In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Apartments

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Antecedents of the Modern Apartment in the United States
  • Philanthropic Housing and Model Tenements
  • Middle- and Upper-Income Apartments in the 19th Century
  • Identity and the Apartment

Architecture Planning and Preservation Apartments
Matthew Gordon Lasner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 January 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0053


The apartment (as housing type) is a set of rooms, including a kitchen, designed as a complete dwelling for occupation by a single household within a larger structure or complex, typically with other similar units. As an architectural type and way of living, the idea dates to ancient Rome. The roots of the apartment as known today, however, lie in the towns of early modern Europe. With the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the great metropolis in the 19th century, the apartment emerged as fundamental component of the urban built environment, mostly, to begin, for the upper middle classes and then, with the introduction of philanthropic and public housing, for workers, often in complexes with innovative courtyard designs emphasizing hygiene, nuclear-family domesticity, and, though community facilities, non-commercial forms of recreation. In the first half of the 20th century both the luxury and the social apartment began to appear beyond western Europe and the United States, including in the USSR, Latin America, and Japan, and under colonial regimes in Asia and Africa. In the second half of the 20th century, the apartment continued to spread. In Europe, the state disincentivized private development and house building, channeling production into apartments, typically grouped in suburban estates. In much of the Global South apartments came to predominate in formal housing (as opposed to informal, often self-built, housing in slums). In rich countries where the state did not discourage private housing, by contrast, including the United States, apartments were reserved mostly for low-income households or, in the private sector, younger and older adults without children at home. In the era of global economic liberalization, the apartment became yet more ubiquitous. In the rapidly urbanizing Global South, the majority of formal housing came to be in apartments. In the Global North, the dispersal of industry allowed city centers to transform into boutique neighborhoods for growing numbers of white-collar workers. All over, acceptance of the apartment led to a proliferation of high-rise forms. This article is largely organized chronologically and geographically, with emphasis on housing cultures, social housing in the Global North, and private housing in the United States. Entries mostly focus on the apartment as a type or as a larger phenomenon. Detailed design studies, surveys of particular architects whose oeuvre includes apartments, and broader place histories that engage the apartment have mostly been excluded.

General Overviews

Few texts survey the apartment, whether across eras, geographies, or social types, and with the exception of encyclopedia entries like Lasner 2018, no single overview of the dwelling type is available. A trio of scholarly articles considered the apartment in North America, where it is less ubiquitous and thus familiar, than in Europe, as a larger phenomenon—with periods of construction and typical physical forms, nationally—in the 1980s: Hancock 1980, Ford 1986, and Weaver 1987. Plunz 2016 (originally published in 1990) followed with a fairly comprehensive survey of housing, mostly apartment buildings, in New York City. Harloe 1995 and Lasner 2012 come closest to true surveys, although the former considers only social rented housing in the United State and Europe and the latter is focused on owned apartments, primarily in the United States. Butler-Bowdon and Pickett 2007 is the only significant national survey of apartment living. Urban 2012 is the best transnational history of one genre of apartment in one era: high-rise mass housing in the second half of the 20th century. Burnett 1986, a broad social history of housing in the United Kingdom, while including other housing types, offers the best overall discussion of the emergence and evolution of the apartment there.

  • Burnett, John. A Social History of Housing, 1815–1985. London: Methuen, 1986.

    Rich and exhaustive cultural, political, economic history of housing in Britain that carefully documents the emergence of model tenements, including public housing, and “mansion houses” (luxury apartments) in the 19th century and their growth in the 20th.

  • Butler-Bowdon, Caroline, and Charles Pickett. Homes in the Sky: Apartment Living in Australia. Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne University Publishing, 2007.

    A model, and beautifully illustrated, overview of the apartment in Australia, which history closely parallels that of the housing type in other rich anglophone countries, including the United States, Canada, and Britain.

  • Ford, Larry R. “Multiunit Housing in the American City.” Geographical Review 76.4 (1986): 390–407.

    DOI: 10.2307/214913

    A cultural geographer’s examination of the apartment and its diffusion across the United States shifts its gaze away from large city centers of the Northeast and Midwest toward suburbia and the Sunbelt, where the majority of apartments in the United States have been built since the 1960s. Includes data and maps on apartment construction after 1960s. Available online by subscription.

  • Hancock, John. “The Apartment House in Urban America.” In Buildings and Society: Essays on the Social Development of the Built Environment. Edited by Anthony D. King, 158–179. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980.

    Established a tripartite periodization of US apartments (1890–1917, 1921–1931, 1960–) and a system for classifying them according to architectural and social type, including palatial apartments for the well to do and “efficiency” apartments for the middle class.

  • Harloe, Michael. The People’s Home? Social Rented Housing in Europe and America. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470712825

    This book documents the emergence and evolution of social housing in the 20th century in Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, and the United States. An essential resource for understanding the design and provision of affordable apartments.

  • Lasner, Matthew Gordon. High Life: Condo Living in the Suburban Century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.

    Comprehensive history of the for-sale apartment, from the 12th century through the 20th, with a focus on the cities in the United States where it first became common in three periods: the Civil War to World War I, the 1920s and 1930s, and World War II to the 1970s. Despite the focus on for-sale apartments, the volume also serves as the only overall survey of the apartment in the United States.

  • Lasner, Matthew Gordon. “Apartment.” In Oxford Art Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

    A long encyclopedia entry surveying the emergence, evolution, and diffusion of the apartment as dwelling type, worldwide, with attention to market rate and social housing across the Global North and Global South from the mid-19th century through the early 21st. Available online by subscription.

  • Plunz, Richard. A History of Housing in New York City. Rev. ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.7312/plun17834

    Originally published in 1990. A richly illustrated chronological exploration of housing, and efforts in housing reform, by an urban designer, from the mid-19th century through the early 21st. In the sections on the 19th and early 20th centuries, coverage is broad. In later chapters, the focus is on apartments, especially social housing. Includes many plans and site plans.

  • Urban, Florian. Tower and Slab: Histories of Global Mass Housing. London: Routledge, 2012.

    Single best overview of high-rise mass housing around the world in the second half of the 20th century with chapters on the origins of mass housing, public-housing towers in Chicago, the grands ensembles around Paris, East and West Berlin, Brasilia, Mumbai, the USSR, and China.

  • Weaver, J. C. “The North-American Apartment Building as a Matter of Business and an Expression of Culture: A Survey and Case Study.” Planning Perspectives 2.1 (1987): 27–52.

    DOI: 10.1080/02665438708725630

    Overview of the business, social, and physical history, and historiography, of the North American apartment building, including discussion of primary sources such as building-trade magazines and journals, and supported by original research into apartments in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Notable also for considering financial imperatives, including cycles of tenancy and vacancy. Available online by subscription.

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