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October 14, 2014

What Sugar Hill’s “tough” architecture says about low-income housing

October 14, 2014

Low-income housing is not typically associated with high-end architectural design. The recent completion of New York’s Sugar Hill Development, designed by noted architect David Adjaye, questioned this breach.

Though response to the building’s unusual structure has been mixed, New York Times’ art and architectural columnist Michael Kimmelman speculates that Adjaye is asking: “Why is it that this is ‘cool’ for rich people but ‘tough’ for poor people?”

But what exactly does “tough” mean?  And when is being “tough” called for? 

When the tough get going

This is not a new story. The bricks and mortar of housing have been inscribed with social, economic, and political meaning throughout our nation’s history. This story continues to be told in each new housing development.

In the current issue of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Cityscape, Columbia University architecture professor Gwendolyn Wright summarizes two myths about architectural design and housing in the United States: that it is simply a matter of aesthetic preferences, and that its benefits should be reserved for those who can afford them. The consequence of these myths has been “assisted housing that is cheaply built and banal, even depressing.”

As guest editor of Form Follows Families: Evolution of US Affordable Housing Design and Construction,” I concur with Wright’s hypothesis. Pushing it further into the detailed design and construction of the homes occupied by low-income Americans, we can see how that housing stock is a physical symbol of all of our national housing policies and local housing markets.

Kimmelman’s review of Sugar Hill lays another brick in the complicated masonry that is the relationship between subsidized, low-income housing and architecture. It raises critical social and economic issues in the newspaper’s Arts section—rather than the Local pages, which typically tell the city’s housing stories.

The story behind the walls

Broadway Housing Communities, the nonprofit that developed Sugar Hill, has been in the business of permanent supportive housing since 1983. Having produced and managed nearly 300 units in Manhattan’s Washington Heights and West Harlem, Broadway Housing Communities was able to gather extensive philanthropic support and public and private finance to acquire the West Harlem site to develop the 124 affordable apartments, 25 of which are reserved for formerly homeless families.

With support from the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, over 50,000 applications were submitted to the lottery for the limited number of Sugar Hill units—a staggering ratio that speaks not just to that city’s struggles with housing affordability, but also to the challenges of assembling financing for such an endeavor while balancing the costs of building and maintaining the physical structure.

The expenses associated with hiring architectural professionals and their desired designs often tip that balance. But, as Deane Evans notes, good design can actually save construction and maintenance costs.  And ultimately, there is more to design than added cost.

As Kimmelman rightly points out, Adjaye “has squeezed a lot into the building.” The recently completed mixed-use development accommodates the 124 affordable housing units as well as a preschool for local area children and a soon-to-be-completed Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling, which will include 15,000 square feet of exhibition space for local artists—all in a 13-story structure on a half-acre lot.

The critic gives the designer—now an internationally recognized name in the field with choice commissions like the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture—his due, pointing out the building’s striking structure and its juxtaposition of concrete panels embossed with abstract roses and windows of staggered sizes.

But Kimmelman also voices concern over the functional design of the living units, designed almost as if by “afterthought” to the main structural elements. Kimmelman’s foregrounding of the functional aspects of good design is well placed, as are his mentions of the building’s program design and the real costs and benefits these entail.

He concludes that “… subsidized housing always involves trade-offs. The housing shouldn’t be one of them.” MIT’s Lawrence Vale and his colleagues frame this sentiment in blunt question: what should affordable housing afford?

The story about the walls

Architectural design has been used and abused toward the end of providing housing for low-income and disenfranchised individuals and families.

Assisted housing in particular has been the site of significant architectural and policy struggles. Modernist architectural visions for public housing dominated midcentury development, like St. Louis’ Pruitt–Igoe designed by World Trade Center architect Minoru Yamasaki. More recently, the introduction of “New Urbanist” design principles in HUD’s HOPE VI program for revitalizing public housing in the 1990s further linked design to housing policy.

If well-designed, constructed, and maintained, affordable housing is a vital economic and social asset. If not, it is a physical symbol of modern urban blight, a contributor to precarious living situations, and a symptom of bureaucratic inefficiency and market disregard.

Good design is defined in many ways for subsidized housing: from being functionally useful for residents, to ensuring long-term durability for developers and investors, to integrating into surrounding neighborhoods, and to providing aesthetic dividends for the community.

Every subsidized housing development frets over design and construction costs, but the numerous intangible benefits that are—or should be—realized are rarely told.

The stories need to be told to all city policymakers, not just the design community.

Photo credit Adjaye Associates

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