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Canal houses and rental barracks

Feargus O’Sullivan’s CityLab series on European housing typologies started in London, but has since gone on to cover Berlin’s mid-rise tenements — called Mietskasernen — and Amsterdam’s canal houses. The series is exactly the sort of thing that I like to geek out about. In fact, I can see a book on this topic staring at me from my bookshelf.

If you end up taking the time to read the articles, you’ll be reminded of a couple of things about the way cities work. One, the way we use buildings changes over time. Two, the kind of architecture we pursue is always a reflection of the socioeconomic milieu at that particular moment in time. And three, the way we perceive buildings also changes over time.

In the case of Amsterdam’s canal houses, their original function was live/work. They were residences, but they were also warehouses. Amsterdam’s maritime dominance meant that it was more profitable to store things, instead of just house people. (Sometimes as much as half of the house was dedicated to storage.) Trade patterns had moved from the Mediterranean up to the North Atlantic, and that worked out pretty well for the Dutch in the 17th century.

In the case of Berlin, their typical mid-rise “rental barracks” went from reviled to coveted as the buildings aged, elevators made the penthouses desirable, and people started to appreciate some of their idiosyncrasies. It’s an example of what I was getting at when I spoke to the CBC for this article about Toronto’s skyscraper boom. Some things, including buildings, take time. They need to settle in.

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