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Rugged But Righteous
David Adjaye debuts affordable housing development in New York CIty.
Marc McQuade

Inside the hulking, concrete walls of David Adjaye’s new affordable housing project in Harlem, Mayor de Blasio’s progressive priorities play-out floor-by-floor and room-by-room. He said as much at a recent press conference inside the 191,500-square-foot Sugar Hill Project, which is scheduled to open in August. “This building is, in a sense, an epitome of so many of the things that we believe in and want to do,” said the mayor.

Sugar Hill includes 124 permanently affordable apartments (25 of which are set aside for the formerly homeless), an early childhood center that accommodates up to 120 children, a pre-kindergarten center that seats 54, and a 17,000-square-foot art and story telling museum. There is gallery space too, and a rooftop garden for the community.

Since the building’s cultural and educational spaces are primarily below grade, Adjaye designed ways to bring natural light into the subterranean spaces:  For the double-height, museum and gallery space he created a “light chimney”—essentially a glass roof that is placed over a narrow corridor. At the street-level, the walls are entirely glazed to allow light to flow in and people to look down.

Facade details showing Adjaye's flower pattern.
Marc McQuade

The spaces that are designed for children are also lined with floor-to-ceiling windows and connect to a courtyard. The hallways in the residential section may be dark, but because of the project’s natural elevation, the windows in each apartment offer sweeping views to Manhattan, Yankee Stadium, and beyond.

But the hopeful, jovial spirit that permeates the building’s interior is not necessarily reflected in its dark-gray, neo-brutalist façade. New York Magazine’s Justin Davidson compared the Sugar Hill Project to a “dead-eyed guard tower.”

Sugar Hill rises as two stacked boxes that are separated from each other by a terrace about seven floors up. From that vantage point, Adjaye pointed to a standard-issue public housing project a few blocks north. “We definitely did not want to do that,” he said.

Left to right: A common terrace overlooking the park; Adjaye added visual interest with vertical hallway lights; a skylight fills the below-grade museum with natural light.
Henry Melcher / AN

The structure is clad in pre-cast concrete panels that are imprinted with what is intended to look like roses. Adjaye explained that the roses are meant to evoke the historic district’s connection with the flower; but on an especially overcast afternoon, the roses looked more like watermarks.

The facade—which is essentially serrated on its north and south sides—is punctuated by rectangular and square windows, and the backsides of air conditioning units. Adjaye tried to remove the units, but cost constraints kept them in.

The Sugar Hill project is the first ground-up project developed by Broadway Housing Communities, which has been converting existing buildings into supportive housing since 1983. Nearly 50,000 applications were received for the 124 affordable units in BHC’s latest building. The $80 million cost of this project was provided by private organizations, and local, state, and national agencies.

Site plan (left). Facade detail showing cantilever (right).
Courtesy Adjaye Associates; Marc McQuade

While the building’s public façade may receive criticism, its interior program will likely be celebrated by the community. And the introduction of Sugar Hill into the city’s affordable housing stock raises important questions about the role of design and the public realm.

In response to a question from AN about how architecture and design factor into his administration’s larger housing plan, Mayor de Blasio said he wants buildings that are both “beautiful” and “contextually appropriate,” but that, ultimately, design is about more than aesthetics.

“I think the design question really is about, to me, the functionality—meaning, what we can achieve in a site,” he said. At Sugar Hill, De Blasio celebrated Adjaye’s ability to “maximize” the project with the inclusion of pre-K and cultural space.

The mayor added: “when you have a chance to build something from scratch like this, you should try to do the most with the most lasting impact.”

Henry Melcher


The ground level plan (above) and a typical level of apartments (below).
Courtesy Adjaye Associates