Reinventing Public Housing- Proposals to Recontexturalize the NYCHA Superblock The failure of post-war low housing is also an architectural failure .The systemic demolition and application of a high-rise-in-the-park typology can now been defined as fundamentally anti-urban. But the scale of its achievement (in New York City 2600 buildings on 154 sites with over 400,000 residents) and its population’s lack of political leverage have allowed its destructive presence to languish, at least until now. New York City’s current residential building boom has tipped the balance. Whether for the potential to extract revenue from the superblocks excess of open space or the need for massive restoration after having passed their 50-year warranted life span, interest in finally doing something to address the anomaly of the public housing super block has arrived. Pratt Institute’s Undergraduate Architecture Department addressed just this problem with a studio called ‘Reinventing Public Housing’. Students were asked to examine ways that the low income super block site could be recuperated urbanistically so as to become a vital, interconnected part of the living city, rather than the stand alone, stigmatized, second ghetto that it is today. The site selected was originally a single superblock housing complex called the Fort Green Houses located on Myrtle Avenue across from Fort Green Park in Brooklyn. Constructed by the New York City Housing Authority between 1941 and 1944, it originally housed employees of the nearby Navy Yard during the war. Its buildings range from six to fifteen stories.
At the time Mayor Fiorello La Guardia called it the “most daring housing project ever attempted by this or any other city in the country.” Following the war production at the Navy yard declined and the complex followed suit. By 1958 it was the poster child for failed public housing with broken windows, cracked walls and elevators used as toilets. Divided into the Walt Whitman and the Raymond V. Ingersoll Houses to facilitate managerial oversight, they continue to stand out and apart from a gentrified surrounding neighborhood. The studio was comprised of four teams of two students. Each team had to address three critical issues: 1. The restoration of the idea of the street. The superblock site eliminated not only the actual streets of Brooklyn’s historic gridiron, but the very idea of the street –as something that is present in section spatially. Subdividing the superbloc
k again so as to introduce a more porous vehicular and pedestrian circulation system was the first step. 2. Reshaping the urban fabric in relationship to those streets was the second step. With the existing residential buildings we quite intentionally chose not to respect a 60-foot setback (typical for appropriate access to light and air) thus the lower floors had to be incorporated into the physical changes being proposed. Any displaced residential units were required to be replaced. This was the tactical decision that opened the studio up to concepts not previously considered, and to our thinking, is the real invention. 3. The third step was to delineate the newly defined territories of public space, semi-public space, semi-private space and private space. When the superblock took away the street it also removed the conventional understanding of the separation between public and private realms. Reintegration with the fabric must reintroduce or establish the more familiar clues to spatial usage. A critical part of this is to address the banality of the existing buildings. With these three prioritized issues, the students have proposed four different ideas for recontextualizing a superblock, low-income, housing estate. The schemes, while quite specific to their site can also be seen as prototypical, able to be applied to other sites in New York, other cities and even other countries. Project Descriptions - The Hyperblock scheme is also a perimeter block variation, clustering together the existing towers into more manageable blocks often around private interior courtyards. It also quite consciously creates a series of public courtyards that help to organize the clustering and distribute new institutional program such as a museum and skating rink. The Microblock scheme pushes the perimeter block to excess by allowing each existing building to determine its own individual block. By being simultaneously super porous but also discontinuous, the street system is self-regulating, appropriate for a residential neighborhood. Its scale is its ultimate urban invention. The Metastasized Block scheme does just this, doubling the existing number of housing units by connecting the existing towers to one another around what appear to be closed courtyards. The character of the site shifts from objects in a field to a maze of interior spaces. The lower floors are then removed to allow for a meandering ground plane punctuated by the residential entrance pavilions. The Knickerblock scheme, named after their precedent study due to its shared attributes, is a variation on the perimeter block housing type. It takes the existing low-income residential towers and clusters them into between two and six buildings. New vehicular streets are introduced to further break up the super block running north and south while a green pedestrian promenade runs east and west. The clustering is achieved by adding a two-story base or apron that connects the existing towers together offering street front commercial space and semi-private interior courtyards for the residents. Pratt Institute Undergraduate Architecture Fourth Year Design Studio - Frederick Biehle is an architect and an adjunct Professor at Pratt institute in New York. He is a fellow of the American Academy in Rome and practices in partnership with Erika Hinrichs. Student Teams - Michael Rosen and Yuli Huang Hillary Flannery and Kaifang Zhang Peter Kim and Han Kim Javier Marcano and Veronika Suarez Students are all in the fourth or fifth years of a five-year professional degree undergraduate architecture program.