Before the beginning of an industrialist phase in the construction of social housing for railway employees during the second half of the 20th century, both by railway companies (especially RENFE) and through cooperatives of railway workers, the construction of housing for railway employees by private companies was not of a general nature and only a few hundred dwellings were built for both employees in strategic positions and those who worked in unpopulated areas or small urban centres with scarce urban development. The lack of housing in the sector was evident and in many cases the railway workers had to wait in precarious constructions or in adapted wagons for housing to become available or for the construction of a new development (Cuéllar Villar, Jiménez Vega and Polo Muriel 2005).

In the big cities, where the problem was apparently less of a problem because there was a greater supply of tenement housing, the lack of housing was also important because prices were very high and the location of the housing was very far from the workplaces, which also led to the existence of substandard housing or accommodation lacking the slightest comfort. As a result, with the impulse given by consumer cooperatives and workers’ associations in general, railway workers’ cooperatives also began to develop, with the aim of building housing for their families.

In any case, this must be understood in a more general context. In Europe, throughout the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century, the idea that the construction of housing for the working classes had to comply with minimum standards of quality and habitability was gradually consolidated, with hygienism on spatial issues being the main concern, which led to an impoverishment of the types. The international congresses on cheap houses that took place between 1889 and 1905 were a mirror in which the 1911 Law on Cheap Houses would end up being seen, a time when, despite the limited action of this regulation, there was already a clear national awareness of the problem. However, the core of the issue continued to be the typology and the materials to be used in these low-cost dwellings. In this respect, we should go back to the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1867, where Émile Muller’s Mulhouse type triumphed, consisting of the construction of four dwellings grouped together on a square plot surrounded by a garden, thus optimising the classic option of the detached single-family house with a private garden.

Our Joaquín Costa was there and understood that, in addition to the need to provide workers with decent housing, it was also a market niche to exploit that could be economically profitable: it is a little-known text, Economic Institutions for Workers: Cheap Rooms for Rent at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1867. For his part, an engineer, José Antonio Rebolledo, suggested as early as 1872 the possibility of using concrete as a structural material for workers’ housing, by means of an austere, undecorated construction on three floors. On the other hand, Mariano Belmás, the architect of the Ciudad Lineal de Arturo Soria, had developed a type of workers’ garden dwelling based on the two-storey row system with its own garden, in which construction savings were achieved using vaulted ceilings so that no dwelling was left without ventilation or natural light. The model was successfully applied in Usera in 1942 (Sambricio (ed.) 2003) (Moya 1943).

The preferred model, then, in the first half of the 20th century was the garden house, since in addition to the ideological connotations, halfway between “Owenian” utopia and “Foucauldian” vigilance, there was no speculative pressure on the land, since in most cases the houses were built near industrial areas and on the outskirts of population centres. In the cities, of course, the problem was different, and there were debates about how to build the city. Thus, the Central Society of Architects (SCA) initially took a leading role in this debate on the construction of working-class neighbourhoods, although based not only on urban planning or typological problems, but also on political, moral, health, social and economic issues. This was still a paternalistic debate, far removed from the solutions provided by Belmás, in which the vertical distribution of buildings according to income was proposed, giving the lower floors to the wealthier classes and the upper floors to the poorest workers’ families.

In this context, railway housing followed similar debates and combined, depending on the railway companies and spatial circumstances, the models of the nineteenth-century mining pavilion, garden houses or row houses, and even, in the 1920s, more hygienic four or five-storey blocks of flats with exterior façades. The inventory of forms and typologies can be followed in the case study of railway towns in Spain, which can be transferred to the rest of the Spanish railway system, see Cuéllar Villar, Jiménez Vega and Polo Muriel (2005), especially chapter III.

Regarding the antecedents of railway cooperativism (Cuéllar and Martínez-Corral, 2018), the garden house model was the common one and we have to go back to the 1920s. In 1923 the Railway Home Society of Cheap Houses “El hogar ferroviario” built a group of 51 single-family dwellings designed by the architect Alonso Martos for the members of the General Association of Spanish Railway Employees and Workers, the large workers’ mutual society that brought together the entire railway sector in our country. There were four types of single-family houses with large gardens, three of which were single-storey and one of which was two-storey. The most modest type had a floor area of 72 m2 and three bedrooms. The other types had four bedrooms and built areas of 88.2 m2, 103.5 m2 or 112 m2 distributed over two floors. A communal house was also designed for administrative, supply and recreational purposes, with 140 m2 living quarters and a 15 m2 courtyard for the administrator and caretaker.

Figure 1. Detail of the entrance, community house building and road of the “Hogar Ferroviario” colony in Moratalaz (Madrid) at present.

Source: photograph by the authors.

Shortly afterwards, located in Tomás Bretón street in Madrid, between 1923 and 1926 the same architect of the colony of the Reformist Cooperative Society, a cooperative of MZA railway workers who corresponded to a medium-high profile of technical and administrative staff, who, without taking advantage of any benefits, applied for a loan from the Spanish mortgage bank, was built between 1923 and 1926. In this case, they are two-storey single-family houses in a row with a continuous façade and a classical composition with symmetry, pediment, cornices or semicircular arches. In other words, the railway housing built in this period is completely alien to the avant-garde proposals described above.

A third case is in Burgos, where the group of cooperative members of the Cooperative of cheap houses “Ferroviaria Burgalesa” built 24 dwellings between 1929 and 1932 in the vicinity of the Burgos railway station, in Juan de Garay street, but not on land belonging to the Norte railway company. These were also two-storey semi-detached single-family dwellings, facing each other across the back courtyards. These single-family housing models, with a close spatial relationship to the workplace, were initially studied in the RENFE offices when the 4,000-housing plan was being designed, although the reality of growing urbanisation and urban redevelopment in large cities would lead to the adoption of high-rise models, such as the linear block with two or three corridors, at first, and which would gradually be adapted to the requirements of the regulations. Thus, two-storey terraced housing would remain only for areas with little urban pressure, in former railway towns or small cities, such as Águilas, Alcázar de San Juan, Algodor, Almorchón, Arroyo-Malpartida, El Escorial, Estación de Espelúy, Estación Linares-Baeza, Las Matas, Manzanares and Vadollano.

CUÉLLAR, D. y MARTÍNEZ-CORRAL, A., 2018. Una casa para nuestros padres: una aproximación a las cooperativas de viviendas en España (1960-1985). IV Congresso Internacional sobre Património Industrial. Cidades e Património Industrial. Aveiro, Portugal: APPI.

CUÉLLAR VILLAR, D., JIMÉNEZ VEGA, M. y POLO MURIEL, F., 2005. Historia de los poblados ferroviarios en España [en línea]. Madrid: Fundación de los Ferrocarriles Españoles y Consejería de Obras Públicas y Transporte.

MOYA, L., 1943. Casas abovedadas en el barrio de usera. Construida por la Direccion General de Arquitectura. Revista Nacional de Arquitectura, no. 14, pp. 52.

SAMBRICIO (ED.), C., 2003. Un siglo de vivienda social : 1903-2003. Tomo I y II. Madrid: Nerea.

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