Row houseTerrace
Atelier 5 | Bern, Switzerland | 1961
Image of Halen
Air view from the NW, c. 1965

ArchitectAtelier 5
AddressNW of Bern at Halenbrücke bridge along Bernstrasse
Building TypeRow house
Number of Dwellings81
Date Built1961
Dwelling Typesseveral types of rowhouses and studio combinations
No. Floors3
Section Type3 story rowhouses
Exterior Finish
concrete, plaster, wood windows
Construction Typeconcrete, masonry
Ancillary Servicesparking, pool, club facilities, central heating

Siedlung Halen has become the canonical prototype for low-rise, high density housing in the last half of the 20th century. This community of 81 terraced houses built on a south-facing hillside on the outskirts of the city of Bern incorporates many of the ideas of the modernist program of the 1920’s about community and privacy, garden city notions of a healthy life-style in a suburban setting, and attitudes about materials and standardization.

Halen was designed by a team of 5 young architects-- Edwin Fritz, Rolf Hesterberg, Samuel Gerber, Hans Hostettler, and Alfredo Pini (hence the name A-5). Between 1953 and 55, they worked in the office of the Bernese architect Hans Brechbühler who worked for Le Corbusier in Paris in 1930-31. Gerber studied at the Ecole des Arts et Métiers in Paris and also worked for a brief time in the Le Corbusier atelier. In 1954, the group approached the owner of a large open field on a hillside 3 kilometers from the center of Bern with a proposal to build a large residential community on a site overlooking the Aare River and a rolling wooded landscape on the outskirts of Bern. Niklaus Morgenthaler joined the group during this time and was instrumental in helping to get the project approved, financed, built and sold. Under an unusual arrangement with the developer, the architects were responsible for the sale of the houses.

The legacy of Le Corbusier was an important influence on the design of Halen. The typical 3-story dwelling used at Halen seems to be derived from the citrohan houses of the 1920’s, versions of which were built at Pessac in 1927. Le Corbusier also designed a similar terraced house version of the citrohan type, this time with vaulted roofs, for the Saint--Baume and the Roq and Rob projects in 1948 – 1949. The repetitive, elongated row house type, double-height interiors, and the development of balconies and brise soleil were concepts also being applied in the unité d’habitation, at Marseilles under design at about the same time. The unité can be seen as a high-rise version of a double row of back-to-back citrohan houses arranged along alternating corridors. The unité, is the vertical transformation of a row of citrohan houses and Halen can be seen as the horizontal resection of a unité several slices of which have been laid out on the terraced site. A-5 also credited the long, narrow courtyard houses of medieval Bern as the inspiration for the similar long plots at Halen.

Siedlung Halen is one of three similar terraced housing projects designed by Atelier 5. Halen, finished in 1960 was the first of these and set site and dwelling design principles that were used in the others: Thalmatt 1 built in 1972, contains 28 dwellings and, Thalmatt 2, built on an adjacent site in 1985, has 35 dwellings. All three used variations of three-story terraced row houses that were organized like villages around common open spaces. Other shared characteristics included concrete construction, sod roofs, and walled gardens. In addition to these three, A-5 designed several similar terrace housing projects including Rainpark, 1971, in Brügg, a much smaller development but with a 9 story slab, and Park Hill Village at Croydon in London, a very large community planned for 137 dwellings of which only 21 were built this time in brick instead of concrete.

Halen’s site in a sloping field in a wooded area just a few kilometers Northwest perimeter of Bern overlooks the Aare River below and beyond to the south, the rolling wooded landscape of a large municipal park give rise to comparisons with previous garden city communities. The suburban imagery of a community, ensconced in a picturesque rural landscape, isolated from the city, seems to suggest the ideals of previous utopian socialist cultures. But Halen is also a <cité, a dense burg, built on the outskirts of the city, but one that embraces definite urban qualities and the rejection of nostalgic building precedents. Halen is more bastide than rural village. It has a closed perimeter, buildings are built against one another, the central street is a lane for pedestrians, and there is a central, public piazza, around which are several public facilities, a small store, restaurant, meeting rom, and laundry and boiler room. Access to the site is from the west end where there is underground parking. From this point there is a single narrow walkway running W-E across the site. This forms two parallel rows of long narrow dwellings that are shifted slightly to create a larger landscaped piazza from which steps connect to an upper terrace where there is a swimming pool and playfield and to a lower path to the public road along the bottom of the site. The pedestrian walkway is wide enough for occasional service vehicles giving access to the piazza. The chimney for the power plant also marks this central space.

The dwellings are arranged on three horizontal terraces that stretch across the site. The sections of the individual houses are derived from the natural slope so that they step to the south with balconies, trellises, and small walled gardens. Dominant features of the terracing system are the green roofs on the houses and partially roofed areas, the partially covered entrance courtyard, and the articulated balcony framing those functions as a brise soleil and include moveable awnings. The arbors and partial roofs on the gardens provide privacy from above. The sod roofs are critical to creating the impression of an overgrown, garden, relieving what would otherwise be an unpleasant view of a terraced structure of built-up flat roofs. This is also a very early example of the application of green roof technology and sustainable building systems.

The influence of Roq & Rob can also be seen in the party wall construction of Halen. The parallel bearing walls for each house are made of two 12 cm walls with an 8cm space. between. Concrete block is used in the structural walls but the exterior walls are made of Durisol insulated blocks (made from a mixture of wood fiber and concrete) and partition walls are concrete block plastered where needed. Concrete is used for the foundations, floors, balconies, and roof slabs. A continuous service duct tall enough to walk in connects the rows of houses to the central heating plant. Halen uses a system of co-operative ownership. The house and the land it sets on are individually owned while the, roads, open spaces, swimming pool, sports equipment, laundry, and garage are common property. The term siedlung is commonly used to describe 1920’s European workers communities of economical housing. While Halen has some “siedlung” qualities, --the white walls, flat roofs, and cubic, repetitive, minimalist look—it was never intended for a working class population. Halen has remained a community of largely professional class residents, drawn to the site and the life-style of an exclusive place near Bern. The 3-story houses are huge by public housing standards varying in size from about 1500 to 2000 square feet not including private gardens or shared facilities and it seems that some Halen houses were initially bought as speculative investments.

Most of the houses are a type of 3-story townhouse that has living spaces on the entry level, bedrooms and baths above and the bottom floor is an excavated multi- purpose space that can be used as extra bedrooms or as a family room, studio, or workspace. There is a small partially covered garden at the entrance that is seen from the kitchen and a longer partially covered garden at the bottom level. The bottom floors are connected with a unique 45-degree exterior stair so that the living spaces are connected. Dwellings come in two basic sizes but are used with several different additions to form different units with studios, or other rooms. The dimensions of the Type 12 houses are about 5 x 14 meters while the Type 380 is about 4 x 14meters in size. There are several different variations of each type, however, the most obvious difference is that the narrow Type 12 uses a longitudinal stair while the stair in the Type 380 is in a transverse position. There is a row of studio units along the walk connecting to the plaza and some dwellings have bridges connecting the house to the studio across the garden.

Halen has been widely copied over the past 50 years. Perhaps the most well known example of the transfer of the Halen formula took place in London in the years following the construction of Halen. Under Sydney Cook, who was the Borough architect for London’s Camden County between 1965-73, the model of low-rise, high density was adopted as the standard for new Borough housing to replace the widespread pattern of high rise towers and slabs the dominated English housing in the Post WWII years. Spread by the writings and designs of Neave Brown who was an architect for the Camden County Council, a series of remarkable projects were built in the years between 1965-75 including Fleet Road and Alexandra Road by Brown, Highgate New Town One, by Peter Tabori, and Branch Hill & Maiden Lane Stage 1 by Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth. By the early 1970’s the Halen model had spread to North America as seen in the work sponsored by the York Urban Development Corporation such as the Elm Street project by Werner Seligman in Ithaca New York.

Achleitner, Friedrich, Atelier 5, Birkhauser Verlag, Basel, 2000, pp. 24-28.

Atelier 5, Ammann Verlag, 1986, Zurich. pp. 63-75.

Ballesteros, Javier Pardo, Siedlung de Halen, Historia y Teoria De La Arquitectura Moderna (no date) (

Brown, Neave, “Siedlung Halen and the eclectic predicament”, Architectural Design, Feb. 1962, p. 62.

Scalbert; Irénée “Siedlung Halen: between standards and individuality”; Architectural Research Quarterly, 19 August 2008, pp. 14-25.

Sherwood, Roger, Modern Housing Prototypes, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978, pp. 62-65.

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