Search results for "Brownsville"

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The Rent is Too Damn High
Courtesy RKTB

In his mayoral campaign, Bill de Blasio often pointed to New York’s lack of affordable housing as an example of how the city had become a “Tale of Two Cities.” He cited the fact that 50,000 New Yorkers sleep every night in shelters and that “almost one third of the city’s households spend at least half of their income on rent.” If elected, he promised to build or preserve “200,000 affordable housing units over the next decade.” But unlike fifteen or twenty years ago, when the city had blocks of open land in Brownsville, East New York, and the South Bronx on which to build, the city is today essentially fully occupied with only scattered empty lots. It will take some thoughtful planning to achieve the 50,000 new units he is calling for, but a new project by architecture firm RKTB could be an innovative model for how to fulfill this affordable housing quota.

The project, Monsignor Anthony J. Barretta Housing, is located on Pacific Street in East New York beside the architecturally impressive church Our Lady of Loretta, which is abandoned. The church was built for an Italian American community in the early 1900s, apparently on land farmed by the first Italian settler in America. Several years ago, the diocese of Brooklyn tried to raze the church and build 88 units of desperately needed housing for low-income residents in the neighborhood. Though the area is now primarily Latino and African-American, the Italian American community who passed though the church rallied to save the building—at least temporally. The group, which included New York builder Frank Sciame and his cousin Joe Sciame, the president of Italian Heritage & Culture Committee, developed a plan with a local developer to preserve the church structure and tear down the adjacent church buildings.

Enter RKTB and architect Carmi Bee, who has been building infill affordable housing in New York for several decades. Together with the archdiocese and the Community Preservation Corporation as developer, RKTB designed a building with 64 units of housing for $185 per square foot. The project, said Bee, “takes advantage of the constraints in the building code,” thereby lending affordability to each project. A single stair eliminates not only the need for an elevator, but also a second means of egress, and the sloped roof means an additional flight of stairs up to the roof is not needed. Another energy and cost saving feature of the prototype plan is the double-exposure layout, which provides cross ventilation. Careful material selection also helped keep costs low while achieving LEED-certification. Part of the RKTB model for affordable housing involves working “as of right” under the existing zoning and building codes with the intention of filling in vacant lots, specifically within districts that would yield 50–110 dwelling units per acre. Within the first week of the project’s opening, 5,000 families applied for 64 apartments. This statistic brings home clearly the pressing need that New York City has for good quality affordable housing.

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Affordability & The Future of New York
Mayor Bloomberg cuts the ribbon to mark the official opening of the Via Verde affordable housing development in the South Bronx.
Edward Reed

The recent conference at the Storefront for Art and Architecture, “Since Now From Then,” celebrated the 30th anniversary of the minuscule but influential space on Kenmare Street. It made clear the far-reaching impact the Storefront has had on the culture of architecture but also how much New York City has changed around the gallery.

The first public exhibition at the original Storefront on September 18, 1982, then at 51 Prince Street, was a month-long series of performances titled A-Z, with a different artist featured each day. Many of these artists in the 1980s lived in the blocks surrounding Prince Street except Tehching Hsieh whose prescient performance was to live “homeless” on the streets of the city for a single year.

Today when the Storefront presents a group of emerging artists it is doubtful that any of them could afford to live anywhere near gentrified Kenmare Street. They are more likely living in Crown Heights or Bushwick, Brooklyn. In fact Kyong Park, one of Storefront’s founders, made an off-hand comment during the conference that if anyone today wanted to do what he did at the Storefront in the 1980s “they should leave New York City.” Park, who hails from Detroit and now lives in L.A., may have been thinking of the particular challenges and opportunities for young urbanites in post-industrial landscapes like Detroit.

But New York City officials would do well to heed Park’s advice and begin thinking about strategies for creating affordable housing, not just for the young creative class, but for all New York residents.

Mayor Bloomberg promised to focus on creating 165,000 units of affordable housing and claims to be meeting this target. He may believe this was enough new affordable units for this enormous city, but the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development analyzed Bloomberg’s housing program and came to another conclusion. Not only did tens of thousand of affordable units go off-line as landlords exited subsidized programs and regulated apartments went market rate, but in Harlem, to pick one neighborhood, property values have jumped 222 percent and in East Harlem, median market rents went from roughly $1200 in 2002 to $1900 in 2011.

Further, “it’s not only that rents are rising; it’s also that a growing part of the population is trying to live in New York City on very modest incomes. According to the city’s own poverty measure, roughly 46 percent of New Yorkers were what is considered “near poor” in 2011. For a family of four, that means earning under $46,000 annually.” Thus the Furman Center says that nearly a third of New Yorkers were what is called “severely rent burdened” in 2011, which means they were spending more than half their monthly income on rent.

The association admits the Mayor’s initiative is on track to meet its housing goal but these units too often do not meet the actual affordability needs of the neighborhoods in which they were built. Further, “one-third of these units have an upper income limit above the actual New York City median income and in half the city’s community districts, the majority of units built are too expensive for a household earning the local median income for the neighborhood.” The association claims that “starting in 2017, New York will be at risk of losing an annual average of 11,000 units built with city subsidy and by 2037, the city could also lose many units as were built by Bloomberg, greatly undermining the value of the City’s efforts.” Bloomberg can point to two recent housing projects that illustrate—if they were replicated ten times over—the kind of new housing that can and should be built in the city. The Lower East Side project called Essex Crossing will replace a forty year old urban renewal site with 1,000 units of new housing which the city claims will be 50 percent “permanently affordable for low, moderate, and middle-income households and senior citizens.” In addition, the project includes a 15,000-square-foot open space, a new and expanded Essex Street Market, a school, a community center run by Grand Street Settlement, a rooftop urban farm, the Andy Warhol Museum, 250,000 square feet of office space, and a diverse mix of retail space. In addition the Mayor recently announced a new housing facility in downtown Brooklyn as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s expanding district that will have 42 units of affordable housings built above a large cultural space and restaurant. It is clear that New York City has run out of easily and cheaply developable land in vacant neighborhoods like the South Bronx and Brownsville, so finding sites for new affordable housing will not be easy.

It is important to point out that in the deeply flawed 2030 Plan for New York City identified vast areas for new housing above open areas over the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and Sunnyside Yards, but these would require massive public investment in infrastructure and will not likely yield any truly affordable housing.

The next mayor will have an enormous challenge to build enough units to meet the pressing demand for housing that always seems to be part of life in this city. Aside from protecting NYCHA and its 230,000 units of affordable housing and maintaining rent control, which helps thousands of middle income New Yorkers, the next mayor will need a new and different approach if more housing is to be built. This is an absolute necessity if New York is not to become a victim of its own success. Bill de Blasio, the apparent next mayor, claims to be a progressive politician. This will mean nothing unless living here is a possibility for the sort of person who wants to start the next Storefront.

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Contesting the Bloomberg Legacy
The occupiers of Manhattan's Zuccotti Park were closely monitored and slowly pushed out by hte Bloomberg administration.
Michelle Lee/Flickr

Now that Michael Bloomberg’s third and final term is about to end journalists and editors are rolling out scores of articles on his legacy and the future of Gotham. There is little question that during his mayoralty New York changed physically more than it had in many years and architects and designers were more influential than anytime since John Lindsay. The degree to which Bloomberg’s department heads like David Burney, Amanda Burden, and Janette Sadik-Khan made design an important aspect of physical growth and change is probably unprecedented in any American city at least since Robert Moses dominated development in New York. A major narrative in most of these articles is the uneven development that occurred during the period as most of these physical changes and improvements were concentrated in affluent Manhattan and the Brooklyn and Queens waterfronts—facing Manhattan. It is clear that most of the achievements of the period—like the High Line, the new parklets created on odd bits of left over streetscape along Broadway, designated bike lanes, and even bike sharing—were heavily weighted towards improving Manhattan and gentrified areas of Brooklyn and Queens. If one looks to areas like Brownsville, Crotona, or the Southeast Bronx, it is hard to find the Bloomberg initiatives having made little or any improvements to the streetscapes.

But not mentioned in these articles is the degree to which this administration marginalized (though this began under Rudolph Giuliani) the City Planning Commission, once a major player in development decisions and ensuring equity in planning. This neglect of official planning during the period may explain some of the more obvious blunders of the period, including the mayor’s half-baked, developer-focused 2030 plan; the ill-fated (but happily defeated) West Side Stadium proposal; and the disappointing high-rise development now taking place along the Brooklyn waterfront.

This is not to say that some planning was not undertaken during the Bloomberg era, such as the resiliency efforts highlighted in our feature story “The Nuanced Approach” points out. In fact, park and open space development is probably the most physically obvious transformation that took place in the last 11 1/2 years. The new Brooklyn Bridge and Governors Island Parks and the carefully detailed changes along Newtown Creek in Brooklyn and the Hudson River edge in Manhattan (though mostly financed through a structurally dubious private public partnership model embraced by the mayor) will take their place alongside the great Olmsted and Moses open spaces.

Galen Cranz points out in her writings on urban parks in America that the last time designers were involved in park design, the period she labels “the open space system” of the late 1950s through the 1970s, they primarily created plazas fronting corporate offices and did not always put the public in the foreground. Their spaces had mixed results as we can witness up and down Park Avenue. But in assessing open space design in the period one must also consider not just the security zone created around areas like Wall Street and the World Trade Center, but the reaction of the Bloomberg administration to the occupiers in Zuccotti Park, who were given some latitude to protest but were closely monitored and slowly pushed out of the area until the movement faded. Finally, one must consider The Gramsci Monument created this past summer by the Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn in the Forest Houses NYCHA project in the Morrisania section of the Bronx. In its collaborative design, Gramsci seemed to use space to fight back against the model of public space as a site for leisure, framing it as one where death and scission is encouraged and allowed to flourish. In the end, this may have been the most important new model of public space created during the Bloomberg era, and its strength was its opposition to the notion of parks as primarily sites of leisure, and its promotion of them as sites for discussion and protest—the kinds of spaces the city desperately needs today.

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Rockwell Group Designs A Treehouse-esque Playground for Park in Brownsville
The Rockwell Group and NYC Parks unveiled their plans last week to turn a 1.5-acre section of Betsy Head Park in Brownsville into a lush and active playground. When designing Imagination Playground, the firm looked to treehouses for inspiration. The site will feature a winding ramp that snakes around London Plane trees and connects to slides and a series of jungle gyms that spill out into an open area with sand, water, benches, and plantings. In collaboration with landscape architecture firm MKW + Associates, the Rockwell Group has taken on this project pro-bono and will donate a set of Playground Blocks to the Brownsville Recreation Center. The $3.92 million playground was funded with the help of government subsidies from Mayor Bloomberg, Borough President Markowitz, and Council Member Mealy. Partner David Rockwell founded Imagination Playground in partnership with NYC Parks and KaBOOM, a non-profit organization, to encourage activity and unstructured play for children at nominal cost by providing loose building blocks in outdoor recreational spaces. Right now the project is slated to break ground in spring of 2014 and open in 2015.    
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Luxury High Rises Could Sprout Among New York's Public Housing Towers
Luxury high rises could soon crop up right next to public housing. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), saddled with a $60 million deficit and a backlog of 420,000 repairs, is in quite a fix and has come up with one possible, and potentially controversial, solution to raise the money. According to a recent story in The Daily News, the over-extended agency is planning on leasing playgrounds, parks, and community centers within public housing complexes to private developers who would be allowed to build a total of 4,330 apartments. The eight potential high rises would be built in prime real estate locations such as the East Village, Upper West Side, and Lower Manhattan. The prospect would certainly be an attractive opportunity for developers: NYCHA will provide a 99-year lease with the payments frozen for first 35 years. The only requirement is that 20 percent of the developments must be affordable housing for families that earn under $50,000. Some residents are not happy about the new plan, but there is little they can do change or prevent these developments from being built. While this proposal is primarily motivated by the need for cash, it also has far greater implications in terms of class and economic diversity in a city that has become increasingly segregated by an influx of wealth. In the last few years, urban planners and housing advocates have reimagined public housing. Rosanne Haggerty, president of Community Solutions, proposed transforming Brownsville’s isolated housing block into a more integrated grid layout with through-traffic streets, retail, and urban farms. The famed hotelier Ian Schrager has even set his sights on a former community garden that belonged to an adjacent privately-owned low-income housing tower at 10 Stanton Street in the Lower East Side. He purchased the site from tenants and the tower owner and plans to build a 25-story boutique hotel and residential tower. Between the demand for luxury housing in Manhattan and NYCHA’s shortage of cash, public housing in the city is about to undergo significant changes.
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Design Trust Brings the Urban Farm to New York's Planning Table
New York City is home to over 700 food-producing farms and gardens spread over 50 acres of reclaimed lots, rooftops, schoolyards, and public housing grounds. This week at a launch and press event, the Design Trust for Public Space (in partnership with the Brooklyn-based non-profit community farming project Added Value) debuted the most comprehensive survey yet of the city's urban agricultural infrastructure, Five Borough Farm: Seeding the Future of Urban Agriculture in New York City. Currently, the non-profit organizations, commercial entities, institutions, and community members who operate urban farms lack a reliable means to obtain resources such as land, soil, compost, and funding.  Five Borough Farm lays out a roadmap for the integration and expansion of New York’s urban farms, with analysis of present conditions, metrics that establish a common framework for evaluating success and determining strategies, and policy recommendations that would make agriculture integral to city planning. Five Borough Farm describes the health, social, economic, and ecological benefits of urban farms. Distributing food to under-served communities and providing nutritional education supports public health. By developing unused land, farms and gardens fill gaps in the streetscape and create space for community gathering and organizing. Farmers are able to sell their food in farmer’s markets, while education and stewardship programs empower youth and provide job training. Gardens can act as filters for wastewater and composted food waste while working to detoxify soil and educating communities about sustainability. The study builds on New York’s existing urban agriculture initiatives, calling for a citywide interagency task force that would coordinate policy and procedures for organizations that manage farms and to allocate resources and land to those organizations. At the launch event, Design Trust Executive Director Susan Chin described the need for this body to engage with communities in the planning and operation of urban farms: “We need to select, digest, upload, and disseminate information and data on farms to the community.” The metrics established in Five Borough Farm describe agricultural production, biodiversity, employment, and impact on health, allowing communities to monitor their progress and receive necessary support. Raymond Figueroa, a program director at South Bronx-based Friends of Brook Park, trains youths in urban agricultural production. “The real power of urban agriculture is the promotion of healthy living,” Figueroa explained, pointing to precedents demonstrating how such initiatives can be effective. During the Great Depression, for example, Relief Gardens provided social stability and well-needed food. “Communities can actively engage in the cultivation of land—the fight we have is alerting communities to the possibilities they have,” Figueroa said. So what's the next step? Phase two of the project will bring in New York City government to help locate 100 publicly-owned sites with the potential for food production. Columbia University’s Urban Design Lab will partner with the Design Trust in identifying under-served areas, growing conditions, and suitability of land. The trust hopes to formalize the city’s support by initiating new programs and subsidies, while partnering with departments that are not directly responsible for urban agriculture, like Waste Management.
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Breaking Blocks
New retail space along the street.
Courtesy Gorlin Architects

Rosanne Haggerty, president of Community Solutions made a presentation at the Municipal Arts Society Summit in October that recast the troubled Brownsville public housing in Brooklyn as a major public asset. Rethinking the housing block, Haggerty proposed a surgical approach that preserves original buildings and emphasizes breaking up the superblock with through-traffic streets, integrated urban agriculture, ground floor retail, and the incorporation of social services—all without displacing a single resident.

In 1990 Haggerty founded the not-for-profit Common Ground, with a stated mission of ending homelessness in New York City. Two of the group’s better-known projects, the Times Square and the Prince George hotels, provided housing for the homeless while integrating social services in turn-of-the-century hotels that were about to face the wrecking ball. With the buildings saved, gilded age lobbies became 21st century community centers.

 
proposal includes urban agriculture on the rooftops (left) and around the building grounds (right).
 

Common Ground began work in Brownsville five years ago in an effort to prevent homelessness before it happens. The organization stopped 300 evictions, which in turn became the impetus for launching Community Solutions, a new spin-off of Common Ground that strives to apply the same principles used at the hotels to the public housing superblock.

“How do you create a healthy, sustainable, and vibrant community in the superblock that can be preserved instead of resorting to the Chicago and St. Louis model of demolishing them?” Haggerty posed in an interview. She pointed out that despite a $6 billion deferred maintenance budget, the New York City Housing Authority continues to maintain their vast stock of buildings. “They never got to that point of complete decay where the only alternative was to demolish and replace.”

 
The existing superblocks (left) would be returned to the surrounding street grid (right).
 

Alexander Gorlin Architects conducted a pro bono comprehensive analysis, which included air and development rights. The plan seeks to enhance infrastructure and begins by adding 700 to 1,000 housing units, some through lightweight construction atop existing buildings. Additionally, the proposal calls for street-side retail throughout to activate ground-level circulation.

But street life requires streets. To that end, the plan reconnects the superblock to the grid by inserting through-streets in the place of former cul-de-sacs, inactive plazas, and underutilized parking lots. For this level of intervention, the obstacles are many. But a relevant precedent is the Harlem Children’s Zone, the 2010 project to remap and rezone public housing blocks that became the first proposal to successfully break the superblock in New York.

With an aggressive agenda to intervene early, Haggerty of Community Solutions said, “Go where they’re living and make it easier for them to succeed by pulling the linkages to health and mental health into their homes.”

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Jonathan Kirschenfeld
Courtyard view of the 72-unit Saint Marks Avenue Residence with Common Ground.
Jonathan Kirschenfeld

 

"Well, somebody's got to do it." This is a refrain I have heard over the years from many architects in reference to my firm’s choice to design supportive housing for special needs individuals: the mentally ill, the frail elderly, the chronically homeless, the working poor, among other marginalized groups. The comment is meant to suggest that while perhaps a noble and laudable pursuit, this type of work is gritty, unglamorous and underpaid, and ultimately not worthy of an architect’s design interest.

While the work certainly has its frustrations and challenges, especially on the budgetary and bureaucratic side, I would like to suggest that the building type presents design opportunities that are richer and more satisfying than commonly understood.

The 69-unit Bronx Park East Residence with Post-graduate Center for Mental Health.
Rodrigo Pereda
 

Our firm is now completing the last two of six new ‘supportive SROs’ (Single Room Occupancy) built throughout Brooklyn and the Bronx. This type of hybrid housing, widely considered to be the single most successful solution to homelessness for individuals, blends studio apartments with congregate spaces like community rooms, exercise areas, library, counseling offices, and laundry.

One of the primary challenges, and perhaps the greatest design opportunity, lies in the sites we find. With the current scarcity of inexpensive lots having wide street frontage, the majority of building sites which have been left to not-for-profit developers and their architects have been the irregular “left-over” parcels: narrow on street frontage and deep in proportion; curved, triangular, or trapezoidal in shape; sloping from grade or with rock outcroppings. The high density of the SRO housing program requires that these buildings be ‘shoe-horned’ onto their sites, and the result is a great variation of building forms in spite of a similarity of program. We see it as a ‘case study’ in urban-remnant infill.

The 50-unit Marcy Residence with Services for the Underserved.
Paul Warchol
 

The solving of the program puzzle within as-of-right zoning and a budget of less than $300 per square foot can be used as an opportunity to innovate and invent. And this sometimes leads to unexpected results. As an example, our 72-unit HUD-funded Domenech Residence designed for Common Ground in Brownsville (Gold LEED pending) is a U-shaped building wedged into an 80-foot wide and 155-foot deep lot. The narrow and deep dimensions of the lot precluded a typical double-loaded unit organization: instead single-loaded corridors along both side lot-lines allow abundant natural light to be brought into the public corridors at every floor. By running the bearing walls parallel to the street as opposed to along the courtyard length, the 30-foot wide court could then be skinned by seven-story checkerboard surfaces of Kalwall. This 2-3/4-inch thick material with high thermal value solves the simultaneous design problems of envelope efficiency, usable space and light in the units, and large-scale patterning of the courtyard facades.

The 72-unit Domenech Residence with Common Ground.
Jonathan Kirschenfeld
 

Other sites presented different challenges and opportunities. A massing play was presented on the trapezoidal site across from Bronx Park. Here, the narrow street frontage facing west towards the Park was used as a means to privilege the common rooms as a program-stacked “entry pavilion.” A figured court mediates the splayed site geometry while differentiating the public spaces from the taller double-loaded unit mass behind.

While each site condition came with its own puzzles and pleasures, in all six cases plans and sections were constantly refined for maximum efficiencies and spatial effect: variegated ceiling heights compressed and then raised within the unit entry sequence, double-loaded configurations pierced at strategic moments to allow natural light into public corridors and waiting areas, and larger scale “collective” figures carved into punched fields of regular openings. Environmentally progressive systems and elements were employed in each building iteration despite their low budget, including high performance exterior envelopes with central heating and cooling fan coils, green roofs, gearless elevator, energy efficient lighting and appliances, re-cycled and recyclable materials.

The 43-unit Teller Residence with Post-graduate Center for Mental Health.
Pedro Pulido
 

Beyond the design, problem-solving and technical strategies remain the often-ignored social and political implications of this type of public housing. Contemporary architects sometime overlook the fact that the Modern Movement, while often associated with a particular style and use of materials, was also one with a strong social agenda, especially in the area of multi-family housing. Until the 70’s, many architectural practices included housing as a fundamental part of their repertory, and it is only in the last few decades that this type of work has slowly disappeared from the mix, replaced in part by luxury housing marketed as brand-name architecture on the one hand and on the other bare-bones “match-box” low-budget housing often produced as back-office bread-and-butter work.

It does not have to be this way.  Now, in fact, might be an excellent time for architects to reconsider how their talents could be stretched and exercised by expanding their range, embrace the Modern Movement’s social imperative to reverse the inequalities we see in our world, roll up their sleeves and get gritty.

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Talking Heads
IAUS fellows and friends at one of Peter Eisenman's Indian dinners circa 1974. Clockwise from lower left: Bill Ellis, Rick Wolkowitz, Peter Eisenman, Liz Eisenman, Mario Gandelsonas, Madelon Vriesendorp, Rem Koolhaas, Julia Bloomfield, Randall Korman, Stuart Wrede, Andrew MacNair, Anthony Vidler, Richard Meier, unidentified woman, Kenneth Frampton, Diana Agrest, Caroline 'Coty' Sidnam, Jane Ellis, Suzanne Frank, and Alexander Gorlin.
Courtesy Suzanne Frank

 

Team Vitruvius

 

The most curious image I know of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies (IAUS)—the New York think tank that, from the late 1960s through the early 1980s, quite simply reshaped architectural discourse in the United States—appeared in a 1971 issue of Casabella. A cut-and-paste job, it pictured sixteen of the Institute’s members as a soccer team, wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with the Institute’s logo, the Vitruvian man of Cesariano’s 1521 edition. Crouched, at the far right, is Suzanne Frank, then an intern, later the Institute’s librarian, and now the author of a new book, at once an unoffical history of the Institute and, as the subtitle reads, “an insider’s memoir.”

Founded in 1967 by Peter Eisenman (see image below: bottom row, third from the right, with an impish smile) with backing from MoMA and Cornell University, the Institute set out to bridge the gap between academic culture and the world of planning agencies. Installed in offices on 47th Street enlivened by reproductions of the Vitruvian man and Le Corbusier’s Modulor, the Institute admitted graduate students for yearlong fellowships to work on real projects commissioned by municipal and federal agencies. Reyner Banham, writing in December 1967 for New Society, went along with the Institute fellows’ self-description as “utopians”—with a caveat: “They are utopians of aesthetic order rather than of social order. They look to the city of good form, before the city of good men—but probably believing that the good form will breed good men, that a city which makes itself visually clear will become clear in other senses, too.”

Kenneth Frampton and Peter Eisenman   Cesariano's Vitruvian man on one side of the revolving door.
Kenneth Frampton and Peter Eisenman sporting matching haircuts at 8 West 40th Street, circa 1970 (left), and the revolving door with Cesariano's Vitruvian man strapped to a grid on one side. Le Corbusier's Modulor Man was pasted on the other (right).
Gregory Gale
 

The early years of the Institute (notwithstanding its later, unjust reputation as cerebral, arcane, and elitist) were marked by what can only be called a modernist engagement with the city, culminating in the building of a low-rise, high-density housing complex in Ocean Hill/ Brownsville, Brooklyn, a prototype sponsored by the Urban Development Corporation and designed by Kenneth Frampton (see image below: top row, fourth from the left, with a resolute, captain-like mien).

By the early 1970s, though, when the money and the political will to sponsor projects and research on public housing dried up, the Institute had already gone through an aggiornamento of sorts. Indeed, over the years the Institute embarked on a variety of other programs, going through several changes of faculty and through what Eisenman called, in a 1975 interview with Alvin Boyarsky just published in Brett Steele’s book Supercritical, several “palace revolutions”—the first already in 1969, when Colin Rowe had his students do theoretical designs instead of real projects, and Eisenman, in Frank’s retelling of the story, responded by locking Rowe out of the Institute, literally changing the door’s lock.

New Urban Settlements cover
The number 1 on the cover of New Urban Settlements designed by Robert Slutzky indicated that more were to come.
Dick Frank
 
 
 
 

Over little more than a decade, the Institute became enormously influential, attracting architects, historians, and theorists to lecture, teach, exhibit, and do research there. Even a casual list of some of the protagonists (Diana Agrest, Anthony Vidler, Robert Slutzky, Rafael Moneo, Philip Johnson, Rem Koolhaas, etc.) commands attention. Eventually, the Institute expanded its educational operations (at one point it had graduate, undergraduate, high-school, and continuing education programs), organized extraordinarily intense lecture series, and mounted dozens of exhibitions (Mart Stam, Ivan Leonidov, Wallace Harrison, but also Aldo Rossi, Mathias Ungers, the Krier brothers, etc.) in the double-height main space of the offices it occupied from 1970, on the top two floors of 8 West 40th Street, just opposite the New York Public Library. The Institute also became a publishing house: it produced the aptly-named journal Oppositions (1973–84), edited by a pugnacious triumvirate made of Eisenman, Frampton, and Mario Gandelsonas (see image below: top row, third from the left) joined later by Vidler and then Kurt Forster; the monthly tabloid newspaper Skyline (1978–83); and, in the early 1980s, Oppositions Books (Rossi, Adolf Loos, Moisei Ginzburg, Alan Colquhoun).

Frank readily acknowledges that hers is not a scholarly book but a personal memoir, what Joan Ockman, in her foreword, calls “a labor of love.”(A few historians in Europe and the US are currently working on scholarly histories, most notably Ph.D. candidate Kim Foerster at the ETH in Zurich.) Frank’s history is in fact impressionistic; the author is at her best when she lets us into her personal recollections of characters, personalities, allegiances, and conflicts, as opposed to the narrative sections outlining the many activities of the Institute.

The last third of the book, a series of twenty-seven interviews that Frank conducted over the past decade with former Institute members, offers a wealth of valuable information (much of it anecdotal, certainly) and countless perceptive memories and thoughts: Julia Bloomfield, managing editor of Oppositions, discussing the journal’s graphic design (“the Massimo Vignelli ‘punch’”) and “the somewhat combative relationship” between Eisenman and Frampton; Andrew MacNair telling of a momentous 7:00 a.m. phone call with Eisenman (“[Robert] Stern and Frampton and I have gotten a grant to start a lecture series... we want you to run it, get your ass down here”); William Ellis (see image below: bottom row, third from the left) reflecting on the feat of Oppositions and on Eisenman’s organizational prowess (“an  absolute impresario”); Joan Copjec recounting the formation in 1979 of a women’s group at the Institute to voice concerns about “the not-so-veiled sexism”; Suzanne Stephens telling of her editorship of Skyline, of articles paying ten cents a word, Christmas lists about books to give to architects, and where Johnson got his glasses or Eisenman his shoes (“it’s Churchill shoes for Peter, very Loosian”).

  The IAUS journal Oppositions 5
The IAUS journal, Oppositions 5, edited by Eisenman, Frampton, and Gandelsonas.
Dick Frank
 

One of the most revealing stories is told by Stanford Anderson (top row, far right): in 1964 Eisenman wanted to form an association of young architects interested in new ideas (what would later become CASE, the Conference of Architects for the Study of the Environment, a prelude to the Institute), convinced Princeton to put up some money, and invited for a weekend-long meeting a group that included Anderson, Michael Graves, Robert Venturi, and a young Emilio Ambasz (see image below: bottom row, fourth from the right, in jaunty Greek fisherman’s cap); on Sunday the question came up whether that kind of group discussion should continue: “Venturi immediately said, ‘Well, is it going to help my practice?’ Everyone agreed, ‘No.’”

Eisenman, whose name appears in almost every page of the book, declined to be interviewed: the figure most central to the myriad stories interwoven at the Institute emerges here as an eerie presence, towering over everyone else and yet disappearing—with uncanny parallels, perhaps, with his own architecture. In the 1975 interview with Boyarsky, Eisenman argued that the Institute never had a curriculum, or a philosophy: “Its only philosophy, if it stands for anything, is to serve as a vehicle for critical discourse, for challenging the prevailing empirical attitude in the United States vis-à-vis architecture—i.e. that it is something useful, something that can be marketed, a commodity.” A critical history of that discourse, of those conflicts theoretical and ideological, remains to be written. Or, perhaps, as with that other great 20th-century think tank called the Bauhaus, the history of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies may need to be told, written, and rewritten many times over.

Cesare Birignani studies architectural history at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation.


 

A photo-montage from a 1971 issue of Casabella showed Institute members wearing sweatshirts with Vitruvian Man images and posing as a soccer team.
From Casabella, 1971
 

Q&A: SUZANNE FRANK

 

As a young art historian with a Ph.D. on Dutch Modernist Michel de Klerk, Suzanne Frank arrived at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies (IAUS) in 1970, three years after its founding. Her husband, Dick, had photographed Peter Eisenman’s architectural models, and soon Eisenman would be designing a home for the couple in Cornwall, completed in 1975 and named House VI.

Frank remained at the Institute as a researcher then librarian until 1982. Her unauthorized memoir of those days was 12 years in the making. Clearly a labor of love by an historian eager to make a record of an extraordinary moment in architecture, Frank recounts much herself and then allows the transcripts from interviews with 27 other key players to fill in and amplify the story, vividly recounting everything from arguments over Italian architectural theory to how money was so short that office furnishings were picked up off the streets. Here, Frank recalls a few details from those heady days:

The Architect’s Newspaper: How did you come to be at the Institute?

Suzanne Frank: I was doing an art history Ph.D. at Columbia and they thought my research was good so they hired me to do research on a HUD-funded project, the Streets project, at least in the first year. I never had an office or anything, but I combed resources for studies of urban applicability and sorted heaps of photocopies of buildings in streetscapes. One time when I started talking to a fellow researcher, Gregory Gale, Eisenman told me to stop talking and get back to work. He himself was a schmoozer, especially at eight o’clock in the morning when few people were around.

Why did you decide to write a private memoir about The Institute?

It was a great time in my life. The projects they were doing were very interesting and important. What made me write it? I am a historian. I like to do research and write. I never dreamed it would take so long.

  Peter Eisenman
Peter Eisenman displays brand loyalty.
Gregory Gale
 

How easy was it to get people to talk?

There were 27 cooperatives. Tony Vidler didn’t agree; Rem [Koolhaas] agreed then backed out; and Peter said he’s not giving any interviews on the Institute. A doctoral student at ETH in Zurich, Kim Foerster, is working on the official history. I think he has done something like 100 interviews.

Was the focus on talk or on building, too?

They wanted to implement building. One of the student projects with a grant was to reorganize streets with buildings in a more public way. And they did it in print, but it didn’t happen because HUD took the money away when Bill Ellis insulted the HUD people when they were visiting.

They only built the one housing project that Kenneth [Frampton] worked on, Ocean Hill-Brownsville in Brooklyn.

Did Philip Johnson supply funds for the Institute?

Yes, I don’t know how much, but I know he was an angel. People didn’t like his architecture; they hated the AT&T. He didn’t mind, and Peter was very close to him, so was Bob Stern.

There was also fund-raising for Oppositions by Julia Bloomfield. They were all pretty good at it. I mean, here was this little magazine with a leftist tinge, but they still got Exxon and Mobile to give to it.

Large hall at the 40th Street location.

The large hall with balcony at the 40th Street location, the Institute's second home, lent itself to flexible uses.
Gregory Gale
 

Rumor has always had it that women had a hard time there. Was that your experience?

Peter hired women to have posts there but they were not as important, I think, at least in the beginning. Somehow they receded beside the men. Some say they were not treated well, and they formed a women’s group about it in 1979, but I was always treated with respect as the librarian, which was a joke because there weren’t many books.

In time, women had a very strong voice. Silvia Kolbowski started out as a receptionist and became the catalog editor with Frampton.

Did everyone get along?

The receptionists had a hard time; they were so overworked because Peter was always at odds and ends. They would start crying, and his wife at the time would have to console them.

Then there was a big argument between Frampton and Bob Stern—it was recorded in Skyline in 1980— after Kenneth’s book on modern architecture and critical history came out. Stern said that Frampton never looked at actual buildings but did everything in libraries and used miniscule photographs, and that he left out American sources. Kenneth said he retorted that he was an American admirer—I forget his phrase–and then he sent him into a “Spenglerian night” What does that mean? I don’t know.

What was the office scene like?

There were parties with lots of dancing. I remember one that Rem attended—he came to all the parties—but usually he wasn’t around because he was working on Delirious New York. Then Peter had his Indian dinners, they were very congenial. People sat next to the people they liked, and snubbed the ones they didn’t.

There were little cliques; everyone was equal except at times. Peter had special lunches, and when we were at the 40th Street office, he got goodies from Zabar’s. He’d have interesting people in, like his father- in- law to talk about Jackson Pollock. It was a very elite and selective crowd who went to those.

There was no hierarchy or, rather, there was and there wasn’t. There was a hierarchy because Peter was always the absolute, but he was friendly, very down to earth, and yet he was always the boss. He dressed very funny in a beige sweater with a hole in the back. He didn’t have very much money, but he managed to borrow from people and he went out a lot and ate very well.

Everyone else was always on diets. “Oh, you’ve lost weight. What’s your diet?” kind of thing. It was a big topic. They were all eating cottage cheese, hamburgers and ketchup.

What’s your final impression of The Institute after 40 years?

It was important. It stood for a really high level of thought and a high level of camaraderie. I am also relieved that I can finally go on to some other things now.

IAUS: The Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, An Insider’s Memoir by Suzanne Frank can be purchased for $42.30 plus postage at authorhouse.com.

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Showtime for school in rundown Brownsville Theater
Like many outlying parts of the city, Brownsville fell hard from its turn-of-the-century grandeur, with decaying reminders of its former greatness. Among them is the Loews Pitkin Theater, once home to the likes of Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle, Humphrey Bogart, and Al Joelson's last performance, as well as thousands of eager movie goers. The building has been closed since 1969—until last week, when a ground breaking was held for a new charter school and retail complex. Curbed and Brownstoner were among those in attendance, and they got some pretty amazing pictures of the building's decrepit interiors (see some after the jump). We've since been sent the above rendering by the developers, POKO Partners, who are working with Kitchen & Associates, a firm based in Collingswood, New Jersey on the renovation. According to POKO, the project will mesh what remains of the building's sumptuous Art Deco interiors with high-tech, sustainable features, creating something at once historic and cutting edge. The base of the building will house some 70,000 square feet of retail with a 90,000-square-foot, 1,100-seat elementary and middle school above, run by Ascend Learning. The project is expected to be completed in the next 18 months. "The Loews Pitkin Theater is exciting because it embodies POKO¹s core values of revitalizing neighborhoods and enhancing communities through positive and responsible real estate development," POKO President and CEO Ken Olson said in a release.

Leaning Tower Of South Padre Island
Metaphorically speaking, so much of the development that has happened over the last decade has been built on loose sandy soil. Here, however, is a literal example of this very disheartening state of affairs: The Ocean Tower in South Padre Island, Texas—designed by the Brownsville-based Walker & Perez Associates—was to be a 31-story condo, promising startling views of the Gulf of Mexico and proximity to the most exclusive neighborhoods in the popular vacation destination. But after topping out last year construction was halted because one side of the building sank 14 or more inches into the underlying clay stratum. Major cracks appeared throughout the tower's base, and now the structure is slated to be imploded this Sunday. The eloquent commentary on the above video gives voice to what we have all been thinking but afraid of saying while the myriad of architectural projects have been crumbling around our heads.
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Redlining the Panorama
The Queens Museum of Art opened its latest exhibition Red Lines Housing Crisis Learning Center on Wednesday with a discussion of the mortgage foreclosure crisis in the city’s five boroughs. The event featured the exhibition's designer Damon Rich, founder of the Center for Urban Pedagogy and now urban design director for the city of Newark; policy expert Sarah Ludwig; community organizer Michelle O’Brien; and urban historian Kenneth Jackson­—all tip-toeing around the museum’s famed New York panorama. For the exhibition the panorama—which includes every mapped block in the city—has been fitted out with orange triangles, their one-inch legs set above every block with three or more recent foreclosures. These foreclosures, according to museum director Tom Finkelpearl, depict a landscape of “displacement,” and the speakers addressed the origins of this crisis in the creation of redlining by the Home Owners Loan Corporation in the 1930s. The speakers emphasized that the current foreclosures and the predatory lending practices that led to the problem have overwhelmingly taken place in neighborhoods with large populations of African Americans and Latinos. The orange placeholders, for example, cut a huge swath through Bedford Stuyvesant and Brownsville/East New York to East Flatbush. Jackson, contemplating the sea of triangles (representing over 13,000 foreclosures) in Brooklyn, described the magnitude of the problem, but pointed out that New York has been less affected by the crisis than cities like Detroit and Dayton, Ohio, because of its relatively vibrant economy and large population of renters. The exhibition itself details the history and material culture behind the current crisis, curated by Rich and Larissa Harris as “an experimental site for learning,” and will be open until September 27.