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The Iconic Home Designs That Define Our Global Cities

Updated on February 9, 3:04 PM EST

What You Need To Know

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To understand a city, start with the foundation. Floor plans from homes around the world explain how the way we live has shaped the design and architecture of urban neighborhoods — and vice versa.

In Amsterdam, for example, a continuing quirk of local housing — its extremely steep staircases — reflects the city’s long history as a merchant port, in which its older canal houses needed to maximize floor space not just to live in, but also to store goods. In Singapore, the clearest monuments to the government’s paternalistic ethos are the homes people live in — spacious units in publicly built housing projects that are inhabited by all but the very wealthiest Singaporeans. The example of London, meanwhile, shows that local expectations of how a home should be organized can be so ingrained that they survive dramatic changes in architectural style — you’ll find “two-up-two-down” duplexes both in low-rise Victorian terraced housing and in state-built modernist tower blocks.

By The Numbers

  • S$400 billion The 2016 estimated resale value of Singapore's publicly built HBD apartments
  • 43 The percentage of Londoners who currently live in apartments
  • 8 The minimum number of square meters required in a 1904 law for a Parisian "maid's room"

Why It Matters

The stories behind facades and floor plans of homes often reveal the history of a city as a whole. They also expose something that is all too easy to lose touch with when reading about faraway cities: a sense of place.

If we want to explore how the way we live has been shaped by architecture, planning and design — and how these disciplines have been shaped by the people they serve — we can learn a lot by looking closely at the residential units that comprise cities. In most places, particular floor plans recur again and again, helping to give a city its character, and to fashion for each place a distinctively local concept of what a home needs to be.