The Open Block-House

Project of a residential city block

URBAN PLATFORMS            #Urban Housing   #Ground floor activation   #Permeable block


The block seems to be the more powerful solution to work with, in order to preserve the continuity of the urban landscape and to maintain an idea of domesticity. The block, with its internal courtyard, offers also the occasion to work with a complex idea of two spheres of influence working together: the private one for the dwellings and the more public one that can be accommodated in the courtyard.
The challenge of the project is to envision a new block, able to act as a central and recognizable key presence for the entire neighborhood and to maintain, at the same time, an high level of comfort for the inhabitants: a new place to live in where residential units and collective spaces coexist in a new urban experiment between collectivity and private life. The aim is to preserve the amount of residential spaces actually located in the existing building and to improve the area for collective activities at the same time.

Site Report

The existing block to be replaced is a continuous pitched roof 3 storey building. The series of attached units realising the entire city block follow the irregular shape of the site. In three points a gap appears letting the internal courtyard be visible along the streets.
The entire city block is not straight and regular but clearly appearing as a aggregation of different similar units aligned along the edges of the plot. The facades move inward and outward along the walkway. A series of entrances appear at a regular pace along the streets. Small doors opening directly at the level of the streets leads to dark atriums and stairs. The private internal courtyard is completely covered by a large amount of allotments used in different ways by the inhabitants. A vibrant domestic atmosphere is realised.


Designing a new block is an opportunity to maintain the typical atmosphere of the neighbourhood. Realising a new dense and permeable block is a chance to evolve it into a new hybrid condition, devoted both to residential and public facilities. The main goal is to redefine collectivity and private life in a experimental new idea of block, in order to provide density and obtain intensity in urban life at the same time.
The domesticity of the existing building, appearing from the series of small entrances and from the extraordinary allotments present in the courtyard, defines a specific characteristic of the site that the new building tries to obtain through the atmosphere of the internal courtyard and the different collective spaces opened along the corridors leading to the different apartments. A new balance between domesticity and collective life is searched in the belief that it can be found enhancing both.

Design Strategy

1. The definition of the block

The existing building to be replaced defines a continuous block along the streets following the trapezoidal irregular shape of the plot. In order to highlight the presence of the new block in the neighborhood, it acquires a regular, recognisable, rectangular shape. To fit in in the trapezoidal plot the new block is narrow and broken: a wide view is opened towards the internal courtyard. Furthermore, on the south-west side of the site a new square is left to the city. Together with the opened courtyard it accommodates services to increase the range of public activities.

2. The articulation of the block

The challenge to work on density as an issue offers the occasion to define it following the opportunities emerging from the site itself. Keeping the common dimensions of the blocks around is possible even obtaining more: the same amount of dwellings together with a new series of public facilities. This with some simple actions around the volume of the building: pitching the roof towards the internal courtyard, inclining the line of the eaves according to the closer buildings, lowering down a bit the level of internal courtyard and of the ground floor of the building according to it, creating some slight ramps to get the level of the courtyard gently from the city.

The general framework

The existing building on the site is a continuous sequence of similar modules with a basement: two main residential levels and one more floor emerging in the roof. The new Block provides three storeys above the basement: it acquires one storey more, to set the height similar to the surrounding residential collective buildings.

In order to maintain the idea of compactness, each side of the new Block has a single pitch roof that fortifies the idea of the courtyard as part of it. The higher mono pitched roof allows an improvement of height in the internal facades preserving the smaller proportion outside.

In this way, the local scale is preserved from the outside but, at the same time, a more impressive urban scale is produced inside with a more relevant height of the fronts. A complete new atmosphere is realised: a vivid new urban life can be produced in the courtyard.

The facades themselves reflect this issue: outside a thick wall realises a continuous heavy shelter of the block, while the internal fronts are translucent and opened, giving a more light atmosphere.

The ground floor

The existing residential block offers a sequence of entrances to the stairs directly from the streets around. Along the external continuous fronts the series of doors highlights the domesticity of the entrances. Besides, the courtyard is a little bit lower than the level of the streets and the basement has a direct relation with it through windows and stairs.

The new block develops those conditions: the basement emerges from the ground and through a light depression of the new courtyard it acquires a direct connection with it. Thus it assumes a strong relevance as the place for collective activities and public facilities.

The emerging basement becomes a sort of lively edge between the city and the vivid public atmosphere inside the courtyard. It accommodates many accesses to the new block: interruptions and voids create multiple passages both to the residential units and the collective facilities. Furthermore, it accommodates ramps, stairs, patios to solve the passages and to enrich the experience of it. It behaves like an opened fold, where the signs of what is happening inside are lightly appearing.

Living in the nature

The allotments accommodated in the courtyard of the existing building show extraordinary conditions: full of trees and vegetation, the inhabitants use them as places to develop their own personal interests – from cultivation and gardening to Do It Yourself activities, meeting or watching television directly immersed in a lively nature.

This aspect is considered crucial in designing the new block, in order to enhance the quality of life of the inhabitants.

At first, the project provides a continuous trees plantation covering the whole site. That strong presence of green is brought also into the building: a serie of voids opens collective spaces in the building where the inhabitants can collect and sharing vegetation. The internal facade is also equipped with an expanded metal mesh that allows the vegetation to grow on from the apartments.

Secondly, in order to preserve the freedom of developing the wide variety of personal interests the inhabitants may have, the block accepts a series of new volumes, as small suspended boxes, attached to the internal facades. They work as ‘special’ rooms: directly addicted to the living rooms, they offer extra space for personal uses.

The same boxes are placed in the courtyard where they accommodate the facilities and collective activities opened to the neighborhood.

Final Layout

The Block is divided in several modules, each one with its own vertical connection. In the east and west sides are grouped the Privately Financed and Subsidized dwellings; in the north and south sides are accommodated the Owner-occupied ones. Each vertical connection, stairs and elevator, brings to two apartments, sometimes passing through collective loggias. The south side of the Block is the only one changing the collective distribution: the Owner occupied dwellings here, mainly duplex apartments, are reached with a common corridor linked to two vertical connections at the sides.

The typology of apartments for Subsidized, Privately financed and Owner-occupied dwellings

Each apartment occupies an entire section of the block: the rooms for daily life, kitchen and living room, are oriented to the public courtyard and have always two big openings – balcony, loggia or terrace and a vertical window; on the other hand, the bedrooms are collected toward the external fronts and have big squared windows or loggias. The openings on both sides of the building allow cross ventilation.

The north side of the building benefits of the south orientation for the kitchens and living rooms; the thickness of the building is increased to accommodate a continuous loggia towards the street, in correspondence to the bedrooms, to improve the quality of the internal space and to add a buffer zone to the building.

The dwellings in the south side of the building are differently organized: they are longitudinally oriented fitting the reduced width of this side of the block. All the rooms here face both the courtyard and the street in the back. The common corridor, physically hanged on the internal facade of the building brings to the entrances of the apartments. They are mainly duplex with the kitchen and the living room at the entrance level while the bedrooms are located at the other level. Towards south they acquire a continuous loggia on which all the windows are opened, even in the duplex apartments where the loggias are double height.

The simplicity the external fronts are juxtaposed to the internal urban variety. On one hand the thick wall covering outside the volume accepts large windows for the apartments rooms. They are grouped in slightly irregular way, moving around a center of attraction, maintaining a sort of “vibrant” simplicity. At the opposite, the series of boxes hanged on the internal facades looking down to the courtyard offers a richer urban landscape.

Plan of the ground floor
Plan of the first floor
Plan of the second floor
Plan of the third floor
Plan of the fourth floor
Plan of the fifth floor
Longitudinal section
Transversal section
East front
South front
West front
North front
Plan of the ground floor Plan of the first floor Plan of the second floor Plan of the third floor Plan of the fourth floor Plan of the fifth floor Longitudinal section Transversal section East front South front West front North front

The dwellings are organised starting from the basic module of the structure. The improvement of the dimension is realised by the juxtaposition of more modules. The single starting module is set around the kitchen and the bathroom, providing the dwellings of a central technical and social heart of the house. The quality of this area is improved by the presence of a specific open area in front of the kitchen: each apartment has its own balcony or loggia directly connected with the kitchen that reinforces its key presence in the life of the house. The modules added provide the entrance and the living room towards the courtyard and the bedrooms in the back.

In this framework some local differences are introduced: a series of suspended boxes is hanged on the internal facade to add more surface. They are used in the Subsidized dwellings to manage all the different dwelling size required by the Bavarian funding regulations (number of occupants vs surface vs typology). Those dwellings are placed in the east and west sides of the block together with the Privately Financed one. The two, Subsidized and Privately Financed, assume the same organisation and layout specificities. At the opposite, the Owner-occupied dwellings placed in the north and south side of the block, do not have such required surface specifications and so they use the suspended boxes only to enhance the quality of the interior space.


Category: Project
Field: Building Design
Item: Project of a city block

Date: 2013.06
Typology: International Competition
Promoter: Europan 12 – Germany

Team: Arch. Andrea De Matteis
Consultants: Arch. Carolina Medici, Arch. Veronica Mirachi, Alexander Thomas, Johann Wundrich
Collaborators: Arch. Roberta Rinaldi, Eugenio Laponte

Project of a residential city block for different type of dwellings with an open courtyard and public activities at the ground floor.

Site surface: 7.150 sqm
Covered area: 2.040 sqm
Gross floor area: 7.200 sqm
Number of units: 83
Privately financed dwellings: 31 units
Subsidized dwellings: 30 units
Owner-occupied dwellings: 22 units

Andrea De Matteis ARCHITECTURE AND URBANISM | P.IVA 01398210334 | Corso Buenos Aires 23, 20124 Milano | +39 02 36597013 | studio@andreadematteis.it | © Andrea De Matteis 2019 | Privacy Policy