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03.21.2014
Review> Form Follows Politics
Sean Khorsandi on the book, Modern American Housing: High-Rise, Reuse, Infill.
Courtesy New City Books

Modern American Housing: High-Rise, Reuse, Infill
Edited by Peggy Tully
New City Books, $30

Most architects pursue their profession out of a desire to alter the built landscape—a need to have their ideas formalized in glass, steel, wood, and stone. What many (honest) practitioners will admit is that the most effective means of altering the built environment is by engaging in politics.

Modern American Housing: High-Rise, Reuse, Infill, the latest installment of the New City Books Series, focuses on the role of a research university in facilitating collaborations with architects and planners for public and private responses in redefining “weak-market cities.” Whether the New York projects referenced—in desirable neighborhoods like TriBeCa, SoHo, the Meat Packing District, NoLiTa, and Clinton, with A-list designers—reflect this mission is up to the reader, but the collection of projects is genuinely inspiring.

The volume is organized around the three housing types of High-Rise, Reuse, and Infill. A practitioner introduces each chapter by discussing their own work and struggles in creation as it pertains to their housing theme. Most read independently and could stand alone, but there are moments where authors break character, as in “Urban Architecture” when Stanley Saitowitz crosses the fourth wall and enumerates the “questions for the studio”—the included student design rendering is the only of its ilk in the book and feels perfunctory. While the book appears at times non-committal about being a school-affiliated publication, the few moments when it admits to it suggest a sister volume with projects by students might create a keen foil. An essay by Jonathan Massey offers a clear summation of the American mortgage situation—not just how our country got to the crash of 2008, but how the government encouraged the borrowing practice in the first place.

 
 

The populous was systematically reprogrammed for homeownership and the modern conveniences it represented, all packaged within a familiar envelope. Familiar being key—Massey explains that the FHA cautioned underwriters against modernist designs for fear of “extra risk in resale and valuation because of potential ‘nonconformity.’” The government set the traditional-looking, single-family home as the pinnacle of citizenship and family life. What was once a dream that we waited and worked for has become one we borrow for, particularly as we evolved from an agrarian base to a corporate/industrial one. In essence, our housing simply followed the model of so many of our other goods of consumption. Worse yet, one can read between the lines and realize that the FHA underwriting policies in fact encouraged leapfrog development and sprawl. Fast forward to modern times and the financial picture is spread globally with internationally-backed mortgages, which recognize financial obsolescence amid physical function, leaving owners to just build more, build bigger, or retreat back to the cities.

 

 

A novel idea, and perfect segue to a transcribed conversation between Greg Pasquarelli, Vishaan Chakrabarti, Douglas Gauthier, and Philip Nobel. Their discussion about this “American Way” posits that the structure of our democratic representation is awry. The Blue States with density warrant more public infrastructure to support that population yet, their resources are drained by the land-rich Red States, which absorb the federal tax subsidies via voting power that is disproportionate to their populations. They go on to talk about how this imbalance plays out with recent ramifications in Purple States like Florida. In a word: Amen.

The remaining chapter essays, by Andrew Bernheimer and Julie Eizenberg respectively, give down-to-earth readings of their work. Their invisible hand, pulling back the curtain on some of the zoning and policy issues, breathes reality into the portfolio sections that accompany it, and happily present a parade of interesting projects with a short synopsis that makes them appear carefree and to have arrived just as the designer envisioned with not a hiccup to mention.

One minor fault in these essays are the accompanying images. While Mr. Bernheimer focuses on four of his firm’s projects, only three are on display. Ms. Eizenberg’s teases the reader with a description of The Electric Art Block, but won’t show us. If a picture is worth a thousand words, these 402 aren’t worth a picture. Their writings are pointed though, reminding designers how it is our job to steer public taste, why we should be involved in [and direct] land use policy, and how some existing policies like historic preservation and tax abatements have helped their firm’s work—see, it’s not all bad!

Each of the three project portfolios is substantive without becoming tiresome. Most supply a figure ground in context along with elevations or renderings. The High-Rise section is most successful when it expands to include typical unit or floor plans. It can be mired in this format though. Smith-Miller + Hawkinson Architects present The Dillon in New York. Its design signature is the atypical skip-stop duplexes and triplexes. Offering a section would seem to be an obvious inclusion, yet the reader is left without.

Editor Peggy Tully is quite successful in culling and presenting the information. The book, however, ends relatively abruptly after a sample project. An afterword or few pages of closure from her would have been welcomed. In the meantime, she has also edited the first installment in this series, From the Ground Up: Innovative Green Homes, which is equally worth a read. And we can look forward to American City X, the final installment, which is due in the spring.

Sean Khorsandi

Sean Khorsandi is a New York based Designer.