Whereas in most parts of most cities, such dramatically angled blocks would be the main attraction, here in the formerly industrial Simmering district of the city they very much play second fiddle to the four giant structures that stand behind them – four enormous disused gasometers from the 19th century that have been remodelled into housing by star architects including Jean Nouvel and Coop Himmelblau. So dramatic is their presence, in terms of bulk as much as height, that the entire area has become known as Gasometer City.

The five blocks of Villa Verdi sit relatively modestly in front of these behemoths, stepped forward and back with a snaking path winding between them. Effectively they turn their backs on the gasometers, sloping back towards them with relatively blank facades. Their opposite, south-facing facades are the elements that engage with the city and the sky, as they tip backwards as if looking up at it, with projecting balconies providing additional opportunities for residents to enjoy the light.

It is the interaction with light that formed the rationale behind the unusual forms of the blocks, which provide 34 residential units in each block, and share common facilities, including a children’s playroom, a sauna and a common room. With external facilities also linking the blocks, the sense is very much that they should form a new community and not just be another area of anonymous housing.

The buildings themselves are green in every sense. Designed to use sunlight most effectively, they are also set in parkland, and are clad in corrugated steel which is painted – green. The colour, intended to blend in with nature, is one of a range that Hoesch Bau-systeme developed for large industrial buildings, to minimise their visual impact. This is not however just a flat colour, as the finish contains a zinc spangle pattern that provides interest when one is close to it, and makes the effect less monolithic. The colour is stable in sunlight, which is particularly important, since one face of each block has been designed deliberately to maximise UV exposure, and the cladding can be recycled.

The buildings have been designed to Passivhaus standards, with facades that are ventilated from behind to prevent any problems with condensation. The apartments themselves have been designed in a compact manner, with no internal corridors so that usable space is maximised within the footprint. Serviced areas are adjacent to the central access corridor, to provide economy in risers, while living areas are on the edge of the building, with living rooms in particular placed on the south side to take advantage of the long balconies. These are in two different sizes, to add to the articulation of the building.

Where at first one might see a certain wilful extravagance in the sloping faces of these apartment blocks, they are in fact both good neighbours and providers of pleasant homes. The drama of their facades is very different from so many faceless apartment blocks. And the architects are playing a game with their use of a ‘disappearing’ colour for the cladding. While this avoids any danger of stridency, it will certainly not allow the buildings to vanish. This is one set of apartment buildings that cannot be ignored, even when set against their much larger neighbours.

By building

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