News
10.13.2011
Comment> Theodore Prudon
Docomomo's Theodore Prudon goes to Roosevelt Island as part of National Tour Day where the lessons in quality housing are more resonant than ever.
View from the Aerial Tramway of Roosevelt Island today with the new residential development in the foreground and the original 1970s complex in the rear.
Greg Goodman

Public opinion of modern architecture has come a long way from the days of lambasting Boston City Hall and scapegoating architecture in the demise of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis. With its demolition in 1972 Charles Jencks, almost triumphantly, declared modern architecture dead. Today with our nostalgia for the first half of the twentieth century and all things Mad Men, PanAm, and such, we can say that this is far from the case. It is actually ironic that while PanAm is revived as a show, its terminal at JFK, now used by Delta, is scheduled to be demolished.

Over the last five years Docomomo US (the acronym of the US Chapter of Documentation and Conservation of Buildings Sites and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement) has been organizing a national Tour Day. The format of a tour was selected because it is a good way to introduce people to what modern architecture actually looks and feels like and, after all, we are all mighty curious about places we are otherwise not able to visit. Focused around the second weekend in October, tours are conducted of modern buildings and neighborhoods across the country. This year is no exception. Participating in the event include Docomomo’s thirteen regional chapters as well as local organizations with similar interests such as Houston Mod, Historic Albany Foundation, Palm Springs Modern, Phoenix Modern, and the Chicago Architectural Foundation, to name a few. This year we are also collaborating with the National Trust for Historic Preservation for special events at the Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan and with the Society for Architectural Historians (SAH) and its regional chapters. With 34 tours in 29 cities in 21 states, Tour Day is the nation’s largest annual architecture event.

Tour Day gathers a wide variety of people and organizations with similar missions and interests but who normally do not work together or do not even know about each other. Across the country tours vary widely in focus or building typology. Many of them are focused on single-family residences, one of the significant building types to emerge after the war. On one such tour in Rhode Island, we will be visiting homes designed by Ira Rakatansky, an early graduate of the GSD. The presence of the original architect on the tour will add an extra and interesting dimension to the visits. Similarly tours in Palm Springs, California, Maine, and New Orleans will give an opportunity to visit houses and buildings not normally open to the general public.

Aerial view of Roosevelt Island.
Courtesy Docomomo
 

The New York regional area has always been an integral part of this event and the regional chapter Docomomo US/NY TriState is hosting a tour of Roosevelt Island. The island, unknown to many New Yorkers except for its unique aerial tramway completed in 1976, is actually an interesting example of modern architecture in both its planning and for many of its 1970s buildings.

The history of Roosevelt Island and its development is of note in both a social and an architectural sense, with discussions around its use that are sometimes reminiscent of those today around Governors Island. It is remarkable that an island that started off with the less than auspicious name of Varcken Island (varcken is the 17th Century Dutch word for hog), then Blackwell Island after the family’s farm, and Welfare Island given in 1921, finally emerges in the 21st century some 400 years later once again with a Dutch name, Roosevelt Island. In between, institutions such as hospitals for infections diseases, prisons, and facilities for the poor were banned from the city proper (in medieval times outside the walls), and the island became that location for New York.

In the late 1960s, Mayor John Lindsay appointed a committee to plan for the island, and in turn the committee recommended that it become a residential community. New York State’s Urban Development Corporation (UDC) began a 99-year lease in 1969 and Philip Johnson and his partner John Burgee created a plan that called for 5,000-apartment units housing some 20,000 people. The plan identified two major residential areas, Northtown and Southtown, with much of the 1970s development located in Northtown. The island was re-christened Roosevelt Island in 1973, at the same time that Louis Kahn was commissioned to design the FDR memorial, now called the Four Freedoms Memorial and currently under construction.

 
Contemporary view of Main Street and Westview apartments designed by Sert, Jackson and Associates (left) and view of Main Street with the restored Chapel of the Good Shepherd originally designed by Frederick Clark Withers (right).
Katherine Malishewsky
 

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a commitment to interesting and affordable, quality housing still existed on a public level. In particular the Roosevelt Island project was one of two that benefited from a HUD program titled New Town-In Town, a provision in the Housing and Development Act. That particular program sought to stimulate large-scale multi-use development projects adjacent to, or in, existing cities. Cedar Riverside in Minneapolis designed by Ralph Rapson is another example of this program and well known as the fictitious home of Mary Tyler Moore in her eponymous show. As the title of the federal program New Town-In Town suggests, Roosevelt Island and its main artery called Main Street, is very reminiscent of the new towns in Britain executed under the various iterations of the Town and Country Planning Acts. This is also reflected in its original social goals of mixed income housing.

The list of architects connected with the project reads in many ways like a history of modern architecture in itself. The island almost becomes an architectural museum not only with its surviving examples from early farming and hospital days but also with these modern buildings. The first phase of the original plan to be built was Northtown and included four buildings: Westview and Eastwood as well as Island House and Rivercross, respectively the work of Jose Lluís Sert, Jackson & Associates, and Johansen & Bhavnani. Motorgate, the parking garage built adjacent to the bridge to Queens was the work of Kallmann McKinnell.

Architects and designers attached to what ultimately happened on Roosevelt Island include Johnson and Burgee; John Johansen (of the New Canaan Five) and his partner Ashok Bhavnani; Jose Lluís Sert (of CIAM, Harvard and Peabody Terrace), Kallmann McKinnell (of Boston City Hall fame); landscape architects like Dan Kiley (of Lincoln Center), Zion & Breen (of Paley Park), and Lawrence Halprin (of the now demolished Skyline Park in Denver). Rem Koolhaas submitted an entry for one of the competitions as shown in his book Delirious New York but was not selected. The FDR memorial as designed by Louis Kahn in 1974 will be the most recent addition and certainly adds to the idea of a collection of modernist architecture.

The significance of the architecture is not limited to modern buildings. The 1888 Chapel of the Good Shepherd, was originally designed by Frederick Clark Withers and described as “the most beautiful church in the city for its most neglected class of humanity.” Its restoration in 1975 was the work of Giorgio Cavaglieri, an early restoration architect known for his innovative adaptive use of the Jefferson Market Courthouse into a New York Public Library.

The island is changing again not only in the number of residential buildings but also in terms of moving away from the ideals that were once the underlying philosophy for its design. One of the factors to which the flight to the suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s was attributed was the lack of quality and affordable housing. The result was not only the Roosevelt Island plan but also many other architecturally significant buildings throughout New York. Today’s residential construction is mostly market rate and in condominium ownership.

Times have changed and, to contradict Charles Jencks, modern architecture is far from dead. In fact, interest in the period is growing and maybe, for once, we can learn from our mistakes and build better housing that is affordable but also architecturally innovative.

The Docomomo US/NYTriState tour will feature the participation of architects Theodore Liebman, once an architect working for UDC; and Bhavnani, who with his partner Johansen was responsible for the design of some of the residential buildings, among others. The result will be an inside view of the past and a tour of the present. For information on the Roosevelt Island tour or for a complete and up-to-date listing of other tours during the Docomomo US Tour Day, please visit www.docomomo-us.org.

Theodore H. M. Prudon

Architect Theodore H. M. Prudon is the president of Docomomo US and a board member of Docomomo International.