Thursday, August 31

stuy kind of town

Been thinking a lot about the sale of Stuyvesant Town. Stuy town is pretty fascinating place. When it was built, it marked one of the first attempts in America to develop 'towers in the park,' an urban vision inspired by the designs of Le Corbusier. (Corbu, as the cool kids call him.)

This is a plan Corbusier made for the development of Paris. ( has an amazing photo of Corbu's vision realized more recently in North Korea.)

When the Federal Housing Act of 1949 rolled around and freed up huge amounts of federal dollars for urban renewal, the recently completed stuy town (opened 1947) stood as the primary example of a large scale working-class housing development in the country. Its influence is at least partially responsible for why America's cities are now filled with high-rise public housing projects instead of low-rise public housing projects.

One thing that irks me about the discussion of the stuy town sale is that it doesn't seem like anyone's considered subdividing it. Everyone's hooting and hollering about the $5 billion price tag -- the largest real estate deal in the history of the United States -- and no one's discussing whether people renting in the buildings might be better served if some smaller companies could get involved with the bidding. $5 billion is a lot of money, only the very biggest real estate companies will have the capacity to bid at all.

All the discussion of low-income housing that the stuy town sale has stirred up also got me thinking about the state of affordable housing in New York City. It deserves its own blog post at some point so I won't get into it here, but I will say that I think there are many facets of the system which could use some tweaking. The money spent on subsidising housing in Manhattan could be used to subsidise housing in other boroughs AND pay for education. A better education system would probably reduce the need for housing subsidies in the long term... More on that at some point in the future.

Tuesday, August 29

love those mills


I love industrial buildings. With no other building type are designs so consistently dedicated to function as with those made for industrial production. The economics of industrialization demand that such buildings be free of any ornament that interferes with production or adds cost.

So perhaps it's a surprise that these buildings bereft of 'pretty' design are so timelessly beautiful. Or maybe it makes sense. The mills of New England, especially those driven by water, are probably my favorite buildings in the world. Built before the advent of electricity, designers knit these structures into the landscape well before Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater made the concept popular. Their open floor plans (to accommodate evolving technology) and huge windows (to facilitate longer working hours) define the aesthetics of modern architectural design. Even as the global economy rendered them obselete for their original purposes, many of the sturdy mills survived.


Since the 1960s, western society's emerging creative economy has encouraged the conversion of many post-industrial buildings to artists' lofts and galleries. One of the most ambitious conversions started in 1986 when a collaboration of elected officials, private donors, and the Williams Art Mafia began planning for a renovation of the recently abandoned Sprague Electric factory. Several designs, a failed Dukakis presidential bid, and about 20 years later, I got to visit the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art last weekend.

As stunned as I was by the scale and impact of the spaces made possible by the building's industrial origins, I was equally struck by the inability of most of the art in the museum to fill it. It's not that the art at Mass MoCA was particularly bad or small, it's just that it's tough to find a football-field's worth of museum-worthy art. Over and over, the spaces themselves overwhelmed the art -- the best pieces were those that worked explicitly with space itself (and, accordingly, failed to transcend that same space.) On the one hand, this may just be a paradigm shift for curators, but I suspect that a more powerful underlying force may be at play.


Years ago, when I first started reading about the adaptive re-use of post-industrial buildings, I saw SoHo as both the prototype for the process and case-study for challenges of making such arts-based re-use survive. Today, SoHo is an arts district in name only -- very little, if any, cutting edge art is being produced there now. Once, I saw this as a sign that such neighborhoods needed protection, but after my experience at Mass MoCA, I began to wonder: is arts-based adaptive re-use sustainable?

With this thought swirling in my mind, I looked more closely at the numerous post-industrial buildings scattered about the Berkshire landscape. Galleries, museums and artsy shops all filled post-industrial buildings... on the first floor. Upper stories remained shuttered or filled with cobwebs while ground-level retail thrived. Yet there were some mill buildings which were fully occupied. Some even had functioning mill ponds and dams -- and all these had something in common. They were being used for industry! Globalization be damned, they're making paper in New England! And pre-fab concrete! And baked goods!


The above photo shows the Hurlbut Paper Company's Willow Mill, established in 1806. This facilty's mill pond and turbine are now components of the Massachusets Technology Collaborative's Clean Energy Project. Electricity not needed for the paper recycling operations that take place in the mill is added to the regional power grid, reducing the drain on fossil fuels and nuclear power. For lack of a better description, that's frickin awesome.

I don't have any concrete conclusions, but it's my blog so I don't need any.

residence #13 by the pool


Much of my time this weekend was spent in Stockbridge, MA where I was lucky enough to stay in a cozy cabin built by Miss Gertrude Robinson Smith and Miss Miriam K. Oliver of New York City.

The story of the cabin is fascinating. Challenging the hegemonic model of vacationing, Miss Smith and Miss Oliver -- two unmarried working women -- decided to build the house themselves in the spring of 1919. (April 13th, to be precise.) The challenge, met months later on July 13th, has survived as a testament to the futility of superstition. (Though the address has since been changed from 13 to 8 as other buildings were built on the road.)

Were the women feminists? lovers? architects? The imagination leaves room for all three. A newspaper article from the day encourages hypotheses...

"'Do you never allow and male creatures in your elysian dwelling?' I asked them. 'Certainly,' they replied at once, 'we have a man around all the time. His name is George Washington. You may have heard of him.' They introduced me to that worthy gentleman, clad in his Colonial uniform, standing stiffly as only an iron general can stand. For George is the door-stop!"

Inquiring of the construction, the reporter asks:

"'Weren't your skirts in the way?' 'We didn't wear skirts,' came the revelation, 'We wore blue jean trousers.'"

In any case, the little house is charming. I don't know what became of Miss Smith and Miss Oliver, but I'm glad they got together for at least a little while.


Monday, August 28

long weekend


Just got back from a spontaneous weekend in upstate NY and western MA. I slept in some houses with interesting stories, swam in the NYC water supply, and spent some time in 19th century mill buildings. As some readers may already know, I am a big fan of 19th century mill buildings. Stay tuned in the coming days for posts on such topics as:
  1. Reservoirs. New York's water is delicious. And frigid, it turns out.
  2. Gendered Architecture. I slept in a cabin built by two high-society 'Jills.' The building itself was charming, but the story is deeper...
  3. Non-Adaptive Re-Use. While I expected many of Western Massachusetts' post-industrial buildings to be adapted for use as art galleries or museums, I was stunned to see the number of old buildings being used for... Industry! Paper mills, chemical plants, processed food... Who knew?!

Wednesday, August 23

density: the map

Citywide Population Density

The previous post got me thinking about density. This map color codes population density (purple=high yellow=low) and overlays open space and subway lines. Kind of amazing how NO ONE lives around the Newtown Creek, isn't it? (Newtown Creek is the boundary between Brooklyn and Queens.)

an issue of scale


I like these photos as a comparison of the housing density of uptown Manhattan to that of brownstone Brooklyn. Compared to the rest of the nation, Brooklyn is really densely settled. Compared to the Upper East Side, it's downright roomy.


moving along


After trying for awhile to categorize various links I want to post (blogs, resources, news, etc...) I gave up and, in mad burst of creativity, decided to make a section for 'links.' Hopefully other bloggers won't be offended by sitting in a list with map data clearinghouses. Some of these links are pretty cool. If you're curious about demographic shifts and you've got some time to kill, check out some of the time series maps on the Social Explorer webpage. Or, if you're lamenting how far you have to walk to get to the Q train when the 4/5's not running to Brooklyn, marvel at the once vast coverage of streetcars on the historical maps page. I'm almost done with the layout -- you can expect me to start dropping pearls of wisdom on you any day now.

Tuesday, August 22

ruminations on the mission

Chicago Aerial_2.jpg

This blog will feature observations, comments, and questions about the places people make for themselves. There will probably be maps and photographs. Hopefully, someone finds it interesting.