An architect believes we should give affordable housing a makeover
By Julia Alsop and Jake Naughton
David Baker, 65, is an architect based in San Francisco, California. His firm, David Baker Architects, has designed and built more than 8,000 affordable units in the San Francisco Bay Area and is known primarily for designing beautiful affordable housing projects. He believes design adds monetary value and dignity for residents and advocates for increasing the prevalence of non-profit developers.Our conversation with him has been edited for content and clarity.
Do you think design adds value in terms of the function of a place? Like part of design makes it simply more livable?
Our team was invited to talk to with this guy working for NYCHA, and we’d say things like, “You should put a window in the corridors,” and he’d say, “Oh, yeah, I tried to put a window in the corridor, but NYCHA told me that windows in corridors were not an allowed thing because we have electrical lights now so why would have a window in the corridor?”
“Maybe you could have a bench by the elevator,” – I mean, all these ideas are not exactly earth-shaking or complex, “so a senior person can sit down while they wait for the elevator or put their groceries on it while they look for their keys.”
“Oh, yeah. I tried to have a bench there but NYCHA told me they couldn’t have a bench because that would be not in the mission.”
Everything we suggested to try he had already been told no by NYCHA.
They feel like their back is to the wall. “We have 100,000 units that need a new heating system but you want us to put a bench in the lobby?”
Did you face opposition that you were making luxurious housing (or, that at least looks luxurious) with tax dollars?
Yes. The thing about it is that you can waste a lot of money – you can spend a lot of money on housing that can look awful. It was really interesting working for HUD because they didn’t really care what it costs, they just wanted it to look awful. So they would just not let you do balconies — even if you could afford them, it was in their budget — because they didn’t want anyone to accuse them of building a palace for the poor.
In New York City one of the main models is to have these mixed income buildings — i.e., a new condo must have X number of its units marked for affordable housing, usually for the people it’s displacing.
I think it’s hard to say that you’re going to make the new housing pay for the affordable housing because then you can only build very high-end housing. It reduces affordability, it doesn’t make prices go down but it can make prices go up fast.
Another of your focuses is rethinking density. What are some of your strategies to make dense cities more livable?
You have to have real variety in massing. Some smaller pieces. Hot-pepper theory. Really small things that aren’t very big, that are really interesting but allow sunlight and air to drift down into the street. People, usually when they talk about Manhattan being awful they talk about Wall Street. Really huge buildings with no breaks. It can be very oppressive.
There’s that and then thinking on a very street-based level. Thinking not of the street as a container for automobile or any vehicular traffic but really as public, open space. The sidewalks are parks. New York pioneered that with its redo of Broadway. Broadway became an immense asset instead of its horrendous/awfulness that it used to be.
I think that one would hope the new mayor would continue Bloomberg’s eloquent concept of thinking in terms of moving people not cars. There’s still way too many cars in Manhattan.
People will say, look, density’s bad. Look at that traffic jam. Yeah, cars are not good ways to move people around dense cities. Not to mention giving people respiratory diseases.
How would you react to density naysayers?
Though denser areas produce more carbon per square mile, they produce a lot less per person. New York City produces one-third the carbon of Oklahoma City. And that’s really just that people can walk more. They can walk to work. Buildings are more compact. Less roads. Less electric-wire length. Less about every type of infrastructure you can think of per person.
Obviously, there’s many advantages to density socially and the issues can be solved.Back to Overview