Free from stigma and institutional homogeneity, these good looking buildings are in a class by themselves

There's a Section 8 housing complex just up the street from my house in San Francisco. Four of its street-facing garages were painted recently (pictured below) in four different color configurations best described as Institutional Drab. It's as if each color selected (such as Swiss Coffee, second picture down) was drained of its vibrancy upon contact with the walls. And these modest buildings, though freshly painted just a few weeks ago, already look dated, decrepit even.

This soul-sapping approach to aesthetics is par for the course for affordable housing, which is meant not only to look low-budget but also low-effort. Conventional thinking on affordability proceeds from the misguided premise that anything well-designed will be, and look, expensive so it follows that design should not be a priority. Further, the argument goes, anything well-designed will be too appealing to eligible to tenants, thus discouraging them from ever leaving. So affordable housing should not only be cheap, it should look cheap. As a result, much affordable housing is more punitive than homey, by design.

Fortunately, there are a number of architects and developers bucking this long-running and convoluted mindset. Architects, builders and developers have succeeded in designing affordable housing free from stigma and institutional homogeneity, creating projects that express hope and possibility. Some notable examples:

Sierra Bonita Affordable Housing, West Hollywood, California (2010)

Photo courtesy Tighe Architecture

The very antithesis of institutional is architect Patrick Tighe’s Sierra Bonita building. Rivaling any luxury condo project but costing just $14 million for 42-units, the energy-efficient, mixed-use building has a courtyard garden, integrated photovoltaic panels that double as shade canopies for the building’s terraces, and a gorgeous laser-cut aluminum screen façade. The 50,000 square-foot structure serves people living with disabilities and houses non-profits such as AIDS Project Los Angeles on its ground floor. 

Armstrong Place, San Francisco, California (2010)

Photo by Brian Rose

Low income housing especially in poor neighborhoods often defaults to overtly symbolic aesthetic conventions (say murals of Martin Luther King, Jr. or cloyingly bright preschool paint colors). Architect David Baker, by way of contrast, not only uses color to brilliant effect at Armstrong Place, he incorporates such atypical elements (that really should be standard on any multi-family building) as allotment gardens for families to grow food and flowers, a rain garden to manage and clean stormwater biodynamically, and it's served by the city's efficient light rail system.

 

Design 99, Detroit, Michigan

Most of what we see of Detroit’s housing is captured in the oft-maligned photographs known as “ruin porn.” Design 99’s Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert work with neighboring artists and architects to purchase dilapidated properties in the city and transform them into affordable housing, art studios and exhibition spaces. The duo recently teamed up with Dutch arts organization Fonds BKVB to bring international artists to the neighborhood as well. 

 

Via Verde, the Bronx, New York (2011)

Of this recently completed subsidized housing project in the Bronx, New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman wrote, “Like all good architecture, it is handsome. Unlike too much, it goes out of its way to be healthy.” In stark contrast to the proliferation of “green luxury” condos popping up all over New York, here sustainability isn’t used as a marketing tool but rather as a way to create what residents wanted: a healthy place to live. Developed by Phipps Houses and Jonathan Rose Companies with Dattner Architects and Grimshaw to exceed LEED Gold standards, the project includes green roofs, solar shading, rainwater harvesting, has room for growing fruits and vegetables, and provides open space, bike storage, and a fitness center for residents. 

 

Glenmore Gardens, Brooklyn, New York (2007)

Through New York’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s “New Foundations Program,” a high profile team of architects including Alloy, Bernheimer Architecture, Briggs Knowles, Architecture Research Office, and Lewis Tsuramaki Lewis, collaborated to create Glenmore Gardens, these sleek and modern semi-detached two-family homes which came in at the near unheard construction costs of about $110 per square foot.

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