Architecture to improve the well-being of public housing residents: The Amsterdam School of Architecture


By Rutger Noorlander

Architecture could serve to improve the lives of social housing residents.

Exactly 100 years ago, in an attempt to design quality housing for the urban working classes, architects have produced ideals that form a relation between architecture on the one hand and on the other hand adequate, efficient social housing with art as a means to enrich the living environment. A revolutionary relation was made between architecture and increasing urban opportunity, decreasing social inequality, social inclusion and urban beautification and transformation projects.

To what extent could the ideals of Amsterdam School of Architecture be used in social housing projects in urban areas in the global south to improve the overall well-being of social economic lower class families and, in addition, improve the social inequality in the city?

Progressive ideals of the Amsterdam School of Architecture

At the beginning of the 20th century, architects of the Amsterdam School of Architecture had specific ideals concerning the design of social housing. These progressive ideals are related to improving the well-being of the working class and provide them ‘happiness’.

These architects designed so called ‘working class palaces’. An aesthetically pleasing environment was thought to have a positive influence on the personal development of the working class and eventually making them happier. A special attention was given to beauty. Every house was supposed to be different. The Amsterdam School buildings are also characterized by the attention given to the design of, for example, house number plates, street lights, doors, mail boxes, bridges, schools, etc. The Amsterdam School of Architecture designed well-constructed housing and additionally a house where workers would feel at home and had a beautiful place to live.

They spoke of a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’, a ‘collective work of art’, which refers to the comprehensive plan of designing not only the building, but also the interior, exterior, street planning and area planning, providing a “unity in the urban landscape”.

The Amsterdam School of Architecture had three particular principles:

  1. The importance of an artistic principle in the design of working class housing;
  2. To create unity instead of “boring” monotonous working class blocks.
  3. A ‘monumental solution’ to create unity on the level of urban planning, a connection between buildings and public space and thereby a unity on the street level as part of a multi-facetted, long-term, sustainable, positive approach.

Unnecessary decadence for the urban poor?

The Amsterdam School provided beauty and luxury for working class people and included the surroundings of the buildings in their extensive plans. In their vision, the working classes had a right to a well-designed living environment, designed by an artist. Also, the Amsterdam School characteristics gave solutions to new demands for mass development of affordable working class housing in a form of building-by-block on high-density locations, near inner-urban areas and focussing on the working class well-being.

Architecture as a multifaceted mechanism

The ideals of the Amsterdam School of Architecture explain the multifaceted mechanism of architecture in urban development issues. As a result, many policy subjects can be related.

Social housing provision could form a solid ground for urban (economic) growth by improving the build environment, making the streets more beautiful and allowing urban opportunity to emerge for social economic lower class citizens in an urban environment. As the Amsterdam School architects have shown, all that is needed to resolve these types of urban issues is a collective between talented people. Social housing policy is a wider concept that fits the governmental goals concerning urban (economic) growth, urban transformation projects, decreasing urban inequality, increasing urban opportunity and social justice.

Guayaquil, Ecuador

Are you interested in reading more on this subject? In this preliminary paper I attempted to give new insights by relating these issues to social housing efforts in Guayaquil, Ecuador. As Peek, Hordijk and d’Auria[1] show concerning the relation between housing and urban inequality, what could be improved in social housing provision in Guayaquil is the ability “to encourage socially supportive housing design along with qualitative urban densities”.

Based on her research in Guayaquil, Moser[2] describes housing as an asset in the ‘asset accumulation framework’, defined as a “range of assets that households, and individuals within them, accumulate, consolidate, or at times lose through their erosion”. Housing is indeed a very important household asset.

The architects of the Amsterdam School of Architecture have given us insights in how to use architecture of social housing to improve the lives of the urban poor in the global south. I hope this can be used as an inspiration in providing social housing worldwide.

Rutger Noorlander MA is a freelance urban geographer, interested in urban (economic) growth issues, urban inequality and heritage. Rutger is currently located in Santiago, Chile. Feel free to contact him with questions or comments.










[1] Olga Peek, Michaela Hordijk & Viviana d’Auria (2017) User-based design for inclusive urban transformation: learning from ‘informal’ and ‘formal’ dwelling practices in Guayaquil, Ecuador. International Journal of Housing Policy.


[2] Moser, Caroline (2009) Ordinary families, extraordinary lives: Assets and poverty reduction in Guayaquil, 1978-2004. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, pp. xiv.


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