In discussion with Calvin Tomkins for a 2013 profile in The New Yorker, David Adjaye spoke intensely on the significance of his Sugar Hill Development. “Context,” said Adjaye, “is so important, not to mimic but to become part of the place. I wanted a building that acknowledges its surroundings.” The recently-completed project is the brainchild of Ellen Baxter, leader of Broadway Housing Communities (BHC), a non-profit that has made strides to create innovative housing schemes in Upper Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. In an era where mixed-used developments are routine, Sugar Hill adds new dimensions to the typology by uniting affordable apartments, an early childhood education center, offices for the BHC, and the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling.
In conjunction with their full building review written by Rob Bevan, The Architectural Review has produced this video which introduces the broader public to the tenants, allowing us to better understand the building’s use, intentions, and the design philosophy.
It is perhaps still too early to tell if Sugar Hill will achieve the success it intends, but judging by the initial reception of tenants, and Ellen Baxter’s accomplishments with similarly altruistic projects, it is likely bound for praise both planned and unexpected. Thus far, the largest criticisms have been with the design itself. In his review, Bevan calls attention to this, postulating:
Does this severity amount to boldness or is it just grim? Many commentators think the latter.
The dark concrete facade, the color of gray slate or charred wood, has striations marks that appear random, but in the right light and at the right angle, reveal themselves to be a recurring pattern of abstract blooming roses. Adjaye took the motif from the cornices and door pediments of adjacent townhouses – buildings that also informed Sugar Hill’s serrated facade. Criticisms aside, Bevan acknowledges, “It’s a classic Adjaye with a lineage back through his arts office at Rivington Place, Shoreditch and his early Dirty House and Elektra House.”
And if The Architectural Review's video is anything to go by, criticism of the building's architectural presence has not undermined the project's civic virtues. Baxter, who has been working in social advocacy for decades, has seen first hand the flaws of New York’s homeless system. Things are meant to be different at Sugar Hill. Only time will tell if Baxter and Adjaye’s efforts can overcome the stigmas and past-misfortunes of public housing, but positive reception from tenants and users is an early-indicator of a shift in a typology often sidelined from architectural care and ingenuity.
Read Robert Bevan's full review of the the Sugar Hill Housing Development at The Architectural Review.