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Halen Estate

Bern, Switzerland
1 of 9Blog: Loving Switzerland

Halen Estate has become the canonical prototype for low-rise, high density housing in the last half of the 20th century. This community of 81 terraced houses built on a south-facing hillside on the outskirts of the city of Bern incorporates many of the ideas of the modernist program of the 1920’s about community and privacy, garden city notions of a healthy life-style in a suburban setting, and attitudes about materials and standardization.

Halen was designed by a team of 5 young architects-- Edwin Fritz, Rolf Hesterberg, Samuel Gerber, Hans Hostettler, and Alfredo Pini (hence the name A-5). Between 1953 and 55, they worked in the office of the Bernese architect Hans Brechbühler who worked for Le Corbusier in Paris in 1930-31. Gerber studied at the Ecole des Arts et Métiers in Paris and also worked for a brief time in the Le Corbusier atelier. In 1954, the group approached the owner of a large open field on a hillside 3 kilometers from the center of Bern with a proposal to build a large residential community on a site overlooking the Aare River and a rolling wooded landscape on the outskirts of Bern. Niklaus Morgenthaler joined the group during this time and was instrumental in helping to get the project approved, financed, built and sold. Under an unusual arrangement with the developer, the architects were responsible for the sale of the houses.

The legacy of Le Corbusier was an important influence on the design of Halen. The typical 3-story dwelling used at Halen seems to be derived from the citrohan houses of the 1920’s, versions of which were built at Pessac in 1927. Le Corbusier also designed a similar terraced house version of the citrohan type, this time with vaulted roofs, for the Saint--Baume and the Roq and Rob projects in 1948 – 1949. The repetitive, elongated row house type, double-height interiors, and the development of balconies and brise soleil were concepts also being applied in the unité d’habitation, at Marseilles under design at about the same time. The unité can be seen as a high-rise version of a double row of back-to-back citrohan houses arranged along alternating corridors. The unité, is the vertical transformation of a row of citrohan houses and Halen can be seen as the horizontal resection of a unité several slices of which have been laid out on the terraced site. A-5 also credited the long, narrow courtyard houses of medieval Bern as the inspiration for the similar long plots at Halen.

Siedlung Halen is one of three similar terraced housing projects designed by Atelier 5. Halen, finished in 1960 was the first of these and set site and dwelling design principles that were used in the others: Thalmatt 1 built in 1972, contains 28 dwellings and, Thalmatt 2, built on an adjacent site in 1985, has 35 dwellings. All three used variations of three-story terraced row houses that were organized like villages around common open spaces. Other shared characteristics included concrete construction, sod roofs, and walled gardens. In addition to these three, A-5 designed several similar terrace housing projects including Rainpark, 1971, in Brügg, a much smaller development but with a 9 story slab, and Park Hill Village at Croydon in London, a very large community planned for 137 dwellings of which only 21 were built this time in brick instead of concrete.

Halen’s site in a sloping field in a wooded area just a few kilometers Northwest perimeter of Bern overlooks the Aare River below and beyond to the south, the rolling wooded landscape of a large municipal park give rise to comparisons with previous garden city communities. The suburban imagery of a community, ensconced in a picturesque rural landscape, isolated from the city, seems to suggest the ideals of previous utopian socialist cultures. But Halen is also a