A new typology in the Lower East Side
Same densities as surrounding high rises
No transition zone
Victorian front garden space
…”the passion for improvisation, which demands that space and opportunity be at any price preserved. Buildings are used as a popular stage. They are all divided into innumerable, simultaneously animated theatres. Balcony, courtyard, window, gateway, staircase, roof are at the same time stages and boxes.”
Walter Benjamin, ‘One Way Street.’ 1924.
One project that was attempting to do that and has a lot of potential future housing in
One reason I chose to look at this project was the clear intention for people to activate the “slack” spaces, or areas in between buildings to their own liking. It was the architect’s intention that the buildings would serve as a type of stage, through the inspiration of Walter Benjamin, by which people could act out the extension of their own lives beyond the notions of the architect.
One of the most striking elements of this project is its color. Viewed from the one of the surrounding council highrises, the white forms stand in marked contrast the surrounding gritty neighborhood. The architect describes this intention to help bounce light deep into all of the spaces. This immediately sets the project apart.
The other innovative notion is its density. By arranging the units one on top of another in a ‘notched terrace’ typology, this scheme was able to achieve the same density as the surrounding tower estates, but with a much more manageable form. Each unit has its own private garden terrace as well. The big difference in these two schemes is the public space. The 20 story buildings are very much the tower in the garden championed after WWII with a small footprint, and a large open public space that no one really has ownership over. The grass is nice, but mostly just used for dogs to do their business. On the other hand, Donnybrook is low rise, with a series of intimate through streets that encourage people to move through the block. To me, this is one of the most successful aspects of this scheme.
While there are many successful components, there are some pieces that just didn’t quite sit right with me.
Based on the zest with which the architects described the freedom by which they hoped people would customize their spaces, I was somewhat disappointed with what I saw. The few real additions that were there seemed completely out of place. The garden shed was sitting on concrete pavers against a pure white backdrop. In fact, it is almost as if the buildings are too pure for additions and personalization to happen. Time will still have to tell, but after five years, the personalization was minimal. Is the actual stage successful or does the backdrop overwhelm the performance on the actual stage?
There were two types of people using the space. Those who lived there (destination) and those who were passing through (route). For either of these groups, the architecture does not encourage that much interaction, even though the intention is there with numerous balconies dotting the facades in a playful manner. There is nowhere for people passing through to sit or stop for a moment or two. There is nowhere for people who live in this block to spend time in the pure public realm. Almost all of the units had windows with closed curtains. It seemed the space was a little too intimate and people preferred to be more inwardly focused.
Yet, people had to use the balconies because there was no transition, or garden zone at the street level. It is very different from the Victorian rowhouses in the surrounding areas that have stoops and small gardens in the front that encourage a different kind of interaction. This lack of transition was very intentional, but left the public space harsh and unwelcoming. But that is probably the new form of interaction. You can communicate with people on your own terms, as they are always one layer of interaction away. This is not accidental, and probably market driven, for what they expect buyers now want. While most of the units were supposed to be affordable, construction costs drove up the numbers that had to be sold on the market. And unfortunately, one of the first buyers ended up buying up five others and renting them, automatically limiting who could live there.
In meeting with a staff member at Barber’s office, it was clear that they share a deep conviction about the type of people and communities that deserve quality housing with the range of projects that they are working on. Because of the press and attention of Donnybrook, it seems likely that there will be many more opportunities to learn and build on the successes and failures of Donnybrook.
See more: Peter Barber Architects