Creating an inclusive community within NYCHA


Initiated as a part of Hilary Sample’s advanced studio “Re-drawing east Harlem” at Columbia GSAPP, the project attempts to take on the alienating NYCHA blocks and the flawed housing model of the tower in a park. By creating an infill and inclusive community within and around the blocks, the project poses the question; could we increase the use of public space by decreasing its size?

Over the decades, East Harlem has been a victim of negligence since policies and planning was initiated but never followed through. As a result the quality of life within deteriorated.

Through analyzing the urban fabric, a block of NYCHA properties seemed to divide East Harlem into two halves. These NYCHA developments follow the model of the tower in the park where the park was intended to become a public social space. Over time it was considered an unsuccessful model since attempting to become everyone’s space, the park became no man’s land as no one took ownership of it. Eventually the space became known as an unsafe area and a space for illicit activities. Outsiders dared not enter.

The proposal attempts to soften relationship by creating an infill community in the park below the NYCHA, combining the garden building relationship of a low-rise with the density and social ideals of a tower block. The infill community divides the park space into smaller more manageable segments which allow residents to be part of the collective yet retain a sense of privacy and individuality in the neighborhood.  The new settlement includes not just short and long term residences but learning spaces, cultural centers and trade schools to promote an idea of cultural celebration and inclusion through art and education.

Thus instead of alienating the NYCHA blocks, they are included within this community which reaches out not just within the block but to its neighbors as well creating a social ecosystem.


Who influences you graphically?

 I draw inspiration mainly from film and art. Artists such as Edward Hopper and Henri Matisse had a knack for creating scenes overflowing with internal dialogue. The work of filmmakers such as Wes Anderson,Ridley Scott, Guillermo del Toro and Stanley Kubrick is always a fascinating source of inspiration in terms of color strategy, lighting, and composition.

How important were the case studies, both global and site specific, in developing the architectural intervention?

The case studies conducted on the tenement houses allowed me to understand exiting low rise housing conditions within New York as well as their relationship to the garden behind it. This intimate relation was forgotten once the city adopted the residential model of the tower in a park. The studying the Justus Van Effen Complex allowed me to understand how the garden could become a collective space within a large scale low rise residential development. Ideas from both case studies were carried over into the architectural intervention.

In following from MOS’s notion of signing both buildings but more importantly people, how important was the notion of a collective when both designing the project as well as when operating as an architect?

Humans are social beings and the buildings we design must cater to the human collective but at the same time there must be space for the individual as well. Thus when designing the project, there were always spaces for people to come together and interact with one another but at the same time I designed sheltered spaces for the individual where they could watch the going on from the safety of their own “space”.

What is your take on the architectural silhouette? What dictated the different graphic qualities of these within the views?

I feel that the architectural silhouettes used in most renderings only give a sense of scale and some indication to the program of the space, while not distracting the viewer from the architecture itself. The silhouettes I drew for this project retain somewhat of an identity or individuality through color or clothing style. They serve to highlight the different kinds of people using the space and are at the same time without identifiable facial features, allowing the viewer to put him/herself in their shoes. Another departure from traditional architectural silhouettes is the use of shadows since they help ground the figures in space giving them more “weight”.

What were your biggest concerns and parameters when constructing the individual views?

Constructing the views was a very antithetical exercise in terms of architecture. Here the architecture acts as a back drop while the life it creates takes center stage. Thus the views are never about the spectacle of the architecture itself but instead focused on how the intervention changes the site.

What defined the language of representation through which the project is articulated? how and to what extent was this discussed in the space of the studio?

Throughout the course of the studio, the language of representation was never really touched upon. The studio was always open to the idea of different methods of representation as long as they helped construct a good narrative and were integral to the argument put forth.

In terms of my own project, MOS was always an inspiration but I also felt it was important to highlight shadows and understand their role in choreographing and organizing space around them. Axonometric projections were used to understand how each unit and typology works in addition to how they add up to the grater whole, while the perspective views help humanize the project and allow us to imagine the life within and around.


Zahid Nawaz Ajam is a recent graduate from the MS.AAD program at Columbia GSAPP. He is currently pursuing his career at Amale Andraos and Dan Wood’s New York based practice, WORKac.