Nearly 50 years ago, in 1968, the world’s largest cooperative housing development opened its doors on a stretch of swampland in the north Bronx. With 35 towers, each between 24 and 33 stories tall, and seven townhouse clusters, Co-op City offered some 15,000 units at below market rates to middle- and working-class families. Critics hated it. Ada Louise Huxtable decried Co-op City’s “uninspired architectural design” and “sterile site-planning” in The New York Times. The architect and critic Peter Blake called it “fairly hideous.”
The only ones to approve, it seemed, were a newly married husband-and-wife team. In a 1970 essay titled “Co-op City: Learning to Like it,” published in Progressive Architecture, Denise Scott Brown, Hon. FAIA, and Robert Venturi, FAIA, argued that Co-op City was not ugly or sterile but refreshingly “conventional” and “ordinary.” Their essay, currently on display at the Center for Architecture in New York as part of the exhibit “House Housing: An Untimely History of Architecture and Real Estate,” called upon architects to “accept the ordinary on its own terms and do it well.” Venturi and Scott Brown argued that Co-op City was important partly because it challenged accepted notions of “good design,” including the degree to which such standards were defined by high prices. “If ‘good design’ costs twice as much, then good design is out of step and needs redefinition,” they wrote.
“House Housing” (which ran through Sept. 10) tackles a big, important history: the evolving relationships between “good design,” real estate markets, and housing policy over the past century. Rather than tell one overarching narrative, the curators, from Columbia University’s Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture, divide that history into 36 “episodes,” each of which are briefly written up on tear sheets and paired with supporting media: magazine articles, maps, photographs, reports, and video and audio, broadcast on vintage televisions and radios. The show feels more like an art installation than a history exhibit. The tear sheets are tacked on a wall in chronological order. But the maps, articles, photographs, and TVs, which are displayed on a set of floor-to-ceiling shelves on the adjacent wall, are not arranged sequentially, so as to reveal “surprising repetitions,” as the curators put it, across the decades. (Hence the exhibition’s claim to untimeliness.)
One could, as I did, read the first tear sheet, wander to the shelves with a map of the artifacts’ locations in hand, find the matching objects, and repeat, 35 times. It’s the best way to understand the exhibit’s perspective. But the arrangement invites, instead, a more free-associative approach: to look at a few objects, read a few histories, and make connections—or not. The arty style allows the curators to leave too much unsaid (I’m still not sure what the title “House Housing” means) but it does reward viewers willing to linger and read old media. “Scratch an architect and you’ll find a frustrated low-cost housing designer,” Venturi and Scott Brown wrote in the lede to their Co-op City essay. If the exhibition lends itself to an epigraph, this might be it.
Frank Lloyd Wright Houses a Bad Investment?
In 1901, Frank Lloyd Wright, perhaps the original “frustrated low-cost housing designer,” published an article in Ladies Home Journal headlined, “A Small House with ‘Lots of Room in It.’ ” It presented his plans for an 800-square-foot, two-story home priced for middle-class families. “A simplicity in materials and treatment,” he wrote, would allow the home to be affordable. This design never caught on—some historians have suggested it was too modern for the day’s home buyers—but Wright continued to pursue ideas for open, light-filled, less expensive houses.
In 1939, the architect applied for a loan from the Federal Housing Administration, a new agency insuring mortgages in the wake of the Great Depression, to build a complex of seven Usonian homes for some Michigan State University professors. But the agency rejected Wright’s request because its underwriting criteria prioritized traditional designs, including clear divisions between rooms, so as to facilitate future resale. As the tear sheet puts it: “Frank Lloyd Wright Houses are Declared Bad Investments.”
The curators are taken with Wright; they dedicate four of their 36 episodes to his work, and discuss this 1939 rejection in the exhibit’s introduction, which explains that the Michigan project was doomed by “the incompatibility of Wright’s design with the speculative value of real estate.” It’s the closest the exhibition comes to a thesis. When speculative value reigns supreme, the exhibit suggests, other factors that families often want in a home—efficiency, livability, not to mention affordability—are overlooked. As Wright’s experience illustrates, this is true even when it’s the federal government and not a bank ensuring a loan.
The episode plays on an association we take for granted today: that high design means higher prices. It’s difficult to imagine that a famous architect’s hand in designing a house wouldn’t automatically increase its value, and yet it wasn’t that long ago that Wright’s work was not assumed to boost the bottom line. So what happened? How did design become associated with expense?
One of the exhibit’s best finds is the first issue of House and Home, which spun off from Architectural Digest in 1952 and included a story headlined, “Is an Architect Worth His Fee?” Developers, rapidly building prefabricated single-family homes in expanding suburban developments, were occasionally hiring a designer to develop a unique color scheme, say, or customize a few rooms. The article reports that houses with extra design touches would increase the price of a $12,000 home to $13,000. For developers, “good design” was that which enabled them to charge more.
As the private real estate industry turned to architects to help drive up profits, it also pushed back against government investment in public housing. The United States Housing Act of 1937 authorized large subsidies to local agencies to build working-class housing, and, by the 1940s, massive towers-in-the-park style developments were adding thousands of housing units to American cities. Almost from the beginning, the real estate industry fought these programs. In 1949, Life magazine hosted a 16-hour debate on how to promote the private housing industry. Participants called for the federal government to restrict its purview to housing that alleviated “social or moral” preoccupations associated with slums. Public housing complexes were often constructed in cities’ poorest neighborhoods, lest they compete with private development.
In 1973, President Richard Nixon ordered a moratorium on all new housing subsidies, ending robust federal support for low- and moderate-income housing and ushering in an era of public–private partnerships. Early on, nonprofit housing groups filled the vacuum, but then a developer named James Rouse realized that these tax-exempt nonprofits couldn’t take advantage of tax write-offs connected to affordable housing. In 1986, Rouse persuaded Congress to transfer these tax credits to private investors, officially creating the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit. In return for investing in the construction and maintenance of low-income rental housing, investors received credit against their federal income taxes. In the exhibition’s words, “a public good” increasingly “relied on private capital.”
The exhibition’s greatest contribution is its telling of these two intersecting stories: how the real estate industry gradually folded architects into their business operations; and how policymakers largely abandoned public housing for affordable housing funded by public–private partnerships.
The exhibition explores other themes, including the ways that racism shaped housing design and policy, but these threads are often fragmented and decontextualized. We hear an excerpt from the Kerner Report, the landmark study of the country’s 1967 race riots: “White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it,” a voice intones from a radio. But the tear sheet adds nothing else about the study. The exhibition’s second-to-last episode features the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, in Sanford, Fla. The gated community of nearly 300 homes where George Zimmerman killed Martin had been undone by the 2008 foreclosure crisis, the tear sheet explains: “At the time of the shooting, 40 properties in the enclave were unoccupied and more than half of its remaining residents were renting.” The data is dramatic, maybe even suggestive, but it’s not enough to explain how Martin’s death is a story about real estate.
A History Lesson Missed
Presenting history as art has downsides. Associations and juxtapositions too easily substitute for argument and interpretation. The artifacts’ non-chronological arrangement is engaging, but it muddies even the exhibit’s central stories: the continuing growth of the private real estate industry against the systematic dismantling of the country’s public housing. These two stories derive their power not from repetitions but from incredible linear progressions. Given that few viewers are likely to read the episodes in order and track down corresponding objects, they may well miss this history lesson.
Towards the end of my visit, I struck up a conversation with an exhibit-goer who had just graduated from architecture school and moved to New York to start a job at a nearby commercial firm. He took the job “just to make money,” he told me. He and his grad school friends are thinking a lot about housing, he said, not least because they can’t easily afford to live in the cities where they work. When he arrived in New York, he had looked to see if city agencies building affordable housing were hiring, and was frustrated to discover that they tend to favor engineers and planners over designers.
He wasn’t sure what the exhibition had to say to architects like him—that is, to architects who’d like to help change the way housing is built. By emphasizing the prevailing macroeconomic and political forces, the exhibit risks rendering individual architects as powerless. The curators published a provisional report to complement the exhibition, “The Art of Inequality: Architecture, Housing, and Real Estate,” which recommends that architects dissatisfied with inequalities built into the real estate market reject work that comes from it: “The only unambiguous action available is to turn down those commissions,” it says. For a young architect hoping to break into the profession, that could be career-ending advice.
But perhaps the exhibition is speaking to us as residents and voters as much as designers and builders. This past February, the once “hideous” Co-op City was featured in The New York Times real estate section, this time under the headline, “Open Spaces and Affordability.” While most co-ops in New York privatized long ago, as soon as the original lease allowed, Co-op City’s residents have continually voted to maintain the complex’s cooperative model rather than sell their apartments on the open market (and make a killing). In January, a three-bedroom, one-and-a half-bath apartment with a balcony and river views sold for just under $30,000. (There’s no missing zero.) The waitlist to buy an apartment is years-long.
Maybe, then, we need more co-op cities. But building them would mean revisiting some long-standing assumptions about property and profit. These days, many big-city mayors, including Bill de Blasio in New York, are creating affordable housing through “inclusionary zoning,” in which a developer incorporates a certain percentage of affordable units into a new development, often in exchange for looser zoning regulations. It’s a newer twist on an older theme: funding affordable housing through profit-making endeavors. Housing cooperatives, by contrast, don’t make a profit for anyone. Owners pay into a cooperative that maintains the building. Even a miniature Co-op City would require political and architectural support: publicly owned land, a government-issued loan, more designers innovating with “ordinary” rather than luxury living. But as the exhibit shows us, it would also require a significant re-evaluation of what the housing industry should provide, and to whom. Lately, it’s provided an opportunity for a privileged subset of individuals to build wealth. We need it to provide everyone else with a good home.