Book Review: Multi-Unit Housing in Urban Cities, 1800 to Present Day

Given that most cities are comprised of residential areas, it’s surprising how few in-depth case studies exist of residential building types—which, more than ever, are fundamental to sound living. Thus, Katy Chey’s newly completed research project, Multi-Unit Housing in Urban Cities: 1800 to Present Day, is not only refreshing to read but a tremendously valuable tool for city planners, urban designers and architects.

Multi-Unit Housing in Urban Cities: 1800 to Present Day
33-35 Cheapside Street frontages in Birmingham, 1904.

Chey, an architect and lecturer at the Daniels School of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at the University of Toronto, has analysed a wide range of medium- to high-density housing types in cities around the world. Most of the 11 cities studied are north of the 40th parallel, apart from Hong Kong, Beijing and Tokyo. Typologies studied range from detached houses in Tokyo, row-houses in Birmingham, terraces in Hong Kong and denser forms elsewhere. Her in-depth documentation of each typology includes plans and vintage photographs, in most cases presented neutrally, without contextual information.

It is helpful that Chey calls her case study “multi-unit” rather than “multi-family.” The latter is a presumptively loaded term still embedded in zoning legalese and real-estate pitches. From there, she has developed an almost botanical-like classification system of typologies, each with its defining characteristic features. Her encyclopedic findings, rendered in a neutral tone with sections and floor plans, is now available through as an eponymously titled book published by Routledge. It’s an ambitious report that shows how our present-day cities are both helped and hindered by these pre-existing street and block patterns.

Multi-Unit Housing in Urban Cities: 1800 to Present Day
Hong Kong’s crowded housing and vibrant street, 1940.

The original templates for most multi-unit urban housing come from workers’ quarters in the Industrial Revolution. By the 19th century, factory owners needed to rapidly house hundreds or thousands of their workers in small parcels of urban land. In Birmingham, England, they built this kind of back-to-back row housing with long courtyards at right angles to the street. Largely occupied by the wives and children, the space multi-tasked as laundry room and playground, with a narrow passage to the street—practical, fairly safe—but a hazard in case of fire. Overcrowding would later overburden the housing’s livability and limited sanitary facilities, which transformed them into slums and public health hazards, and would eventually lead to their demolition.

Multi-unit buildings in most other industrial cities struggled with the same issues. Mid-19th century London was a nasty, unhealthy and unsafe place to live for the working poor. Philanthropic organizations tried to help: the Peabody Foundation, established in 1862, retained architect Henry Astley Darbishire to design its tenement estates. In the typical Peabody estate, mid-rise buildings formed a U-shape around a common courtyard, used mainly for children’s play, securely fenced and gated from the adjacent street. With supervisors housed at the entrance to each building, these estates suffered less from the rowdiness and poor maintenance that afflicted many other working-class London tenements. But elsewhere in London, as with other cities like New York, overcrowding and its attendant hazards remained a problem in most tenement housing.

From the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, Hong Kong saw the evo lution of the tong lau, or “Chinese house.” As Chey notes, this three-to-five-storey attached housing was built in long, narrow rows with uniform facades and main entrances right off the street. Initially built back-to-back as in the Birmingham example, narrow rear lanes were eventually introduced to foster ventilation and bring in light. Because the units were so small and probably stuffy, residents spent most of their waking hours outside, thus giving rise to the city’s famously vibrant street life. As time passed, verandahs were introduced on upper floors, to provide outdoor leisure space. “In the earlier years of this typology,” reports Chey, “tenants used the space to dry their laundry, keep livestock, and grow vegetables.” Livestock! As tong laus began filling the side streets, their once-large verandahs evolved into recessed balconies. Kitchen windows, indoor toilets and other upgrades were later introduced—a process that took almost a century. And yet the endurance of this building type suggests that it served people’s needs exceptionally well. Its longevity attests to the functional—and visually interesting—practicality of the urban stacked rowhouse of our contemporary era.

Multi-Unit Housing in Urban Cities: 1800 to Present Day
Multi-Unit Housing in Urban Cities: 1800 to Present Day

The present-day Toronto high-rise serves as the only Canadian typology in Chey’s analysis. It would be useful to add an analysis of Vancouver typology to this research. While Toronto’s setback and spacing dimensions are similar, there are two significant differences. First, Toronto has a formal definition of a “tall building”—that is, one that exceeds the width of the right-of-way of the adjoining street. As noted by Chey, the downside is that any building over, say, seven storeys is defined as “tall” and therefore comes under additional—and often cumbersome—design review. Second, the maximum allowable floor-plate size for residential towers is 650 square metres in Vancouver, while in Toronto it is 750 square metres, which contributes to the bulkier appearance of Toronto’s towers.

Why have some historic building types failed while others endured? Often it has been a simple matter of overcrowding and lack of sanitation. Economically, some housing forms had to be replaced by denser building types to accommodate growth. But what can we learn from these examples that could be applied to our own time and place? The multi-unit building type was largely created and evolved to serve workers. Now, in cities like Vancouver and Toronto, too much of the market is aimed at highly affluent residents and investors, so that we have the opposite situation: not enough housing for workers, especially for working families with children. But we could also look to Chey’s research for insights. The multi-core building typology, for instance, has many assets but isn’t seen frequently in our country, primarily due to cost. Perhaps it’s something we should reconsider.

Multi-Unit Housing in Urban Cities: 1800 to Present Day
The paradigmatic condo tower, clockwise from top left: King Charlotte, Theatre Park, Pinnacle Centre, Cinema Tower, Four Seasons Residences, One Bloor, Aura, Nautilus.

In many instances, lower-density forms simply have not been able to meet the crushing demands of industrial urbanization on limited land. That has given way to the current reign of the glass-clad high-rise—but its longevity is also in doubt, as people tire of its monotony and wonder about the life-cycle of the window-wall system. And yet forms like the Berlin/Amsterdam perimeter block seem to have staying power, by being adaptable to changing requirements. Above all, we need to look at all typologies to see how they can address the so-called “missing middle”—the lack of effective housing for working Canadians of average incomes, especially families. For example, back-to-back and stacked townhouses are reappearing in some cities at the lower end of this “missing middle” scale and demographic. We could look to Chey’s research to see what else we might consider applying in Canada. The multi-core building typology, for instance, has many assets but isn’t seen frequently in our country, primarily due to cost. Perhaps it’s something we should consider.

Though the modern multi-unit typology is now essentially two centuries old, there have been pockets of great innovation in more recent times. Chey’s analysis of 20 years of residential architecture in the Netherlands shows just how innovative this small country has been, with Amsterdam’s Eastern Docklands becoming a laboratory for testing imaginative variations of the perimeter block typology.

Blok K/Verdana, 2009, by NL Architects in Amsterdam. Photo: Raoul Kramer
Blok K/Verdana, 2009, by NL Architects in Amsterdam. Photo: Raoul Kramer

Pressed by architects, the Dutch government is determined to develop useful, comfortable and attractive urban housing through legislation and funding. It recognizes that design quality is a worthwhile investment for both the occupants and the environment. And it’s a policy that Canada could well emulate. For that, and much more, we can be grateful for Katy Chey’s ambitious and thorough research on what is sure to remain the de facto housing type of the 21st century.

Frank Ducote, FCIP, is a Vancouver-based urban design consultant and a former senior urban designer with the City of Vancouver and other municipalities.

Multi-Unit Housing in Urban Centres: From 1800 to Present Day, by Katy Chey. Routledge.