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LIVING TOGETHER 02: Learning from Cities

In 2020, prior to the start of the pandemic, our architects, namely James Saisakorn, RA, with assistance from his colleague and partner Alex Nizhikhovskiy, RA, set out to investigate the history and various models of social housing as they may relate to TTC’s own work. During their research period, they analyzed the errors and successes of past projects, and theorized how these observations can be applied to modern multifamily housing.

Over the course of our firm’s over three decade history, we have had the pleasure of designing, restoring, and furnishing spaces that bring people together, from private homes to public spaces. As we expand into larger, multi-family work, we continue our research into the patterns of how people occupy, use, and transform the spaces they inhabit.

While many outsiders envision architecture as a practice of design and construction, studying innovative past and present solutions, as well as finding novel approaches to address design problems is done not only out of interest, but out of necessity. If we continue to build forward without learning from the past, we are bound to repeat the same mistakes.

James and Alex’s findings, which will be presented over the next four months on our blog, extend beyond architecture and delve into social sciences such as sociology and anthropology. In these four distinct, yet connected entries, we will uncover the ways in which social housing of the past can help inform housing for the future.

Check in on the 15th of each month for a new entry from now until May.

Despite the failures of post war social housing, there are lessons to be learned. A tabula rasa approach that obliterates the urban fabric and destroys any sense of the human scale was clearly not the answer.

Urbanists such as Jane Jacobs protested vigorously against the new social housing concepts developed in the post war era. While acknowledging that certain aspects of cities might point to their failures - slums, border vacuums (zones along borders that lack clear diversification due to an overwhelming focus on singular uses or functions), disparities in wealth and public funding - other elements contribute significantly to the livelihood of a city and consequently to a person’s

well being.

Walking in a typical New York neighborhood such as Greenwich Village, or Chelsea, we are confronted with the components, the infrastructure, necessary to a city’s livelihood. Sidewalks, the human scale pedestrian thoroughfares that allow us to navigate cities on foot, provide opportunities for close, spontaneous human interaction. Stoops, the semi-private arbiters between public and private life on the street, give residents and often non-residents a more intimate place to pause or slow down from the hustle and bustle of the street. Equally important,

a stoop provides an opportunity to surveil the goings on of a neighborhood. In these neighborhoods, the ever present three story row houses and 5 and 6 story walk-up tenements provide density which is critical to help engender city diversity. Density and diversity, or rather having enough people and having enough of a variety of people, are key to creating vibrant communities that can successfully combat homogeneity and monotony. The neighborhoods are also small enough in scale and varied enough to break up the sense of monotony along a street

with a tempo more akin to the pedestrian than a superblock whose scale can only be appreciated via automobile.

Image 1: Wikimedia Commons, Beyondmyken

Image 2: Flicker, Ser Amantio di Nicolao

Image 3: Wikimedia Commons, Vannessajg

Often, a park or square will serve as a focal point for a city neighborhood. It provides not only the green lungs for its residents, but, if successful, functions as a focal point or forum for members of the community and visitors alike. Successful parks themselves have a focal point or center which become stage settings for people and human interaction.

In Washington Square Park, for example, the center is the fountain, which on any given day or time plays host to myriad experiences that bring people together: a street busker, an impromptu play or dance performance, even as a focal point for protest. Jane Jacobs in “ The Death and Life of Great American Cities” points out that, “a generalized neighborhood park that is stuck with functional monotony of surroundings in any form is inexorably a vacuum for a significant part of the day.” A successful park, on the other hand is, “busy fairly continuously for the same basic reasons that a lively sidewalk is used continuously: because of functional physical diversity among adjacent uses, and hence diversity among users and their schedules.”

These components - sidewalks, stoops, high density low-to-mid rise housing, parks with a strong focal center - provide the social infrastructure for a large and densely populated city where its residents can meet and interact. They can be likened to a scaffold that supports

social interaction.

Image 1: Flickr, Jim Griffin

Image 2: Flickr, Ludovic Bertron

(all research by The Turett Collaborative, text by James Saisakorn and Alex Nizhikhovskiy, all diagrams by The Turett Collaborative unless otherwise noted)

(banner photo of 1970s Brooklyn from Flickr, Anthony Catalano)


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