Housing, Density, and Design

John Hill
21. June 2019
Photo: Michael Young (All photos courtesy of the Skyscraper Museum)

World-Architects stopped by the Skyscraper Museum in Lower Manhattan to check out Housing Density: From Tenements to Towers. The exhibition looks at 20th century housing in New York City through the lens of density, which makes it relevant to contemporary conversations about the city's urgent need for more affordable housing.

Exhibition: Housing Density: From Tenements to Towers, May 2019 to December 2019
Location: Skyscraper Museum, New York City
Co-curators: Matthias Altwicker and Nicholas Dagen Bloom, New York Institute of Technology (NYIT)
Photo: Michael Young
The state of affordable housing in NYC

A lottery is currently underway for 1,250 spots on a waiting list at Penn South, a limited-equity cooperative (co-op) affordable housing development created in the early 1960s in the now-booming Chelsea neighborhood. Five years ago, the last time a lottery was held there, nearly 50,000 people applied for a similarly sized waiting list. Those fortunate enough to end up on one of these waiting lists face waits of up to ten years for an actual apartment. These numbers, though specific to one chunk of housing in a desirable part of Manhattan, are indicative of the scale of the affordable housing crisis plaguing all of New York City.

Mayor Bill de Blasio succeeded billionaire Michael Bloomberg in 2014 on a platform of affordable housing, but 18 months into his second four-year term, he has been criticized for falling well short of his goal of creating or preserving 200,000 below-market-rate units in ten years. Furthermore, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), which is the landlord of approximately 400,000 public housing residents, has a $25 billion deficit and needs $32 billion for repairs to its aging buildings. In turn, the mayor has opted for some creative means of addressing the crises: holding a design competition for city-owned "small lots," exploring leases on unused land in housing projects for private residential development, and potentially demolishing crumbling NYCHA buildings to create lots for new buildings by private developers with a mix of affordable and market-rate units.

Photo: Michael Young
Housing Density

A new exhibition at the Skyscraper Museum in Lower Manhattan sheds some light on what led, in part, to today's housing situation. Housing Density: From Tenements to Towers features a mix of middle- and high-income apartment buildings as well as public housing covering a 50-year period, from the 1920s to the 1970s. It eschews a focus on one or the other end of the housing spectrum by presenting a range of built projects in terms of — as the exhibition's name makes clear — density. Specifically, how many people per acre live in a particular building or group of buildings? And how much site area is covered by a development and how much is left open? These metrics, diagrammed for a dozen case studies that range from the notorious tenements at the turn of the 20th century to the towers-in-the-park schemes of the 1960s and 70s, attempt to find a "sweet spot" for densities of people (pp/acre) and built area (% lot coverage). Though historical, the exhibition focus on density adds to today's conversations about housing given the shortage of housing — affordable and otherwise — in New York City.

Photo: Michael Young

Very few people would argue for the densities of tenements (1,000 pp/acre in 1900 and 87% lot coverage) nor of towers in the park like Co-op City in the Bronx (51 pp/acre and 15% coverage). Somewhere between these extremes is Penn South from 1962, where the affordable housing lottery is currently underway. Are its densities (300 pp/acre and 20% lot coverage) any better? If, as the exhibition does, we take the input of then-contemporary experts into account, that "sweet spot" is around 500 pp/acre; according to both Jane Jacobs, author of Death and Life of Great American Cities from 1961 and Lawrence Halprin, the landscape architect who produced New York, New York, the 1968 "study of the quality, character, and meaning of open space in urban design." Which begs the question they didn't answer: if 500 pp/acre works for NYC, what about the density of built area, of lot coverage?

Photo: Michael Young
Jackson Heights and Tudor City

The character of built density — and therefore also the quality of open space — was addressed at the Skyscraper Museum in a recent event with the museum's Carol Willis, architectural historian Richard Plunz, and architect and author James Sanders. (The museum has a couple more events related to Housing Density happening in July.) Following Willis's remarks that promoted high-rise development as a solution to today's crises, Plunz, author of the magisterial A History of Housing in New York City, talked about Jackson Heights, a neighborhood in Queens that was developed in the 1920s with five-story apartment buildings after the subway was extended to remote parts of that borough. After Plunz came Sanders, who discussed Tudor City, whose roughly 20-story buildings were created around the same time on multiple blocks east of the Chrysler Building, around 42nd Street and First Avenue. The area, which now overlooks the United Nations rather than factories, is where Sanders spent eight years of his childhood. Though Jackson Heights and Tudor City were and are divergent in terms of geography, scale, and demographics, the architects and developers behind them created very high-quality open spaces: U-shaped buildings and internal gardens in Queens, and two generously sized parks at the heart of Tudor City.

Photo: Michael Young

One historical tidbit from Plunz's presentation stuck in my head and seemed potentially relevant to the city's current affordable housing crisis. In 1914, the directors of the Queensboro Corporation, which developed Jackson Heights, visited Europe to look at new housing in Berlin and other cities. A precedent mentioned by Plunz was the Charlottenburg II project designed by Paul Mebes for the Berlin Civil Servants Dwellings Association the previous decade. The five- and six-story garden apartments composed in U-shaped configurations were echoed in the layout of numerous blocks in Jackson Heights. 

So if European housing influenced the design of some still-desirable apartment buildings in New York City, could anything be learned from the same today? Therefore, as an addendum to this review of the highly recommended Housing Density: From Tenements to Towers, below are a few projects — all in Zurich, where many high-quality cooperative housing projects have been built this century (there's even a book devoted to them) — that may provide lessons for the American city that 8.4 million people (including this writer) call home.

Zurich Lessons

Affordable Housing Langgrütstrasse by gus wüstemann architects, 2019
Affordable Housing Langgrütstrasse by gus wüstemann architects, 2019

Affordable Housing Langgrütstrasse consists of one building with nine apartments fitted into an open space between linear buildings from the 1950s. Setting back from the adjacent buildings resulted in a trapezoidal footprint, but architect Gus Wüstemann made the most of it by placing the larger 3-bedroom units on the wide end and the smaller 2-bedroom units on the narrow end. Most striking are the "courtyards" cut through the building, which are living spaces but feel like outdoor spaces due to the sliding glass walls, terrace extensions, and monolithic concrete so typical of contemporary Swiss facades. Most applicable here to New York City's situation is the project's infill of a former open space (I'm thinking of you, Co-op City) to create more density — but with creative, unexpected results.

Affordable Housing Langgrütstrasse by gus wüstemann architects, 2019

Kalkbreite by Müller Sigrist Architekten AG, 2014
Kalkbreite by Müller Sigrist Architekten AG, 2014

Though five years old now, Kalkbreite by Müller Sigrist Architekten (with engineering by Dr. Lüchinger + Meyer) is worth noting for the way it provides housing and other uses (offices, shops, dining, a cinema) above and besides a functioning tram shed. The oddly shaped lot, which also abuts a cut of the Zurich Railway, is dealt with through the massing of the building and the position of open spaces. The co-op apartments face a generous multi-level terrace covering the roof of the tram shed (photo below). By seeing a piece of infrastructure as inspiration rather than a limitation, the project is a surefire precedent for NYC, which has decked over railways for a multi-billion-dollar development but should consider more modest ways of building housing over/beside infrastructure.

Kalkbreite by Müller Sigrist Architekten AG, 2014

Escherpark by E2A, 2015 (Photo: Rasmus Norlander)
Escherpark by E2A, 2015

E2A's Escherpark consists of eleven buildings that replace a 1940s settlement by William Dunkel. The buildings, with slatted wood facades and matching operable shutters, are very appealing, but not as much as the open space between them. In fact, E2A describes the facades as "background to the vegetation," which has taken hold since the project's completion in 2015. When I visited in summer 2017 (photo below), the publicly accessible landscape was lush and was broken up by the occasional playground equipment or other recreational amenity. When Plunz mentioned that the internal gardens in Jackson Heights used to be publicly accessible but are now gated for security, I couldn't help think of projects like Escherpark that are inviting, intimate, and safe, thanks to the design of the landscape and the scale of the surrounding buildings.

Escherpark by E2A, 2015 (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)

Mehr als Wohnen «Haus G» by pool Architekten, 2015 (Photo: Niklaus Spoerri)
Mehr als Wohnen "Haus G" by pool Architekten, 2015

Last is Pool's More than Living "House G," which was designed in response to a "lack of outdoor space" — private outdoor space I'm guessing, considering the building overlooks the area's main square. The elevation facing the square has a composition of interlocking, L-shaped openings that correspond to double-height living spaces inside the units. These tall spaces — a rarity in apartments in any city — capture how important it is for quality to be considered alongside other quantifiable metrics, such as cost and density. If apartments with light-filled living spaces like these came on the market in NYC, I'd gladly join 50,000 other people for the chance to be put on a waiting list for one of them.

Mehr als Wohnen «Haus G» by pool Architekten, 2015 (Photo: Andrea Helbling)

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