When we think of public housing architecture in the United States, we often think of boxes: big, brick buildings without much aesthetic character. But the implications of standardized, florescent-lit high-rises can be far more than aesthetic for the people who live there. Geographer Rashad Shabazz, for one, recalls in his book Spatializing Blackness how the housing project in Chicago where he grew up—replete with chain link fencing, video surveillance, and metal detectors—felt more like a prison than a home. Accounts of isolation, confinement, and poor maintenance are echoed by public housing residents nationwide.
But American public housing doesn’t have to be desolate. A new set of design standards from the New York City Public Design Commission (PDC)—in collaboration with The Fine Arts Federation of New York and the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter—hopes to turn over a new leaf in affordable housing architecture.
Released earlier this month, “Designing New York: Quality Affordable Housing” discusses general best practices in planning affordable housing and provides case studies of successful affordable housing projects already completed in New York, many of which were designed by high-profile firms like Ennead and SHoP Architects. While the document serves as “a reference for New York City agencies and their applicants seeking guidance on affordable housing design,” it’s written in language accessible to people outside of design professions and has been publicly released with the goal of empowering “citizens and community organizations to demand design excellence in affordable housing projects in their neighborhoods.”
The report comes six months after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in November 2017 that he would build and preserve 300,000 affordable housing units by 2026. His plan—which is an updated version of a 2014 plan set to be finished ahead of schedule—will “preserve the affordability of 180,000 units of existing apartments and build 120,000 new ones.”
Architects designing those new units over the next few years will take cues from the design guide. But architects worldwide can learn from the document, too. Here are some key takeaways from Designing New York:
1. Be creative with massing and respectful with scale
Deviating from big-block high-rises that dominated American public housing for decades, Designing New York recommends breaking up massing within a building to allow variation in units and creativity within the zoning code. The Creston Avenue Residence in the Bronx uses unconventional massing to match neighborhood scale (mostly five-story apartments buildings) while maximizing the number of units offered. In that project by Magnusson Architecture & Planning, street frontages “align with adjacent older residences and echo their smaller scale, while the center portion, clad in metal panels, pulls back to create a generous covered entrance."
2. Design with the neighborhood in mind by integrating absent services
When low-income neighborhoods lack supermarkets with healthy options and venues for physical activity (like parks and gyms), consciously-designed public housing can fill in some of these gaps to improve the health of building residents. At Arbor House in the Morrisania neighborhood of the Bronx, wide stairwells are designed with natural light to encourage use; likewise, an on-site hydroponic rooftop garden meets residents’ produce needs.
3. Don’t make affordable housing “look” like affordable housing
Too often, the divisions between public housing and market-rate housing are made clear by visually differentiated structures. When affordable housing is marked with pejorative architecture, residents can become stigmatized or ostracized from the broader neighborhood. Les Bluestone, an advocate of innovative affordable housing and co-founder of Blue Sea Development Company says, “The best role that design can play is to not define buildings as affordable housing. Anything that we can do to get away from that helps the community.”
4. Structural innovation can overcome a difficult site for the benefit of residents
In a city as built-out as New York, many new affordable housing projects occupy odd parcels of city land. Frost Street Apartments in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for example, sits adjacent to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, a six-lane highway. In order to mitigate noise disturbance in the apartments, Curtis + Ginsberg Architects employed “high-performance windows and a heavy masonry and concrete structure.”
The Schermerhorn in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill offered similarly difficult conditions, sitting atop two subway lines. According to Designing New York, “building…over the two subway lines that run below the site required a truss and cantilever structure that took up the majority of the construction budget.” The result of building on a difficult site, though, is 109 units for formerly homeless people and people living with HIV/AIDS.
5. Green building is about more than just sustainability
Reminiscent of the vernacular courtyard apartment, Navy Green employs varied building forms (townhouses and high rises of varying sizes) around a central courtyard. Residents, in turn, have access to fresh air, natural light, and green space outside their window, regardless of their unit’s location in the complex.
6. Design won’t solve everything
The Designing New York report offers a promising paradigm shift away from confining architecture and towards community-building architecture, but it’s important to remember, in all of this, that well-designed public housing will help, not solve New York City’s housing crisis. The city continues to struggle with its definition of affordability, which relies on skewed median incomes for the New York area. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development has also come under scrutiny this month for their policy on resident selection. And as low-income New York City residents are pushed out of their homes every day, even a substantial commitment from the city to build new units will likely be unable to keep pace with displacement.
7. Different cities (and countries) need their own design solutions
While we should admire New York City’s attempt to provide dignified housing for low-income residents, architectural history shows us that public housing can’t follow a one-size-fits-all model. If the success of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation in Marseille, France in contrast with the similar (but failed) Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project in St. Louis, Missouri is any indication, different regions need different kinds of public housing. The Designing New York report is conscious of this fact, encouraging site-specific, resident-specific projects. Let’s remember that even if the Frost Street Apartments are great for Brooklyn, they shouldn’t be plopped down anywhere in the world. The lessons we learn from these projects’ attention to residential needs, however, should be broadly applied.