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Arquitecturas del sur

versión impresa ISSN 0716-2677versión On-line ISSN 0719-6466

Arquit. sur vol.39 no.59 Concepción jul. 2021

http://dx.doi.org/10.22320/07196466.2021.39.059.02 

Articles

MODERN COLLECTIVE HOUSING OF MODERNITY IN TIMES OF COVID-19. CONTRIBUTIONS OF THE HOUSING PARADIGM

Pablo Francisco Gómez Porter* 
http://orcid.org/0000-0003-4963-4410

*Profesor Titular, Tiempo Completo, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Facultad de Arquitectura, Ciudad de México, México, gporter@unam.mx.

ABSTRACT:

Modern collective housing generated an urban-architectural design paradigm, which incorporated spaces whose design promoted, following modern architects, health and hygiene through the circulation of clean air, natural lighting and ventilation inside dwellings, as well as in the shared spaces and those where people move around, characteristic of this housing typology. These design elements seem to be useful to reduce the spread of the SarsCov2 virus, that is currently affecting the entire world. Field and online work was carried out with the inhabitants of the CUPA, a housing complex representative of modern architecture in Mexico City, to verify this assumption. Using volumetric reconstructions and online questionnaires, the design elements that embody modern ideals, aimed at ensuring healthy indoor and outdoor spaces, were analysed. The usefulness of the collective facilities, public spaces and the design of the four housing typologies found within the, were assessed. The results of the study and the absence of COVID-19 cases in CUPA help to prove the validity that modern architecture has regained during the global pandemic, as well as the importance of the lessons from the past to integrate new design paradigms for a post-Covid architecture.

Keywords: Modernity; hygiene; community facilities; housing complexes; green areas

INTRODUCTION

Collective modern housing is a legacy of the discussions of the International Congresses of Modern Architecture, CIAM, on housing and the development of cities using housing conceived as their basic cell (CIAM, 1933). These contributions, that provided solutions from architecture and urbanism to the urban issues of the time, were outlined in the 1933 Athens Charter.

The Charter proposed grouping dwellings in high-rise towers, taking advantage of land available to develop extensive green areas, commercial establishments, amenities, sports areas, schools, playschools, and even maternity hospitals, to look after the children. Thus, the inhabitants would have no need to move to other areas of the city for their essential activities. The housing cells, just like the collective spaces, would have to guarantee, from their design, the entry of sunlight and fresh air, thus generating healthy, clean, ventilated, transparent spaces that sought to cut the spread of diseases which, back then, were part of the slums. The paradigm of the super housing block was being born.

These design precepts throughout the world, were praised by Le Corbusier, and were materialized in his famous Marseille Unité d’habitation which, on being testimony of modern thinking, was added in 2016, along with another 16 works of the Swiss architect, to the World Heritage List as an exceptional contribution to the Modern Movement (UNESCO, 2020), under eligibility criteria (i), (ii) and (vi) of the Cultural and World Heritage Convention, leading to the declaration of its Exceptional Universal Value (UNESCO, 1972; 2008).

Latin America was the recipient of the largest number of these works, where large scale state-led examples were built, which nowadays stand out as landmarks in cities around the region. The governments of mid-20th century Latin American republics found, in the paradigm of the super housing block, an ideal tool for their social acceptance and legitimization (Sambricio, 2012).

In Mexico, the first housing unit built under these design assumptions was the Centro Urbano Presidente Alemán (CUPA). Located to the south of the Mexican capital, it was designed by the architect Mario Pani, and built between 1947 and 1949 with the support of the General Civil Pensions Direction, today the Social Services and Security Institute for State Workers (ISSSTE, in its Spanish acronym). It was built on a site of 40,000 m², where only 20% is occupied at the subgrade area by the built property, while the remaining 80% is destined to sports areas and gardens. Meanwhile, the commercial establishments and services are located on the first floors of the buildings.

The complex has 1,080 dwellings, grouped into six 12-story towers and six, smaller 3-story buildings (Pani, 1950, pg. 268-269). It has four different housing typologies (Pani, 1952, pg 27.24), where the modern ideals of transparency and hygiene are materialized (Muxi, 2020, p. 7), with sliding windows that allow sunlight to enter each housing cell (Figure 1).

Source: Photograph by the author (2020).

Figure 1: Picture windows of the apartments in CUPA’s 12-story towers. 

At the start of the 1970s, this housing model revealed problems in its management (Villavicencio, 2006), and in the coexistence among its inhabitants. While the demolition of Minuro Yamasaki’s Pruitt Iggoe complex in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1972, led Charles Jeckens to state that, with this act, the movement had died (Montaner, 2015, pg. 158-159). However, the current pandemic has forced redefining architectonic design, as well as analyzing, and even revisiting, design paradigms inherited from the past, that intended, among other things, to promote healthy and clean spaces through ventilation, air circulation, and the entry of sunlight.

In this vein, this article analyzes the hypothetical usefulness of a representative case study of modernity, namely CUPA in Mexico. Authors like Morawska, have presented studies that show that the most efficient means to transmit viruses, are the aerosols we exhale on speaking, airborne ones that survive in enclosed unventilated spaces. However, in open ventilated spaces, the possibilities of infection are considerably reduced (Morawska & Cao, 2020).

METHODOLOGY

To assess the possible usefulness of the super housing block design in the reduction of the airborne COVID-19 infection, by using the analysis of a paradigmatic case study like CUPA, 3D models of the entire complex, and of each one of its four housing typologies were made, using the original plans published in the book, Los multifamiliares de pensiones (Pani, 1952, pg 27-34) and the magazine, Arquitectura México (Pani, 1950, pg. 268-269), verifying the information with onsite visits. The 3D modeling of the complex considered the first floor commercial establishments, gardens, and green areas that surround the apartments buildings set out on the redan site (De Garay, 2004).

The spatial analysis was complemented and compared with questionnaires given to the inhabitants. The questions were designed to evaluate the efficiency of the architectonic design attributes that, hypothetically, help to reduce airborne infection chains in collectively used spaces and inside dwellings. To determine the survey’s target population, the populational profiles indicated in the National Housing Inventory (INEGI, 2016) were examined. This showed that the prevailing population sector has an age range fluctuating between 30 and 59 (Table 1).

Table 1: CUPA population groups, by age range. The group with the highest number of people is highlighted. 

Source: Preparation by the author using data from the National Housing Inventory (INEGI, 2016) (https://www.inegi.org.mx/app/mapa/inv/).

This sector has the economically active population, so a set of questions evaluated the compatibility of work-based and domestic activities for those who can work from home. As the members of this population segment are also regular social media users, which the neighbors use to communicate with each other, it was possible to carry out a survey on two Google forms. The digital platform allows graphing results in real-time. It also avoids physical interaction and possible infections, when answering the questionnaires.

The first questionnaire focused on the commercial establishments and collective spaces. It addressed the usefulness of the products offered there, to identify whether these are sufficient to supply the basic supplies for the inhabitants, or if they need to leave the complex for supplies. To recognize the types of establishments and include them in the survey, economic and commercial activity data of the housing inventory (INEGI, 2016) was revised, information which was verified through fieldwork. The lines of business available on the first floor of CUPA are: laundromat, minimarket, butchers, grocery store, pharmacy, bakers, tortilla shop, shoe store, restaurant (selling prepared meals), stationers, and dry cleaners.

In this same section, the inhabitants were asked about whether they had used the gardens around CUPA during the pandemic, and whether they felt safe walking around without the fear of getting infected. Similar questions were asked regarding the perimeter corridors to access the tower dwellings. The section was complemented on asking whether they had heard about COVID infections inside the housing unit (Table 2).

Table 2: Survey questions given to CUPA’s inhabitants about the common areas and commercial establishments. 

Source: Preparation by the author (2020).

In the second questionnaire, questions related to the four different dwelling types were included, one for each type. In the texts and plans published by Pani, the apartment typologies are classified by letters, three are found in the 12-story buildings. These currently have colloquial names by which the inhabitants identify them (Table 3). As such, the surveys respected these names.

Table 3: Names and general characteristics of CUPA’s four housing typologies. For the corner apartment (type B-C), the variation is minimal and has the possibility of having a small store, alongside the entrance to the apartment. 

Source: Preparation by the author, based on Pani (1950, p. 268)

The concepts addressed in the four questionnaires, correspond to conditions inside the dwelling, regarding typical modern design elements that materialize hygiene precepts, such as the usefulness of windows to ventilate and illuminate the entire dwelling, as well as the compatibility of work-related and typical every day activities, for those who can work from home (Table 4).

Table 4: Results of the questionnaire given to inhabitants to evaluate the usefulness of commercial establishments, gardens, and collective circulation areas in CUPA during the pandemic. The responses mentioned the most by the interviewees are highlighted, to aid their identification. *The comments of the open answers were incorporated in the presentation of the results. 

Source: Preparation by the author (2021).

All the questionnaires were multiple-choice, although room was given for open answers so that respondents could mention any situation not considered in the questions. The questionnaire was open for 3 weeks, during which 291 answers were received. 145 were for the type A apartment (corridor); 58 for types B-C (corner); 36 for type D (north-south building); and 52 for type D (the small little one). Finally, records of COVID cases in CUPA were sought on the official page of the Mexico City Government, using interactive maps and the statistical data available per community. The official information obtained was then compared against the answers collected from the questionnaires.

RESULTS

COMMON AREAS

The data shown in Table 4 allows identifying that the commercial establishments and services within the complex have been enough to guarantee the supply of basic products for the residents. At the same time, supermarkets nearby have become an option to buy groceries, although these are less frequently used by the 291 respondents. The most useful stores have been those that sell food (grocers and mini-markets), followed by pharmacies that offer medication, personal hygiene products, and non-perishable food.

The gardens, which cover most of the site (Figure 2), have become necessary spaces for recreation and relief from confinement during the pandemic, on being natural and offering fresh air, so, in terms of airborne transmission, these are spaces with a lower risk of infection (Table 4). These are also extensions of the dwelling itself.

Source: Preparation by Jorge Rendón, using the plans shown in Arquitectura México (Pani, 1952, p. 265), and field trips made by the author.

Figure 2: Volumetry of Centro Urbano Presidente Alemán. The gardens that surround the apartment towers and fill most of the subgrade area, can be seen in green 

The results referring to the perimeter corridors, which provide access to the tower dwellings (Table 4), aside from their inherent role for access and circulation, were shown to have been used by most of those surveyed, for walking during breaks from work, for those working from home. The panoramic views from these, towards CUPA’s gardens and the city, are qualities that significantly improve the recreational experience in these circulation areas (Figure 3).

Source: Photograph by the author.

Figure 3 Perimeter corridors to access tower dwellings. 

The surveys also reveal that the dimensions of these corridors allow keeping a healthy distance between users. Once again, it is seen that by using the spatial setup, it is possible to define spaces with a lower risk for airborne transmission. The safety open spaces provide (Figure 3), is reinforced by the users wearing masks. An aspect that was confirmed during the field trips.

The search for COVID-19 cases on the local government’s official platform, showed that no infections have been identified in CUPA, either on the interactive map, or in the graphs per community (Mexico City Government, 2020). Likewise, most of the 291 respondents mentioned not knowing about any infection inside the complex, despite being located in front of 20 de Noviembre Hospital, which attends COVID patients and creates the fear of possible infection among some inhabitants, according to the comments received in the surveys.

Those who mentioned they worked outside their home, said that on returning to CUPA, they have the feeling of being protected from the virus, because the spaces to enter their homes are open, allowing air to circulate (Table 4). Those indicating otherwise argued that the fear comes from being close to the hospital: They say that there is a risk of infection, but also mentioned the cleanliness of the gardens, which are used by other neighbors, to walk their dogs to relieve themselves, but whose owners do not pick what they leave behind, an aspect that refers to a complex neighborhood coexistence, typical of this urban habitat (Duahu & Giglia, 2008, p. 294), and the management issues that this complex has had after the changes in the internal property arrangements (Gómez, 2020).

DWELLINGS

Apartment type A is located in the 12-story towers. It is called “corridor”, because it is accessed through an open perimeter corridor (Figure 3), that leads to the elevators which rise from the first floor of CUPA. It has an area of 48m2 and is built on two levels. On the entrance level, there is a dining room and kitchen, while the next holds the bathroom, living room and bedrooms (Figure 4). The picture windows on the façade allow entry of sunlight and fresh air into the entire house.

Source: Preparation by Raúl Cerezo (2021).

Figure 4: Drawing with the architecture floorplan and volumetry of apartment type A. 

The survey results (Table 5), and their comparison with the distribution of this first typology, reveal that the window design and size help to reduce the indoor transmission of the virus. They also provide panoramic views of the city and CUPA’s interior gardens, as the towers are tall enough to get these views (Figure 8). Likewise, on having two levels in this type of dwelling, it is possible for more than one person to work from home.

Table 5: Tabulation of answers collected to evaluate the possible interior design elements to reduce the airborne COVID transmission in CUPA’s four dwelling typologies. The options that were mentioned the most by the respondents, are highlighted for their identification. 

Source: Preparation by the author (2021).

Apartment type B - C, is located in the 12-story buildings. It has a surface area of 80m2 and is known as “corner”, because it is located on the corner of the corridors, next to the elevators. It has a staircase that connects the dwelling with the access corridor, and is built on just one level, where all the stores are (Figure 5). The survey results (Table 5) and their comparison, reveal that this typology has the same indoor qualities as type A: lighting, ventilation, and views. However, on being built on just one level, the separation between work activities and household chores is not as clear as in the previous case.

Source: Preparation by Raúl Cereza (2021).

Figure 5: Drawing with the architecture floorplan and volumetry of apartment type B-C 

Apartment type D is colloquially known as “B, D or F”. It is located in the north-south facing apartment towers. They link, as bridges, the four east-west facing towers, generating a kind of zig-zag and Redan layout, characteristic of the complex (Figure 2). This typology is 110m2 in size and is built on two levels. On the first level, it has a dining room, kitchen and a living room, while on the following level, there is a bathroom, sitting room and three bedrooms (Figure 6).

Source: Preparation by Raúl Cerezo (2021).

Figure 6: Drawing with the architecture floorplan and volumetry of apartment type D. 

The survey results (Table 5) and their comparison with the dwelling’s design, show that this type of apartment has the same design qualities as type A. In addition, on having a considerably greater size, it is possible to more easily separate the area that will be destined as an office inside the home.

Finally, apartment type E is the only housing prototype that is built in a 3-story building, this is why the inhabitants colloquially call it “the small little one”, alluding to the size of the property. Unlike the towers, here there are no elevators or corridors. The scale of the buildings is visibly smaller. These apartments have a surface area of 57m2 and are built on a single level (Figure 7).

Source: Preparation by Raúl Cerezo (2021).

Figure 7: Drawing with the architecture floorplan and volumetry of apartment type E. 

The survey results (Table 5), and their comparison with the volumetric design of the dwelling, show that in this apartment type, the sliding window of the façade permanently allows the entry of sunlight and fresh air, just like in the rest of the dwelling typologies. However, on being in a low-rise building, it is not possible to see the gardens, and much less the city. Its development on a single level, prevents separating the activities, just as occurs in typologies A and D.

DISCUSSION

The commercial establishments available in the CUPA that currently bear witness of the design principles that identify collective housing superblocks, have been enough to supply basic products during the pandemic, among the inhabitants surveyed. They have become a viable supply option that has guaranteed the supply of food and medicine. As such, there is no need to go outside the complex, to distant areas of the city, to buy them.

The common spaces help to reduce work stress caused by living and working in the same place. In the same way, the perimeter access corridors to tower dwellings have been useful, not just because of their role of connection and circulation, but also because they have become spaces where people can freely walk for pleasure without fear of infection. On being open, they allow air circulation and, at the same time, the height of the buildings allows enjoying the views they offer towards the city or the gardens of the unit (Figure 8). The gardens are places where, despite the neighborhood pet walking issues, it is possible to move around without the risk of infection that enclosed, unventilated collective spaces have. The green areas have gradually been revalued by the inhabitants as necessary extensions of their home during the obligatory confinement the pandemic has caused.

Source: Photograph by the author (2020).

Figure 8: Views from the perimeter corridors of CUPA. 

Regarding the four dwelling types analyzed, it can be said that the conditions are variable. However, the materialization of modern design principles in large picture windows that allow the entry of sunlight and fresh air, acting as picture frames in the towers for the landscape elements - panoramic views of the city and gardens-, generating architectonic design qualities that are clearly acknowledged by the inhabitants.

On comparing the results shown in Table 5 with the design of the dwelling typologies, it is seen that all department types have natural ventilation inside all their rooms. The physical barriers needed to separate work, family, and living activities are provided for in the two-level apartment typologies, although the two apartment types built on one level, implies mixing activities within the dwelling.

CONCLUSIONS

Modern collective housing formed a living paradigm that, during the current pandemic, has regained validity from its design, one which is useful to reduce the airborne transmission of a virus. The results of the research presented here, show that the modern ideal of forming healthy, hygienic and ventilated spaces, must be revisited considering the usefulness that cases like CUPA have shown up until now.

The complex studied has a high population density. However, according to official Mexico City government data, it has not had infections since March 2020, when the pandemic broke out in Mexico, despite being in front of a hospital attending COVID-19 cases. It is located in a privileged area of the city, with access to supermarkets, parks, services, malls, work and all the public transportation systems, qualities that, along with the amenities that CUPA has, have been determining factors in reducing non-essential movement for its inhabitants and, therefore, contributing towards reducing infection.

This prodigious housing complex, paradigmatic in Latin America, once again shows the virtues of its urban-architectonic design, now from a post-COVID vision. Its collective and circulation spaces are open; hence they are permanently ventilated. Its size naturally promotes the needed physical distancing that allows avoiding crowding in shared spaces. Its gardens, which occupy 80% of the subgrade area around the buildings, provide generous panoramic views from the homes (Figure 8) and are also, safe spaces for the recreation and circulation of the inhabitants.

CIAM’s interest, particularly that of 1933, to plan the city using housing superblocks, one that pushed for a hygienic dwelling, with natural ventilation and sunlight to reduce infection of diseases, like tuberculosis, must be revisited, to form part of the response that architecture and urbanism generates looking to establish new design paradigms, focused on reducing the airborne transmission chains of Covid-19.

Lessons from the past are useful in setting new paths for the design of healthy spaces, amid a normalcy that may have arrived to stay. CUPA shows that it is possible to revisit these lessons and contribute towards forming the design paradigms needed today as an obligatory response to the pandemic from architecture and urbanism.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Funding Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

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Received: October 26, 2020; Accepted: March 29, 2021

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