A Theoretical Re-interpretation applied on the Suburban Context of Deurne (Antwerp, Belgium)

Brosens Pieter
 Artesis University College of Antwerp

Lombaerde Piet
 Artesis University College of Antwerp
Schoonjans Yves
 Sint-Lucas School of Architecture, Ghent - Brussels


The Unitas-Garden-Suburb (1923-1932) in Deurne is one of the most interesting post WWI Belgian housing projects. Although complete garden cities were hardly built on the continent, it is interesting to see how their urban layout and architecture, combined with continental ideas, were adapted into a local reality and culture.

Since there was no space or need to expand the Belgian urban-spread with autonomous garden cities, mainly garden suburbs were implemented. Particularly the Unitas-Garden-Suburb was very specific in its formal and social interpretation. The Antwerp architect Eduard Van Steenbergen (1889-1952), a modernist interested in regionalism, managed to meet two challenging goals. First, he studied meticulously the program and site and integrated the whole in its existing surrounding fabric. Second, he conceptualized open building blocks with a density anticipating a future suburban vision. The result is an urban sustainability rarely seen at that time.

This paper focuses on his reinterpretation of building blocks and housing elements, exploring interactively the local urban, architectural and social levels. It is precisely this multi-layeredness and complexity that makes this project an extraordinary case in the growing modern city. The design principles used by Van Steenbergen for this case contain interesting insights on the evolution of suburban neighbourhoods and on the influence of formal and social principles of the garden city ideas in specific contextualized situations.

The classical educated Van Steenbergen, son of an architect, was inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement and by Dutch and German modern architecture. His regional functionalism flourished in Antwerp and is recognizable by the diverse use of bricks and the distinct emphasis on artisanal craftsmanship. He managed to create an impressive oeuvre and became one of the key figures of what is called Flemish brick modernism.

The Belgian and Antwerp context

Halfway the 19th century the harbor city of Antwerp was one of the bigger cities in Belgium to undergo the consequences of the first industrial wave. Working-class housing was dominated by a liberal ideology. Ebenezer Howard’s publication To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (1898) was overlooked by the Belgian artistic milieu, although they formulated an anti-urban stance. Due to misconceptions and misinterpretations Howard’s Garden City concept was hardly known in Belgium on the eve of WWI. Unwin’s book Town Planning in Practice (1909), usable for practical design, and his lecture at the 1913 International Exhibition in Ghent gradually changed the ignorance.
Urgent needs for postwar rebuilding strategies resulted in an intensive cooperation between the Belgian government in exile in France and the Belgian refugees in the Netherlands and Great Britain with the English Garden Cities and Town Planning Association. Pivotal figures as Raphael Verwilghen and Louis Van der Swaelmen were solicitors of the garden city vision. Despite the proactive ambitions of the English government and the efforts of the Belgian Town Planning Committee to educate and inform Belgian politicians and architects, the true garden city idea never kicked off.

Historians bring up different reasons for this failure. The bound combination of private land ownership structure and urban spread of small and middle-large towns throughout the countryside left a dense constellation of urban settlements with no base or space to be more intensified. We can suggest that conservative forces on different levels countered numerous initiatives.
But some possibilities opened up. The law of October 11th 1919 established a credit organisation for affordable housing, the NMGWW , which financed building companies. Through these companies social housing was introduced in Deurne, by far the most expansively growing district around Antwerp. Building companies had a big impact and played an active role in its urbanisation process, triggering a request by the low-wage clerks and workmen. 

In 1922 the outspoken socialist Eduard Van Steenbergen is chosen by the art and architecture critic Edward Leonard to design the Unitas-Garden-Suburb. Leonard was the managing director of the Unitas-Tuinwijk tenant’s society and a good friend of Raphael Verwilghen, whom he worked for at the Administration of Destroyed Area’s  from 1919 onwards.
Because of a conservative legislation in 1923, the tenants’ society Unitas-Tuinwijk, one of only two examples nearby Antwerp, was transformed into a lesser social owners’ society. An affirmation of this change can be found in the different urbanisation and demography of the geographically divided North-South structure of Deurne. We recognize in the South a richer character in housing quality and typology, due to larger parcelling. The population in the North consisted of a 50% working-class people, whereas only 33% in the South.  Organizing a truly working-class based garden suburb in the South, where the Unitas-Garden-Suburb is located, seemed therefore improbable.

The urban layout

After meeting Verwilghen, Van Steenbergen had also his first contact with Van der Swaelmen. The Antwerp avant-garde group Circle Modern Art, with Van Steenbergen as co-founder, organized interdisciplinary congresses where Van der Swaelmen lectured  (1920):

“… bordering upon the city, garden suburbs will arise … in harmony with the city character; these will be alternated with country parks … from the suburbs green roads will enter the city … where little parks, squares and playgrounds are spread out, which will generate air and light … these parks and fields can be connected in a park system … can you imagine what role a park can play in contemporary urban design …”

Van der Swaelmen prospected this situation for Brussels and Antwerp: small-scale suburban nuclei of residences imbedded in greenery. A surrounding rural or green belt as Howard proscribed wasn’t realistic, since the urban sprawl and the degree of urban fragmentation was too high. Van Steenbergen was lucky to take advantage of an existing park at the West side of his site, the Boeckenbergpark .

In May 1923 Van Steenbergen proposes his first design to the 140 members of the Unitas society. Involvement and criticism of future residents were essential to Van Steenbergen, a true socially inspired interaction. Three types of houses were proposed with façade widths of 7m, a standard type, and two variants of 9m and 5,5m, later increased to four types, and subtly altered and mirrored in favor of the overall variation.
A hierarchy of roads was essential to link the site with its still developing surrounding fabric. The typical oblong North-South oriented site of 100m by 550m requested a specific treatment. In reference to the medieval Belgian towns and the garden city aesthetics, the architect favored to create varying ‘broken’ street perspectives on greenery and façades, without any detriment to orientation and functionality. He made a scale distinction between main roads (North-South) and residential roads with smaller widths (East-West). This resulted in a coherent main structure with local varying picturesque block dimensions, principles taken over from Camillo Sitte and Raymond Unwin, oriented outwards to a yet fully to be defined surrounding fabric. Another Belgian garden suburb typicality was the increase of density towards the centre.  Van Steenbergen did the opposite, accentuating the edges of these blocks with different types of volumes and opening up their cores.

Initially three urban plans were proposed to the Unitas society members. In all cases the outlines of the building blocks were practically the same, only the two main communal elements in the North and South blocks evolved during the process, especially the treatment of the latter. Van Steenbergen had a vision of infusing communal life by ‘socializing’ building blocks. In his first and most social proposal the South part contains a big semi-public courtyard, multi-accessible by three arched vault passages underneath the houses and with backyard paths connecting the different houses. In the second design this public space turned into a rather small communal garden alongside an inserted street, which cut this South part in two. The whole evolved into a rather pedestrian variation of the close concept. In the executed 3rd version the paths and the arched vaults were erased which made the whole idea into a rather classic public street. The reinterpreted close typology can be read more clearly in the North block, where the idea was kept from the first design proposal onwards.
Most likely the architect was asked to make these changes, in favor of more houses, because he recovered the initial idea in a 1929 design proposal for an extension on the East side of the suburb. Two semi-public courtyard spaces were analogically worked out, as a kindergarten and an inner court. The same typology and approach for streets, building blocks and housing volumes was used in this proposal.
In all designs and proposals we recognize the open corners and the 45° rotated double corner houses, inspired by Unwin, and the disconnections of big housing volumes. These elements, together with the changing and shifting of the building lines, manifest not only visual connections and perspectives between the insides and outsides of blocks but rather ambiguous relationships between the public front and the private back parts of the classic building blocks as well.

Different blocks, as a constellation of components, were implemented on communal green close-type spaces. The rather classical building block exposes irregularities in its borders and boundaries and unfolds a gradual flow between private and (semi-)public, between streets, communal spaces and the houses with their back- and front yards.
The whole becomes a model for interaction between the individual and the collective.  Public space was stretched out and the site gave its inner qualities back to the owners by total spatial awareness, visual perspectives and the possibility for intensified human contact.

The architecture

Van Steenbergen referred to one of the main interests of Unwin, i.e. the rational base that lies at the foundation of apparent irregularities. Here the idea was elaborated through plastically fragmenting building block volumes by outbalanced architecture and so bringing the whole gradually to a human scale. The architectural characteristics were to be related to the streets, their widths, the yards, etc.

In three fazes a total of 199 houses was built, consisting of four types with different variations. The built surfaces varied from 36 up to 65 m2. With 33 houses per hectare the density was higher than Unwin’s proscribed 30/hectare. 
We can recognize a romantic-rational architecture displaying different types of materials: bricks, plain-surfaced roughcast, wood, etc. At the ground floor we discover diverse bricklaying with various expressive and plastic motives in the bay windows and around the entrances. On the 3rd floor, the roofing is plastically worked-out by applying two types: the higher parts with gutters are extended out of the façades to the bay window depth, while the lower parts vertically infiltrate the roughcast façades of the 2nd floor. In the ground and roof level, which are divided by a soberly plain-surfaced roughcast 2nd floor, we recognize a distinct influence from the architecture of the Amsterdamse School. The total picture results into horizontally alternating volumes between the upper and lower parts, like a half-brick motive. The windows of the halls deliver vertical accents in the mainly horizontal outlining.

Outbalanced architecture treats the housing blocks as unities of different parts, whereas before architects always had been trying to create a unity by assembling different units.  This urban merit from the Amsterdamse School, as composed earlier in the Spaarndammer-neighborhood example in Amsterdam, proposes a more complex morphological continuity of the urban fabric. Graphic changes and alterations in the building blocks stress the integrated different functions and spaces. Not only the two shops in the Unitas-Garden-Suburb are proof of that, the mixture of functions within a united form is seen in the extension proposal of 1929 as well.


The re-interpretation of the garden city idea was a challenge to be faced by Van Steenbergen. This theory, combined with the architect’s strong identification with the Amsterdamse School, were to be redefined as instruments to accentuate different scale levels in this specific suburban context: the site, the block, the street, the volume, the house, the façade, etc. Especially spatial and formal characteristics were obtained and infused with a local formal heritage, resulting in variable spaces and places.

The mixture of large and small-scale gestures becomes a tool to mould and characterize mass and open space for designing a new social living-modus. Moving from a 19th century scheme, where the public prevailed at the cost of the private, garden city principles stressed the private within a public structure to be organized.  This tension requested a local solution for private form, through architecture, and public space, through urban schemes.

The formal autonomy of the architecture gives unity to the whole and identity to the particular, but poses analogies and affinities to its surroundings as well. The building block as a defined and defining unit of the urban fabric, despite its classical form, is in this case not folding back on itself. For instance, the project’s link to an outside public park triggers and intensifies this external contact.
It is interesting to unfold how these building blocks enable the relationships inside/outside and private/public. In the ultimately chosen design, without an inner court, there is less ambiguity about private and public or front and back, although there are still different layers of intimacy and a high degree of porosity of the building blocks. 

An idea of layout, scale and form was proposed for a suburban area in growth, in order to create a mere rural character within an urban density. It was a symbol of a new collective society by which the inhabitants could identify and develop their own individuality. Van Steenbergen characterizes particularity within uniformity and at that time did set out a standard for suburban living to be followed nearby Antwerp.