Béla Lajta’s Rózsavölgyi House in Budapest has workshops, commercial spaces and apartments
Experimental feature

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00
Experimental feature

People love to live and work in lively places. It is a cliché. Experts in urban studies, from Jane Jacobs to Jan Gehl and Richard Sennett, suggest that cities work because people of all classes are obliged to rub up against one another. They find interest in a streetscape that is alive around the clock and in which the mix of uses maintains an active urban realm. Yet despite this simple idea that sounds rather obvious, cities are no longer being built this way.

Developers like to build housing in self-contained plots, whether those are suburban tracts or condo towers; they like the control that solely residential use gives them and generally will not include commercial units unless zoning regulations demand it. Commercial developers, too, like the unencumbered purity of a central business district. They feel strength in numbers, they like their office towers to huddle together with their own kind. Even those cities most famed for their streetlife, for animated landscapes envied across the world – New York, Barcelona, Paris – are making the same mistakes with their new commercial developments.

The conventional reasons given are to do with the differing sizes of floor plates needed for commercial, retail and residential use; the desire for global businesses to be together; and zoning regulations. The actual reasons include the developers’ desire to be rid of troublesome residents who tend to object to further construction – see the once densely mixed City of London and its rejection of residential developments, which has turned the historic capital of London into a place purely for capital.

Yet there is another, rather neglected model that formerly worked very well. You can see it on the streets of most big central European cities, from Berlin to Budapest, Krakow to Kiev. It also involves a kind of zoning, but not in the same ways that tend to be seen in the Anglo-Saxon model. This is not zoning of the plan, but zoning of the section: you could think of it as a multi-layered torte.

In practice, this meant big courtyard buildings, spec-built by individual developers and builders. They were generally five to seven storeys tall (heights were carefully restricted by planning edicts) and had a courtyard at their centre. The layering often began with a half-basement. This was the realm of workshops and craftsmen, allowing light industry and artisanal skill to exist in the heart of the city. The ground floor to the street-front was occupied by retail. This might spread into the courtyard, with every inch of wall space occupied by window displays or by vitrines as you entered via a covered passage.

The ground floor of the courtyard itself might be plain residential or it might be inhabited by trades: the tailors, furriers, cobblers, watchmakers and so on, that made a city tick.

The first floor facing the street was reserved for commerce, the lawyers’, publishers’ and accountants’ offices and so on. These rooms might also be used as apartments; their piano nobile proportions had a grandeur that made them suitable for dwellings or show rooms. Above these were the flats.

The lower the floor number, the higher the ceiling and the better the interiors; service rooms looked out onto the courtyard. Poorer apartments were located at the rear of the building and the cheapest accommodation was at the top or in the mansard roof space. Almost all of the apartments would have been rented, the exceptions being the buildings’ owners, developers or investors. The social and economic structure of the buildings was absolutely clear, yet all classes lived and worked together in a single structure.

Yardstick of success: the classic courts around which mixed retail and residential life flourished

These blocks did have servants’ stairs and courtyard entrances, but the important thing was that they were genuinely mixed environments. As densely populated buildings, they worked hard; they became engines of economic activity. They have also proved to be remarkably resilient. Now many of these city centre blocks have seen their apartments converted into small offices for architects and IT companies, start-ups and small surgeries. In Budapest, a use has been found for even the most dilapidated blocks, which are turned into pop-up “ruin-pubs”, bars that grow to inhabit the whole complex interior structure of the buildings, so that further flats are roughly renovated as demand for more space becomes apparent. So successful have these been at saving old buildings that they have effectively gentrified the once end-of-life structures they intended to inhabit temporarily; whole blocks are being brought back into use rather than demolished.

In the dawn of modern architecture, new interpretations of these blocks emerged as potential archetypes of the contemporary city. Max Fabiani’s Artaria House in Vienna (1901), Adolf Loos’ Goldman & Salatsch building, also in Vienna, and Béla Lajta’s Rózsavölgyi House in Budapest (both 1911) pointed to a civilised new prototype for the city in which the division of the functions was inscribed into the façade. The ground floor was glazed but with substantial structural stanchions that gave depth and interest to the streetscape and versatility to the display.

Here, the first floor too was glazed, but to a different rhythm. In Lajta’s Budapest building (along with others he designed in the city around the same time) the commercial floors were expressed as almost fully glazed, open and transparent, letting natural light deep into the floor plate. The apartments above were characterised by more wall and less window, the more solid surface signifying the more private realm, sheltered from the noise of the city. It was an architecture parlante, an ideal urban form that has almost entirely faded away.

The problem came with the next generation of modernists who, in a way, disliked the dense city that was exactly the crucible that had given their ideas succour. Instead, they desired air and light, glazed towers standing in green space. Their utopian vision was suburban rather than urban; it led to business parks rather than vital city centres and had its ultimate triumph in the zoned ghettos of modern commerce. The mixed-use blocks that were the leitmotif of central European cities disappeared. Now that density is back in vogue and we see how a mix of uses enriches the city streets, perhaps it is time to return to this undeservedly neglected model.

Get alerts on Global property when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article