In 1987, the League collaborated with the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) to launch a design study examining the potential of small-scale infill housing to contribute to the city’s affordable housing portfolio. The Vacant Lots project culminated in an exhibition and book, portions of which are republished here on archleague.org.
The study identified ten sites owned by the City in the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn that were representative of the types of small abandoned lots proliferating in the city at the time, and that were considered realistic prospects for development. The League’s charge to designers was to develop plans for these sites that could be prototypical solutions; imaginative proposals that would intelligently and instructively reevaluate the project criteria mandated by the City in its building guidelines. Architects were asked to thoroughly familiarize themselves with the City’s guidelines for affordable housing, and with the constraints on building costs, but were also encouraged to reconsider building standards, and to design for the kinds of “nontraditional” social units that had increasingly become a demographic norm. In response, participants devised apartments for singles and single-parent households, temporary residences organized around communal or shared services, live/work complexes, supportive environments for the homeless and individuals living with AIDS. Underlying all of the Vacant Lots projects was the belief that creative interventions at smaller scales could be a part of a larger solution for building the kind of affordable housing New York needed.
Twenty-five years later we are still talking about many of the same issues—“too many homeless and under-housed, too little public money to meet the need.” While today much of the City’s vacant land has been developed, recent initiatives like “Making Room” (a project of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council and the League) and adAPT NYC (of NYC HPD), continue to pursue solutions to many of the same critical housing issues and consider how architects and designers can contribute to the conversation. What follows is a three-part series that recalls the Vacant Lots study and explores the persistent challenges of creating safe and quality affordable housing in New York City. Collected here is original material from the Vacant Lots book, a photo essay on Urban Omnibus of the ten sites today and a survey of contemporary initiatives for housing New Yorkers, and excerpts of recent conversations with Mark Willis and members of the Vacant Lots organizing committee: Carol Willis, Deborah Gans, Brian McGrath, Mark Robbins, and Rosalie Genevro.
Published: January 14, 2013
Remembrances from five of the members of the original Vacant Lots organizing committee.
An interview with the former Deputy Commissioner for Development at NYC Housing Preservation and Development, who was instrumental in organizing Vacant Lots.
The architecture critic’s review of the Vacant Lots exhibition, as it appeared in The New Republic on April 11, 1988.
Original material from the Vacant Lots design study publication outlines the historical context, organization and goals of the project.
Deborah S. Gardner, a scholar of American urban and social history, provides historical context for the design study through a brief review of housing in New York City.
Rosalie Genevro reflects on the economics of affordable housing and how to bridge the gap between the actual cost of providing housing and the ability to pay of people who need it.
Deborah Gans contemplates the larger urban visions suggested by the design proposals.
Mark Robbins discusses submissions that address social programs and consider the housing needs of non-nuclear families and disenfranchised populations.
O’Donnell + Tuomey discuss their vision for Irish architecture, creating mobility in static forms, and bringing the rigors of traditional craft to contemporary work.
Documentation of a symposium addressing issues of water supply in the context of climate change, considered through case studies of Los Angeles, New York City, and the Great Lakes.
Blackwell and Joy reflect on first meeting 15 years ago, approaches to teaching, and a shared sensitivity to place while “transgressing the vernacular” in their work.
In 2013, Marlon Blackwell Architects expanded the school’s home with a renovation and addition honoring the historic building in a contemporary language. Blackwell toured the school with Tom Phifer.