What Can Architects Do?

Tackling our housing crisis — from cost to supply to quality — is clearly a matter of policy and politics, but what can architects do? In our final Housing Brass Tacks discussion, architect and writer Susanne SchindlerJared Della Valle of Alloy, and Deborah Gans of Gans studio shed light on ways architects can and should engage these pressing problems.

#1 The Housing Question

“The housing problem is an inevitable feature of our modern industrial civilization and does not tend to solve itself. Supply and demand do not reach it, because the cost of new housing and the distribution of income are such that approximately two thirds of the population of the population cannot present an effective demand for new housing. And while some of the older housing is acceptable enough, a great deal is shockingly inadequate.”

So begins housing reformer Edith Elmer Wood’s 1934 article A Century of the Housing Problem; nearly another century later, it still rings true. Finding and affording housing are defining struggles of living in contemporary New York. “Housing crisis” has become shorthand for the myriad ways that the housing market renders basic shelter a commodity, and the resulting widespread lack of affordability, access, and equity. Despite implying an emergency, our housing crisis feels to many New Yorkers like a tiresome fact of life (or “inevitable feature,” in Wood’s words).

Fifty-five percent of the city’s tenants are considered rent burdened, spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing. At the end of February, 60,443 New Yorkers — more than a third of them children — slept in homeless shelters. Eighty percent of public housing’s roughly 600,000 residents suffered a loss of heat this winter, a symptom of the dangers and indigities posed by an estimated $25 billion of unmet capital needs. Still, 257,143 families bide their time on the housing authority waiting list for one of these deeply affordable apartments. (Private tenants also logged more than 125,000 complaints to the city about heat or hot water between December and February.) Mayor de Blasio has pledged to build or preserve 300,000 units of affordable housing by 2026, but housing advocates fear that’s not enough, by count or affordability. (The city defines “affordable housing” as serving families of four making up to $157,410 annually.)

While close to home, housing can be a confusing and, frankly, dull topic, requiring us to wade through a sea of acronyms, untangle knotty financial flows, and chart complex bureaucracies. Over the last year, The Architectural League’s Housing Brass Tacks series examined big ideas and essential mechanics in housing policy and development, breaking the issues into more digestible chunks. Eighteen speakers led 14 discussions about the (sometimes sorry) state of affairs in our housing system today, from the role of HUD to how housing finance works to the persistence of housing discrimination to the impact of Airbnb, and much more.

What can architects do? But where does design fit in? Architecture has an ambiguous relationship to the housing crisis. Architects are the translators of new housing from paper to built form, literally shaping the quality and experience of our daily lives. Yet typically hired once a project’s parameters have been defined, the budget determined, and the unit count and income mix set, does the architect have social or political power to address the housing crisis? Is there any imperative to do so? The affordable housing system is calcified, stuck with the scraps of a market that caters to the highest bidder and where public funds, available land, and other resources are increasingly scarce. While clearly a policy and political problem, the design community hasn’t found a straightforward or obvious way to engage these issues. At our final Housing Brass Tacks event, three architects described the different paths they chart in addressing the housing crisis — all agreeing that there’s no clear role or remedy, but that we have to try.
Mapping 14 public agencies for Future Ground. Images courtesy of Team Policy as Design (Gans studio, James Dart Architecture, Marc Norman, Lori Ann Girvan)

#2 Practice Model: Push your agenda and opportunistically work the system

Start with the community,” said Deborah Gans, “but you will not get it built unless you détente with the top down and think like a bureaucrat.” Gans has found success in using speculative design as a platform for policy change — shifting the system by understanding how it works and picking at the places where change is possible. “Policy is design: It sets the rules and determines how the money flows,” she said. For the Van Alen Institute’s 2015 Future Ground design competition on reusing vacant land for the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA), Gans was part of a four-member team — appropriately dubbed Policy as Design — that began their design process by detailing the responsibilities of 14 public agencies to understand their roles and find places to bust silos. The team found opportunities for interagency collaboration: “We surgically rejiggered [NORA’s] decision-making process to produce new outcomes, like property swaps that allowed them to aggregate what they considered to be undersized lots and then therefore make them into developable land.” Yet don’t be servile to the bureaucracy, she cautioned, and find a way for the project to serve your principles. Understanding and (partially) embracing the bureaucracy only goes so far, however. “Never, ever visualize a status quo you don’t believe in,” said Gans. Instead, “Think like an opportunist… You have to bring your agendas with you and find one to fight for and to draw.”

Sheepshead Bay mews. Rendering courtesy of Gans studio
What can the architect build? Gans’s persistent agenda is evident in her design for small, bungalow-lined pedestrian mews in a Sandy-damaged and flooding-prone part of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. It’s an unusual project for the city’s Build It Back program: Rather than working house-by-house, the project approaches each mews as a collective and replaces the cottages with full blocks of prefabricated row houses in order to maintain a close-knit community and institute water management systems that go beyond simply elevating the structures. “We started advocating for the role of prefabrication in affordable housing in 2005. And I finally am building some, in 2018, which are the final 100 houses for Build It Back,” said Gans. “People won't hear you the first time. You won't get enough support the first time. It won't get built the first time.” New York likes to build big — since 2012, the vast majority of building permits have been for properties with 50 or more units. Gans, however, suggests many as the alternative to extra large. “You don't need a huge budget or a huge building to make a large impact,” said Gans. “With apologies to Mao, let a thousand flowers bloom.” Find your mantra and repeat, repeat, repeat, she advised.

#3 Practice Model: Create your own projects

Rather that submit to the realities of being employed by a client, Jared Della Valle became his own client. With a decade’s experience heading an architecture firm (with Andy Bernheimer) during which he dipped his toe in real estate development, Della Valle dove in fully in 2006 by founding Alloy with Katherine McConvey. “The difference between an architect and a developer, candidly, is that we get to drive program,” he explained. “We get to make decisions about what do we need, and how do we think about it.” In reality, Alloy is five companies: development, design, brokerage, construction, and management. “The intent of the structure is simply to circumnavigate all of the rules that exist within the profession,” Della Valle said.

The 80 Flatbush development, steps from the city’s second largest transit hub at Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center, marries for-profit residential development with affordable units and a public school expansion. Rendering courtesy of Alloy

Following five luxury apartment and townhome developments, the firm is now embarking on a much larger project, both in physical scale and ambitions: 80 Flatbush is a 1.1 million square foot, five-building development in downtown Brooklyn pieced together by purchasing property and partnering with the city’s Educational Construction Fund (ECF) on a portion of the site occupied by a public high school. After accounting for costs and profit, which will mainly come from market-rate residential units, Della Valle asked, “How much can we afford to give away?” Alloy estimates $230 million of public benefit will come from two schools (the replacement high school and a new elementary school), 200 affordable housing units (proposed for 60 percent of AMI), a new cultural space, 3,000 jobs (half temporary, half permanent), and increased city land ownership thanks to the schools’ expanded footprint.

The project, which has garnered controversy mainly for its height and size, isn’t a “silver bullet,” said Della Valle. But it uses the potential and resources of a growing, high-cost city — density, public land, and air rights — to address housing supply and affordability. “I get most annoyed with people who want some alternative future, but they don’t do anything about it,” said Della Valle. “So in my mind, it’s do something, act, or go talk to someone else about it.”

What’s an architect, anyway? “The traditional definition is [that architects] design buildings and are sometimes are involved in the construction of those buildings. But I like to think of it the way that the rest of the other industries that co-opted the word ‘architect,’ do,” said Della Valle, “which is someone who is responsible for envisioning or inventing and realizing a project, whatever that project is.” He advocates for embracing that broader definition and championing nonstandard business models to increase the agency of the architect: “We are thinkers who have the capacity to make change and to take ownership of those things.” Despite being known as a development company, nearly everyone who works at Alloy is an architect.
The House Housing project compiles document, events, and essays in the history of entwinement of architecture and real estate. Screenshot via the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture

#4 Practice Model: Don’t practice

For Susanne Schindler, “Architecture never exists independently of the forces that make it possible financially, politically, socially. Therefore we should never speak of ‘pure form’ or see it independently of all this other stuff.” Trained as an architect, in recent years Schindler has worked as a writer and researcher, analyzing the intersection of policy and design in housing. She argues that too often we focus on the tangible qualities of architecture — the physical form itself — while ignoring those fungible qualities — the financial, political, and social conditions — that the building is contingent on.

As the curator and lead researcher for House Housing: An Untimely History of Architecture and Real Estate, a three-year project of Columbia University’s Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture, Schindler analyzed the ways in which architecture — both as cultural artifact and professional service — intersects with real estate development. House Housing asked, “How might anyone with a vested interest in architectural design and a commitment to addressing our time’s most pressing social concerns reconcile the two, if at all?” Perhaps the project’s most important conclusion was to expose policy, finance, and design as part of a single system. “Housing is the key nexus in the question of inequality,” said Schindler, and as “architecture is what makes real estate real, architecture is thus inevitably implicated in creating inequality.”

So, Schindler asked, why are architects with clout not speaking out? Pointing to a full-spread magazine advertisement for Waterline Square, a five-acre luxury development currently under construction on the Upper West Side, that prominently features architects Rafael Viñoly, Richard Meier, and Bill Pedersen, she questions why architects whose name can sell a product don’t seem to advocate for affordable housing. “When you have that status, you can shape the conversation,” Schindler said, and it should be used to question the project’s underlying assumptions.

This ad for the Waterline Square development (published in the New York Times Magazine on September 24, 2017) trades on the reputations of high-profile architects to market its luxury development. Photo courtesy of Susanne Schindler
What should architects do? Schindler laid out three suggestions for how architects — acting as citizens as much as professionals — can consider their impact and chart a course forward: 1. “Learn to talk about the tangible and fungible at the same time, resorting neither to linear causalities nor to claiming that one has nothing to do with the other. 2. Conduct research that describes and analyzes what is at stake, but refrains from making recommendations for action. 3. Then decide what action works for you. Write, vote, invest, organize, pay taxes, refuse to pay taxes, or run for office. You may worry that then you will no longer be an architect. But you will.”

#5 A Particularly Thorny Question

Complicating the question of the architect’s role in the housing crisis is the lack of consensus about what the politician, developer, and citizen can or should do. As Gans and Schindler both pointed out, there are clear ethical arguments for architects to consider abstaining completely from certain types of work, such as designing prisons or the border wall. But we need housing — especially well-designed housing — badly, making the housing question a far subtler one. “Building housing is in and of itself a public good, whether it’s for rich people or poor people,” Gans argued. Moreover, since building housing is a lengthy and extremely expensive proposition, and the architect often a late arrival to the party, it may be hard to make a value judgment about individual architects’ individual projects.

Gans suggested the value of a collective movement in architecture: “Before we overthrow any system, we have to organize ourselves around a shared set of values and operations.” That “shared set of values” is essential (if difficult) not only for finding ideological common ground, but even for setting the terms of the conversation. What are the sticking points in the housing system? Is it the difficulty of securing bank financing? The scarcity of subsidies? Perverse tax incentives? Building codes and regulations? Agency turf wars? (All of the above and more, to be sure — but they need to be articulated and prioritized.) “I think to even get on board we have to know what we’re talking about, what part of the system isn’t working or why isn’t it working.” said Schindler. Della Valle added, I’m only scratching the surface as to what the challenges are.”

What can architects do? You decide. “There's something about our profession which makes you curious to solve a problem,” said Della Valle. What happens when architects turn that skill to tackling thorny social or political issues?" Architects' well-honed visualization and presentation skills can also serve them well. Gans made a forceful argument for the power of visualizing possibility: “The ability of the architect to project an untested future in words and drawings is, I think, their greatest asset and agency,” she said. The image is “filled with content that implies lots of policies.” In the Housing Brass Tacks series, we’ve presented many housing problems, and a few solutions: remove housing from the market, whether by making it public, limited equity, part of a land trust, or something else; protect and organize tenants; root out housing discrimination. As for architects who want to address the housing system’s failings? Define your agenda and see what fits. In Schindler’s words, “Start redesigning the rules of the game.”

Housing Brass Tacks

Reports from an ongoing, biweekly series of informal conversations with scholars and experts engaging complicated topics in housing policy, hosted by The Architectural League.