For several years, Julia Robinson, a professor of architecture at the University of Minnesota, took her students to the Netherlands to study architecture, urbanism and Dutch housing. Much of what she saw and learned on those trips is the basis for “Complexity: Dutch and American Housing,” a symposium that is hosted by the U’s School of Architecture in early October. It will focus on the way multifamily housing is designed, developed and constructed in the Netherlands and the United States. The topics are also explored in her book, “Complex Housing: Designing for Density,” and an accompanying exhibition at the U, Dutch Complex Housing, that opened this weekend and runs through January. Some excerpts from an interview:
Q: Tell me more about this concept of “complex housing.”
A: The goal is to talk about how to build more equitable housing that incorporates mixed-income households and rental and purchase opportunities; offers innovative financing; and is architecturally innovative and diverse.
Q: Are there good examples of the concept in the Twin Cities?
A: The Rose [green design and mixed income] and Midtown Lofts [row houses and loft apartments, bicycle parking, courtyard]. Another project that has some of the character of the Dutch approach is Emanuel Housing by Cermak Rhoades for Catholic Charities [clinic and offices on the ground floor with supportive housing above and courtyard behind].
Q: You are not fond of buildings with corridors with apartments on both sides. Why?
A: Usually in the Netherlands you have windows at least on two different sides of the units for cross ventilation. Particularly in those double-loaded corridors you don’t have air going through these units. An important attribute of Dutch housing is that they require more light and air — the units are along single-loaded corridors or on a corner with light coming in on two sides. Also, when you have a double-loaded corridor, which is normally what we do, it’s very dark in those corridors.
Q: What architectural innovations would you like to see more of?
A: A sense of playful articulation. Buildings could be a lot more dramatic and playful. The people who finance the buildings need to have a more open and experimental perspective.
Q: In the Twin Cities, developers are fond of low-rise buildings, but there has been considerable debate about whether high-rise towers are appropriate. What is your opinion?
A: I think mid-rise is a very good thing. Tall buildings have their place, but they create shadows. And often the problem with a tall building is that they have setbacks and you often create more problems than you solve. And because of that, tall buildings aren’t necessarily more dense than low-rise buildings. None of the buildings I talk about are tall. The tallest is 20 stories. In the Netherlands, they don’t necessarily [build] tall buildings. They tend to be lower, moderate-height buildings.
Q: Some people aren’t fond of the apartment buildings that are being built today because they have so many materials and are too contextual, meaning they borrow — and repeat — elements of surrounding buildings without breaking new design ground. Do you think that’s a fair criticism?
A: I do.
Q: You talk about Jane Jacobs, the urban planner and author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” and her philosophy of “eyes on the street,” which draws a parallel between empty streets and the deserted corridors, elevators and stairwells in high-rise buildings. How does increasing the number of elevators and clustering apartments around them make a difference?
A: In most of our projects in the U.S., the idea is to have as many people in an elevator as you can. In the Netherlands, they are willing to have more elevators, so fewer people are using an elevator. If you have a limited number of people using an elevator, you’re more likely to get to know your neighbors.
Q: What’s the biggest barrier to buildings that are in keeping with the principles of complex housing?
A: In preparing this symposium, I invited developers and finance people to participate. I want people to talk about it and how and why we do it. The biggest problem seems to be financing; people who finance housing are very conservative and don’t want to take a risk. We’re very hesitant to try new things.
Q: What other features would you like to see developers in the Twin Cities do more often?
A: Almost all the apartment projects I looked at [for the book] have outdoor spaces that are not just a tiny space — you could put a table out there and eat outside. If you’re going to put people in dense housing, it’s important for them to be able to go outside.