Rethinking artists' housing
In 2012, architect Jonathan Kirschenfeld founded the Institute for Public Architecture to provide a pathway for designers interested in socially engaged work. Earlier this year, the program hosted a fellowship focused on New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s pledge to invest $30 million in 1,500 affordable live/work spaces for artists and entrepreneurs.
Buried deep in the 160-page law governing New York State’s apartment buildings, past discussions of peepholes and parapets, lies a lengthy passage outlining the case for special consideration of artists’ needs. “The financial remunerations to be obtained from pursuit of a career in the arts are generally small,” it states, making it difficult for artists to afford the substantial amount of space they require. But the government shouldn’t just shrug its shoulders and let them move somewhere cheaper, because “the cultural life of cities… within this state and of the state as a whole is enhanced by the residence in such cities of large numbers of persons regularly engaged in the arts.”
The solution set forth: Let artists live and work in existing buildings originally designed for other purposes.
This change to the building code, along with other regulatory mechanisms put in place starting in the 1960s, was designed to formalize the conversion of manufacturing and commercial space into live/work spaces that became popular in SoHo and spread to other neighborhoods. But while the SoHo loft remains the archetypal image of a New York artist’s home, it’s far from the only model—and, according to architect Emma Fuller, not the one best suited to today’s reality.
For Fuller, who focused her IPA fellowship on live/work typologies, understanding the legal framework shaping the City’s current plans is critical. “When de Blasio says, ‘I want 1,500 units of joint artist live/work,’ that’s really specific,” she said. “He’s talking about ‘relative to the building code.’ So that means we have to start with existing buildings, and is that really the best solution? Let’s clarify the language within which you want to work.”
Doing so, she believes, will require careful thinking about the relationship between the City’s desire to retain artists, existing State and City laws, and the needs of artists themselves. “There are obvious social questions on, how do artists live and work currently? What is the contemporary condition?” she said. “The zoning regulation that authorized joint living/working quarters as a legal and legitimate piece of the code was passed in the ’70s, and clearly the state of how real estate is valued today means that while a lot of people were able to take advantage of it then, their younger colleagues don’t have that opportunity now.”
Fuller began her research by examining historical precedents for New York artists’ studios and surveying artists currently living in the city. In both cases, she found, most artists would prefer to have separate spaces for living and working.
Another strike against the live/work model sanctioned by the code: even if the City managed to find enough affordable empty buildings to create 1,500 new units, retrofitting them would be an inherently inefficient process. Working around the idiosyncrasies of existing structures often proves extremely time-consuming for architects and contractors, and optimal solutions aren’t always possible. For example, lofts’ high ceilings look great, but they reduce the number of units that can fit in a building.
Moreover, the loft model fails to prioritize the separation between working and living space that many artists want, Fuller said. "In many cases the developers, even with the best of intentions, essentially create apartments that do not acknowledge the 'work' in joint living/work quarters," she wrote in an email. "Then you are back to the contemporary situation, where artists are trying to paint or sculpt or write in their living rooms, which is a problem with fumes and mess, especially if you have a household size larger than one person."
With these considerations in mind, she began to think about what an efficient, flexible building typology offering separate living and working quarters might look like. She developed a concept based on designing separate modules for living and working that could be repeated depending on the size of the lot available.
Narrow lots could accommodate one or two residential units on each floor. In larger spaces (in manufacturing or light commercial zones, for example), the apartments could be strung out to fill an entire block, creating a modern-day version of Manhattan developments like Striver’s Row or Audubon Terrace.
Separating the apartments from the workspaces also created new possibilities for circulation areas to be used as public parks, event spaces, or other amenities that would catalyze relationships with the surrounding community.
For Fuller, the aesthetics of her proposal are less important than the questions that led to them: What would an ideal typology for artist live/work housing look like in today’s New York? What social possibilities can these developments offer to both artists and the city at large? Does the code need to be reconsidered to realize some of this potential—or simply to make de Blasio’s proposal viable?
“It’s not necessarily a design project; it’s more of a conceptual project that offers a typology,” she said. “People might think, ‘I don’t like this feature or this feature of the typology,’ but the idea is, is the typology worth talking about? What conversation does it provoke?”
Top image: Flickr user Semio via CC by 2.0.