“I went to site 4 and… one man had a tattoo of the building. He showed me his shoulder and there on his shoulder was etched the whole building!"
In the 1970s, a state agency tapped some of the best young architects in the country for an ambitious affordable housing effort that—despite its flaws—could not be matched today.
Twin Parks, an affordable housing project in the Bronx, does not comport with expectations.
Principally completed between 1971 and 1975, its 2,250 units span numerous non-contiguous parcels. Aesthetically, it encompasses a range of experiments by notable designers and displays great skill and imagination in arrangement and use. Overall, it provides palpably better affordable housing than what’s typically offered in the U.S., and maintains an engaged community.
Twin Parks was perhaps the most unusual product of New York State’s singular Urban Development Corporation (UDC), spearheaded by then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller and chartered to commit resources and talent into the typical cut-rate concern of affordable housing construction.
A larger press on the part of the UDC was to enlarge units and provide more agreeable and accommodating common space: laundry and community rooms at accessible and sunny locations instead of leftover spaces. Liebman, who joined the UDC after several of the Twin Parks projects had been launched, notes, “We were building beautiful buildings and great architecture but the standards we were using were not permitting liveable architecture.”
At the risk of simplification, the most apparent characteristic of each of these buildings is that the architects have emphasized one of two principal design considerations at the expense of the other. If the architect has designed a building with highly popular public spaces, the apartment units tend to be ordinary; if he has devised an ingenious apartment layout, the site plan is nondescript.
This was, of course, a considerable improvement over conventional public housing, usually distinguished by both mediocre unit size and public areas. Contractors had already been selected who often balked at innovative solutions. Liebman instituted a live-in program. “I had some of the top brass live in Richard Meier’s apartment in a 2-bedroom unit for one week in the summer,” recalls Liebman, to perceive what the actual experience of life in these units was like. Realizations from the live-in program included detailed insights, like where phone booths should be located and what furniture would or wouldn’t fit into the apartments . His active press was to expand units by 10 to 15 percent.
It would be an overstatement to say that all went according to plan.
The Urban Development Corporation’s halcyon years were all too brief, sputtering to a halt in 1975, casualty of an increasing disinterest on both federal and state levels in the subsidy of affordable housing. The UDC’s often innovative work, which was actively seeking to avoid the mistakes of prior decades of careless and callous urban redevelopment, has long unfairly been lumped in with the same.