Thursday, July 29, 2010

☞ REMEMBER: The Failure of The Radiant City

Most designers know Le Corbusier (last photo) for his iconic mid-century modern chairs (center), but few realize that the Swiss-Frenchman has had a wider impact on the design of New York City itself. What was a conceptual ideal that theoretically seemed innovative on paper soon was absorbed en masse by less creative government officials. From the Time 100 website, educator and architect Witold Rybczynski provides the modern insight on the outcome of this once hopeful plan:

"He called it La Ville Radieuse, the Radiant City. Despite the poetic title, his urban vision was authoritarian, inflexible and simplistic. Wherever it was tried — in Chandigarh by Le Corbusier himself or in Brasilia by his followers — it failed. Standardization proved inhuman and disorienting. The open spaces were inhospitable; the bureaucratically imposed plan, socially destructive. In the U.S., the Radiant City took the form of vast urban-renewal schemes and regimented public housing projects that damaged the urban fabric beyond repair. Today these megaprojects are being dismantled, as superblocks give way to rows of houses fronting streets and sidewalks. Downtowns have discovered that combining, not separating, different activities is the key to success. So is the presence of lively residential neighborhoods, old as well as new. Cities have learned that preserving history makes a lot more sense than starting from zero. It has been an expensive lesson, and not one that Le Corbusier intended, but it too is part of his legacy."

This does not mean that affordable housing is not relevant. The challenge today is how to reinvent the idea and come up with a plan that repairs the damage of the superblocks, which have destroyed many vibrant neighborhoods. Read more on the Time 100 website: LINK.

*This article was originally posted by Harlem Bespoke a year ago: LINK. Two methods of rectify "superblocks" of projects are starting to make their way into New York City. The most obvious one for smaller projects is basically demolition and then building new, community- friendly neighborhoods which has already started in Brooklyn: LINK. The next method is to mend the broken city street grid and "fill in" the empty spaces surrounding the project with mixed-use complexes and housing. We will have more on how the latter is happening in upper Manhattan and something minor that is currently planned for Central Harlem in future posts. The top sketch is not New York City, but Le Corbusier's 1925 plan to redesign Paris.


  1. Thank you for posting that. The housing project/subsidized housing problem is something that interests me very much, for the most part due to the failures I see in the existing designs and systems. I recently met someone who grew up next to the St. Nicholas Houses and she told me that the Randolph Houses were, originally, an attempt of the city to deal with the problem of project housing.

    There is a proposal for the St. Nicholas Houses that includes opening 129th Street to traffic once again, breaking up the complex and making it permeable to the urban fabric. This got subsumed a bit under the charter school proposal and arguments for and against the charter school concept. There are many things to say about charter schools, on both sides. Fortunately, this will be a Harlem Children's Zone project and therefore probably good.

    In any case, I thought the re-opening of the streets was one of the more innovative and important aspects of the proposed plan.

    That said, I was astonished at the number of project residents who spoke out against the 129th street aspect in particular. A surprising (to me) number were very much against this. Unfortunately, I could not attend the last community meeting, so I do not know where the residents stand at this point.

    I think this has been approved already ... ?

  2. I will second the thanks -- this is an important topic.

    It's good to see that there are at least some local efforts to rethink and to repair, but I wonder why NYC has lagged behind other U.S. cities in recognizing this failure of urban design, and in taking a more wholesale approach to fixing it.

    To be clear, I am not talking about eliminating subsidized housing, but rather to renew and revitalize its implementation -- remedying the problems of concentrated poverty, the destruction of street grids, etc.

    If Chicago has done this, for instance, why can't we? Are there institutional peculiarities at play? I have no doubt that, like any "big plan" in a city like ours, this would be immensely controversial -- especially when matters of race and class are implicated so strongly. But this should have been true everywhere?

    Why is it so often simply taken as given that more can't be done?

  3. London has realized that big tower blocks are not the answer.

    Some of them make our projects look like heaven on earth. But they are doing away with them.

    Council housing on the other hand often works quite nicely. Some tenants go on to purchase their houses so there is pride of ownership.

  4. Thank you for posting this.

  5. Sanou's Mum -- thanks for the added perspective. I agree and would like to see more TIL / HDFC-style opportunities for tenants to become invested in their homes, and to build some measure of equity that could provide mobility if they so choose.

    For those who would argue this is too large a "give-away," I would assert that many subsidized tenants have, for all practical purposes, already acquired "equity" to the extent that they have an effectively permanent property right in a low-cost apartment. As things stand, they simply cannot transfer that right.

    I'm rather surprised this post has not as yet provoked more discussion or debate -- perhaps it's because there are no ppsf figures or present-day real estate market issues to argue over?

  6. Thanks for raising this issue, these superblocks of public housing are an acknowledged disaster on many levels. This is also political third rail so the projects just remain year after year with entrenched generational welfare while our elected officials look the other way. Other cities have addressed this and we can learn from their solutions. We have a mayor who is focused on fiscal responsibility and we are in a recession so it seems a great opportunity to start to deal with these inefficiencies.

  7. I too wanted to thank you for this post. I am eager to read your future posts on this topic.

  8. I'm very interested in this subject. I've long thought a rent-to-own model would be helpful in many cases.

    Le's have more stuf liike this, please.

  9. A difficulty with the rent-to-own model will be that at least a portion, and in the St. N. houses and the area directly across on FDB a good portion, do not earn an income. There is an idea afoot to give the project spots to specifically working families, but this will not change for the other buildings, on FDB for example, whose deeds instruct that all units must be set aside for "very low income" people.

    When rehabilitated and rehabilitative buildings are designated as "very low income," this always means "no income." For some reason, the city has a reluctance to state that and so they use the "very low income" designation. So .. how can a person lacking an income become an owner ? If the working people are given this opportunity, there will still be a population of generational welfare recipients. The projects were for housing them, and the solutions being sought are for dealing specifically with this population. For me, there is an analogous situation in education. I know full well that those children appearing for tutoring and mentoring are already on the road to something positive. I have always been interested in reaching those children whose parents do not have the wherewithal bring them, but this is quite difficult. So with housing, if someone is already working, is poor but has a responsible credit history and is therefore "buy worthy," then they are not a part of the same population. The problem is dealing with, and housing, the lifetime entitlement recipients, and doing so in a way that will raise their expectations about themselves and what they can do; therefore, increasing their positive contributions to the society around them.

    Le Courbusier, and others like him, had good intentions, and I think it was very smart to bring this up here. If a population is errant from the common good and/or basic social contract, well, you submit them to this orderly structure and also segregate them lest they influence the rest of (orderly) society. Endeavoring to change this now this has a lot to do with our own re-definitions of the problem at hand, our re-definitions of the individual, and so on. It is a complex issue.

  10. Love the name 'Radiant City', it could have come from the pages of George Orwell's 1984, it is anything but radiant

  11. I agree with the comments above. This is a major issue for Greater Harlem. If we can figure out what to do retrofitting (or replacing public housing superblocks wtih something more period-appropriate, EVERYONE with a stake in Harlem (including the hardluck residents of these monstrosities) will benefit, both from a financial and quality of life standpoint. I also acknowledge that the best solutions likely require some level of tenant displacement which, while unfortunate, is necessary. I welcome more discussions on this issue.

  12. If I could destroy any person from history it would be a toss up between Hitler and Le Corbusier. The super block and their attending housing developments are a true blight upon the city and we desperately need to destroy them and return the street grid back to what it was with low rise and personalized spaces of life, commerce and adornment.

  13. The thing I have never understood is why on earth would you want to build something (i.e infamous housing estates across the UK & the projects) where you instantly alienate whomever happens to live there? Right off the mark they are removed from everything else around them. I'll say one thing about 114th st, I thing having it closed off during the day for kids is a great idea. If they could do something like this with the projects, reintroduce the roads & have them closed off on weekends or something, that would be great.

  14. I was wondering about the time line for construction of the projects and thought this was interesting, from wikipedia:

    The majority of NYCHA developments were built between 1945 and 1965. Unlike most cities, New York depended heavily on city and state funds to build its housing, rather than just the federal government. Most of these postwar developments had over 1000 apartment units each and most were built in the modernist, tower-in-the-park style popular at the time.

    The Authority is the largest public housing authority (PHA) in North America and in spite of many problems is still considered by experts to be the most successful big-city public housing authority in the country. Whereas most large public housing authorities in the United States (Chicago, St. Louis, Baltimore, etc.) have demolished their high-rise projects, New York's continue to be fully occupied. New York also maintains a long waiting list for its apartments...

  15. Faria: Take a closer look at the TIL program -- that is the model I would point to. These were city-owned buildings that were rehabilitated and converted into HDFC co-ops, giving existing tenants the opportunity to buy in at $250.

    Many of the old city tenants who obtained equity through TIL would easily fit the category of "very low" / no income households -- for the most part relying on Section 8 vouchers to pay for rent (and now for co-op maintenance).

    Clearly if there is to be anything approaching the kind of wholesale change that many here have been advocating for NYCHA properties, it would require a "grand bargain" that confers some real benefits to the folks who would be asked to give something up.

    In my mind, the script would have to go something like this:

    1. HPD forms cooperative corporations for all NYCHA properties, and assigns shares to all existing tenants.

    2. NYCHA transfers ownership of its properties to the new corporations, with only very minimal restrictions imposed -- i.e., the building "owner" would have to accept Section 8 vouchers in perpetuity (which is technically the law for any NYC rental property, actually).

    3. Initially, the City would appoint a board of trustees for each building / cooperative, which would provide oversight and hold peremptory powers in relation to their newly elected boards of directors. Peremptory powers would become advisory within a "short" period -- perhaps 5-10 years.

    4. Like HDFCs, shareholders would henceforth be able to sell their apartments. Unlike HDFCs, there would be no prohibition on sale of the underlying real estate to third parties -- provided the tenant-shareholders themselves hold a supermajority vote to do so (thus dissolving their corporation and receiving their share of the financial proceeds).

    5. In either of the cases described in #4, tenant-shareholders would, through their equity, obtain a great measure of autonomy and mobility that would allow them to move elsewhere in the city or country, should they choose to do so. Again, any building owner would be required to accept Section 8 vouchers in perpetuity.

    6. To make this closer to being viable politically, there would need to be a major new public commitment to provide Section 8 vouchers to literally everyone who needs them. These could be funded by savings from what would already amount to a drastic curtailment of direct public sector spending on property management through city agencies. There could also be a fairly sizable "flip tax" imposed on windfall transactions that would provide a significant revenue stream without changing the fundamental dynamics of the new approach.

    The end result? Tenants would get equity and mobility. This could very well be a great deal more popular than we are able to imagine at the present moment. Public finances would get a boost, and plug a significant long-term drain. Poverty could become less concentrated. And, most importantly from the standpoint of the discussion in this current thread, mechanisms would, for the first time, exist to allow for transition and repair of the urban fabric that was so badly damaged by these decades-old "superblock" mistakes.

  16. Thank you for bringing that up. I think the TIL program is very interesting and potentially a real solution. Its opponents usually point to the dangers of privatization, something to which I am also opposed, ideologically, but I think that criticism indicates a lack of understanding of the program and its intentions. In many ways, if one were to consider its actual effects, TIL is the opposite of real estate privatization. Expanding this is a great idea.

    I know about a specific building, around the corner from me, where this has happened to great success. Tenants literally turned their lives around, as they tell me themselves.

    Pete, do you know how a building approaches TIL status, in practical terms, right now ? In the case I mentioned, the tenants told me that it was essentially abandoned by the owner, obtained 7 A status, was abandoned by the city and then finally gained TIL status relatively recently.

    So ... is this only possible for city-owned buildings ? The city has given many abandoned and/or troubled buildings away already, to various social service organization (George Lewis, West Harlem Group Assistance, ECDO, etc.) - not a good solution; these places, concentrated in central Harlem proper, are a disaster for all involved.

    Is is that the tenants need to know about the possibility of TIL, pursue something themselves ? I could certainly help out there or try to.

    A random comment: The private owners and developers are not going to like it ... I say this admitting that the balance of my life, i.e., that not lived in Harlem, was spent downtown, where I saw astonishing things happen given an unbridled pursuit of profit and disregard for community and people's lives. I also know that development interests have had an eye on Harlem for a long time.

  17. Faria: On the "grand bargain" idea, my thinking is that opposition from developers would be a feature rather than a bug. As large an obstacle as developers could represent, widespread community opposition would mean the plan goes nowhere from the start. As for private owners, some may resent all the equity being "handed" to people -- but they may harbor those resentments already. There may well be a spike in housing supply that could impact real estate prices and rents, but I think it's hard to argue that implementing an approach like this would be anything but positive for them over the long term.

    As for TIL, my understanding is that it is only for city-owned buildings, and I agree that it is greatly preferable to transferring to a social service organization.

    I'm not an expert on how the ball gets rolling, but my impression is that HPD has a schedule for the city-owned buildings it intends to renovate and convert to HDFCs -- that is when the tenants go through TIL (HPD will relocate them to another property while the original one is renovated).

    If there are specific buildings that you think could be candidates, you could try contacting HPD. However, I think the best bet is likely UHAB, a non-profit whose mission is to support HDFCs. They would probably have some valuable perspective on how to organize tenants and get a TIL process going.

  18. Interesting ... I am already asking UHAB for help with another building and this gives me an idea.