Once a specialist genre, the speculative city has gone thoroughly mainstream. Some have doubled down on urban boosterism, while others have warned against indulging in “urbanist fantasies” during and after a period of widespread suffering. Familiar ideas about what design can “solve” have been deeply complicated by a growing recognition of huge, systemic inequities that predate (and presage) our current crises. Beyond being a vehicle for either optimistic or skeptical predictions, to Galen Pardee and Lindsey Wikstrom, the future is a prism for thinking through a more immediate question: How can architecture be useful to people and communities? For the past year, the two designers and educators have been engaged in something of an architectural thought experiment: a century-long extrapolation of how a single block in Manhattan’s Lower East Side might evolve in response to social and environmental challenges, from gentrification to climate change. Featured as part of the Urban Design Forum’s gallery of ideas centered around the question of city life after coronavirus, Nine Reciprocities, as they’ve titled the proposal, may be visually compelling, but it’s equal parts speculative and self-reflexive. Below, Pardee and Wikstrom walk us through “a series of spatial, material, financial, and social platforms for expanding existing communal life” in a city that hasn’t quite figured out what’s next.
Over the past century, New York City’s buildings have weathered summers and winters, hurricane floods, and blazing heat — as well as protests, recessions, depressions, and ticker tape. They also hold in their bricks and timbers the embodied human and environmental energy of their extraction, fabrication, and construction. As architect Carl Elefante quips, “the greenest building is the one that’s already built.” And where there are already buildings, there are already people. Does the city need “master” builders and planners, or restorers and adapters?
The architect is just one actor in the physical and social lifecycles of buildings, where “design” is never a one-way directive. Architects are meant to listen, and to build buildings that are good listeners too. How can architectural practice help keep communities intact in the face of climate change and rising inequality? Nine Reciprocities is a 100-year vision for a self-sustaining block in New York City. Through vertical adaptive reuse of existing buildings, we imagine a series of spatial, material, financial, and social platforms for expanding existing communal life. We looked at nine different ways that architecture can serve existing forms of mutual aid and collectivity over this time span: Assembly, Daycare, Gym, Workshop, Store, Office, Greenhouse, Bank, and the Skin.
Our speculations are focused on Manhattan’s Community District Three (CD-3), an area that includes the Lower East Side, Two Bridges, and Chinatown. Each of these neighborhoods faces distinct socio-economic and socio-political challenges; the threat of displacement and exclusion looms equally over all of them. Worrying signs that CD-3 may be transitioning to an exclusionary neighborhood, where low-income tenants are unable to afford rent, are already becoming visible: One Manhattan Square tower demolished a Pathmark grocery store frequented by the middle-income residents of Two Bridges, in addition to obstructing views of the East River and Brooklyn waterfront. Despite ongoing opposition to One Manhattan Square, four more towers are still planned within the same block, while neighborhood groups such as The Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side organize actions against landlords and developers. Analysis from the Urban Displacement Project suggests CD-3 is one of the last areas of Manhattan to fully gentrify. Their data show that large parts of the district are at risk of, or undergoing, gentrification, while remaining areas are deemed “exclusionary” for low-income residents. For these reasons, we thought a representative block in CD-3 would be a useful site through which to explore forms of protection against displacement that might involve local architects, contractors, engineers, and residents alike.
By maximizing the block’s Floor Area Ratio (FAR), the community of workers, retirees, experts, and visitors inhabiting the block can expand their space through an “overbuild.” The existing structures range in height and age: one historic building from 1790 sits among others constructed between 1900 and 1920 using brick masonry, along with a few reinforced concrete structures built in the 1970s. But, before any overbuild begins, wood partitions, floors, and structural replacements are incrementally introduced, replacing aging building components within existing rooms and homes, extending the life of the block, improving its energy efficiency, and potentially extending the life of residents (wood is shown to improve indoor air quality and lower blood pressure). Community services are established within the vacant ground-floor retail, alleyways, and rooftops, where planning and protocols for care are discussed and designed from the inside out. Materials flow through the block and are refurbished, reinstated, or resold. Life becomes more circular. Eventually, three new terraced levels bridge across the existing buildings, and encircle the new courtyard at the center of the block. The additional housing is clad in a south-facing system of Trombe wall gardens, which use thermal mass to heat the building in the winter, stabilizing interior temperature and reducing energy loads, but also producing food and oxygen for the block. The shallow greenhouses provide time and space for gardening and learning about food, while north and east facing facades bring in a shared income through a series of billboards. The block becomes more resilient: circular structures of environmental and social resilience enable residents to engage in long-term community-driven planning, confident in their protection from displacement.
Nine Reciprocities is not a solution; rather, it is a means of exploring a new, more circumspect role for architecture and architects, which reiterates the profession’s commitment to craft and careful consideration of space, while adding a new dimension of material stewardship — all in service of an existing community’s needs and directions.
What if there was a place for making decisions together? A place for voting, sharing knowledge, and welcoming folks from neighboring blocks?
The block chooses to renovate an existing brick building to provide space for the Assembly, a meeting room where all community deliberations will be held and collective decisions made. Based on existing cooperative structures of self-governance, the block elects representatives from each building to meet on a regular basis.
What if there was a place for childcare? A place for empowering caretakers to avoid choosing between work and family? A place for equitable learning, and for learning how to help others?
The block decides to transform an existing building’s upper-story interior into a Daycare for the block and neighboring families. The construction process is minimal; a local architect is brought in to ensure compliance with local ordinances and help select child-friendly materials such as cork, felt, upholstered surfaces, and soft furniture.
What if there was a place for after-school games? A place for exercise and friendly competition?
The architect is called back again a few years later: this time, to expand the Daycare through the construction of an internal stair between two floors, and to convert the roof of the building into a shared Gym for the block residents. A modest addition, the Gym uses lightweight mass timber components to integrate into the existing masonry structure; a large garage door opens out of the expanded Daycare into a shared “backyard” created on the rear roofs of the block’s northern buildings.
What if there was a place for local repairs and apprenticeships? A place for teaching skills for rent offset, and for exploring creativity on the weekends?
A culture of do-it-yourself home improvement begins to take hold on the block, as residents share stories of renovations and expansions, and create communal tool kits for buildings of similar ages and layouts. A circular knowledge economy begins to grow, with lists of contractors familiar with the block’s buildings, and resources for efficiently navigating city bureaucracy to approve plans. The Workshop is a formal space for knowledge-sharing and intergenerational transfers of technical skills around building — and most importantly, maintaining — the block’s structures.
What if there was space for materials? Space to support free and future fixes, and for minimizing waste and maximizing building lifespans?
As the block becomes more acclimated to the cooperative structure, the Assembly decides to begin re-claiming construction and demolition materials and making them available for reuse in a material Store. The Store is a clearinghouse for residents to sell or buy leftover materials from their neighbors within the block or the neighborhood at large. Local contractors soon become adept at checking the Store for valuable stone, wood, and tile components, as well as adjusting their demolition practices to preserve as much material as possible for reuse within the block.
What if there was a small space for coworking with neighbors? A space that accommodates shifting work locations and lifestyles? A place that supports employment and reinforces the community’s skills through job training?
In order to make up for the area in the existing buildings already converted into communal spaces, the block considers expanding vertically to add more housing units; simultaneously, shifting workspace norms and the rise of remote working lead to calls for including office space for residents. The Office is a three-story mass timber overbuild above the older, existing buildings on the north side of the site, providing 25 residential units and ten co-working spaces for the community.
What if there was a place for oxygen production? A place for carbon sinking and vegetable growing? A place that guaranteed lower blood pressure?
The success of the Office leads to a second wing of overbuilt structures on the eastern perimeter; working in tandem with a local architect, the block hires a sustainability consultant who determines that the overbuild is suitable for Trombe walls. The Trombe wall Greenhouse is a continuous band of plants and greenery, capturing carbon and providing psychological benefits to the community while retaining thermal mass and lowering the overbuild’s energy consumption.
What if there was space for recordkeeping? A space for rent collection and coordinating shareholder health coverage? A space for emergency funds and block accounting for liability insurance?
As the scope and complexity of services within the block grows, a Bank is created within the timber overbuild to coordinate and centralize both financial and social services. The residents of the block can join together to negotiate communal health coverage, create rainy day funds, and record the day-to-day expenses of maintaining the block’s buildings. Shared spaces, such as the Office or Workshop, can be rented or leased to non-residents as agreed upon by block residents: the Bank records and traces new arrivals — temporary and permanent — as well as the social obligations of their tenancy.
The Bank also serves as a repository for sweat equity histories, logging services provided and reinforcing existing cultures of mutual aid and activism within the block’s local economies of labor and material. Drawing on the area’s history of cooperative housing, the block is imagined as a self-governing collective, using a “tenancy in common” financing model (popularized in San Francisco), which allows multiple people to “own” a single building and, in this case, write social service and sweat equity provisions for in-kind labor exchanges into ownership documents. For example, residents might have knowledge or services to share within the block, like wood craftsmanship, business development, or childcare. Their contribution becomes a pathway to building collective wealth, and expertise is honed and retained across multiple generations.
What if there was space for promoting a larger worldview? Space for exterior billboard income and a block stimulus? Space for interior wayfinding and promoting an internal barter system?
As the original population of the block ages into retirement, the community grapples with the question of how to provide for their elders without displacing them into retirement homes or assisted living facilities. A final overbuild, above the existing post office, provides a seven-story apartment tower, increasing the stock of available units on the block. Funds for the construction are raised by renting billboard space on the exterior facades of the overbuild. Internally, a system of wayfinding supergraphics allows for placemaking and identifiable homes.
All images by Galen Pardee and Lindsey Wikstrom
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.