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The Case for Low-Rise Density

It sprung up 40 years ago as a more livable alternative to high-rise public housing. Are there lessons we can adapt today?

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Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

According to the most recent US Census data, this is the first time since before the 1950s that more people are moving into New York City than are moving out—bringing the estimated population to a record high of 8,336,697. Now that is high density. So it is only fitting that we should start directing our focus toward different housing models that accommodate the city’s changing need for space. (Mayor Bloomberg’s micro apartments, anyone?)

A new exhibition at the Center for Architecture, and co-sponsored by the Institute for Public Architecture, provides a good starting point. “Low Rise High Density,” 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.

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Detail from the catalog for Another Chance for Housing: Low-Rise Alternatives, Museum of Modern Art, 1973. Rendering by Craig Hodgetts. Marcus Garvey Park Village site plan by the Urban Development Corporation with the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies.

“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. Her proposal won her an Oral History Award fellowship from the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture, as well as a GSAPP Post-Graduate William Kinne Traveling Fellowship, which gave her the opportunity to conduct research in various countries. The results of her extensive investigations are the content of the exhibition.

Modeled a bit after suburban homes, these low-rise high-density buildings reached their heyday in the 1970s. 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. These homes offered all the amenities of urban living—access to public transportation and cultural amenities—with a more open, less claustrophobic environment.


Marcus Garvey Park Village, Brownsville, Brooklyn. Photo by Karen Kubey.

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The most celebrated example of this model is Brooklyn’s Marcus Garvey Park Village, from 1973. (Indeed, the year Marcus Garvey opened to the public, the Museum of Modern Art launched an exhibition hailing its achievement called "Another Chance for Housing.")

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.

Upon entering the exhibition space, visitors are immediately presented with examples of low-rise high-density housing projects from around the world, starting from the earliest: Siedlung Halen in Switzerland, from 1961, and NYC’s Marcus Garvey Park Village. Audio clips of interviews with project architects augment the sensory experience by allowing viewers to read, see, and listen to the historical material.

"Low Rise High Density" demonstrates that these buildings are not only as important now as they were 40 years ago in their heyday, but necessary. With the city still recovering from Hurricane Sandy, this is a "discussion that has to be had, and frequently," says Rick Bell, Executive Director of the Center for Architecture, AIA New York Chapter.

And considering that MoMA has influenced building types through its architectural exhibitions, what better way to jump-start a discussion than through an exhibit? "Having an exhibition rather than just a panel discussion … prompts people to reflect longer, take things away in their minds [and] come back," says Bell. That is what the Center for Architecture aims to do: In the days following the exhibition opening, visitors will have a chance to return and discuss the issues that "Low Rise High Density" brings up during three public programs on May 9, June 3, and June 26.

Top image: Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, Oxley Woods Houses, Milton Keynes, Bucks, UK, 2007. Street view. Image © 2013 Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners LLP.

This post originally appeared on Architizer, an Atlantic partner site.

About the Author

  • Sabrina Wirth is a candidate for the M.S. Critical, Curatorial, and Conceptual Practices degree in Architecture at Columbia University’s GSAPP.