Why Can't North Americans Have Housing Like WagnisART in Munich?

CC BY 2.0. WagnisART from the walkway above/ Lloyd Alter

There are so many reasons why we don’t get housing like Munich’s WagnisART cooperative in North America. The project is a cooperative built on the “Munich Mix” model- a mix of subsidized rental for the poor, subsidized purchase for the middle class who can no longer afford housing in Munich, and market housing.

site plan of devleopment

Walter Hable/via

It is built on the site of a former barracks that has been redeveloped into a community of 4500 people. The largest artists colony in Europe occupied part of the land; they are now part of the WagnisART development. The district has community centres, workshops, a stunning new school, car sharing and shopping.

building layout

© Walter Hable

Like most cooperatives, there was a long and arduous planning process as they decided the most basic things about form.

Workshops chaired by the architects were organized to work out a set of rules for the housing cooperative. Together, the workshop participants built models and tested different fundamental urban approaches to living until gradually a concrete building plan began to take shape. The architects took the residents ideas and used them to create and present several design concepts.

Walter Hable, one of the architects involved in the project, explains the process. According to an article in Bauwelt, this was controversial; some wanted a big block with a court in the middle while others wanted to open it up a bit.

In a tight finish, the majority opted for the opening with five individually shaped structures. This opening scared others. Can the children play undisturbed in the yard? Why should one's own buildings even open to the neighborhood and offer uses such as cafés and workshops?
Walkways connecting buildings

Walkways connect buildings and enclose space/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

In fact, the elevated walkways actually make the outside areas at grade feel enclosed, and they certainly provide a lot of supervision.

Open bright stairways

Open stairs at WagnisART/CC BY 2.0

Another reason we cannot have these kinds of buildings in North America is the different approach to fire protection and safety. In Munich, the residential units can open right onto the generous landings, which have room enough for kids to play. The stairs are open and inviting, with a big skylight at the top. Each residential unit is fire-separated from the corridor, the idea being that fire will be contained long enough for everyone to get out of the building; the skylight opens to exhaust any smoke.


Skylight/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

In North America, one would never design five little separate buildings because each would need two fire separated stairwells and a corridor between, which doesn’t allow for much social interaction. Here, according to Bauwelt,

Generous stair landings

Generous Stair landings/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

They have - an important detail - well-functioning acoustic ceilings, so that you can even play table tennis inside without being disturbed in the apartments. The fact that the residents have indulged in the development [of] spatial luxury, catches the eye - especially in view of the fact that privately financed housing as well as the urban housing associations otherwise mercilessly cut these areas.

exterior of project

Exterior of WagnisART/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Technically, the building is built to the Passivhaus standard of energy efficiency; the architects note that “even if renewable sources of energy are to be used, it is essential to minimize their level of consumption.” They also point out that every part of a building has a footprint that must be considered.

Parts of buildings that are constructed underground, eg underground car parks, have a huge influence on the environmental impact of a building due to the solid mass of concrete and reinforcing steel used. This means that when designing a sustainable district, it is crucial to develop a plan to reduce traffic and limit the number of parking spaces.

Everybody has their own arty mailbox/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

So why don't we have housing like this in North America? It's just a different attitude. In Europe, it is accepted that not everyone aspires to a single-family house. There appears to be more of a willingness to mix up different economic and social classes in one building, in that famous Munich Mix. The government actually promotes this instead of just selling its land to the highest bidder, and seems to have a lot of old military bases in urban areas that are ripe for conversion. And, building codes really do make a difference; these small buildings are just so difficult to do in North America.

The neighborhood

The neighborhood/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

But if we are going to solve our housing problems and our carbon problems, we are all going to have to stop all these NIMBY fights that prevent "missing middle" housing. We have to design walkable, cyclable cities with good transit so that people don't have to own cars to get around. We have to start thinking of housing as a social good rather than just a financial instrument. We have to learn from Germany and Austria, where they really seem to know what they are doing when it comes to housing.