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Michelle McQuiston, review of Steiber, Housing Design and Society in Amsterdam

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Nancy Stieber, Housing Design and Society in Amsterdam: Reconfiguring Urban Order and Identity, 1900-1920 (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998).




Early-twentieth-century housing reform in Amsterdam was both an emancipatory project and a norm-setting project. In her examination of the origins and effects of the Netherlands’ Housing Act of 1902, Nancy Stieber places urban planning and housing design in the context of a developing social welfare state.  Through the administrative framework and funding created by the legislation, reformers endeavored to provide what they saw as a basic right for all, quality housing, thus freeing the working and middle classes from the constraints of a laissez fare capitalist system that forced them (by way of lack of alternatives) into largely sub-standard, yet expensive housing.  They also created a new means by which the state — through housing societies that approved floor plans and facades, managed residential developments, and screened housing applicants — encouraged city dwellers to adopt particular norms into daily life.

Government intervention into the housing market gained the widespread public support that made it possible, writes Stieber, because the shortage and low quality of  housing at the turn of the century were so dire as to affect not just the truly poor, but also the working and even middle classes. Dutch society was characterized by ideological diversity, Stieber argues, ranging from conservative religious groups, who supported the supremacy of church, rather than a particular political-economic system; to liberal/progressives, who wanted to mitigate the worst effects of capitalism (in this case, the housing crisis) while maintaining the existing social hierarchy; to socialists, who envisioned state-sponsored housing as a first step toward an eventual utopian revolution.  Many groups in Dutch society supported some form of government intervention in the housing market as a means to their very different ends; the idea itself became both a tool of socialism and a defense against it. Expansion of the suffrage to include Catholics and much of the working class between 1868 and 1919 created more voters with an economic motivation — namely, the need for affordable, tolerable housing for themselves and their families — to support state involvement.  The widespread need for better housing, the expanding electorate, and the ideological flexibility of housing as social policy allowed the coalescence of enough of Dutch society behind government intervention to create the resulting Housing Act.

The administrative framework created by the Housing Act in turn set aside what Stieber calls a “middle zone” between the individual and the state in which there was enough room for the continued ideological maneuvering of various groups to maintain widespread support as reforms were implemented.  Operating in this “middle zone” were housing societies formed by various organizations, including religious groups and labor unions, of various political persuasions, operating at the municipal level.  The legislation empowered housing societies to set construction standards, but they also planned the developments, including review of floor plans and setting of rules governing resident behavior, of housing projects in the cities in which they operated. 

That public housing served the public good remained widely agreed upon; exactly what constituted the public good, and the extent of the state’s role in fulfilling it, remained contested.  Stieber’s study examines floor plans and façade design as two arenas in which housing reformers worked out their contrasting visions for the public good.  Views about housing, specifically how to set minimum standards and how to design floor plans to encourage certain behaviors, represented the actors’ ideologies about social hierarchy.  For example, progressive, liberal reformers wanted workers to replicate middle class habits related to hygience and efficiency, but opposed workers’ attempts to emulate middle-class expressions of status, such as setting aside space in the home for a rarely used parlor or the display of decorative items.  The progressive project was to promote as a standard of  “civilized living” within the home and maintain “urban order” throughout the city as a whole.  Better housing, it was thought, would encourage better behavior among residents, which would in turn ensure the maintain of better homes.  Socialists, on the other hand, could get behind a certain amount behavior modification, but they saw it as a way to create an educated, empowered working class.

The norms that housing reformers sought to enforce were rooted in the moralistic traditions of earlier philanthropic movements, argues Stieber.  The Housing Act, though, took housing reform out of the realm of philanthropy, and, as that transformation necessitated the creation of professionals to staff the new administrative framework, Stieber writes, reformers’ norm-setting agendas took on the mantle of rationality.  The changes reformers encouraged were better than existing working class behaviors because they were more rational, the new professionals argued.  Thus, many of the strategies working-class families had developed to deal with inadequate housing were positioned as irrational in contrast. 

Reformers were most concerned about livestock in apartments, overcrowding, the mixing of sexes, and the separation of functions within the home.  They were opposed to the use of the home for sweated labor, but also to areas within the home being used for what reformers considered incompatible processes of daily living.  Stieber’s best work is in Chapter 5, where she describes housing society efforts to develop the ideal floor plan for working-class housing units.  She uses concrete examples of the arguments amongst reformers to demonstrate her position that ideologies about social order shaped individual reformers’ efforts and to show how those ideologies butted up against one another in very real ways.  Take, for example, her discussion of the “parlor debate.”  Socialists tended to be more supportive of workers’ desire for a room in the home that could be set aside for occasional use, to entertain visitors and to display treasured items.  Progressive reformers opposed working-class parlors because, they feared that setting aside a space for occasional use in a limited floor would encourage the family to engage in multiple, perhaps incompatible, uses of the remaining space.  It might, for example, lead to some family members sleeping in the kitchen.  And, this was a clear case, to reformers, of the workers’ embrace of bourgeois taste rather than values.  Some reformers wanted to design kitchens small enough that they could only accommodate cooking and washing, accompanied by living rooms for eating and living; others worried that the separate room would be used as a parlor.

Stieber turns in the last two chapters of her book to the design of facades for housing projects.  While interiors had become the domain of professional public health and social workers as a result of housing reform, facades were subject to the separate expertise of architects.  Reformers’ and architects’ goals with regard to facades had more to do with expression of identity, Stieber writes, than with the social engineering of daily life.  Architects from the emerging Amsterdam School set about trying to create a collective identity for the city without creating undifferentiated rows of housing units.  These chapters lack some of the meat of the earlier portion of the book in terms of concretely linking ideologies to outcomes and explicating the processes in between. 

The reader does not leave this book with much understanding of the role of private businesses in the construction industry or of employers.  Overall, however, there is little to criticize in Stieber’s work.  It is clearly written and deftly organized, with a strong introduction and conclusion, as well as nicely composed transitions between chapters.  She relies on a vast and varied array of sources, from articles in contemporary professional journals, to conference proceedings, to legislative documents.


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