Skip to Content

Beyond the Lawn

Center for Architecture, New York City. May 9, 2013

As ever more people crowd into America’s cities, affordable housing has taken on a new urgency. The Institute for Public Architecture's panel discussion, held at the Center for Architecture in conjunction with the spring exhibition Low Rise High Density, explored the garden city-inspired designs that have cropped up on the American architectural landscape over the last century.

Low-rise, high-density developments — an early 1900s European import that enjoyed brief popularity in the ’60s and ’70s as a public-housing alternative to “tower in the park” high-rises — are populous enough to support public transportation yet often low enough that they don’t require elevators. They can preserve a suburban feel while housing dozens of people per acre.

Kate Orff, an assistant professor at Columbia University and founder of the design firm SCAPE, extolled the pleasures of living in Arbor Close, a Queens community built in 1925. Each unit has a small private patio that gives onto a shared interior garden court. She knows her neighbors and can watch her children playing outside from her windows. But a development such as Arbor Close, she said, would be much more difficult to build today.

Michael Pyatok, an architect based in Oakland, California, who has designed many such complexes, suggested a few reasons why, including skyrocketing land prices and, in some areas, zoning that calls for more parking spaces than are necessary or practical. But the chief challenge is charming members of the American public into living cheek-by-jowl with one another. As Matthew Lasner, an assistant professor at Hunter College and author of High Life: Condo Living in the Suburban Century, remarked, “For many, a cul-de-sac is about as close as they would like to get to their neighbors.” If cities continue to grow as projected, many Americans will have to learn to forego a lawn of one’s own.