18 May 2010

Learning from New York – The Tenement Building

New York City marks the last of the three major cities in which I have lived thus far. This is home to perhaps the richest and most complex history of housing I have yet explored. Manhattan alone is home to a vast array of housing types and lifestyle options. The Tenement building symbolizes the way housing developed from early immigrant times through the adaptive reuse of many of these historic structures today.

A typical Tenement facade

The island of Manhattan has represented a roller coaster of real estate development since immigrants first started flocking to this land through the present day. The relatively small footprint of this land in comparison with the overwhelming density of people wanting to live on this prime real estate has created, throughout history, a dynamic of skyrocketing price points and plunging quality of spaces.

One of the earliest examples of this phenomenon is the Tenement Building. This architectural style first began appearing in the 1850’s – long before housing standards or enforcement procedures were established in the United States. These buildings evolved as a result of landlords making efforts to maximize their rents by increasing the density of their properties – often at the sake of human comfort and sanity. In an effort to accommodate the maximum number of people in the smallest amount of space, many necessities of healthy living became obsolete. These buildings sprang up in areas of the lower east side of Manhattan and were occupied by a tidal surge of working and lower class immigrant families, arriving in America in search of a better life.

The Tenement Building can be loosely defined as a structure of five stories, built on a plot measuring twenty-five by one hundred feet in area. Often as much as ninety percent of this plot was occupied with built structure, leaving little space for outdoor comfort, air circulation, or lighting. Often, only rooms facing the street offered windows, and back lots became filled with waste and debris. At the earliest inception of these structures, there were no regulations in place to require plumbing, electric, or fire prevention or escape, and as a result the earliest tenants of these buildings often went without all of these seemingly essential components of design.

A typical 'dumbbell - shaped' Tenement floor plan

Many hazards were associated with these designs, the dominating factor being fire hazard, but also including disease and health issues. As it became increasingly apparent that these living conditions were unsuitable for human society, regulations began to pass, laws were put in place, and eventually a regulatory system was established to improve conditions in Manhattan and throughout the United States. The culmination of these movements became the Tenement Act of 1901 – the first governance of its kind. This sent minimum size requirement, required indoor bathrooms and plumbing, and most importantly established the Tenement Housing Department to enforce these mandates.

This history of housing in New York City is as rich and storied as any aspect of America’s largest urban metropolis. It is a city that draws flocks of new residents each year, and must continually adapt to meet the needs of this ever-expanding population. As the urban structure of New York grows and expands, it adapts to a society that is increasingly aware of healthy living standards. Manhattan continues to set standards for density of living, and thanks to acts and reinforcements like the Tenement Act of 1901, is able to do so in positive and adaptive ways.

12 May 2010

Book Release: The L!brary Book

The Architectural League held a panel discussion tonight focusing on key players in the L!ibrary Initiative Project. To quickly summarize, this movement began in New York City in 2000 with lofty goals of retrofitting every public school in the five Burroughs with not just a space for books, but a dynamic and interactive containment of learning and imagination. Since that time, the initiative has worked in three phases to make its way though over fifty city schools, creating attractive and thought-provoking spaces in each through an interdisciplinary collaboration of the highest degree. This initiate has become the largest public-private endeavor in history, with the Robin Hood Foundation (a private organization) teaming with city agencies, architects, and builders to create not just individual libraries, but a motion of excitement and a passion for learning opportunities for entire communities.

I can merely gloss over the achievements and accolades surrounding this large of project with a single blog post. Rather, I hope to be able to capture the excitement and enthusiasm for public change that I witnessed tonight and pass it along to others. When one contemplates the physical form of a library, it is easy to neglect the deeper symbolism behind such a space. As the panelists pointed out this evening, it is often easy for a library to become a place to store books - a place one goes to get something....perhaps the equivalent of a grocery store. However, the library can, and must, be much more than a place to access and store information. A primary objective of 'The L!ibrary Initiative' became to create spaces that encouraged creation and exchange. A variety of factors contribute to this over-arching goal, which the opening speaker and author of The L!brary Book, Annoradha Iyer Siddiqi, did an excellent job of outlining.

Throughout the process of 'reinventing the library' these steps were followed:

1. Redefine Mission:
How can a new library better serve its intended community?
2. Rebuild:
Renowned architects were recruited (all working probono!) to create truly engaging designs. Spaces were carved out of existing building structures, often combining two or three classrooms in a centralized location. This gave the new library a prominent and influential position in the building and ensured that each school was dedicated to this new space.
3. Replenish:
Many generous contributions were made, and new books and technological equipment was provided. This step encompassed a mission to combine technological advancements with a traditional library structure to aid in the creation of an advanced age of education.
4. Retrain:
A library space cannot fully come to life without a trained an knowledgeable librarian to guide its process. As the library evolves, it becomes not just a static resource, but a dynamic space. For this reason, excellent classroom teachers were chosen to achieve Masters of Library Science degrees in order to better foster this new environment.
5. Reasses:
Much talk was given to quantifying the success of such a project. Perhaps my favorite point of the evening was that this initiative is impossible to quantify. For we are not striving merely to increase test scores and graduation percentages, but to create a quality of education and physical space that will foster growth and a sense of achievement within a community. It is too early in such an endeavor to truly judge the success of this mission, but as the founder and executive director of The Robin Hood Foundation pointed out - the hundreds of people and millions of dollars dedicated and poured into this initiative are not doing so to receive gratification or witness quantifiable results to know that it is a worthy mission. Rather, all of these individuals and organizations are dedicated to this mission because they know it is the right thing to do.

This was probably one of the best panel discussions I have attended, and that number is quite high. I was impressed with each individual's ability to portray their role and point of view, while feeding off one another to delve into aspects of the initiative in detail. It was a discussion orbiting around a collective passion for this project and for the mission of establishing in every child's life the opportunity to learn and create. In a way, this panel symbolized the overall mission of The L!ibrary Initiate, for it is when we are able to work together to initiate ideas and discuss problems that we are able to produce great work and benefit society as a whole.

The L!ibrary Book

I was so impassioned by the lively discussion this evening that I immediately purchased The L!ibrary Book by Annoradha Iyer Siddiqi. As a young architect who practically lives in front of an ephemeral computer screen, this commitment speaks for itself! I encourage you all to look into this informative read as well.

06 May 2010

Learning for New Olreans - Shotgun Style Homes

This post continues my urban tour of housing trends and influences in America. I bring you the New Orleans Shotgun home.

a typical Shotgun facade

The indigenous New Orleans housing model, the shotgun house, reigned during the period following the Civil War through the 1920’s. A true ‘shotgun’ home consists of a single story structure featuring three to five rooms in a row with no hallways. These homes are usually no more than twelve feet wide. It is these features that inspired the ‘shotgun’ title, due to one’s ability to fire a shotgun from the front door of the home, strait through and out the back door without interferences.

The shotgun home has a rich and complex history, including many variations upon this theme as well as modern advancements to this simplistic design idea. However, it is this basic design and layout from which modern societies can continue to draw inspiration. There are many practical necessities that drove the creation of the shotgun form. These solutions to circumstantial problems actually prove to be excellent sustainability initiatives.

For instance, shotgun models are long and narrow to meet the needs of a population largely without personal transportation vehicles or modern air conditioning. By utilizing narrow lots of no more than thirty feet wide, more people are able to live closer together, thereby reducing reliance on individual transportation and increasing one’s ability to utilize already established public routes. In turn, but reducing the width of each structure, one is able to create increased natural cross-ventilation. A structure consisting of narrow, continuous spaces can be easily ventilated in a hot and humid climate. In addition, kitchens were commonly found at the rear of the house in order to contain heat generated by cooking to a singular area. These seemingly simple concepts are often lost to modern society’s technological means.

a typical Shotgun floor plan

The shotgun housing model fell out of favor during the 20th century, often seen as a symbol of a lower or working class populations. As society modernized, so did its housing forms. However, the shotgun home remains a symbol of a simple time, a New Orleans tradition, and many modern variations on this theme have been developed in recent years. Regardless of what the future of housing may bring, we must hold on to these early forms of successful habitation as proof and inspiration that our obstacles can be overcome and sustainable living can be achieved through relatively modest means.

04 May 2010

Learning from Chicago – The Bungalow

Inspired by a new writing assignment and in honor of the places I have lived thus far in my life's journey, I am beginning a loose 'research project' into the evolution of housing in major urban centers throughout the United States. I begin with my hometown - Chicago - and delve into the origins, influences, and future development of the Chicago-style Bungalow.

a typical Chicago city block

There is a reason that most large urban populations over time develop a distinct housing style. When a singular housing style is established, it can in turn be easily reproduced for lower costs and at faster speeds. Materials become easier to obtain in large quantities and builders become more efficient and adept at repetitive tasks. In addition, a consistent form of housing enables an entire class of society to achieve the ‘American Dream’ in a simple and standardized way. This concept is readily apparent in the Chicago-style bungalow.

The bungalow first appeared in India, where it was built for British subjects. From this point, the squat, rectangular style was popularized in California and, from 1910 to 1940, swept across Chicago’s landscape. These forms became so popular that a ‘Bungalow Belt’ soon formed and one-third of single family homes in the city were built in conformance with the traditional bungalow style. These homes were composed of standardized fixtures and became the first symbol of affordable single-family living for the middle class.

a typical Bungalow floor plan

In many ways, the Chicago Style Bungalow serves as an embodiment of Midwestern values. They were built for a rapidly growing population of families flocking to a city booming with manufacturing and industry professions during the first half of the twentieth century. Key characteristics of a Chicago Bungalow are sturdy brick construction, a roofline perpendicular to the street, one or one and one half stories, detailed windows and stone work, and sheltered entries and porches to protect from harsh Chicago weather conditions. These structures developed as a segment of the Arts and Crafts movement in America, emphasizing craftsmanship and a strong connection to nature.

These are ideas and qualities that are still held in high regard in Chicago and the Midwestern Region as a whole. It is now evident the simple ideas that drove the creation of the Chicago Style bungalow are characteristics that will remain prominent in working class families as our cities grow and progress into the twenty first century.

02 May 2010

A Tale of Two Parks

Central Park

New York City is home to two of our nation's most impressively and intricately designed public parks, the famous Central Park in Manhattan and the lesser-known Prospect Park in Brooklyn.

These two parks, both designed and executed during the mid-19th Century mark the advent of the fundamental idea that urban structures must contain public parks, equally accessible to all inhabitants. This concept, one often taken for granted in modern societies, formed as a result of a collaboration between Frederick Law Olmsted and architect Calvert Vaux. These two highly skilled men teamed to enter a competition to design first Central Park, later Prospect Park, and eventually a great selection of public spaces throughout the United States. In doing so, these men created the concept of landscape architecture and, in effect, established the first landscape architecture firm.

Prospect Park

It would take a great deal of time to familiarize oneself with detailed layout and characteristic qualities of either park. Central Park covers an area of 840 acres, while Prospect Park spans a mere 585. However, from preliminary observation, it becomes quickly apparent that the two parks share many defining qualities and similar ideas. A key component of each design is the ability of topographical changes to create unique experiences and allow visitors to create individual paths of travel. The varying levels of terrain and trails mimics architectural forms in its ability to layer space in such a way as to create an entirely new form altogether. This concept is embodied by the elegant bridges strategically placed throughout both parks.

As one studies these structural pieces, the similarities are enough to tie each design back to its creator, as Vaux was largely responsible for these elements. Yet, each bridge mark a singular instance, grown out of its surroundings rather than standing in contrast. Each bridge is able to work harmoniously with both the natural elements that it serves to connect as well as create a unifying structural feature spanning the distance of over 1000 acres of public land and two burroughs of New York City.

Central Park

Prospect Park

28 April 2010

Characters in an Urban Society

This is one time I do not feel guilty shamelessly plugging another website's entry. This deals directly with the current exhibit at SUPERFRONT, a contemporary architecture collaborative located in Brooklyn, New York, of which I have recently become involved.

SUPERFRONT Gallery - Jimenez Lai

Jimenez's drawings accomplish the remarkable task of compiling perhaps the most complex issues surrounding urban structures and architectural language and streamlining his own thoughts on these matters into coherent trails of visual communication. As one progresses through this series of drawings, an attachment develops not only with the human characters featured, but also with the built structures beginning to form. A thought that resonates with me in the above video is when Jimenez refers to 'architecture as characters'. I believe it important as an architect and designer to acknowledge the fact that buildings are not passive structures, placed in the background of our everyday urban lives, but rather active players in an ever-changing scene. The push and pull of urban topographical advancement plays a vital role in public interaction. In contemplating the future of society as a whole, one must take into account the decay, resurrection, and creation of built form. For as the world's population tips toward a dominant modern city culture, we all become integral characters in the tale of urban evolution.

04 April 2010

New Yorleans State of Mind

When contemplating the true essence of a city and its inhabitants, I cannot name two places more fundamentally opposed than New Orleans and New York City. Which is why I was so very excited to participate in one of New Orleans oldest rites of passage right here in my new home, a second line parade. To give a very brief history of this event, a second line forms for many occasions: births, deaths, holidays, celebrations, mournings, or just a sunny afternoon. It is an impromptu parade in the truest sense of the word, for the only people actually part of the 'parade' are the select few initiating the event, always including members of a brass band. The rest of said parade are merely people the revelers pick up along the way and form a 'second line' of paraders, in other words people strolling along behind the band and in effect forming a second line of marchers.

This type of event symbolizes a selection of New Orleanian values: music, comradery, and relaxation. Participating in such an event across the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City highlighted a true clash of cultures. At its climax, the parade probably reached about two hundred people. Understandably, this large of a group, along with a few tubas, dominated the path of travel in both directions. Of course, this made New Yorkers not involved with the event more than a little frustrated. New York is a culture built around a fast pace of life, a driven energy, and the desire to get from point A to B in the fastest possible way. As bicyclists and runners encountered this second line parade, many became frustrated and turned around, a few got angry and forced their way through the slow moving crowd, but an even greater number were captured by the light-hearted sense of togetherness the parade emitted. Bikers dismounted their rides, joggers slowed to a stroll, and together we crossed the bridge in true New Orleans style.

The second line was lead across the bridge by the ever energetic DancingMan504... a Treme resident. Check out his website for a more informative history of the second line and some videos of his sweet moves.

and he dances on long into the afternoon...