Low Rise High Density - Architecture - Domus
Low Rise High Density
 

Low Rise High Density

At New York's Center for Architecture, a housing typology at the periphery becomes the focal point of an exhibition rethinking how we live in cities.

 

Architecture / Greta Hansen

The low-rise high-density housing model is all around us, but rarely is it at the center of attention for architects. What is it? In the words of an eponymous exhibition recently opened at New York’s Center for Architecture, low-rise high-density is “dense enough to support public transportation, yet low enough to avoid dependence on elevators.”

Low Rise High Density

Top and above: "Low Rise High Density", installation view at the Center for Architecture, New York

No American city that developed with the turn-of-the-century streetcar is a stranger to densely populated low-rise urban fabric. But post-war United States pressed pause on the proliferation of low-but-dense housing as government policies, the introduction of the automobile, and changing attitudes brought single-family houses on one end and high-rise social housing on the other. By the 1960s, however, architects and planners were beginning to rethink and reintroduce low-rise high-density (LRHD) housing models as more livable alternatives to urban towers and suburban sprawl. These second thoughts are the subject of “Low Rise High Density”, an exhibition at the Center for Architecture curated by Karen Kubey and co-sponsored by the Institute for Public Architecture.

Low Rise High Density

Project for an Alternative Suburbia, Pennsylvania State University Department of Architecture, (1971. Sample design.) Assistant Professors: Richard Plunz and Lawrence Regan. Drawing by Timothy Hartung

This small but significant exhibition is somewhat like the antechamber of an archive, one which Kubey began amassing in 2008 with an Oral History Award fellowship from Columbia University’s Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture. Her oral histories with architects of seminal housing projects from the 1960s and 70s anchor the exhibition photographs, architectural drawings, and historical documents. 

 

This small but significant exhibition is somewhat like the antechamber of an archive

 

“Low Rise High Density” presents video clips and transcripts of extended interviews with members of Swiss architecture firm Atelier 5, and Kenneth Frampton and Theodore Liebman, architects of the Marcus Garvey Park Village housing complex (1973, Brownsville, Brooklyn). Atelier 5’s Siedlung Halen (1961, Bern, Switzerland) and the Marcus Garvey Village, by the New York State Urban Development Corporation with the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, are two of the most widely recognized low-rise, high-density housing projects of their era.

Low Rise High Density

"Low Rise High Density", installation view at the Center for Architecture, New York

Kubey’s conversations with these architects uncover mutual influences, and the architects she interviewed were responsible for bringing Continental European ideas to England and the United States. “The personal relationships between these architects, and their individual travels, had a real effect on what was being built and discussed,” explains the curator.

Low Rise High Density

Studio E Architects, UC Davis West Village, Davis, CA, 2011. Entry and overhang. Photograph courtesy of Studio E Architects

These interviews are published with the font and layout of film scripts and the quality of a transcript by typewriter. Speaking of the Bern’s Siedlung Halen housing project, Atelier 5’s Alfred Pini notes how “Halen is a kind of urban attitude. It's a compact attitude.” The project came to influence the important 1973 MoMA “Another Chance for Housing: Low-rise Alternatives” exhibition, which also featured Frampton’s and Liebman’s plans for Brownsville. “Low Rise High Density” is rooted in the past, but it is a subtle reminder that the subject matter demands attention towards the future. “This was the last in a long line of shows on housing and urbanism at MoMA, until 2012’s ‘Foreclosed’,” Kubey says, “and part of my mission is to resurface the issues from that show that are perhaps even more pressing today, in different ways, as Americans increasingly seek new models of multifamily housing.”

Low Rise High Density

"Low Rise High Density", installation view at the Center for Architecture, New York

The exhibition is also the home for three public panel discussions. The first, Beyond the Lawn, was held last 9 May, featuring architecture and planning historians Marta Gutman and Matthew Lasner, New York landscape architect Kate Orff, and California architect Michael Pyatok. Pyatok, who euphemizes “density” as “coziness”, explained the economic factors influencing LRHD, the relationship of land cost to the convergence of lower construction cost and the economic advantages of dense living. He believes that “the secret is to find ways of charming the public into feeling like there is still some DNA of their past” in a housing type that for economic reasons will be built regardless. Pyatok’s housing projects balance the needs of old, young, rich and poor, extending the legacy that the LRHD exhibition lays out as a challenge for our present cities. Future programs include panel discussions with Kenneth Frampton and Theodore Liebman (3 June), and Richard Plunz (26 June).

Low Rise High Density

"Low Rise High Density", installation view at the Center for Architecture, New York

The exhibition is the first public program sponsored by the Institute for Public Architecture (IPA), a new organization promoting socially-engaged architecture through urban research projects and a future residency program for design practitioners. “The IPA was formed to highlight and promote the idea that we have a civic, socially-engaged architecture,” said IPA founder Jonathan Kirschenfeld. “Showing projects like Marcus Garvey — and other relevant work at risk of being forgotten — is part of our advocacy.” Greta Hansen

Low Rise High Density

"Low Rise High Density", installation view at the Center for Architecture, New York

Through 29 June 2013
Low Rise High Density
Center for Architecture
536 LaGuardia Place, New York City