The Alfred E. Smith Houses are having a moment in the spotlight. Their waterfront location in the Two Bridges neighborhood of Manhattan was hit particularly hard by storm surge during Hurricane Sandy and thus has become a site of study for those exploring how to adapt or fortify our coastal built environment. The housing complex’s potential for green infrastructure interventions was a central reason why the Smith Houses were selected for inclusion in Typecast, the ongoing Architectural League / Urban Omnibus investigation into architectural typologies including “towers-in-the-park.” The land surrounding the Smith Houses is also included in NYCHA’s controversial plan to develop market-rate housing on eight of its campuses to generate new revenue for much needed maintenance and repairs. A few weeks before NYCHA announced their plan, students in the M.Arch program at the School of Constructed Environments at Parsons The New School for Design had been prompted to consider the potential of the undeveloped vacant land surrounding the Smith Houses tower blocks in a design studio focusing on housing in New York City.
The Parsons Housing Studio — the second in a series of six design studios that explore “the natural and social ecologies that make up the contemporary city” — asks students to examine physical and social norms of dwelling in the urban environment, including formal demands of site, structure, and program, across scales of the unit, building, and city, as well as influences and precedents of culture, technology, history, theory, and regulatory frameworks. This year, Parsons Housing Studio leaders Andrew Bernheimer and David Leven challenged their students to create visions of housing that “actively confront antagonistic relationships between those that dwell in a city and the environment that is rapidly changing it,” at the Smith Houses site. Below, Bernheimer and Leven explain the studio’s post-Sandy understanding of resilience in the particular context of the city’s public housing system and show how their students confronted the environmental, social, and municipal, as well as architectural, demands of creating housing in New York City. —V.S.
This year’s housing studio is positioned in direct relation to momentous paradigm shifts in the ways that New York City approaches resilience relative to climate change and urban natural systems. Following Hurricane Sandy (which occurred during the first few months of these students’ Master of Architecture education and which disrupted an already intense initiating semester), various initiatives and projects have arisen in New York and along the cities of the eastern seaboard. This studio positioned itself as one such reexamination, encouraging the students to explore new ways of designing architecture in the face of daunting environmental parameters and seemingly dire expectations. Central to the studio was the focus and attention to the needs of urban dwelling with a renewed approach to resilience, both environmental and architectural, reframing the way that housing is conceived.
The topic of “Housing and Neighborhoods” comprises the first section of New York City’s PlaNYC 2030, a document envisioning the future metropolis. The introduction to “The Plan” proposes a “bold agenda to build a greater greener New York,” and clearly states a commitment to affordable, sustainable, transit-oriented housing. This studio envisioned strong links with infrastructure and natural systems while addressing the necessities of aggregated, dense dwelling, the traditions of architectural housing relative to New York City, and concepts of neighborhood. Further, within the context of public housing’s dire need for systemic upgrading, the studio considered the vacant land surrounding tower blocks on the water’s edge in Manhattan — contested ground in terms of real estate, aesthetics, and environment — as a place of opportunity. As most of New York City public housing (owned and run by the New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA) is on lots that are significantly underbuilt, with large swaths of green spaces surrounding them (“towers in the park”), there exist massive development rights that are being left untapped. This developable square footage (Floor Area Rights, or “FAR” to those in the development sphere) presents opportunity, an untapped, city-owned asset. The students were challenged to contemplate occupying this ground without compromising it, with inhabiting a village without disrupting it, with altering an urban environment without simply creating defensive architecture. The studio resulted in visions of affordable social housing that actively confront antagonistic relationships between those that dwell in a city and the environment that is rapidly changing it.
The studio proceeded in three stages. The first exercise was narrative-based and site-less; students envisioned a compressed space for two occupants. Without limitation on materials or specificity about who these occupants might be, the students were left to craft the story of two dwellers, establishing their characters’ relationship while choreographing their interactions, all within a compact amount of space. This was a space of negotiation.
Next, students analyzed the given site within the city – in this case the land surrounding the Alfred E. Smith Houses on Manhattan’s Lower East Side along with the neighborhoods that encompass and abut this 12-tower, 22-acre complex. The Smith Houses, built in the early 1950s, contain over 1,900 apartments and over 5,500 occupants, of which more than 30% are elderly. Site analyses were done at coarse, medium, and fine grains, and visually qualified and quantified the conditions of the place, the means of access to and from this location, the demographics, and the environmental / natural parameters. The analyses were catalytic, meant to draw forth discussions of program, social pressures, and infrastructural need within the context of the place.
The third (and final) assignment was the aggregated housing design, for which pairs of students had ten weeks of time. Students designed an approximately 100,000-square-foot building of mixed unit types along with a public market space, all in a location radically impacted by the inundation from Sandy.
Below, we highlight four emblematic projects from the studio in depth and present images from the seven remaining teams to illustrate the breadth of the work completed during the semester. All eleven proposals, to their credit, grappled strongly with issues of deep importance to our city and confronted the changing realities of dwelling at the city’s edge.
Coincidentally and just a few weeks into the running of this studio, NYCHA announced their intentions to offer land-leases for this site (and several others) to qualified developers. Their goal is to support the development of a mixture of affordable and market-rate housing on this under-developed acreage, utilizing the proceeds from the land-leases to fund the upkeep and modernization of the associated public housing. The work of these students thus presaged a vital, critical process related to social and environmental opportunism.
In contrast to the repetitive tower block precedent within the Alfred E. Smith Houses, Chandler and Smith proposed an infrastructural framework of low-slung clustered houses, unified by a new, elevated topographical datum. Fabricated of heavy timber framing and vertical service conduits, this datum is therefore both architectural and mechanical, functioning as both landscape and infrastructure.
Highly articulated and almost skeletal in appearance, groupings of homes are lifted, creating a new domesticated ground surface marked by dense habitable clusters and relieving voids. Residents ascend to a network of pathways that lead to individualized houses surrounding shared courtyards, a typology that markedly contrasts the stacked and dense mid-century high-rises surrounding the site.
Anticipating an imagined inundation, the underneath is at inception a sheltered market space, compressed in nature and at the scale of the adjacent FDR Drive. This civic space is confrontational in this original form, yet admittedly sacrificial and ultimately an extension of the river, not of the island. Chandler and Smith imagine this below-space as a developing ecosystem, the territory of water, not of land.
In analyzing the site and the surrounding service economy, Alshamali and Savelyeva determined to create a magnetizing social connector. Their building aggregates these identified amenities and utilizes them to punctuate an aggressive, yet deferential, structure.
As opposed to Chandler and Smith’s “City Deck” project, the horizontal neighborhoods of that scheme are, in this project, rendered vertically as a congregation of dwellings surrounding openings in the building façade. These voids each border individual social programs such as a gym, a hairdresser and barber shop, a playground, a library, and an incubator workspace, in an effort to gather residents at catalytic nodes.
Formally, the building defers to the existing Smith towers by leaning, thus allowing natural daylight into the court created by its own new presence, while also maintaining the view corridors back to the river to those residents already ensconced in the tower blocks. This “lean” is articulated by offset slabs, which themselves offer a series of outdoor balconies for individual homes as well as shared garden spaces for the common use of the building.
Boldly confronting the stigmatized forms of the NYCHA housing, Goot and Liu replicate the “dog-bone” shape, but with transformed circulation, carved spaces, and flexible homes. This project is intensely optimistic, challenging assumptions that public housing is pre-compromised by a basic and inhumane geometry. The project dissolves preconceptions about typology and place, utilizing a cleverly planned series of alterations and interventions (both within and without the building) to release vast architectural and urbanistic potential.
Recognizing the generic and unresponsive nature of circulation within the four-pronged tower blocks, Goot and Liu enact a simple shift of common hallway space to the north side of the building. A single-loaded corridor therefore facilitates a brighter, safer common hall along the façade. Gardens are carved into the block starting most invasively at the base in order to provide space for the market, and thread throughout the towers.
Materiality is also reconceived, as their first tower (and, in the future, those surrounding it) is wrapped in a series of bamboo louvers grown on-site. The landscape between the towers thus forms a new urban forest enmeshed in the NYCHA complex. The growth of the site obviates the re-figuring of all 17 towers, and the site itself becomes the generator of building material, transforming underutilized ground into an essential source of the re-making of community.
Looking closely at the patterns and programs of the neighborhood, Stewart’s and Ghosh’s proposal for a cracked serpentine bar presents a resilient and productive ground on typically overlooked residual space at the ground plane of the housing tower. In their scheme, ground becomes recreational as well as productive, and this injection of play continues within the building as pulled communal programs within a tower mass. Shared spaces are disrupters and magnets where the housing community can gather.
Striated and productive, their ground plane proposes a pattern of planted agricultural strips that underscore the articulated bar of the building, broken by the large market program. The market is comparably linear, like the building, and slopes to allow ambulatory and green movement up into the building, the initial infiltration of extra-housing program within their raised structure.
Within the tower block, a single-loaded corridor provides for innovative duplex units and highly articulated public program spaces. These anomalous volumes track up the façade as distinguishing objects, and engage programs for common use. These incursions are set off against the manipulated form of a bent bar and offer a strong, energetic, and differentiated element to the generic forms of the surrounding NYCHA structures.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.