Is There a Future for Low-Rise High-Density Housing?

An exhibit that's just opened at NYC's Center for Architecture examines the brief history of a housing type that incorporated elements of suburban housing at higher densities. Can low-rise high-density houding provide a model for affordable infill?

"'Low Rise High Density' is the brainchild of curator Karen Kubey, executive director of the IPA, who began her research on the topic while a student at Columbia University’s GSAPP," writes Sabrina Wirth. The exhibit, "examines the history of a typology that sprung up 40 years ago, when the need for space and better living conditions led to alternatives to high-rise public housing."

"Modeled a bit after suburban homes, these low-rise high-density buildings reached prominence in the 1970s," explains Wirth. "This type of housing serves two functions: 1) to intensify land use as urban growth escalates by providing higher density; and 2) to improve living conditions by using suburban housing characteristics such as more open space, more light, and a closer connection to the ground."

"Through a curated set of photographs, architectural drawings, and original oral histories, 'Low Rise High Density' brings into context a housing model that lacks significant contemporary scholarship.

Full Story: Goodbye, Micro-Apartments: ‘Low Rise High Density’ Presents An Alternative Housing Solution



Michael Lewyn's picture

On false dichotomies

When a city is as expensive as NY or SF, it needs more of EVERY kind of housing.

Better Models for Low Rise High Density

There are much better models than the very limited selection in this exhibit:

-- West Village Houses, right in New York, where the exhibit is being held. This was initially backed by Jane Jacobs and other who stopped the proposal to redevelop the West Village with high-rises. It is of such historical importance that it should obviously be included in any exhibit about how low rise high density housing was built as an alternative to high-rise housing projects.

-- Brandevoort by Rob Krier in the Netherlands:

-- Le Plessis-Robinson in France (my favorite, of course)

This exhibit is at the MOMA, and it seems to be blinded by ideology to any alternative that is not in the modernist style. It is true that this is "a housing model that lacks significant contemporary scholarship." But we are not going to get thorough scholarship by ignoring all the examples of this model that do not fit the modernists' stylistic preference.

Incidentally, I have to disagree with Michael's statement that "it needs more of EVERY kind of housing." Do we need housing that follows the modernist model of towers in a park? Lots of that was built in NY and elsewhere in the 1950s and 1960s, and most has been a failure. Of course, the most famous failure was

Michael Lewyn's picture

recipe for "improved towers in a park"

1. Build towers in a park.
2. Then bulldoze the unloved, unused parks (which I suspect most such greenspace is) and put more housing where the unused, unloved park used to be.

Voila- the best of both worlds!

More Ingredients for the Recipe

You are forgetting a few things, like:
-- create a walkable street grid that integrates the project with the surrounding neighborhood.
-- orient the buildings to the sidewalk.
-- locate shopping and services within walking distance of housing.

I have thought about this while looking at many 1950s and 1960s housing projects in New York. It generally would be very difficult to integrate the project with the surrounding street grid, to bring them together as a walkable neighborhood.

You probably know that NY city is selling some of the unused land in its housing projects to be developed as market-rate housing, so we will see how well they do. I don't think they will come up with anything quite as attractive as the West Village neighborhood that Jane Jacobs saved.

NYU is already doing a pretty poor job of designing infill for the empty space of the housing projects just south of Washington Square Park. I think it would be quite possible to add new buildings that integrated the IM Pei designed project with the surrounding streets, but much more difficult to integrate the project to its north with the surrounding streets.

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