With developers hibernating and sites lying fallow, New York is taking a badly needed break from construction. The pause comes with a lot of pain, but there is an upside to the downturn. Architects who had been outdoing each other in rococo excess finally have time to ponder “Now what?” and “Why?” They might turn for advice to the few who asked themselves those valuable, if unremunerative, questions during the fat years—architects like Alexander Gorlin, who spent years as a purveyor of modern châteaux before feeling ready to design residences for buyers of modest means.
Gorlin’s scruples resulted in the Nehemiah Spring Creek Homes, an enclave of 117 townhouses on a patch of landfill hard by Jamaica Bay. The neighborhood, developed by a consortium of local churches and subsidized by the city, still has the feel of a frontier settlement, deracinated and incomplete. But at prices starting at $158,000 for 1,600 square feet, the houses are filling and life is pleasingly mussing the design’s sharp creases. Eventually, the houses faced in glossy, varicolored panels and fronted by steel stoops will read as a 21st-century gloss on the brownstone. Spring Creek can grow into a thoroughly urban place.
Gorlin designed each story as a steel-bound box manufactured by Capsys on one of the borough’s last assembly lines. In a vast former foundry at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, workers weld together a frame for the floor, then shunt it to another station, where a concrete slab is poured. Other crews erect the skeleton, fill in the walls, hang cabinets, and paint until someone’s future home slides along a set of tracks, ready for the truck trip to East New York. (Because it stays off interstate highways, each unit can be four feet wider than a prefab imported from out of town.) When it arrives, this chunk of ready-for-living space is hoisted onto a stack of others, joined by stairways, and finished with a site-built façade.
Gorlin’s houses recapitulate the old modern values of efficiency, simplicity, and industrial uniformity, but you can also sense the architect’s straining for an extra smidgeon of variety and a few fillips. A chorus line of outdoor spiral staircases brings gratuitous grace to the rear. A stretch of three-story units has a musical gesture embedded in the glossy façade: an oompah alternation of flat front and protruding bay, overlaid with the windows’ repeating rhythm of one pane, then three. Working with the sparest of budgets, Gorlin has produced a work of minimalist rigor tempered by a humane touch.
Whereas he had the blank canvas of virgin turf, Susan T. Rodriguez of Polshek Partnership had to insert an eleven-story residence for the poor and the formerly homeless into the intricate fabric of downtown Brooklyn. The $45 million Schermerhorn House—which was developed by the nonprofit organizations Common Ground Community and the Actors Fund, and paid for partly by the city—could have become another plain brick warehouse for the indigent. Instead, Rodriguez has adorned the façade with panels of translucent channel glass, an extravagance justified by a frightful engineering problem. The building, cantilevered invisibly over the subway tunnels, is supported by massive steel trusswork. Glass weighs less than brick, and a lighter façade saved money on structural steel. Sometimes, thrift yields unexpected luxury.
The resourcefulness continues inside. Each modest but light-filled room boasts a miniature dining table that stows away against a built-in armoire. There are private offices where residents can confer with on-site counselors, a grassy terrace where they can loll, and even a black-box theater—a remarkable array of amenities shoehorned into a limited number of square feet. The design doesn’t bedazzle the eye, but it achieves the nobler goal of making hard lives a little easier.
Both these versions of affordable housing reject the utopian visions that once fueled modernists’ social zeal and scarred our cities with towers for the poor. Instead, in their quiet, pragmatic way, they prove what the marriage of philanthropy and government can achieve and demonstrate that pinched budgets need not translate into poverty of imagination.