In the 1970s, a state agency tapped some of the best young architects in the country for an ambitious affordable housing effort that—despite its flaws—could not be matched today.
Twin Parks, an affordable housing project in the Bronx, does not comport with expectations.
Principally completed between 1971 and 1975, its 2,250 units span numerous non-contiguous parcels. Aesthetically, it encompasses a range of experiments by notable designers and displays great skill and imagination in arrangement and use. Overall, it provides palpably better affordable housing than what’s typically offered in the U.S., and maintains an engaged community.
Twin Parks was perhaps the most unusual product of New York State’s singular Urban Development Corporation (UDC), spearheaded by then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller and chartered to commit resources and talent into the typical cut-rate concern of affordable housing construction. The UDC was overseen by Edward J. Logue and produced an unsung variety of projects across the state. Logue was well-known from prior urban redevelopment work in New Haven and Boston and his requests to architects, particularly young ones, were rarely refused. “One day I got a telephone call from Ed Logue asking if I wanted to be involved in a housing project at Twin Parks in the Bronx,” Richard Meier tells CityLab. “Of course I said yes.”
The UDC’s experiment bears a passing resemblance to the era’s efforts of film studios to grant greater freedom to artists in the creation of their product (and also involved similarly abrupt abrogations as the money ran out). If Roosevelt Island—located along the East River in-between Manhattan and Queens—was the UDC’s prestige production that enlisted marquee names (Philip Johnson, Josep Lluís Sert, and John Johansen), Twin Parks was an anthology notable for how many young stars it assembled before their apex.
In the Bronx, the UDC most notably tapped Meier, who would eventually go on to design the Getty Center and the High Museum of Art; James Polshek, Dean of the Columbia School of Architecture from 1972 to 1982 and architect of the Clinton Presidential Library; and Lo-Yi Chan, founder of Prentice & Chan, Ohlhausen, and campus master planner for Dartmouth College. These were architects who had only started independent practices in the mid-1960s.
The city of New York offered the UDC Roosevelt Island in return for taking on the Bronx project previously initiated by John Lindsay’s mayoral administration. City Hall, along with the J.M. Kaplan Fund and the Twin Parks association (an association of local religious organizations), aimed to develop underutilized sites in the Tremont and Belmont neighborhoods in the Bronx at the time. As Ted Liebman, former UDC Chief of Architecture recalls, “Logue accepted a few bad sites with the plum that was Roosevelt Island.”
“Bad” was not a description of the state of crime or poverty in the Twin Parks sites—which were in better shape than most city redevelopment concerns—but rather the physical challenges of these sites, which were overlooked in the substantial earlier development of the neighborhood. The plots run roughly along two north-south spines. One, roughly west of Southern Boulevard near the Bronx Zoo, consisted of scattered and mainly flat sites. The other sits along a sharp ridge that turns to rock cliffs, exposing the ice-age bones of the borough’s topography.
The infill of vacant or underused lots was a burgeoning fixation in the Lindsay era. It reflected an ideological reaction against the sweeping urban renewal efforts of prior decades and a timeless principle—it’s simpler to build on sites you already have than to acquire ones you don’t. This was a tool of Lindsay’s effort to stabilize low-income neighborhoods through housing, architectural historian Suzanne Schindler shared while conducting a recent Docomomo tour of Twin Parks. “The housing was to be low-scale and use infill sites in conjunction with rehabilitation of the adjacent properties,” she added.
“Vest-pocket” is one descriptor common to the era and frequently associated with Twin Parks. Its aim was to advertise civic authorities’ intention of modest tailoring to the urban fabric, forsaking the vast sackcloth patches that constituted the fashion of previous decades’ ruinous construction. This sort of infill was still often deliberately immemorable, designed to fill empty lots with cheap homes while leaving a neighborhood’s previous attractions intact. To avoid destroying whole neighborhoods was often enough of an accomplishment.
But the aims of Twin Parks were often more ambitious. The projects offer repeat demonstrations of highly thoughtful attention to their surroundings, which generally consist of a innovative-to-at-least-sturdy variety of smaller-scale multi-unit buildings ranging from three to six stories. These projects often aimed to replicate the rooflines of their neighbors, with taller portions set back or nestled beneath or adjacent to Webster Avenue’s cliffs and grade changes. They also, wherever space was available, aimed to provide open space to their buildings and the surrounding communities.
The constraints of these sites have been described by the architects as stimulating. Meier’s Twin Parks Northeast consisted of one full block and portions of a few others already occupied by buildings. He built to complement existing streetwalls: his buildings fit seamlessly into street frontages on several sides. The flexibility of site use was a welcome feature to Meier. “The height could vary and we could provide a public space not just for the residents but for the community.” The building’s main 16-story tower is centered around a public plaza, and several buildings were pierced through to provide easy access to this and one other public space. Both are purposefully surrounded by buildings.
It’s not just the site plan but also the facade of Meier’s project that displays unusual care. He had hoped to utilize larger windows but was limited by budget, so instead he relied on variable and often doglegged fenestration to artful effect.
Retail space was incorporated at the base of several buildings. One featured a single-loaded corridor designed to provide ample light and views. A laundry room was located an upper floor next to a roof courtyard.
Polshek, who designed two buildings at Twin Parks Southeast a few blocks south of Meier’s work, spoke of his interest in dodging the dull typical surfaces of affordable housing, citing Davis Brody’s work in New York as well as Dutch and British social housing as inspirations. He tells CityLab, “In the case of my building I wanted to enliven the solid brick monochrome which was generally being used for housing. So I alternated—I had a dark brown and I had an ivory colored brick block.” Polshek describes the UDC as “an enlightened client,” which “gave us a chance to explore the challenges of each site.” The local lord was less than pleased initially on finding Polshek’s striped design. As Polshek recalls “Logue visited the site and he just flew off the handle—he said, ‘Who did this? Tear it down!’ but it was too late. Many years later he told me it turned out pretty terrific.”
To the west, Prentice & Chan, Ohlhausen’s Twin Parks Northwest site was perhaps the most difficult. Chan recalls “lots of changes of grade and rock outcroppings. We used that to do something interesting.” Their design produced a 3-sided building surrounding an inviting terraced public space designed by landscape architect Terry Schandelbach. The building is 11 stories on its lower side, six on the upper. It attracted wide praise upon completion as the best of Twin Parks for its skillful use of this difficult site. Chan replies modestly to the building’s praise, “I would say that the design almost designed itself.”
He stressed their aim to produce something that engages with its surroundings: “We worked to make a project that was urban, that was indoors and outdoors.” Their design included small private courtyards for units at the bottom of the elevation, and a cut-through from the lower elevation to steps to the interior courtyard.
Another 19-story building they designed on a nearby site had insufficient room for public space but offered innovative internal arrangement and appearance. Its fenestration is even more irregular than Meier’s buildings, offering a reflection of its interior plan. Their press was for a skip-stop building, with elevator entrances every other floor, furnish duplex units, and, through eliminating every other corridor, to provide increased living space. The challenge was designing structural columns to run through the building as “in a skip-stop building every floor is different. Contractors, accustomed to pouring a concrete floor every other day and [having] identical site plans on every floor [would say,] ‘You can’t do that.’”
But they did. Chan recalls frequent squabbles over efforts to design beyond the bare minimums that had characterized this construction. “Cost is always an issue but the people at UDC supported us at every turn. These were people who particularly valued design.”
Innovations in internal arrangement and discernment in a difficult site plan are both traits visible a few blocks south, in Giovanni Pasanella’s Twin Parks West. It’s a U-shaped building that sits directly beneath a cliff and skillfully shifts its bulk to respect its neighbors. Its two legs adjacent to the rock face are 16 stories but appear considerably shorter from above, and its main, lower frontage is nine stories and already set back from the street by a park and parking so as to appear less domineering.
If importing elements of traditional lower-scale housing to tower units was a common experimental effort of the era, from Meier’s single-loaded corridors to Prentice & Chan, Ohlhausen’s private courtyards to nearby Riverbend’s lofted semi-stoops, Pasanella’s smuggling of the split-level model into a 311-unit apartment tower is a step beyond and even more unusual. The benefit of this effort was providing window frontages on both sides of the building and affording cross-ventilation. A unit was accessible on the recent Docomomo tour with an unexpected set of steps immediately facing a door off of an otherwise average apartment corridor.
A larger press on the part of the UDC was to enlarge units and provide more agreeable and accommodating common space: laundry and community rooms at accessible and sunny locations instead of leftover spaces. Liebman, who joined the UDC after several of the Twin Parks projects had been launched, notes, “We were building beautiful buildings and great architecture but the standards we were using were not permitting liveable architecture.”
Suzanne Stephens wrote in Architectural Forum in June 1973:
At the risk of simplification, the most apparent characteristic of each of these buildings is that the architects have emphasized one of two principal design considerations at the expense of the other. If the architect has designed a building with highly popular public spaces, the apartment units tend to be ordinary; if he has devised an ingenious apartment layout, the site plan is nondescript.
This was, of course, a considerable improvement over conventional public housing, usually distinguished by both mediocre unit size and public areas. Contractors had already been selected who often balked at innovative solutions. Liebman instituted a live-in program. “I had some of the top brass live in Richard Meier’s apartment in a 2-bedroom unit for one week in the summer,” recalls Liebman, to perceive what the actual experience of life in these units was like. Realizations from the live-in program included detailed insights, like where phone booths should be located and what furniture would or wouldn’t fit into the apartments . His active press was to expand units by 10 to 15 percent.
It would be an overstatement to say that all went according to plan.
The Urban Development Corporation’s halcyon years were all too brief, sputtering to a halt in 1975, casualty of an increasing disinterest on both federal and state levels in the subsidy of affordable housing. The UDC’s often innovative work, which was actively seeking to avoid the mistakes of prior decades of careless and callous urban redevelopment, has long unfairly been lumped in with the same.
Several of these projects fell prey to larger economic fortunes in the Bronx. These were intended to maintain a varied racial and income balance. They hoped for a balance of one-third white, one third African American, and one-third Puerto Rican. White departure from the area soon accelerated, as did crime.
Paul Goldberger praised Meier’s plaza in his 1973 New York Times review as “a meeting place for neighbors with friendly intentions.” But eventually, violence and the drug trade resulted in the fencing off of nearly all public space. While the main plaza still exists, the original connectivity intended is impossible. According to Meier, “We opened the buildings underneath on one side so it wouldn’t be walled off and they closed that off. The plaza was designed not just for for the residents but for the community—now it’s fenced off. It’s awful. It’s been destroyed.”
Six floors of windows fronting a single-loaded corridor were covered with metal; access to the rooftop next to the laundry room was terminated, both due to their use by drug dealers. A ground floor community room with larger windows was replaced with cinder blocks after being repeatedly broken. Passages through the complex were also obstructed by fences. Chan noted changes to the landscaping of his project’s courtyard: alternating grass patches had been paved over with concrete. And what of the private courtyards? “When I went on the tour a couple years ago all those little courtyards were closed off. I was told it was because of ‘airmail’... I was told that[‘s] when you finish a bottle of beer [and] throw it out the window. They come crashing down and would fall in the courtyards.”
He noted disgust at a slope near to his other, 19-story tower “there was so much rubbish in that landscape it just made me sick—the idea that people would throw that in there and that no one would pick it up.”
An astute resident in a 1974 Channel 13 documentary on the project noted:
“The mere fact that you build a place like this or put up a development anywhere for the purpose of erasing urban blight—it doesn’t mean that it’s going to change the community… and if something isn’t done to the community on the outside to protect what you’ve put up then you find that your community problems creep right into your existing buildings.”
The recent tour exposed some endemic maintenance issues. A leak marred the Pasanella building’s lobby. Elevator doors required residents to physically slam shut in order to function. Maintenance and efforts to tend to their better features have often been supplanted by the cheapest or easiest solutions. Monitoring spaces is more effort than bricking or fencing them off. Liebman, now a principal at Perkins Eastman, notes that the UDC was a project broken off in progress. “We do not have the programs we had… It was moderately profitable for private developers to get involved with moderate income housing. It isn’t anymore.”
On the other hand, the economic integration planned for the buildings, if not the larger neighborhoods, proved more successful. UDC dictated that 30 percent of its units should be affordable to low-income households, and the balance to middle-income. The development still reflects this make up. In 2010 roughly a third of residents had incomes below $20,000, with the balance under $60,000. Furthermore, economic integration did not come at the cost of demand. Leasing records released by the state in 2013 indicate that the wait time for moderate-income family apartments ranged from one to two years for units at Twin Parks Northeast and Southeast, although interest is weaker at Northwest and Southwest.
And many of the excellent original design qualities endure. While residents and building employees seem at times bemused by the idea of a tour groups with robust waiting lists coming by, it testifies to its enduring appeal. Chan recalls a 2013 tour when he encountered a fan, “I went to site 4 and… one man had a tattoo of the building. He showed me his shoulder and there on his shoulder was etched the whole building!"
Many involved in the creation of Twin Parks reflect fondly on the undertaking but regret that changing times have neglected the spirit of what led to such a project. Chan laments, “Today, urban design has disappeared. People want to do a monument, a beautiful sculpture sitting in the sky.”
Meier, most unhappy about its aftermath, still recalls the effort as a noble one. “When I look back at most of my work, it’s holding up pretty well—this has held up but not as well as I would like.” He continues, “It wouldn’t happen today. The leadership of Ed Logue and what they were trying to do in providing better affordable housing just doesn’t exist today.”