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Designing Solutions

About a mile northeast of The Cooper Union lies a 21-building housing development bearing a familiar name: Peter Cooper Village. The development opened in 1947 alongside Peter Stuyvesant Village, or “Stuyvesant Town,” as an affordable-housing option for veterans. While the development was not without controversy—it was an urban renewal project with early discriminatory policies—Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town provided over 11,000 affordable apartments on the East Side of Manhattan.
The two developments were sold last October, but not without a historic agreement between the for-profit buyer and the city to preserve 5,000 of the units as affordable for the next two decades. The preservation of parts of Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town as affordable housing was celebrated by residents and nonresidents alike as a major achievement for a city in the midst of an affordable housing crisis.
Nationwide, nearly 50 percent of households that pay rent spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, an amount considered "cost-burdened," according to a 2016 report released by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. In New York City the percentage of cost-burdened renting households is at least 55 percent according to a similar report in 2015. In response to the growing affordable-housing crisis, New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, announced his ambitious 10-year housing plan, which he says will produce or preserve 200,000 affordable units in the five boroughs.
It comes as no surprise that alumni from The Cooper Union have worked to make housing affordable nationwide for years— from architects and planners to real estate developers and community advocates. We reached out to two of them to better understand the challenges and rewards of the work. John Clarke AR'66 and Alexander Gorlin AR'78 both built practices that integrated affordable housing in different ways.
The affordable-housing business isn’t easy or glamorous, but for John Clarke it is an important part of the housing market in New Jersey, where he lives and works. As an architect and planner, he pieces together the financial and physical components that make these projects feasible. Alexander Gorlin, whose practice is based in New York City, has worked for years to make striking design and functionality as important for lower-income housing as it is for market-rate housing. Both can pinpoint experiences at Cooper that got them into the field.
Clarke and Gorlin attended what is now The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture during the tenure of the school’s most formative figure, Dean John Hejduk AR’50. Clarke began as a student prior to Hejduk's arrival as a professor in 1964. “The character of the school changed quite dramatically when Hejduk appeared on the scene,” Clarke recalls. “He brought a degree of enthusiasm and intellectual rigor that was really wonderful to experience.” Hejduk made connections between architecture and culture, environment and politics, introducing more socially conscious projects in courses. Clarke also credits his housing professor, Lewis Davis, for valuable practical experience through an internship at his firm, Davis Brody Bond. There Clarke worked on a social-housing project called Waterside; this was his first foray into affordable housing.
After receiving his master’s degree in urban planning at Columbia University Clarke became the director of planning and development for the city of Trenton, New Jersey in 1973. He quickly learned that his skill set as a planner/architect was marketable in the state. “In New Jersey, planning is a very particular expertise. The laws and regulations are very complex,” he says. “The discipline of planning helps architects have a broader picture of what we’re doing.”
Clarke continued in public service until 1979, when he left to start his own architecture and planning firm, Clarke Caton Hintz. Headquartered in Trenton, the firm works on a wide array of design and planning projects in urban areas of the state. Clarke is currently an emeritus partner after a long career as the director of architectural operations.
Housing—both from the planning and architectural standpoints—has always been a component of the firm’s work. But our neighbors in New Jersey live with a unique housing policy dictated by a 1975 state Supreme Court decision referred to as the Mount Laurel doctrine. The doctrine mandates that each municipality in the state provide a variety of housing types for mixed-income residents. The decision stands today as one of the most well-known policies for prohibiting the use of zoning laws to create discriminatory housing practices and still affects new housing developments in the state. It also keeps Clarke Caton Hintz’s planning division in business and his designs creative.
“It’s easy to say but incredibly difficult to implement,” Clarke says of the logistics of the Mount Laurel doctrine. “In order to make affordable housing in New Jersey, you have to use a mixture of assistance programs.” One program Clarke uses with frequency is a historic-preservation tool. “The tax credit that you can get for historic projects is really a key factor in making the finances work for housing,” he says. Clarke’s firm has implemented countless projects using both state and federal historic-preservation tax incentives. Using these financial incentives makes the project affordable for the developer, but in turn requires Clarke Caton Hintz to adhere, in the restoration, to specific standards set by the secretary of the interior.
Rather than viewing an existing structure as restrictive, Clarke sees a design freedom that comes with using a historic building for a low- to moderate-income project. One example is the historic John A. Roebling’s Sons Company manufacturing complex in Trenton, a longtime project for Clarke. The Roebling factory even has ties with Cooper Union: Peter Cooper enticed John Roebling to build the complex in Trenton alongside his expansive iron mill.
The project, which Clarke starting working on while director of planning and development, involves rehabilitating early-20th-century brick factories alongside New Jersey’s Route 129 into a mixed-use development with various housing types. The structure and volume of the Roebling buildings allowed greater creativity in transforming the space into apartments. Since each floor of the building measures 18 feet high, the architects designed duplex units with interior staircases and massive loft windows. The resulting industrial-chic feel and incredible natural light are elements typically out of reach for low- to middle-income residents.
Under the co-instruction of Clarke and faculty members who included Professor Diana Agrest, students designed new uses for the six buildings on the site by drawing on their history. “The goal was for students to learn how to approach urban problems from an architectural perspective, and by doing so, learn to work at different scales,” recalls Agrest. Their proposed plan included housing and community services, stating “Many of these new uses can be realized at a cost that would be prohibitive to a developer working with no available structure.” Paid for in part by a National Endowment for the Arts grant at the time, the project resulted in a book, still available today.
This type of project reflected the pedagogy of the school when Alexander Gorlin enrolled, right out of high school in 1973. Gorlin also credits Dean Hejduk for teaching him how architecture had a larger scope. “We learned how architecture could connect to other cultural fields. The program also taught how to use architecture as an instrument to help society,” he recalls. A course focused on housing was key. “I think that’s when I discovered housing was equally as important to pursue as other types of architecture.”
After completing his master’s degree at Yale, Gorlin worked for I.M. Pei, then Kohn Pederson Fox. He took the opportunity to found his own firm after his first commission—a house for the then editor of Vogue magazine. With that, Alexander Gorlin Architects quickly grew, developing an extensive portfolio of luxury home designs. While the wealthy clients helped sustain his office, the lessons he learned at Cooper stayed with him. “I thought I should use my talents to help more people,” he says. “Architects have an obligation to help society at large, rather than just create form for individual, wealthy people.”
In 2000, he took the initiative and set up a meeting with the commissioner of NYC’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, who gave him a list of housing developers to contact for an affordable-housing project. Gorlin’s reputation as a housing designer helped him land a project with the Nehemiah Corporation, which wanted to develop affordable prefabricated housing in Brooklyn. Sixteen years later, Gorlin is still working on the Nehemiah project in the East New York and Brownsville neighborhoods. The project will provide 500 townhouses for first-time homebuyers. As the author of the book The New American Townhouse (1999), Gorlin paid special attention to the design of the homes, even though the budget differed greatly from those of his usual clients. “You have to use ingenuity to do housing on a very low budget,” Gorlin says. His greatest low-cost design element? Color.
“Color is a traditional way of distinguishing one house from another,” explains Gorlin. The development is named for the biblical figure Nehemiah, a prophet who helped rebuild Jerusalem. Therefore, Gorlin created a color scheme that related to the 12 foundation stones of New Jerusalem. “The colors made it lively along the façade, but it has this second meaning that relates to Nehemiah,” Gorlin says. He also convinced the developer to use back-alley parking so the units could become modern interpretations of brownstones where people could meet on the stoops and converse.
Gorlin used significant colors to animate the façade of his Boston Road project as well. It is in the area of Morrisania, the historical name for the South Bronx, named for Declaration of Independence signer Lewis Morris. To represent the area’s history, Gorlin used vibrant reds, blues and yellows appropriate to that time period. “I always like to have a narrative story to animate the building,” Gorlin says. “These colors are related to context, site and program.”
Gorlin has also made a name for himself as a designer of community centers and “supportive housing.” Supportive housing has community services on the ground floor, including social services, job placement centers and healthcare. Gorlin’s experience with high-end clients helped him visualize these projects. “It’s just like on Park Avenue where you have your doctors, psychologists and dentists right downstairs. Supportive housing is a different version of that for people who can’t afford these services,” he says.
One project in particular is the Brook, a six-story building on Brook Avenue in the Bronx with 190 affordable units for the formerly homeless and people living with HIV/AIDS. Another project in the Bronx, the Boston Road development, has 154 units for formerly homeless residents, many of them seniors. Gorlin says he concentrated on communal spaces in the building’s interior layout, providing residents with space to grow as a community. He also applied this concept to existing public housing in New York City by designing a new community center at McKinley Houses in the Bronx.
Today at Cooper, urban issues continue to play a major role in both undergraduate and graduate architecture education. A specialty of the master’s program is urban studies. “Housing certainly is one of the subjects within that context,” Agrest says. Both Clarke and Gorlin understand the challenges to entering the field of affordable housing, but hope the next generation of architects will pursue such projects. “As an architect, when you become a specialist in something you tend not to expand what you’re doing,” Gorlin says. “Everyone should do more but you have to seek it. It doesn’t come to you.”

At top: Nehemiah Houses, photo by Frank Oudermann