Is this bold underground housing the future for cities?

Written by Dannielle Gutierrez, CNN

When Amsterdam authorities designed the V&A Water Project, a striking subterranean, terraced “masterpiece” of 160 residences, they hoped it would inspire future designers of housing in the Netherlands. But did it work?

We teamed up with architects da Vinci Saretto, a new Amsterdam-based practice focused on housing and urban design, to find out.

A walking tour: A tour of Amsterdam’s high-rise homes

A boat in the city’s canals (where this house stands)

Getting inside the V&A Water Project.

A multilingual “cantilever staircase” leads to the lower echelons of the building, where sea views abound — protected by tall windows, as if almost suspended in air.

Located beneath the recently renovated Haarlemmerstraat, one of Amsterdam’s signature 20th-century riverside roadways, the V&A Water Project marries flat floors with units set on either side of an internal pool. The result: accessible, communal living space — the perfect complement to the public arcades and piazzas of Amsterdam’s waterfront.

Thanks to the subterranean structure, residents have access to sweeping sightlines not only in the city’s canals but also outside through windows and hallways covered in glass.

Hot tubs and a mineral water garden

Curved lines, soaring ceilings and walls studded with golden wood paneling — among other features — make the V&A Water Project a striking and refreshing departure from the norm. But could something like this survive in the Canadian city of Toronto?

“It would absolutely not be feasible to build on an urban setting in Canada,” Gerald von Unger, a design educator at the Art Institute of Toronto , told CNN. “In the case of Amsterdam’s waterfront, nothing is being destroyed.”

“Many buildings in the Netherlands have been built using the use of carved stone. In some cases, iron railings are also being installed, all from the original stone.”

The Golden Hook Mansion and the tower blocks of Toronto’s waterfront. Credit: Courtesy JAMA Network

Von Unger believes some of these unusual features in the V&A Water Project are even best suited to prefabricated units, providing them with functional room scaling and roof-mounted storage. However, these principles should not be necessary in all cases, he notes.

Risking “totally alienating” anyone who doesn’t share the same architectural sensibilities, all these elements have been used in the V&A Water Project without a sense of balance or aesthetics, von Unger says. “In the process, you could disorientate (students) and expect them to decide for themselves if (building homes in a city) makes sense.”

Architect Cornelis de Veldt-Vogt, director of da Vinci Saretto, disagrees.

“We believe that the house of the future will be about light, air, openness, and daylight,” he told CNN. “I like the fact that our projects are different from the normal design philosophy in a city — and that nothing can be understood of what they represent by just looking at the floors or the spaces.”

A lift and a swimming pool

V&A Water Project isn’t the first look at such a terraced building — previous experiments in aerial living, including schemes in Italy and India, involve similar geometries. But von Unger points out that architectural elements — such as craned staircases and unique elevations — often emphasize upper-middle class residences, rather than the mass of unsubsidized housing, the type that cities like Amsterdam and Toronto desperately need.

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