When you first see it, Piet Blom’s 1984 Cube Houses looks a little like “stunt” architecture, the kind of outlandish, exhibitionist building engineered for cheap thrills and indigenous to places like Orlando (think the upside-down Parthenon). Its unorthodox aesthetic aside, the project was actually a daring approach to urban housing, a high-density residential model located in the heart of the city, but which, by most accounts, failed.
Recently, however, one of the complex’s 40 multi-level units has been witness to a new social experiment, not one of affordable urban living, but one of “inmate living.” Financed by the Exodus Foundation, the house will be run as a place for recently released convicts, who, after years in prison, will come to call the curious cubist building home.
Blom originally envisioned a tightly woven, block-long structure made of upturned cubes, packed in a cluster and stacked on concrete stilts at the edge of a Rotterdam canal. The residences–38 houses plus 2 larger units dubbed “SuperCubes”–were suspended on a continuous bridge that was supposed to connect both residents and pedestrians from downtown to the Market Square on the city’s Old Harbor. If all went according to plan, it was to create a long interior street lined with shops and a vibrant new gateway to the water.
“Good Idea, but it just didn’t work out that way,” architect Sander van Schaik tells Co.Design. A principal of Rotterdam-based Personal Architecture, van Schaik oversaw the firm’s renovation of one of the SuperCubes–they revamped the other as a trendy hostel–and has become intimately acquainted with the project.
It turns out pedestrians couldn’t be bothered to detour through the pixellated concrete compound. “Stairs were too steep, and people preferred crossing Blaak [the street passing under foot] at ground level,” van Schaik explains. “This left the bridge with serious problems. Most shops were vacant, as was the Supercube for a long time.”
When the architects found the unit, it was dark, cavernous, and irregularly spaced. “The discontinuity between floors, the tedious vertical progress, and the dark, inconvenient middle floor [were] considered the three problematic issues in the original building,” van Shaik says of his initial impressions. He and his partner Maarten Polkamp were charged with outfitting the space with offices and residences, something that couldn’t have been done without taking drastic measures.
Or more accurately, one drastic measure. They inserted a rectangular shaft that cuts through the heart of the place. This functions to rationalize what, at least by appearances, is an irrational building. The vertical core, which holds the elevator and stairs, plus the building’s services, drills through the structure’s three floor slabs, terminating at the top floor lounge and conference room. Riddled with sizable voids, the shaft delivers much needed light down to the lower floors.
It also plays a central role in regulating the building’s airflow and heating. The new volume pulls cool air from the bottom floor upward, producing what’s known as a “chimney effect.” The rising air cools the floors, pushing hot air to the top of the building, before evacuating through ceiling vents.
Supercube will be operated by the Exodus foundation, which organizes care and rehabilitation programs for processed prison inmates. The building’s 20+ habitations will be occupied by former convicts. The social-minded program, van Shaik says, would have pleased Blom. The Cube Houses were just one of several housing experiments he designed and built, and if the architecture couldn’t be used for its initial purpose, this new mandate would have been much welcomed by him. “Reusing the Supercube for a social function such as the Exodus foundation would have made Piet Blom very happy.”