Tuesday, May 21, 2013


Hello All:

Today I'd like to present a solution to the the issue of affordable housing.  This solution is in the form of an exhibition titles "Low Rise High Density" mounted by the Institute for Public Architecture (http://www.instituteforpublicarchitecture.org) which recently opened and running through the end of June at the Center for Architecture in New York City.  The exhibit examines the history of the low rise high density that has been evolving over the last forty years, when the need for space and better living conditions led to a search for alternatives to high-rise public housing.  The exhibit has been reviewed by Sabrina Wirth, a candidtat for a Masters in Critical, Curatorial, and Conceptual Practices in Architecture at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation.  Ms. Wirth compactly presents the findings of curator Karen Kubey, executive director of the IPA, who began extensive investigations in several countries on this topic while still a student at Columbia University GSAPP.

Ms. Wirth begins her review by citing recent US Census Bureau data which estimates that for the first time since pre-1950s more people are moving to New York City than moving out.  This puts the estimated population at a record high of 8,336,697.  This contradicts a previous post, "Hipsterurbia," which tracked the trend of people moving out of the epicenter of cool, Brooklyn, for the suburbs as Manhatanittes were moving and driving up the cost of living.  Over eight million people in New York City, where do you put everyone?  What lessons can a city like Los Angeles glean from this?  Ms. Wirth states, "So it is only fitting that we should start directing our focus toward different housing models that accommodate the city's changing needs for space."  I find this statement already problematic because New York City is not as sprawling as Los Angeles and land is at a premium.  Thus, spreading out horizontally may not be the best solution.

Low-rise high-density buildings first came to prominence in the sixties and seventies as an alternative for the high-rise public housing projects in the United States.  They were dense enough to support public transportation but low enough not require elevators.  This good for the elderly and disabled residents.  They brought together the benefits of urban and suburban living.  This building typology served two functions, intensify land use urban growth escalates by providing higher density and improve living conditions by using suburban housing characteristics such as more open space, light and closer connection to the ground.  This lovely model is evident in abundance in Los Angeles in places like Village Green.  Ms. Wirth cites the example of Marcus Garvey Park Village in Brownsville, Brooklyn (1973).  Marcus Garvey Park Village contains 625 garden-style apartment homes which range from studios to five-bedroom units.  The housing complex was designed by noted British architect Kenneth Frampton and the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies following the "Low-rise, high-density" prototype for family in need of housing, incorporating such suburban amenities as a private front door and courtyard space. (http://www.marcusgarveyvillage.com/about-us.html)

The exhibit presents a curated set of photographs, architectural drawings, and original oral histories which brings context to a housing model that lacks current scholarship.  Ms. Wirth postulates that "Low Rise, High Density" demonstrates that these housing projects still have relevancy today as they were forty years ago.  She further theorizes that in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, and now, the tornadoes in Oklahoma, that this building typology needs to be discussed more and more.  True, but not all cities are conducive to horizontal sprawl.  New York City falls into that heading.  The hybrid of urban/suburban amenities is a promising solution to creating new affordable housing, especially for the elderly, disabled, and families with children.  However, in order for this idea to work properly, the necessary conditions have to be met.  Some of the conditions are, who is your target tenant, what are their needs, privacy, health, safety, sanitation, open space, access to transportation, and so forth.

Sabrina Wirth does an excellent job of neatly summarizing the highlights of the exhibit but misses the real practical issues that this building typology brings up.  For example, how were the everyday issues of transportation addressed?  Where were these housing estates located in proximity to city core?  What did the interiors look like?  These may seem like banal issues but to the residents they are concerns.  Too often in the haste to create some novel approach solution to a pressing urban concern, architects, planners, and developers ignore the everyday matters.  If the low-rise, high-density projects are to work they do have to address the real needs of the tenants not satisfy the vanity of the architects, planners, and developers.    

In metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, where the population is growing, it may not be possible to put these novel housing estates in the city center because of the amount of land they use.  In Los Angeles it is possible to create these typologies because the metropolitan area extends out beyond the core.  Thus, my concern for this typology is that they will end up like the ubiquitous high-rise housing projects, placed on the periphery of the city center without access to mass transit crucial to low-income resident needing to get to work or appointments.  In order to accommodate the need for access to public transportation, the cities and counties will have to place reliable bus lines near these housing estates.  Los Angeles is a city that was built, in part, by transportation.  First, the Pacific Electric Railway then the freeway system.  However, not every low income resident has access to a car, thus the immediate need for reliable and affordable mass transportation if low-rise, high-density projects are to be successful.  The climate is also a factor.  In Southern California, the warm climate is conducive for outdoor activity.  Thus, open, green spaces and courtyards are an excellent amenity.

The low-rise, high-density building typology deserves serious consideration.  When done properly, it can be tremendously successful.

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