2008 Buell Center Oral History Prize
Karen Kubey, Master of Architecture, Columbia University GSAPP
On June 12, 1973, Marcus Garvey Park Village broke ground in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and Another Chance for Housing: Low Rise Alternatives opened at The Museum of Modern Art. The low-rise, high-density housing project and exhibition, both created by the New York State Urban Development Corporation (UDC) with the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, presented a future for housing in the United States that would combine the benefits of urban and suburban living.
The UDC, a powerful development arm of New York State, soon engaged seven young architecture firms to design and develop further applications of the low-rise, high-density prototype presented at MoMA, drawing from the pioneering work of architects like Switzerland’s Atelier 5. However, President Richard
Nixon’s moratorium on federally subsidized housing programs, followed by New York Governor Hugh Carey’s disbanding of the UDC’s housing department in 1975, halted the agency’s further development of the type.
Forty years ago, low-rise, high-density housing offered a substitute for the high-rise model then dominating public housing in the United States. Since then, despite the end of the UDC’s prototype development, some architects and builders have continued to create housing with similar qualities: dense enough to support public transportation, while also providing a sense of individual identity for residents and integrating open space. Presenting architectural drawings, photographs, and oral histories with project architects, Low Rise High Density traces this housing type over time. Today, as Americans increasingly prefer dense neighborhoods and multifamily housing, we can look at the type as an alternative to suburban sprawl.
– Exhibition introductory text, Low Rise High Density, Center for Architecture, New York, April 25–June 29, 2013
My research on low-rise, high-density housing began in 2008 as a small interview project, conceived for the Columbia University Buell Center’s Oral History Award. After training with Mary Marshall Clark, director of the Columbia Center for Oral History Research—a helpful requirement of the prize—I conducted interviews with the surviving early members of Atelier 5, the Swiss firm that produced Siedlung Halen, the most influential low-rise, high-density project of the 1960s.
These interviews launched a series of separate yet interrelated projects, each informing the next. Thanks to a travel grant from Columbia, I spent a month exploring examples of similar housing in Austria, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, and England. A subsequent grant from the New York State Council on the Arts, sponsored by The Architectural League, allowed me to take the project from student research to public presentation. The exhibition Low Rise High Density traced the complex history of low-rise, high-density housing and addressed the lack of contemporary scholarship on this valuable, yet under-examined typology. Working with exhibition designer Daniel Payne of The Letter D and a curatorial team, we organized seminal global case studies around pioneering architects, developers, governments, and movements, exploring the typology’s legacy and future potentials. We included housing projects up to four stories tall and at least 20 units per acre, the minimum needed to support public transport.
The Low Rise High Density exhibition | Photo by Evelyn Dilworth Rosen, courtesy of the Center for Architecture.
Atelier 5, Siedlung Halen, Bern, Switzerland, 1955-61. Section. Drawing by Atelier 5 Architects and Planners.