blog post photo

Well over a 1,000 people—many with coffee in hand—attended this morning’s plenary session at the AIA convention. It was a packed lineup. Speakers included Steven Holl, the 2012 Gold Medal recipient, and Vincent James, a principal at VJAA, the 2012 AIA Firm of the Year, both of whom delivered inspiring remarks about their work and architecture at large. And then came the bearer of bad news: Kermit Baker, the AIA’s chief economist, who spoke candidly about the recession’s impact on the profession (read more here).

Baker was followed by the event headliner: HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, who studied architecture at Harvard and formerly served as commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development. President Obama appointed him to head HUD in late 2008; he was sworn in January 2009. 

During his roughly 20-minute speech, Donovan, who was born in New York, discussed the evolution of affordable housing in the United States, focusing on New York City.

blog post photo

Photo courtesy Wikipedia 

Ever heard of The First Houses (pictured above)? They’re known as the first public housing units in the country (hence the name). Designed by architect Frederick Ackerman, the eight buildings, ranging from four to five stories, opened in 1935 in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Two years later, the Harlem River Houses – the first federally funded public housing project in the country – were completed in Upper Manhattan. Archibald Manning Brown designed the complex.

Donovan went on to discuss how the Postwar urban renewal programs decimated neighborhoods, sometimes “wiping them from the map.” Public housing projects often failed due to a lack of vital amenities such as shops, schools, transportation options -- and jobs. “It wasn’t that the housing units were substandard,” he said; rather, these complexes didn’t provide opportunities for resident to thrive. The South Bronx epitomized the consequences of so-called urban renewal. Here, thousands of buildings were torched by arsonists (pictured below). Residents fled. By the 1970s, the area around Yankee Stadium had lost 75 percent of its population, said Donovan.

blog post photo


Photo © John Fekner/courtesy Wikipedia

Today, the South Bronx is undergoing something of a revival. Donovan pointed to the new Via Verde development, designed by Grimshaw Architects and Dattner Architects (look for coverage in a future issue ofArchitectural Record!). The affordable housing complex will boast a fitness center, garden plots, and a green market, among other amenities. Donovan plans to attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony next month.

The HUD chief urged architects to support federal initiatives that boost affordable housing developments, especially given the limping residential market. “Let there be no doubt. There is a need for big plans,” he said. “We are in a moment of crisis. We can’t afford to be timid.” He cited three initiatives he hopes architects will get behind:   

* The Project Rebuild Act, which expands on the Neighborhood Stabilization Program. The legislation is proposed by Senator Dick Durbin. Read more here 

* The Transportation Bill – and a focus on transit infrastructure that reverses “the legacy of the federal government encouraging the hollowing out of our cities.” Donovan noted that 52 cents of every dollar an American earns are spent on housing and transportation. Read more here.

* Partnership for Sustainable Cities, which comprises HUD, the EPA, and the Department of Transportation. Congress cut funding for the program last year. Donovan encouraged architects to be vocal about the importance of “smart design and planning” in creating healthy communities.  “We need you to do your part, to do your fair share,” he told the audience.

Read more coverage from the 2012 AIA Convention in our special section,Essential Washington