The new tenement and inner city regeneration

Urban regeneration has been an important issue in planning and public policy for several decades, but to date very few scholars have looked at the outcome of these efforts –the streets and buildings of the “regenerated city”, and the ideas to which they are connected. Our research project examined “new tenements” in five European cities – the dense, medium-rise, multi-storey residences built since the 1970s amid renewed optimism about the possibilities of urban living. 

Focusing principally on Berlin, Copenhagen, Glasgow, Rotterdam and Vienna, we analysed post-70s housing development in the context of the late twentieth-century socio-economic transitions that Marxist political economists have called “the condition of postmodernity.” Such transitions include the end of Fordist mass production and mass consumption, the receding of the nation state, the rise of neo-liberalism, and a new stage of globalization. These changes are thought to have a variety of effects on our cities, including the privatization of public spaces, the commodification of history for tourism, the restructuring of the inner city for leisure purposes and the increasing significance of image marketing. At a more general level these ideas are also connected to conceptions of postmodernism in art, architecture, and philosophy. In addition, we examined how new tenements evolved under the local variations of a welfare state that has come under pressure throughout Europe.

Our research methods

Over the course of the first year we decided which cities to focus on. (Those we looked at and discounted included London, Paris, Budapest, Milan, Bologna, and Barcelona.) Our final choice was diverse enough to offer a range of experiences but nonetheless had much in common in terms of size, significance, and recent history.
Over the subsequent two years we collected information on residential architecture since 1970: what was built when and by whom; photographed the relevant buildings; gathered together the documents related to the particular projects (architects’ plans, newspaper articles, reviews in professional journals, municipal administrators’ reports, developers’ advertisement features); examined the discourse on the city in each of the respective cities (newspaper articles, journal articles and books by theorists and critics); interviewed selected architects and administrators in each city.

Our challenges

Our greatest challenge was how to compare the different places. First there was the problem of four different languages, which we overcame by our collective linguistic skills. More significant, though, were the local differences in the discourse. Certain words carried different connotations; some ideas were simply taken for granted in some places but not in others and so on. Conversations with scholars with varied international experience were crucial in overcoming these obstacles. We also had to resolve the tensions between the general and the particular: archival documents, local newspaper articles, and interviews have a limited explanatory value for the bigger picture, but are nonetheless an important source of knowledge; the sheer amount of different buildings and environments at times made it difficult to single out typical cases or to summarize broader trends, yet this was essential to arrive at valid conclusions.

Our findings

Our findings included the following.

  1. New tenements resulted from both postmodern and modern urban paradigms: on the one hand, postmodern planning ideas such as density, social diversity, functional mixture, and respect for historical environments; and on the other, modern ideas such as high technological standards and the inclusion of green space. Postmodern and modern ideas were both also apparent at a design level: 1950s-style functionalist blocks as well as a postmodern use of historic forms and ironic play with pop-cultural elements.
  2. The new tenement city was predominantly promoted by the institutions of a welfare state under pressure; it was not the architecture of neo-liberalism. Key actors who had already played a role under the old welfare state gained influence, e.g. Rotterdam’s housing associations-turned-corporations; West Berlin’s and Glasgow’s private developers; small landlords and owner-occupiers throughout Europe. Some new institutions emerged, e.g. community-based housing associations in Glasgow. Crucially, welfare state institutions throughout the 1970s and 80s (and in many cities later still) retained control of planning, construction and management of the built environment, while open to new influences.
  3. The appeal of the new tenement city was widespread and crossed political boundaries, e.g. in Rotterdam, working class inner-city dwellers achieved modernization of their decaying housing; in Berlin and Copenhagen, non-conformist squatters seized their chance for social experimentation; conservationists promoted the value of old buildings and historical plans and typologies; the liberal middle classes claimed the inner city as a habitat for creative professionals and ecologically oriented families.
  4. A common discourse of the “regenerated city” gave momentum to the coalitions between welfare state institutions and old and new actors. It promised an integrated society, inclusive public spaces and mixed income neighbourhoods. Its depoliticized rhetoric of community, cohesion, creativity and exchange contrasted with post-industrial socioeconomic reality: a widening gap between rich and poor, the development of exclusive spaces, the marginalization of economically weaker groups.
  5. The influence of architects: new tenements mostly originated from local architects whose reputation rarely extended beyond their city. Noteworthy exceptions include, e.g. Josef Paul Kleihues in West Berlin; Piers Gough and Stuart Gulliver in Glasgow.
  6. By the early 21st century, new tenements were most frequently inhabited by the new middle classes. Political decisions made all the difference to the social composition of the new inner cities, e.g. the Danish continued to provide state-subsidized housing, while the British instead opted for a market system that tended to perform well for the home-owning half of the population and poorly for the other half.

New tenements reflect the complex relation between economic restructuring and urban living in the post-industrial city. They evidence how architectural design mediated economic and political power. They also show that the architectural expressions of the postmodern urban condition came about not as inevitable corollaries of global economic transformation but rather as a consequence of incremental decisions informed by cultural variables and political debate. 

You can read the detail of our findings in our publications arising from the project, in particular:

Ambrose Gillick “Stitching the city: continuity, urban renewal and grassroots action in late-twentieth century Glasgow”, Journal of Architecture 22 n. 2 (2017), 188-224
Florian Urban The New Tenement – Residences in the Inner City Since 1970 (Routledge, 2018).

Professor Florian Urban, Glasgow School of Art - Principal Investigator
Dr Ambrose Gillick, Glasgow School of Art - Researcher
Lorenzo de Chiffre, Vienna Technical University - Research Assistant