Secret of the 30s houses

It was a time of terrible recession, yet the 1930s saw a massive rise of garden-city neighbourhoods with luxurious houses. These old ‘30s houses’ are still very popular. What’s their secret? Dr Joost Kingma set out to investigate.

Set in a lush woody environment, enclosed by a big garden and yet within a stone’s throw distance of the city centre. It is no wonder that a typical ‘30s houses’ is popular. Real estate agencies still earn good money selling them despite the crisis in the housing market.

But is this success really due to the above-mentioned factors. Dr Joost Kingma, an urban planning consultant, believes there is more to it than just that. “1930s houses have a significantly higher price – 6 to 11 per cent higher – than comparable houses from other building periods,” he says.

Kingma lives in such a house himself (in the town of Driebergen) and says that he completely fell in love with it. For his PhD research, which he defended in May at the faculty of Architecture, he tried to grasp the magic of the 1930s house and figure out what lessons today’s architects and urban planners can learn from that period.

First, it is important to stress that the economy at the time was completely different and that in many aspects the 1930s house cannot serve as an example for today’s housing industry. Labour for instance was very cheap for the middleclass, which suffered a lot less from the recession than the lower class, and even saw a rise in its purchasing power during the 1930s. This explains why these houses are of varied architecture, have so many exterior and interior decorations, fine details in the brickwork, stained glass windows, panelled doors and so on.

But what then is there to copy from this architectural period, if we are to take into account this different economic point of departure? “One of the key ingredients is the harmonious transition from garden to house using bay windows, balconies, porches and extended eaves,” says the researcher. “I discovered this during my research. Once you know this, of course, it’s very obvious.”

Architects have not been sufficiently aware of these important details, Kingma believes: “Many neighbourhoods in new urban extensions built since the mid-1990s incorporate elements from the private garden-city neighbourhoods of the 1930s. At first glance these neighbourhoods appear to resemble the original, but on closer inspection they often lack important elements of quality.”

Garden cities of the 1930s are also characterized by broad avenues with big trees. With the high prices of land nowadays, it is understandable that houses are stacked closer together. Is there a way around this?

Kingma has an idea for this: “In the 1930s, roads would only be paved in a neighbourhood after many buildings had been constructed. This is one way to lower the price of land. The investments risks are lowered this way. This is something we could do now as well.”

Second, building houses close together in the Netherlands is very much a political choice, according to Kingma: “We put houses close together to facilitate public transport. I believe however that we should give people what they really want. They want space, at least from a certain age on. And space is something we do have. Ten percent of the country is urbanized. What’s wrong with making it 12 percent?”

Another typical aspect of a 1930s house is its small windows. That

doesn’t seem luxurious and doesn’t add up to the smooth transition from garden to interior. It raises the question whether the success of the 1930s house can be explained to a large extent by nostalgia.

“Well to some extent it can be attributed to nostalgia,” Kingma says. “But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”

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