Cube Houses: An unusual 70s house design in the Netherlands inspired by trees

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Milica Sterjova
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Helmond and Rotterdam, two cities in the Netherlands, are home to some unique and interesting architecture. These structures were named cube houses (Kubuswoningen in Dutch) and are the most famous creation of the Dutch architect Piet Blom. Blom was a representative of the Dutch Structuralist movement and is well-known for his eccentric ideas and designs.

The cubes in Helmond were built first. Helmond City Council hired the architect in 1972 for a project which involved designing residential buildings. Only three houses were initially built in 1974 to serve as an example of how an entire complex would look and function.

The first houses were seen as a success which led to the construction of another 18 houses, all with the same design. These were built around the ‘t Speelhuis Theater which consisted of 34 cubes and opened in 1977. The unusual buildings proved quite controversial, provoking both positive and negative reactions from the public. Unfortunately, there was a big fire in 2011 in which ‘t Speelhuis Theater was destroyed. The surrounding residences were also damaged.

The cube houses in Rotterdam were built a few years later. The local authorities needed an architectural solution for the Oude Haven (Old Harbor) area where the old architecture was destroyed in a bombing during World War II so they approached Blom. The architect undertook the project which apart from the cube houses, included other buildings. The idea was presented to the authorities in 1978, where the initial plan proposed 74 cube houses and a community center.

Cube houses in Helmond. Author: Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed. CC BY-SA 4.0

The whole structure consists of two parts which are easily distinguishable from the outside. The bottom part is a hexagonal base which holds up the top cube-shaped section. The cube is set at a 45-degree angle. Blom’s intention for the design was to represent “a village within a city.” He was inspired by trees and imagined each house as a single tree, the concrete base as a trunk and the cube as the tree’s crown. The whole complex would represent a forest.

Cube houses in Rotterdam. Author: Alberto Garcia. CC BY-SA 2.0

Blom’s creation was doubtlessly quite an unconventional dwelling. The cubes have a timber frame and rockwool insulation which is protected with fiber panels. To give the building a better appearance, the exterior is covered with zinc plates. A staircase leading to the upper section and the storage space is located in the concrete base.

Inside the cube house. Author: Zairon. CC BY-SA 4.0

The cube interior is split into three sections. The bottom part has a living room and a kitchen. Here, because of the cube shape, the windows are look out below the structure. The middle section is where the bedroom and the bathroom are located. The top level has a triangular shape and is usually used as an extra bedroom or in some cases a small roof garden. Although it is fairly small, it has many windows and offers a great view. The total area of each cube house’s interior is about 100m2, but due to the angled walls, some of the space remains unusable.

A view of the interior. Author: Alberto Garcia. CC BY-SA 2.0

The project was a real challenge for Blom because it was supposed to be constructed over one of the major city streets. In the end, only 38 residential cubes and 2 so-called “super-cubes” which are considerably larger, were built. The strange-looking dwellings generated a lot of interest; all 38 of them were sold before they were constructed.

The bedroom. Author: Zairon. CC BY-SA 4.0

In 2009 one of the super-cubes was turned into a hostel, offering people a chance to experience life in the weird dwelling. Some of the guests have found the experience quite strange, even unpleasant, because of the inclined walls which made them uncomfortable. The cube houses have been renovated several times since the 1970s and are in exceptional shape today.

A view of the top floor. Author: Zairon. CC BY-SA 4.0

Because of the houses’ peculiar exterior, curious visitors occasionally invade the area, which caused the inhabitants some annoyance. The solution was the opening of a completely furnished Show Cube Museum, where people could see the cube’s interior. The museum offers information about the history of the buildings and their creator as well as the challenges residents face in everyday life, like acquiring furniture or decorating interiors without straight walls. Dutch cube houses were an inspiration for a similar project in Toronto, Canada, although it wasn’t a success and only three cube houses were built.