The month of June saw the opening of a major exhibition on the works of Le Corbusier at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the signing of a contract for a $2.2 million apartment in Lincoln Towers, about 20 blocks north of the museum. What, you may ask, do these events have to do with each other? Why are they in the same sentence?
In my mind they are inextricably linked.
When I was an architectural student, we were taught that architects influence social change. This was heady stuff which we obviously ingested wholeheartedly. Le Corbusier, one of the most important designers of the modern era, approached architecture as a way to enhance and restructure modern living. His schemes that caught the imagination of city planners and civic leaders proposed high-rise buildings surrounded by open green space in order to provide offices and housing units with lots of light and air, a respite from the formerly dense urban fabric. The open space could then be used for recreation, gardens and cultural facilities. This idea caught fire, given the label of “towers in the park,” and replicated throughout the world.
Much post-war housing, including publicly-funded apartment buildings constructed throughout American and European cities, were high rise buildings that sprouted from the middle of parking lots and open land. These “towers-in-the-park” were blamed for the urban ills and social dysfunction of the 70s and 80s through today, especially in poverty-stricken neighborhoods. Behind this accusation was the assumption that architecture guided the fate of people and cities, and that high rise buildings surrounded by open space was devastatingly wrong for families of all incomes and especially for the poor.
In short, because Le Corbusier provided the theory, Le Corbusier shouldered the blame.
That design was the cause for the crime and deterioration surrounding public housing was the theory that Oscar Newman put forth in his persuasive book, Defensible Space (1973). He stated that its open space was a no-man’s land, too dangerous and inhospitable to provide recreation and enjoyment. The poster child for this conclusion was Pruitt-Igoe, a 33-building low-income housing project in St. Louis, Missouri, which in 1972 was spectacularly imploded when city officials deemed it beyond repair. (See UrbDeZine, March 14, 2012, Movie Review—The Pruitt-Igoe Myth).
Newman’s analysis discounted or rationalized away those buildings that were architecturally similar to the public housing model. In New York (where Mr. Newman’s research was based), people eagerly put their names on years-long waiting lists to live in buildings such as Lincoln Towers, Peter Cooper Village and among others. Today, those buildings are still sought-after—both rentals and co-ops—their landscaped grounds pleasant interludes in the crowded city.
The architectural difference between them and their public housing descendants is scant. Meanwhile, the value of Lincoln Towers apartments continues to mount. Consisting of almost 4,000 apartments in six, 29-story buildings on 20 acres, this housing was originally built as upper middle-class rental housing by Robert Moses as part of the Lincoln Square Urban Renewal Area that created Lincoln Center in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was converted to co-ops in the mid-1980s.
The New York City Housing Authority recently proposed to remove some of the maligned open space by building on select parking lots and open space around public housing buildings to, not surprisingly, a great chorus of noes from residents who want their open space to remain. In a tacit acknowledgement that coveted market-rate and public housing are architecturally similar, tenants are afraid that their buildings will go be converted to condos, as has happened with other income-restricted housing.
Meanwhile, the fate of housing that was to counter the ill effects of the towers in the parks has not been that sanguine. Pleading “guilty” in the face of demolition crews, architects and planners responded to Newman’s critique with another building type called “Low Rise High Density.” Marcus Garvey Village (1976) in Brownsville, Brooklyn, tried to point the way to more accommodating housing and was built according to Defensible Space’s specifications—a series of small, low-rise buildings with a limited number of apartments per entry, close connection to the surrounding grounds, and small courtyards among other design features. According to a June 1, 2013 article in the New York Times, this housing fared no better than the worst of the the high rises.
Perhaps it’s time to say that architecture can’t change the world, that often sociology and other factors trump the built form. But architects have a hard time letting go of the sense of their importance. Just this past month the New York’s Center for Architecture hosted an exhibit of Low-rise, high-density housing “as an alternative to suburban sprawl.”