BY DASHIELL ALLEN | In an effort to challenge the developer-funded status quo, 41 teams of architects from across New York City submitted proposals this spring to reinvent 5 World Trade Center as a 100 percent affordable high-rise tower.
Last month, on a rainy Saturday night at the Clemente Cultural Center on the Lower East Side, architects and designers presented their proposals to housing activists from the Coalition For a 100 Percent Affordable Tower Five.
On the last publicly owned vacant lot on the World Trade Center campus, the Port Authority and Lower Manhattan Development Corporation plan to build an 85-story residential tower with 75 percent luxury and 25 percent affordable housing at 5 World Trade Center.
Last year, the two companies announced in a closed invitation to tender (RFP) a single design funded by developers Brookfield and Silverstein Properties. However, City Group, an activist architecture collective, decided to have more fun with the idea.
Their alternative design competition, developed in collaboration with the New York Review of Architecture, was based on the competition to design Chicago’s Tribune Tower in the early 20th century, as well as the original World Trade Center competition shortly after 9/11.
The former, spanning styles from Art Deco to Neo-Gothic and factory-inspired design and submitted by more than 260 architects from 23 countries, remains a defining moment in the history of architecture.
Glossy renderings, similar to those posted on construction sites, adorned the walls of City Group’s Forsyth Street gallery space throughout May. But during the presentation at The Clemente, many architects expressed their skepticism that the design has any bearing on the economics of the building.
“Architects can’t save New York City through architecture,” said Nile Greenberg of ANY. “The heroic deeds of architecture often lead to disastrous decisions. The insistence of many architects that the issue of design is part of the issue of affordability is a red herring. Something is missing from this question and distracts us from the politics and genesis of these projects.”
His proposal was simply an empty box in the space of an affordable tower, as he put it, “which defies any notion of an architect’s insistence that politics come first.”
Another architect, Brad Isnard, described his design as “more or less haphazard”. It was based on a social housing estate in Paris.
“We want to take a stand as architects and not allow our project to be used to launder brutal austerity measures for us while we carelessly invest in these massive corporate investment projects, but rather offer a kind of serious vision for a future that we all share and share want to fight,” he said. “The message is the same as it has always been: the costs should be borne by the city and the public, and the profits will be private.”
In that case, Isnard says the state has already spent $250 million to acquire and clear the site. In its entirety, Forbes last year estimated the value of the World Act center campus skyscrapers to $11 billion, including $3.3 billion in debt to tax-exempt Liberty Bonds.
So why, housing protectors ask, should the only residential building on campus be forced to “profit” from luxury housing?
Lane Rick of architecture and design studio Office of Things proposed building an existing supertall “pencil tower,” 432 Park Ave., in place of 5 World Trade Center.
The tower rises 96 stories at E. 57th Street and contains a meager 104 units. Rick pointed out that “432 Park is actually home to fewer people than the mid-rise buildings it replaced.” (However, as the New York Times reports, life in 432 Park isn’t what it sounds.)
Rick figured that the same structure could hold more than 750 units if reconfigured.
“It’s actually something you could use to rethink every single pencil tower in the city skyline across from Billionaires Row,” she said. “You can transform this towering symbol of abundance into a powerful symbol of affordability and resourcefulness.”
Architect Marc Wouters suggested that a slightly shorter build – up to 60 stories – would allow developers to save on the cost of more expensive structural systems that account for higher wind loads and other maintenance fees.
There were some very unique proposals.
“Design optimization is the poisoned legacy of Christianity,” posited another entry by anonymous practicing critic Dank Lloyd Wright.
“Rather than making design more affordable, we should bring people closer to God and design our buildings to make them worship their perfection,” they said, suggesting a giant statue of Julia Fox instead of a tower.
Joking aside, the central question was: What role does architecture play in criticizing or challenging the economic superstructure of development? For many speakers at The Clemente, this seemed like a worthwhile goal, if incredibly daunting.
The answer to that question, and how the existing dynamic might change, has as much to do with the working practices of the architectural industry as it does with the economics of development itself.
Andrew Daley was a practicing architect for more than a decade. At the beginning of 2021 he became the full-time organizer of the Machinists Union. During his career he found that much of what was expected of him did not align with his education.
“We’re not taught economics in school,” he said. “We’re on a professional training course, and honestly most of them are just an old white guy who was a long-time director of a company and brought his buddies over to tell war stories.”
According to Daley, architects often have to work long hours of unpaid overtime — in rare cases up to 80 hours a week. This is at least partly due to development pressure.
Typically, when a developer or government agency publishes an RFP, they expect to receive proposals with no compensation to the submitters. Although there are often no set guidelines for how much work is required for a tender, logically architecture and design firms would work as hard as possible to present the best thought out designs and renderings as architecture and design firms compete with each other.
Due to two antitrust proceedings against the American Institute of Architecture (AIA), there are also no uniform fee and wage structures for the industry or between developers and customers. Ultimately, these are just some of the structural issues that have led to a drive for unionization in the industry.
Last year, architects from SHoP, one of New York City’s most well-known architectural firms, designed Barclays centerEssex Crossing, the tallest tower in Brooklyn and more tried to form a union, but it was thwarted in February 2022 citing a “powerful anti-union campaign”.
A shared recognition of much-needed reform in the industry has also led to the formation of the Architectural Lobby, a decentralized nationwide organization of which Daley is a member.
A manifesto on the architecture lobby’s website lists some of their demands: “Build workers’ power and collective agency through unions and cooperatives; A living wage, benefits, job security and wage transparency across the discipline; Fight for democratic alternatives to the capitalist development system.”
Daley believes that the collective power of architects – when they recognize themselves as a unified workforce – has the potential to transform not only their working conditions but the industry itself.
“I think collective action on these things is important,” he said of demands like 100 percent affordable developments. “I think architects have that ability, but it’s really difficult to do it on an individually different basis. What it requires is massive organizing, and that’s what organizing is really about.
“If you are together in this collective, what other things can we organize around? And I think that’s a strong thing that the unions are making clear. That other issue – whether it’s abortion or immigration – these are also labor rights and we need to organize around them as much as collective bargaining rights.”
And there are precedents for architects making demands like 100 percent affordability. For example, in 2020, the New York section of AIA released a statement “urging architects to stop designing unjust, cruel, or harmful confinement spaces within the current United States justice system such as prisons, prisons, detention centers, and police stations.” ”
“If we can take this type of posture, why can’t we take other postures?” asked Daley.
Architects Violette de La Selle and Michael Robinson Cohen, co-founders of CityGroup, agree.
“The economics of this particular site are completely out of whack,” de La Selle said of 5 World Trade Center. “Because the site is free, so are the construction costs. And if the city says you can only build here if you offer 100 percent affordable housing, then they will find a way to make it profitable.”
“Architects recognize their power as workers and their ability to actually form unions,” Cohen said. “At the same time, I think the way architecture has been practiced for so many years counteracts that. Architects feel like they are competing against each other for projects, and they need to discount their skills and undervalue how much they charge clients to get jobs. So there are many forces undermining the potential collective consciousness.”
“I have a passion for housing and affordable housing,” Cohen said, “is that force that can bring so many people across the city together in a people’s movement.”