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Close to the Swiss capital lies a housing estate, overgrown with greenery and seemingly in ruins. Yet ...
2020-04-13 09:00:00

A Modern Tribe
The Halen Housing Development

Photo by Croci & Du Fresne
A Modern Tribe
A Modern Tribe

Coming from the centre of Bern, you need to head north towards Halenbrücke, a bridge connecting the steep banks of the Aare river. From here, you can see the outline of the housing estate between the heavily forested hills. After turning from the main road into a small street, you can clearly see the first concrete walls of Halen.

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In modern photos it looks like a ruin. It is particularly depressing in winter, when all the greenery surrounding the buildings is reduced to bare branches. When I tell others about this place, the reaction is always the same: “What are you showing me? Does anyone live here at all?” Meanwhile, the symbiosis between nature and architecture is so deep that here, the buildings play a tertiary role. The composition of the landscape comes first, then the charms of nature that create it; the architecture comes last. The mimesis principle is preserved.

A community with principles

79 housing units were built over the sloping ground that is 180-metres long and almost 60-metres wide. They are arranged along three terraces. The longitudinal 14-metre plots, 4- or 5-metres wide, are located on the north-south axis, connected along their longer sides and grouped into segments. Pedestrian routes between them resemble the small streets of old, mediaeval towns. Plane trees grow between the housing estate road and the front of the houses. Each building is surrounded by a two-metre high wall. The roof above the entrance doors, painted in different colours, stretches along the entire length of the street. Residents have the right to decorate the front of their house as they wish. The owner’s dog or cat name is often mentioned on the name plaque.

Photo by Nikolaus Schletter
Photo by Nikolaus Schletter

In the centre of the estate, a square and a building were designed to house a meeting room for residents, a grocery store and a boiler room. Each new resident of the estate receives the right to 1/79 common premises, one chair, and the privilege of using this space during various events. It is especially happy for young parents. “We don’t have to worry about a space to organize birthday parties for our children,” says one of the young residents of the estate. “Anyway, having children here is quite convenient. One evening they’d have dinner at home; another – they’d be next door. People always help each other. One just enjoys living here,” he adds.

Cars cannot drive here, so two- and three-wheelers have taken over the streets. At the ends of the square there are small football goals – the only symbol of the youngest residents’ flouting the construction regulations. The children rule the street.

Photo by Atelier 5
Photo by Atelier 5

The only car that can enter is a delivery van, the rest park in front of the buildings.

The products in the local store are of the highest quality. You can’t sell just anything. After all, it’s the same people who buy here every day. It’s a bit pricey, some people say, but at least you can shop in your slippers. The estate also has a large outdoor swimming pool and a large space for common recreation.

Houses take root

The houses are located on three terraces. Depending on the width of the plot, they are either 140 or 185 square metres. They are narrow and long, but thanks to the opening on two sides, sufficiently illuminated. Each has three floors. You enter through a small open patio. As you enter, on the middle floor there is a kitchen, small bathroom, and a large living room with dining room. On the top floor, in addition to another toilet, there is – depending on the chosen layout ­– two large bedrooms, or one large and two small ones. At the very bottom, there is a basement and two additional rooms. The garden can be accessed from the lowest level or via steep stairs from the first floor. A wall, the same as at the one at the entrance, separates us from the surrounding plots. A light roof was installed at the end of the garden. You can put a table under it where the family gathers in warm weather to eat a meal or play cards. Behind it, there is a magnificent view of the valley with the river.

Photo by Nikolaus Schletter
Photo by Nikolaus Schletter

Each of the houses is covered with a green roof. The estate’s guiding idea was not only to achieve harmony between residents, but also between the buildings and nature. Today, after several decades, greenery seems to be everywhere. Also on the facades and balconies, where branches of ivy wrap around concrete balustrades and light breakers that protect rooms from overexposure and overheating. Thanks to this, the concrete used to build the entire housing estate does not give a depressing impression. Even in those who consider it inhuman. Looking at the house from the perspective of the garden, there is no impression that it is a narrow structure resembling a bunker. Instead, it looks like a rather cosy place that provides a lot of privacy, but also – thanks to a well thought-out design – a lot of light. The rough texture of the wooden boards adds even more charm to the buildings, freeing them from the monotony of the material itself. “Simplicity, uniformity, unpretentiousness, temperance, modernity – these are the qualities that speak for concrete as the main building material.” This is how the Swiss photographer Balthasar Burkhard explained the designers’ choice of material in a monograph devoted to them by Friedrich Achleitner, the late Austrian architecture critic.

Democracy of success

The estate was designed in the mid-1950s by Atelier 5. The founders of the office were Erwin Fritz, Samuel Gerber, Rolf Hesterberg, Hans Hostettler and Alfredo Pini. When they started working on Halen, their first joint project, the youngest of the group was 23 years old and the oldest was 30. They were linked not only by their profession, but also by their fascination with the projects of Le Corbusier – whom they considered the greatest architect of their era – and their love of Mediterranean landscapes. And these last two motifs were their strongest inspirations when planning Halen. The estate is an example of the successful implementation of many modernist assumptions from the 1920s – community life that maintains high standards of privacy, a healthy lifestyle in a suburban scenery in line with the theory of a garden city, and the use of contemporary materials, especially prefabricated elements.

Photo by Atelier 5
Photo by Atelier 5

The experiment was successful. All houses were sold within two years, and many of the original buyers or their descendants live in them to this day. The architects from Atelier 5 strived to implement the same ideals of joint action in the functioning of their own team. Half a century has passed, none of the founding fathers are working anymore, but the next generation of architects are still discussing, designing and building together. The success of the group still stands above the fame of one. “It is obvious that each of us also thinks about ourselves, but we assume that work on ourselves and for ourselves can be implemented, improved and changed also through the other side. And that something new and better can be born out of dialogue,” say the architects.

Today, when I travel through the suburbs of Polish cities, I remember coming back from Halen and the words of my professor of architectural design. In the light of the setting sun, from inside the bus, he was ridiculing the typical Switzerland suburbs. “We live close to each other and yet so far away. We’re losing space and we’re not creating a city. We brag about our individuality, understanding nothing of it. When I look at what is happening outside the window, I don’t know where we are. Neither a village, nor a city. This does not make sense. But listen, it’s not too bad. Today we have seen that some have succeeded. Maybe you will succeed to. Take courage.”


Translated from the Polish by Joanna Figiel

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