Walking down Broadway or Amsterdam from Hamilton Heights to neighborhoods further south, I often find myself passing the Manhattanville Houses. At first glance, this public housing project seems like any other–a blah group of brick buildings that are an all-too-common sight in New York. But something about them always catches my eye.
Maybe it's the unusual angles the six buildings create because of their Y-shaped designs. Or the modernist red, yellow and blue panels decorating the front of each building all the way to the top. They remind me of Le Corbusier's use of color in some of his buildings–or even a Mondrian painting.
Turns out I'm not imagining things. I recently went to see the "Living in America: Frank Lloyd Wright, Harlem & Modern Housing" show at the Wallach Art Gallery on Columbia's new Manhattanville campus. There, among the images of Wright's pie-in-the-sky ideas of suburban utopia and our own city's housing projects that rose up simultaneously, is a section on the Manhattanville Houses. (The show is up for another month.)
Designed by Swiss emigre architect William Lescaze (of PSFS Building fame) between 1954 and 1961, the Manhattanville Houses introduced new ideas to public housing. Their Y-shape was a departure from the typical slab or cross shapes frequently seen in other projects. And Lescaze used colored panels not only to update the public's perception of the building, but to decorate the balconies on each floor that served as "backyard[s] in the sky." (This former resident's comment is an interesting read.)
New York's projects certainly have their fair share of problems–crime and crumbling infrastructure are just some that spring to mind. But this architecture show opened my eyes to a more optimistic time when these buildings were meant to replace slums, create affordable housing, and, as the Manhattanville Houses show, even inject some thoughtful modernism into increasingly mediocre urban developments.