Non-profit housing constitutes approximately 20% of the Danish housing stock. Most have been constructed during the last century, with state financial support, and with the clear goal of building good, affordable homes for everyone. Housing became a central concern for the Danish state in creating a welfare society – involving health, citizen participation, family life, and equal access to housing. The goal for the non-profit housing sector has always been to build well, but the resources have changed through time, along with other elements in our society: Political agendas, technological advances, and our different perceptions of a good home. The story of the non-profit housing movement is therefore a story of building to meet the challenges of the times, the changing nature of these challenges, and of a need for new solutions. Including the present day.
Bispehaven in Aarhus, 1976. (Photo by Lars N. Nielsen. Aarhus City Archives)
Concrete cities and Benny's Bathtub
The currently reviled modernistic housing areas were also criticized by popular culture in the past. The concrete cities were used as physical examples of a meaningless and functionalistic sphere that people were forced to live in: The modern, capitalistic welfare state.
To the critics, the concrete monoliths were enemies of nature, culture and of imaginative, playful human beings. The supporters placed emphasis on the aery apartments with modern amenities, such as garbage chute and washing machine. The critics saw social poverty, icy winds between the high-rises, anxiety, gray monotony and large shadows cast by the buildings. The contrasting opinions were clearly present in the animated film Benny's Bathtub from 1971, made by Jannik Hastrup og Flemming Qvist Møller: The story of a boy who lives in Høje Gladsaxe and disappears into an imaginary world, to escape a harsh gray reality where adults don't listen.
Prefab element construction – a response to the challenges of the times
The exodus from country to city, which had been ongoing since the industrialization, created intolerable housing conditions for the cities’ working class at the beginning of the 20th century.
After the Second World War the housing shortage was dangerously high, as construction had stalled during the war. Simultaneously the country experienced a lack of building materials and skilled labor.
Using prefabricated building elements solved these problems, and a statute of 1960 rewarded construction of high-rises with big concrete prefab elements, lifted by cranes. It became possible to solve the housing shortage by constructing huge, modern housing areas for the growing urban working class.
Young couple seeking an apartment in the newly constructed non-profit housing development, Høje Gladsaxe, 1964. (Photo by John Stæhr)
Window peeping in the new apartments in Gellerupparken, 1970. (Photo by Ole Ryolf. Aarhus City Archives)
The concrete cities
The modernistic non-profit housing areas were developed to solve the problems of the time. Today there is a consensus that the cost of these radical solutions was too great. So what do we do now? We can't and don't want to tear down the areas. Partly because of climate considerations, partly because we need the housing for hundreds of thousands citizens nationwide.
So there is no other way but to rethink and reshape the concrete cities of the past; to make them meet the needs and challenges of the present day. How to break the monotony? How to include nature? How to make non-profit housing attractive for the broader population? How to make space - mental and physical - for different generations and family types? Perhaps we should once more be inspired by Benny in Benny´s Bathtub; not to escape from reality into dreams and fantasies, but to bring dreams and new possibilities into our world.
Poster from the housing association Fællesorganisationen. From an information campaign run in 1966, with the goal of making the movement more visible. "It´s good to LIVE well" later became a slogan for the housing sector. (Residents´ newsletter, Beboerbladet Boligen, 1.1967)
Everyday life in the non-profit housing areas
Well-being and feeling safe in modern surroundings
The non-profit housing areas and the individual homes make up the physical environment for the residents´ lives. When they were built, emphasis was placed on a functional layout and higher quality facilities, wanted by the population and viewed by architects as requirements for a productive daily life and safe, happy families.
The housing areas are in different sizes, designs and locations, but they are all the result of architectural ideas of the past, political ambitions and society´s shifting perceptions of ideal housing – inside and outdoors.
”Why go to the city when we have Høje Gladsaxe Shopping Center?”
Many of the new housing areas were located on the periphery of cities, separated from industry and commerce. They were meant to be independent "cities within the city." Shop squares, schools and daycare centers were constructed, and the areas were connected to the infrastructure of the greater city – all to accommodate an easy and comfortable everyday life.
Churches and sports facilities were built, and the new shopping centers also entered the housing areas, offering residents a taste of the growing consumer culture.
Leisure time and community
As working days were shortened, and more time was spent outside the home, leisure time became a focus in housing areas. A framework was to be created around the residents´social life, through informal meeting places and communal and cultural activities. The outdoor environment held football pitches, playgrounds and places for social gatherings. Many diverse local associations and clubs took advantage of the community buildings for their activities; activities you could read about in the residents´ newsletter.
Participation and organization
Residents in the non-profit housing sector have direct influence on the economy and daily operations, both in their own areas and in the housing association as such. This is a unique trait of the Danish affordable housing sector. During the last 75 years resident participation has been formalized and organized several times.
Only a third of the residents are directly involved with the locally organized democracy. But the possibilities for influence are not limited to the formal participation methods. Locally organized resident activities, common maintenance projects and articles in the housing newsletters can also shape everyday life in the neighborhood.