Editors’ Note
  • Introduction: The Middle-Class Project: Designing New Ways of Living in the Post-War City
  • I. Cultures, Standards, Practices
  • I.1 The Middle-Class Dwelling Unit: Architectural Theory, Lifestyle and Marketing in France, 1945–1965
  • I.2 The ‘Residential Park’ as a New Model for the Emerging Middle-Class in Naples During the 1950s
  • I.3 A Social and Cultural Reading of the Athenian Polykatoikia, 1949–1974
  • I.4 Spanish Post-Civil War Middle-Class Housing: Limited Rent Flats in Francoist Madrid
  • II. Policies, Processes, Actors
  • II.1 Apartment Buildings for the Middle-Class. Cultural Transformation of Domestic Life and Urban Densification in Buenos Aires
  • II.2 Co-op City and Twin Parks: Two Models for Middle-Class Housing in the Bronx in the 1970s
  • II.3 Dutch New Town Almere Haven: A Search for the Accommodation of the Suburban Wishes of the Middle-Classes in the 1970s
  • II.4 ‘Radieuse’ Peripheries: A Comparative Study on Middle-Class Housing in Luanda, Lisbon and Macao
  • III. House Biographies
  • III.1 Legacies of Modernism. House Biographies of Large Post-War Residential Complexes in Switzerland
  • III.2 Multiple Versions of Modernity in Post-War Belgium. The Housing Estate of Ban Eik
  • III.3 “Stories of Houses”: Observing Post-War Middle-Class Housing in Italy
  • IV. Scenarios
  • IV.1 Housing Risk: Neoliberal Homeownership in the United States
  • IV.2 Deconstructing Liveability. Perspectives from Central Vancouver
  • IV.3 The Future of the Post-War Single-Family House: The Case of Flanders
  • Afterword: Getting our hands into the flesh of the contemporary city
  • Notes on the Authors
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names
  • Index of Places

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The issue of middle-class housing in the 60s and 70s is actually overlapping with that of residential mobility and the timeframe of the inhabitants, as well as those of the individual destinies, the buildings’ evolution or the heritage of the Modern Movement at that time. Modern theory applications and the critical evaluation of that theory are there intertwined. In fact, the issue of comfort becomes central when it comes to middle-class housing and it needs to adapt precepts until then presented as international to local cultures. As the discussions at the origin of this book have shown, we cannot discuss these issues without mentioning, albeit just briefly, the various public policies…

Architectural circles tend to value scholarly productions, often addressed to both the elites and the working classes, and inspired by doctrines or theories within that discipline. To observe and to analyse the housing world, the world of domestic middle-class architecture is a new approach and this is the whole point of the works gathered here, prepared by some thirty Italian researchers1 (from Turin, Milan and Rome) on the housing of this population in the 1945–1975 period, partially collected in Storie di Case (Rome, Donzelli, 2013).

Middle-class practices and the geographical and architectural choices of such class are the focus of this book. In a stereotyped manner, this class is seen as anti-urban; European comparisons, however, show very different positions across the various countries and also reveal distinct city cultures… Understanding the dynamics that drive the middle-class to choose to live in this or such other area, in the very centre or in the suburbs, requires considering many variables, including the level of public intervention (financial aid, and, especially, ideological campaigns…), technological advances, demographic changes and the evolution of customs and perceptions. The distinguishing phenomena at work here, which promote living in the centre in one case, while stigmatizing it in another, should also be considered, as well as the price of rents and the cost of land. The complexity and the weight of all these variables are always different and many studies referenced here show that sticking to predefined ideologies plays a role in the choice of residing outside city centres. The love for nature, for what is perceived as a “healthy lifestyle”, or still an anti-urban ideology in which the city is seen as a place of perdition, the search for a suitable place to raise children, or a certain opinion about progress, explain many individual choices. ← 9 | 10 →

But is there a link between the form of housing and the middle-classes? What vision of society and family supported developers when they conceived their constructions? Broad issues that are addressed here and that should be further explored. Understanding the promoters engaged in complex strategies that combine financial reasons with the choice of land and architectural type is also necessary. Similarly, the ways in which they sell these “arts de vivre”, sometimes using stories or narratives, has a lot to teach us about those periods of social and architectural history.

Furthermore, the concept of middle-class is blurred, as many have noted, and it is still to be defined according to different situations and countries. It is not enough to take account of income or socio-professional categories, as diverse ideologies cut across the concept leading its members to make specific choices regarding the place of their everyday life. But some questions still are relevant whatever the definition. For example, what role does regional identity (the qualities and characteristics of the places where we live) play on the social and psychological identity of the inhabitants? On how they see their social status? People can indeed feel their status is increased by the architectural and urban characteristics of their housing, or vice versa. Understanding the reasons that explain residential choices and their evolution over time has ← 10 | 11 → been the goal of many case studies presented at the Symposium held in Milan in November 20122.

And again the idea of comfort that sometimes opposes modernity with modernization is crucial. In some countries, housing modernization was a public concern, involving funding policies or the promotion of a lifestyle, as in France, where the Salons des arts ménagers (Ideal home exhibitions) which were intended to let the whole of society, and especially the middle-classes, access domestic comfort, also contributed to the evolution of female roles and their representation. Housing, which by its spatial configurations is a sort of “silent educator”, certainly played a role in some of these social changes. The house, in the sense of hearth and home, the dwelling offering a specific lifestyle, whether in a high-rise building or an allotment house (just like, to a lesser extent, the car) are to be regarded as fundamental elements of the material culture and the arts de vivre of those years, in which the American way of life with its comfort facilities played the role model.

When observing the architectural quality of some of the collective houses built for the middle-classes, we are led to the conclusion that the characteristics of the individual house are central, because even the dwellings in high-rises are designed in an attempt to preserve home qualities: outdoor spaces that extend the residential space, attention to storage room or even to bricolage areas, gardens and sports grounds and meeting areas surrounding the residence etc.

At another level, other researchers are investigating the best scenarios for transforming suburban areas populated with individual houses (in Flanders, France and elsewhere), and the potential role the government can play to confront this attachment to the suburban way of life, often in allotment projects generating what we call the “in-between” or “between-places” characterised by unsatisfactory living environment. We know that, while today people are becoming aware of the environmental effects of the sprawl, people who chose to live in individual houses in the 60s or 70s, did not care much about rising ← 11 | 12 → costs, related, for example, to the installation of infrastructure or transport costs due to the remoteness of the workplace; indeed their private interests prevailed, as is still the case.

Through these works, we can also observe that some multi-dwelling buildings have withstood time, despite they originated from theories regarded as obsolete by some, in part because of their population density, but also because of the architectural type chosen at the time (high-rise blocks or condominium towers). What explains this longevity? Is it due to their construction quality? To the quality of their finishing or the quality of the amenities surrounding the dwellings: shops, swimming pools, meeting places, sports grounds, sea or forest, etc. This mixed-use approach, which is making a significant comeback today, was the basis of many designs of that time. Was it decisive? As for individual houses, characterised in some cases by obsolete equipment, today they raise the issue of their subdivision or transformation, especially for the new generations that will live there or the people hit by the subprime crisis in the United States.

Methodological issues have not been forgotten by these researchers who most often have crossed them, connected them, regardless of the team composition and its various original backgrounds. Such research and these discussions have led some of these teams working in an area of knowledge to explore others. Thus, architectural and urban analysis methods have been associated with those of sociology and ethnology, using interviews with residents as well as with the various stakeholders involved in these housing projects. It is so that concepts, theories and doctrines, combining the history of architecture and urban planning with the conceptual apparatus of several social sciences and humanities, have been brought together and proven fruitful, just like buildings’ “biographies” or the “life stories” narrated by the residents. One can also observe a tendency to use image analysis, the construction of scenarios presented to residents. Simple case studies were usually enriched by previous assumptions, thereby constructing a case. Thus the usual buildings’ monographs, typical of the history of architecture and not without interest (description of the positions of the various stakeholders, site treatment, construction method, supporting theories, architectural type, acceptance by the environment, etc.) – are sometimes modulated by a biographical approach that puts the acceptance by residents at the very centre of the study. In this perspective some articles show the value ← 12 | 13 → of oral history, investigating the reasons for the appropriations and the various conceptions of modernity between producers of the housing environment and its inhabitants.

There is an issue, however, that it would be worth addressing, namely the different names of the same architectural types depending on the various countries and languages. And unfortunately, we have to note that uniform English translation flattens these words, each forged by their own specific history.

It remains now to adapt this heritage, which by the way deserves being recognised as such, to the environmental requirements of our time. For example by rehabilitating some high-rises with a view to providing dwellings with outdoor space, so much appreciated by the locals; this would add greater comfort to the pleasure of the living experience, by, for example turning this area into a winter garden with airlock functions. Or, by taking advantage of the adaptability associated with the construction method of some buildings, in order to transform the dwellings’ internal space arrangement and make them more liveable according to our today’s lifestyles. Furthermore, the ability to divide some large apartments into a main house and an independent associated studio, would also facilitate the daily lives of families by, for example, responding to a teenager’s need of independence, or the need to host a grandmother, an au pair or a caregiver, according to the various stages of life, combining the chosen proximity and the desired distance.

The central, and, let us stress it, very original issue raised by this book and for which it deserves credit, is that of the role played by the middle-classes and by private projects in the cities’ evolution and transformation. It also shows the intelligence demonstrated by some developers, regardless of their role, in the adaptation to the arts de vivre of these people. And above all it confirms the idea that modernity and comfort are not mutually exclusive, though so much criticism has been levelled against modern architecture for not being able to reflect the actual lifestyles of people. ← 13 | 14 →

1 See the project “Architectures for the Middle-Class in Italy, 1950s–1970s. For a Social History of Housing in Turin, Milan and Rome”, funded by the Italian Ministry of Research and collected on the website <middleclasshomes.net> (accessed: fall 2014).

2 The Symposium “Middle-Class Housing in Perspective: From Post-war Construction to Post-millennial Urban Landscape” by B. Bonomo, G. Caramellino and F. Zanfi was held at the School of Architecture and Society of the Politecnico di Milano on 22nd and 23rd November 2012. See: <middleclasshousinginperspective.net> (accessed: fall 2014).

← 14 | 15 →

Editors’ Note

This book was conceived and realized within the research project “Architectures for the Middle-Class in Italy, 1950s–1970s”, funded by the Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research through the “Firb-Future in Research” programme. This research project was carried out during the period 2011–2014 by three units, based in the Politecnico di Torino, Politecnico di Milano and La Sapienza Università di Roma. Special thanks go – first – to all the colleagues and friends involved directly and indirectly in this adventure.

Several of the essays collected in this book were originally presented at the symposium “Middle-Class Housing in Perspective. From Post-war Construction to the Post-millennial Urban Landscape”, held at the Politecnico di Milano in November 2012. We would like to thank all the members of the scientific committee who worked with us in the organization of the event – Bruno Bonomo, Alessandro De Magistris, Filippo De Pieri, Monique Eleb, Maria Auxiliadora Galvez, Juan Herreros and Giovanni Semi – and all the participants in the symposium, for making it such a fruitful occasion for discussion and exchange.

Others materials collected in the book were first presented at international meetings and talks in which we took part, such as the seminar cycle “Dal miracolo alla crisi”, held at the Politecnico di Milano in 2014, the 15th International Planning History Society conference held in São Paulo 2012, the PhD Seminar “New Histories of Domestic Spaces” held at the Politecnico di Torino in 2012, the Study Centre presentation programme at the Canadian Centre of Architecture in 2011, and the seminar cycle “Inside (hi)Stories” at the Parsons New School of Design in New York in 2011.

A seminal occasion for scholarly exchange on the themes further developed in this book was the research “Storie di case” – Stories of houses – carried out between 2011 and 2013, and involving many colleagues with a large group of students on the PhD program in History of Architecture and Planning at the Politecnico di Torino. ← 15 | 16 →

This book was made possible thanks to the support of the Italian Ministry of the Education, University and Research, the Department of Architecture and Design at the Politecnico di Torino, and the Department of Architecture and Urban Studies at the Politecnico di Milano.

Finally, we wish to thank the following friends and colleagues who, in various ways, enriched the project and contributed to the construction of this book through suggestions, support, feedback and questions: Patrizia Bonifazio, Bruno Bonomo, Alessando Coppola, Laura Daglio, Alessandro De Magistris, Filippo De Pieri, Paola Di Biagi, Nicole De Togni, Francesca Filippi, Luca Gaeta, Isabella Lami, Arturo Lanzani, Chiara Merlini, Cristina Renzoni, Michela Rosso, Paolo Scrivano, Alice Sotgia, Vittorio Vidotto.

G. C. and F. Z., Milan, April 2015

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The Middle-Class Project: Designing New Ways of Living in the Post-War City1

Why a Book on Middle-Class Housing?

On the heels of the extensive research produced during the 1970s and the 1980s by scholars in various fields2, a renewed interest in the middle classes emerged in both the political and the scientific discourse – in the United States and in Europe – during the last decades, focusing on the decline, fragilization and re-definition processes that have been affecting this social group in recent years3. However, these studies rarely adopted a spatial perspective, paying scarce attention to the modes of spatial inscription and to the relationship between the middle classes and the spaces they inhabit, where their social life takes place and where they build their identity. All of these spaces contribute to establishing a status and distinguish the middle classes from other social groups; they are therefore not only residential, but they range from the territories of everyday life to those of leisure, from the places ← 17 | 18 → of consumption to those of tourism. These spatial patterns have seldom been investigated4.

Among them the house, observed as a “complex social object” and as an element of social affirmation and distinction, plays a crucial role in the processes of stratification and consolidation of this social group, participating in the construction of its identity5. However, while most recently the fields of historical studies and social sciences have displayed an emerging interest in the middle classes6, the same cannot be said for the fields of architecture and urban history.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (December)
Residential Park Franco Spanish post war Middle Class
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien. 2015. 448 pp., num. coloured ill., num. b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Gaia Caramellino (Volume editor) Federico Zanfi (Volume editor)

Gaia Caramellino is Senior Research Fellow in Architectural History at the Politecnico di Torino and teaches History and Theory of Architecture at the Politecnico di Milano. She was national coordinator of the research project «Architecture for the Middle-Classes in Italy, 1950s–1970s», funded by the Italian government, and was visiting scholar at the CCA in 2011. Her research focuses on the history of 20th-century housing models, cultures, policies and practices and on their circulation between Europe and the U.S. Federico Zanfi is Assistant Professor in Urbanism at the Politecnico di Milano. His design and research activity gravitates around the «post-growth» transformation of the 20th-century built heritage, with a focus on Italian urban systems: he has developed reform strategies for unauthorised southern settlements, for diffuse urbanization in central-northern regions, and for middle-class condominiums in the main metropolitan areas.


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