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Home and dry: a mix of uses is replacing the industrial area round the river port of Duisburg. This housing development is inspired by the waterside cities of northern Europe.

Duisburg was once the biggest inland port in Europe. Its inner harbour was carefully carved out of the banks of the Rhine and lined with warehouses and mills. Like all nineteenth-century ports, Duisburg has collapsed economically and its trade was taken over by lorries and road transport. Kuppersmuhle--the last big industrial building--closed in the '90s, it was revived by Herzog and de Meuron as an art museum (AR June 1999). The city has robustly decided to transform its industrial heart to become a complex interweave of domestic, commercial and leisure functions. A competition was held for Emscher Park, a derelict industrial area, which was organized by Internationales Bauausstellung. Foster and Partners won with a masterplan that has been interpreted by that practice and others.

In their housing scheme, Ingenhoven Overdiek & Partner decided to reinterpret the morphology of the area between the city centre and the harbour basin. They have created roughly parallel blocks flanked by shallow canals that are actually slightly above harbour level. These take all rainwater from the development, and are planted with reeds that help purify the water as it gently flows down towards the great river.

Despite their very regular elevations, the blocks contain a wide variety of accommodation, ranging from studio units to three-bedroom family flats. All face east-west with deep loggias on their west sides and small balconies on the east. Construction is of finely finished precast concrete panels, with the recessed top storeys having steel structure and cedar cladding. Internal partitions have been varied, allowing, for instance, kitchens to open off living areas, or to be separate spaces. The architects wanted to make the rooms 'neutral' so that they can be used for many different purposes.

This sounds like a recipe for anomie. In fact, it is not. The parti locks into the existing city with a small square to the south and a generous well-planted inner court. The canals are a real gain for the whole city, with their tree-lined pedestrian paths leading down to the river. So on both sides, the flats look out over trees and each dwelling has a view of the canals. Cars are carefully controlled: under each block is an underground garage, which in section raises the entrance level a metre above path level, so the lowest floor has privacy, and the garages are ventilated.

Vertical circulation stacks divide the terraces. They serve two flats on each floor with glass lifts and really excellently made stairs that have cast stone treads cantilevered from central stringers.

Each heavy, well insulated front door has a welcoming wooden seat in the internal porch. Joinery is immaculate and the concrete is either acid-etched or polished.

It is this fineness, the quality of obvious decency that makes the scheme a quiet, undemonstrative example of how a city can re-embrace its waterside nature, and evoke the elegant aquatic northern European urban tradition that inspires us all from Amsterdam to Stockholm.


Ingenhoven Overdiek & Partner, Dusseldorf

Project team

Christoph Ingenhoven, Rudolf Jones, Barbara Bruder, Frank Reineke, Richard Galinski, Axel Moller


H. G. Esch, Hennef
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Article Details
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Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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