Located in the Spangen neighborhood of Rotterdam, a residential area initially developed for the city's port workers, the complex was designed by Dutch architect Michiel Brinkman in 1922, becoming what Hebly called "the apotheosis of Dutch functionalism." Brinkman was an experienced architect of factories, offices, and warehouses in the early twentieth century, so when commissioned by the Municipal Housing Authority to design a social housing project with 264 units, he borrowed certain organizing principles from his past work.
Apotheosis of Dutch Functionalism
In Brinkman's design for the flour factory along Maashaven, the focus had to be on the logistic processes of supply, transport and storage of raw materials, finished products and energy as well as the organization of the production process," Hebly explains. In the few drawings of the Justus van Effen complex that remain, Brinkman similarly indicated the anticipated delivery routes of milkmen and local bakers and sketched out flows of garbage collection, energy supply, and foot traffic. The linchpin of Brinkman's design, and what makes his intended patterns of circulation possible, is a wide, raised gallery that wraps each housing block and ties the entire complex together. The so-called 'street in the air' was a remarkably direct and effective solution to questions of social cohesion in public housing, and it inspired similar schemes in later projects during the post-war period, both in the Netherlands and abroad.
The unique logistical emphasis of Brinkman's design, along with the subtle beauty of its structural details, made it the focus of a recent competition to restore the entire site to its original splendor, following an unsuccessful renovation in the 1980s. In this early attempt at restoring the complex, the courtyard facades were painted white and became discolored within a couple of years, the brickwork in the stairwells were hidden beneath tiles, and the windows were fitted with basic aluminum frames. It was during these years that the Spangen neighborhood became increasingly run-down and crime-ridden.
Led by Dutch architecture practices Molenaar & Co. and Hebly Theunissen, alongside Amsterdam-based landscape architect Michael van Gessel, the second preservation effort began in 2006 and was completed in 2012. The result, a more sensitive rehabilitation of the original site that in turn spurred the renewal of the Spangen neighborhood, was awarded the fifth citation of the World Monuments Fund/Knoll Modernism Prize in 2016. Even today, the complex is rare in its offering of a middle ground between two conventional models of social housing: the poorly ventilated, dimly lit towers of dense cities and the undifferentiated row houses of suburban enclaves. "As an answer to faceless urban architecture, Brinkman sought to achieve a feeling of unity associated with garden-village development, whilst using a stacked construction," architect Joris Molenaar writes in a monograph on Brinkman and his practice. "The plan also signified a step in the direction of economical, efficient residential housing, through the deployment of central staircases and central facilities to reduce the amount of space and materials needed."