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

Milica Sterjova
The Cube Houses in Rotterdam, The Netherlands viewed from Blaak Subway Station. By Raul Ayres – CC BY-SA 3.0

Of all the modern architectural wonders in the world, Rotterdam’s striking Cube Houses, or Kubuswoningen in Dutch, stand in a league of their own.

Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, is well known for its unique and interesting architecture. In the historic Oude Haven (Old Port) area, one particularly unusual group of dwellings has been a draw for curious visitors since the late 1970s.

The bizarre homes are a creation of Dutch architect Piet Blom, a representative of the Dutch Structuralist movement and well-known for his eccentric ideas and designs.

Each structure consists of two parts which are easily distinguishable from the outside. The top cube-shaped section, which is set at a 45-degree angle, is perched atop a hexagonal pillar base.

Blom was inspired by trees and imagined each house as a single tree: its concrete base as the trunk, and the cube tipped crazily onto a corner as the tree’s crown. The whole complex would represent a forest.

His design, titled “Living as an Urban Roof”, was envisioned to maximize available living space and to connect the community that lived there.

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

Blom’s first experiment with cube homes was in the city of Helmond. The City Council hired the architect in 1972 for a project which involved designing residential buildings.

Three prototype houses were 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 and so another 18 houses, all with the same design, were constructed in 1977. These cubes were built around the Speelhuis Theater.

The unusual buildings proved quite controversial, provoking both positive and negative reactions from the public.

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

Unfortunately, there was a big fire in 2011 in which Speelhuis Theater was destroyed. The surrounding residences were also damaged.

The Cube Houses in Rotterdam were built a few years later. Local authorities needed an architectural solution to revive the Oude Haven area, where much of the older architecture had been destroyed by bombing during World War II.

Blom undertook the project, which included other buildings apart from the cube houses.

The initial plan for 74 proposed cube houses and a community center was presented to the authorities in 1978. Blom’s intention for the design was to represent “a village within a city.”

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

His creation is doubtlessly quite an unconventional dwelling. The cubes are timber framed and insulated with rockwool.

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.

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 look out downwards from the structure. The middle section is where the bedroom and the bathroom are located.

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

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 interior is about 1,100 sq. ft. (100 sq. m.), but due to the angled walls, some of the space remains unusable.

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 two considerably larger “super-cubes” 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 guests have found the experience quite strange, even unpleasant, because of the unusual inclined walls. The Cube Houses have been renovated several times since the 1970s and are in exceptional shape today.

Because of the houses’ peculiar exterior, curious visitors came to look them over from the first day they opened, causing the inhabitants some annoyance. The solution was the opening of a completely furnished Show Cube Museum, where people could experience a cube from the inside.

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

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 conventional upright walls.

Dutch Cube Houses were an inspiration for architects Ben Kutner and Jeff Brown to embark on a similar project in Toronto, Canada.

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