QW 4 – 2015: Anne Beeksma

The Triumph and Demise of Wielewaal, Anne Beeksma

Wielewaal

The city centre of Rotterdam was bombed at the beginning of WWII and Rotterdam West was bombed in 1943. During the war several temporary housing areas, or ‘emergency villages’, were built in Rotterdam to soften the initial blows as much as possible. These houses ended up being lived in much longer than originally anticipated because the housing shortage remained acute even after the war and because the basic rebuilding plan by Van Traa, which on paper was complete by 1946, was only really put into effect when housing construction began in the 1950s.

The 545 homes of the Wielewaal plan for Rotterdam Charlois were built in 1949. Though often lumped in with the other temporary housing projects, Wielewaal was actually the first, and therefore not insignificant, post-war residential neighbourhood in Rotterdam. The houses were designed by architects J. Denijs and P. van Drimmelen. They are single family homes of 60-90 m2 with only one level. The standard type has three bedrooms, though some have been given a wider or extra bay, allowing for four or sometimes even five bedrooms. All the houses are situated in a green environment, are positioned east to west and have private gardens. As an assemble, Wielewaal looks like those holiday villages outside of the Randstad that are still currently popular. So apart from their technical state and the lack of modernisation, the houses are in a comfortable setting.

The houses were built with light-weight construction techniques and thin cavity wall facades, and have a wooden ground floor on prefab concrete beams. The houses rest on steel slabs – that is to say, they have no foundations. We don’t build like that anymore, not even holiday homes. We have now grown accustomed to a different level of comfort and we believe our buildings should be well-insulated. Particularly in the areas of building physics and fittings technology, house building has made huge strides. Today we build good bathrooms and big kitchens and we consider it normal that a house is warm in the winter and cool in the summer and that we are shielded from noisy neighbours and traffic.

While they are structurally outdated, the houses have remained popular. Along with the cheap square meterage, the fact that they have complete ground-floor layouts and are set within green surroundings gives them a certain quality that rivals even the higher-end housing market where such space has become scarce. It’s clear why the residents have fought long and hard against demolition.

At the very least, retaining the parcelling and neighbourhood structure and rebuilding small new homes to which the residents could return, would therefore be a plausible course of events. That such a course can be a pitfall is demonstrated by the dismal outcome of the Witte Dorp, rebuilt in 1989 in an attempt to preserve at least the quality of the urban layout designed by architect J.J.P. Oud in his 1922 plan for temporary housing. In fact, it is not easy to design a viable plan involving single-storey houses. A simple calculation reveals that even with small houses of 60-90 m2, that consist of a single level layout, double the amount of ground space is needed compared to a standard, newly built row-house. Usually duplexes or a combination house of upper and lower flats would be built, allowing eight homes to be built on the same plot of land, but even more preferable would be building flats which, even within the parameters of three houses, would create a multitude of apartments. It’s no surprise then that the new plans for Wielewaal include 110 apartments.

If the Wielewaal houses had been privately owned, the unavoidable question is whether they would have been demolished or instead cherished by their owners and renovated internally. However, being owned by a housing corporation or city council means this type of housing does not meet even the minimum standards of today and that they are simply not viable. Hopefully the assessment report will reveal whether internal renovations were considered for Wielewaal, to raise the level of quality and comfort as was successfully done with the Kiefhoek project (1928, also by J.J.P.Oud) by former Chief Government Architect Wietze Patijn.

Since demolition has now been decided upon, it’s positive that Wielewaal will be thoroughly documented for history. If Anne Beeksma manages to elucidate all the considerations and decisions (and their context) regarding its building and demolition, then her report will be a useful addition to what we already know: that Wielewaal has historic value in the context of post-war architecture.

Dikkie Scipio for FGF