polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Variations on Urban Housing

by Peter Sigrist

In an earlier post on public space in Russia, I briefly mentioned wooden houses with elaborate carvings in smaller cities like Vladimir. Although most are in need of repair, they offer a striking counterpoint to the uniformity of housing blocks from the Soviet era. I've included examples of Vladimir's wooden houses below, along with a few examples of housing blocks for comparison.

Even among the housing blocks, examples of unique adaptations are not hard to find. Balconies are perhaps the most common example. The ways people customize their balconies are especially evident in earlier Soviet buildings, which are smaller and more densely arranged around wooded courtyards. Scenes from a few of these are included below.

What if these spatial arrangements (i.e. smaller buildings around courtyards) were combined with the artistry of Vladimir's wooden homes? In order to avoid problems with fires and longterm maintenance, builders might use brick or stone. Early twentieth-century Russian brickwork could provide inspiration. Phipps Garden Apartments in Queens is the closest I've seen to this kind of design. Below are a few photos of a courtyard at Phipps Garden.

As evident in the historic layers of housing in Vladimir, there are many ideas and lessons from the past to draw upon. I hope we can make use of them, prioritizing comfortable and attractive urban settings over wholesale efficiency. Does this have to be prohibitively expensive?

Credits: Photos by Peter Sigrist.