Playtime; a story of revitalisation of city’s Inner block

Project

The studio takes on the current urban crisis of affordable housing in New York City by questioning the role of demolition in the urbanization process.

The project answers these crucial questions:  How might a neighborhood function more collec-tively? Can we gentrify the gentrification and foster the development of a healthy, holistic, and affordable community?

The project proposes to revitalize the backyard(inner block) by adding a children playground with playscapes in different levels across the site, and also provide solutions to improve the lack of affordable resources for single parents.

Interview

What prompted the project?

Looking at the affordable housing communities in New York City, there had long been doubts on the living quality in that area. Therefore, with interest in designing a community for better living quality in a city with such a dense population, we take on this urban crisis from a bigger scale(community) to smaller scale(housing units). With initial research, we were able to tap into the statistics in the demographics that demand affordable housing, then we narrowed it down to ‘single parent families’ and ‘families with kids’ after acknowledging the lack of emphasis for this user group. Then thinking about the kids and the under-utilized ‘backyard’ condition of this city’s inner block, it prompted us to think about how we can revitalize the backyard and make it more heavenly for kids to grow up in.

What informed the choice of the Bowery and New York as sites to talk about this phenomenon?

We picked New York City because there hasn’t been a significant vision particularly in affordable housing, unlike in L.A. there is Michael Maltzan leading the movement for years. Alerted by this lack of emphasis on the affordable housing and the fast paced lifestyle of New York City, we think it’s time to address this crisis by questioning the role of demolition in the urbanization process.

Bowery is a very interesting district for its mix of demographics, existing building types, and the social activities around the block. Its surrounding neighborhoods like Nolita and NoHo have been revived by the fashion industry in the recent years, and it leads us to wonder how Bowery could compliment neighboring districts while having a huge affordable housing development going on.

What case studies did you look too? How did these inform the project?

Quite frankly, we had case studies for the housing units, but not for the children playground. In designing the housing units, we wanted to make sure that we don’t repeat same mistakes in designing inefficient units found in the affordable housing history. Therefore with that in mind, we looked through books and papers; studied and documented the important affordable housing units from the Railroad Housing in the 1870s to Garden Apartments in the 1920s to Albany Houses in the 1950s, and all the way to the modern affordable housing units developed by Michael Maltzan. We made a catalog above to help us navigate and sort through the units according to the user groups we will be accommodating(final unit floor plans as seen below). As for the playground, more information will be discussed throughout the interview.

 4 bedrooms	Duplex + two bedrooms
4 bedrooms Duplex + two bedrooms

How did you approach the research of the site? How important were first hand sources as analysis, interviews, observations etc?

We approached the research of the site through mainly first hand sources such as observation, interviews and analysis. Through observation, we tapped into the daylighting, circulation, types,

construction dates, land usage of existing buildings; then through interviews with locals on site, we were able to get a sense of the demographics around the block. Analysis then visually presented with three maps, showing three aspects of the site: technology, use, and form, with indication of potential site strategies including protection, demolition, modification, and addition.

What role does colour hold? What informed the selection and distribution of this in the intervention?

Realizing the community needs to accommodate kids, we were sure that a playground, covering every inch of the backyard space, will work hand in hand with improving living quality and block circulation.

The playground by definition has to be playful, and the way it conveys the message of playfulness here is through the formation of ground. First, we have play zones defined, then we manipulate the ground to subtly suggest the boundary of play zones without confining it. Through the concavity of the ground, children are free to perform all activity, and the flowing terrain lines register the fluidity, marking the seemingly never-ending joy in this community.

Thinking about children, colors of course came into our mind, and we made an effort in making the colors communicate with the topological form. Height difference throughout the site is mapped with colors indicating a difference of 1 foot per color. Level 3, 4, and 5 are transitional levels therefore can be seen as regular paths: Level 3 path navigates mainly the left site, whereas level 4 is transitional for level 3 and 5, and level 5 navigates mainly the right side of the site.

From the illustrations made for this project, you can also see that not only did we intervened the ground, we also intervened the rooftops of selected buildings to house large-scale playscapes. Our goal in the end was: having playground with topography indicating play zones accompanied by the ramping circulation overhead, and the playscapes on the rooftops, composing a symphony in the the air.

Should the project be 'built', how would this transform and develop through time? How would New York be affected and alter as an urban environment?

We can certainly foresee the playground attracting more visitors to the community, and the circulation connecting inner and outer block will very likely be used more and more frequently by the public. Instead of having this community as a private and enclosed one, it will become a open and inviting community to all. We can see it being a new typology of affordable housing, and we predict that more and more backyards(inner blocks) in New York City will be revitalized.

What is for you the architects most important tool?

Research and analytical thinking. First of all, research certainly is a daunting task and often being done fairly quickly and carelessly in architecture schools. Students don’t want to spend time on knowing the environment nor the history of their site, instead, they often look forward to design process. Surely it is exciting to just design things, but the design without a solid research foundation is always a hollow shell with nothing inside. A thorough research serves a project as a solid base, and it is also a phase where we clear all the doubts and start to see existing problems in the site given. And the design process after that, quite frankly, is a process to tackle all the issues strategically. Knowing what to prioritize in designing will require analytical thinking after a research is completed; therefore a research with no conclusion or loosely assembled maps will serve nothing but a chaos to all the phases after it. Although in the end no one is going to even look at your research, the process is a lesson learned and will always be an important asset for future projects.

With that being said, this project wouldn’t have been possible if not for the research on the housing unit history and the site analytical maps. Although the highlight of this project in the end seemed to be the children playground(which is true), it wouldn’t have been thought of or prioritized without having the research of New York City affordable housing history and realizing a disadvantage of single parents and families with kids in the city.

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