The rehabilitation of the postwar glazed white brick apartment building continues apace, with the condoization of 530 Park Ave., a 1941 (okay, almost postwar) 19-story white brick building. I happen to like New York’s postwar white brick buildings, and am even warming up to the red brick variants – I’ve always consider anonymous white brick to be the most New York of New York buildings.
One reason that I like them is that because of the history of New York City zoning, they have the form of prewar buildings, with the embellishments (or lack thereof) of the postwar era.
Up until 1961, New York’s developers were still building under essentially the 1916 code. While the 1916 code definitely restricted and guided growth in the dense commercial core, where it encouraged set backs and discouraged Equitable Building-like dense massings, developers in residential neighborhoods like the Upper East Side generally did not bump up against the zoning limits. The setbacks on 530 Park are slight and decorative, and likely built according to the style of the day (which was heavily influenced by larger buildings downtown whose shapes were dictated by zoning).
So buildings erected before the 1961 code took effect tended to be lower than those that came after, but they covered more of the lot and their façades were flush with the sidewalk. Some of them included garages for the newly-motorized middle- and upper-classes, but they were small compared to those that came after. Above all they were governed by the laws of supply and demand. If you ignore the materials and lack of ornament, they were a lot like prewar buildings. But the brick apartment buildings of the ’40s and ’50s were the last in New York City built according to supply and demand, which is why I think we’ll come to hold them so dear in the future.
After the 1961 code went into effect, building form in New York City changed radically. The new FAR system combined with public plaza bonuses rewarded taller, thinner buildings (where new buildings managed to sprout at all), breaking the street wall, and perhaps encouraging architects to pay less attention to surrounding structures for context. It also downzoned the vast majority of the city just as people were seeking more living space per capita, meaning that these taller apartment buildings didn’t always hold more people.
And then there were the minimum parking requirements, which required huge garages and parking lots that forced developers to think of cars before they thought about good design, obliterating any trace of good architecture in the outer boroughs, where the buildings were the most modest and the margins were the slimmest. The parking minimums also did some damage in Manhattan, until the EPA stepped in and forced the city to stop requiring parking in neighborhoods south of Harlem.
Most of the city is still zoned according to the 1961 code, but the post-Jane Jacobs emphasis on the pedestrian view has corrected some of these issues. There are no longer plaza bonuses, and there are some incentives for ground-level retail.
But the overall densities of the 1961 code are still in effect, which means that virtually all construction in the desirable parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn bumps up against zoning limits, and land prices are so high that even luxury builders end up having to skimp on materials to make projects pencil out financially.
I know it’s a risky thing to say, considering how drastically aesthetic tastes change, but I have a feeling that 20 years from now, we aren’t going to feel as good about the architecture of the ’70s as we do today about white brick.
benjaminhemric saysJuly 21, 2012 at 9:41 pm
PART ONE (of two?)
Josh Barbanel wrote (in “Revenge of White Brick Apartment”)
[added emphasis and text within brackets is mine — BH]:
“Even the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, in making the
1951 building [i.e.,”Manhattan House”] a landmark, noted “FREQUENT
CRITICISM that Manhattan House [which itself has a superior design,
nevertheless] was responsible for a general decline in apartment house
While I don’t “hate” white brick apartment houses with quite
the same passion that I sense most other New Yorkers do (see above), I do share
the feeling that the great majority of these buildings represent a terrible
watering down of the “classic” “New York-style”
elevator/luxury apartment house. (I’ll explain this assertion more fully a
little later in the post.) As a result, these buildings have always represented
among some New Yorkers an interesting case of “market failure” that
has “needed” to be explained. The market failure problem is twofold:
1) why were such cookie cutter banal apartment houses built for people who
could afford “better”; 2) how could so many of these buildings be
built such that, in aggregate especially, they tend to “destroy” the
– – – – – – – – – – –
First let me explain why these white brick buildings represent a
terrible watering down of the “classic” New York-style
elevator/luxury apartment house.
Stephen Smith wrote:
“Up until 1961, New York’s developers were still building under
essentially the 1916 code. While the 1916 code definitely restricted and guided
growth in the dense commercial core . . . developers in residential
neighborhoods like the Upper East Side generally did not bump up against the
Benjamin Hemric writes:
While I want to focus on a discussion of the pre-1961 zoning code
apartment houses, technically speaking, I believe this statement is incorrect,
and I believe it also somewhat confuses the discussion with regard to the
“white brick” apartment house “problem.”
Generally speaking apartment houses built between 1916 and 1961 did,
PRACTICALLY SPEAKING, bump up against the zoning. But because the requirements
of apartment houses are different from those of offices (and apartment houses
don’t fit into the setback scheme as easily as office buildings), and because
many apartment houses were probably in lower “height districts” to
begin with, most of the time you don’t have apartment buildings with the same
kind of setbacks as office buildings. But look, for instance, at the wonderful
twin-towered apartment houses of Central Park West. Because these buildings
have footprints that are large enough, they have their own kind of set-backed
towers (“setbacks” / towers that are of a type more suitable for
However, it is true, as you say, that apartment houses built between
1916 and 1961 typically differ IN FORM from those built after 1961. In terms of
F.A.R. (or its equivalent, since pre-1961 buildings were not regulated in terms
of FAR), I don’t think that MOST post-1961 apartment houses have more FAR than
they would have had under the 1916 code.
One reason I say this is because city planners often call the white
brick apartment houses (and their red brick equivalents) “grace
period” buildings — meaning that because FAR was, generally speaking,
downzoned by the 1961 code, many of these buildings were built “all of a
sudden” in one “period” in order to get the maximum FAR they
could get (before the 1961 zoning code’s lesser FAR took effect).
However, I suspect that the 1961 code did eventually “enable”
the construction of apartment houses with higher FARs later on, at least in
certain cases, because of various bonuses that were offered, etc. and because
the kind of tower that is allowed by the 1961 zoning is more
“enabling,” practially speaking, with regard to FAR than the set-back
towers (which have to fit apartments within the sky exposure plane and have
towers that cover no more than “x” percentage of the plot) that were
required by the 1916 code. (In other words, the 1961 code allowed you to fully
utilize additional FAR because it allowed you to shift the FAR around the plot
of land — that is if, in the first place, you were able to get added FAR from
a bonuses, etc.)
– – – – – – – – – –
Why “white brick” apartment houses represent a terrible
watering down of the “classic” “New York-style”
elevator/luxury apartment house.
I think it’s important to point out that pre-1961 zoning code apartment
houses usually do bump up against the zoning because otherwise it becomes
unclear which buildings the “white brick” apartment houses are being
compared against by New Yorkers; why New Yorkers “hate” the white
brick apartment houses; and why the proliferation of these “white
brick” apartment houses represent a “market failure” that needs
to be explained.
To some degree the white brick apartment houses are being mentally
compared to the super grand apartments on Park Ave. and upper-Fifth Ave., and
to those in towered buildings like those on Central Park West and West; to some
degree they are being compared to slightly more modest, but still grand,
pre-war apartment houses on West End Ave., Riverside Drive, lower-Fifth Ave.,
University Place, etc. But, in particular, I think people are mentally
comparing them to somewhat more modest, but still for the affluent and still
very nice apartment houses like those in the London Terrace group of apartments
houses, and those apartment houses that what I call “Bing & Bing”
type apartment houses (even if they were built by other developers). (Wikipedia
says this about Bing & Bing: “The firm had a reputation for building
“stately, spacious apartments in elegantly detailed buildings that often
had Art Deco touches.” Bing & Bing buildings, all built for the luxury
market, often feature multiple setbacks with private terraces. According to the
“New York Times,” “The Bing & Bing buildings are regarded as
among the city’s finest prewar properties.”
What do the pre-war’s have the “white bricks” don’t: grand-ish
rooms; high ceilings; great layouts; solid construction — and beautifully
designed exteriors, lobbies, etc. In contrast, the “white bricks” are
seen as having box-like rooms, simple layouts, cheap construction and banal
exteriors, lobbies, etc.
Relevant joke from Jacobs’ “Death and Life of Great American
Cities” (page 252, Modern Library edition):
“Dear, are you sure the stove is one of the 51 exciting reasons
we’re living in Washington Square Village?” [one of the apartment
complexes that is part of the current NYU controversy] asks the wife in a
cartoon issued by the protesting tenants in an expensive New York redevelopment
project [one that mixes in red, blue and yellow bricks along with the basic
white]. “You’ll have to speak up, honey,” replies the husband.
“Our neighbor just flushed his toilet.”
– – – – – – – – –
Stephen Smith wrote:
“If you ignore the materials and lack of ornament, they were a lot
like prewar buildings.”
This is a pretty big “if.” In terms of New Yorkers who
disparage these buildings (and who don’t actually live in them) this is a large
part of the reason they are being disparaged. They are seen as creating a
deadly, banal streetscape when compared to other pre-1961 apartment houses.
This is especially true in Greenwich Village, where the white-bricked buildings
often replaced buildings with “character” and where there are other
apartment houses (including modern ones) with a lot classier and
(To be continued.)
Sat., July 28, 2012, 9:40 p.m.
benjaminhemric saysJuly 22, 2012 at 10:37 pm
PART TWO (of two)
Not all white-brick buildings are banal and street deadening. Some are special (e.g., Manhattan House, Imperial House, etc.); some, while not being distinguished, nevertheless have some strong positive touches here and there; and even some of the banal ones, if they are in the right environment (for instance, surrounded by older, darker buildings) can lend a nice light touch to an area. However, in general, white-brick buildings seem to represent for many New Yorkers, especially those who are interested in architecture and urbanism, a step backward in architectural house construction and design.
So why did well-to-do New Yorkers have to settle for these bland, boxy, poorly built white-brick apartment houses for so many years? And why was the city (i.e., Manhattan) saddle with so many of these street-deadening buildings — buildings that were routinely denigrated by most New Yorkers, especially those with an interest in architecture and urbanism? For many years, such buildings constituted the majority of new “luxury” buildings that were being built in New York City. Why couldn’t we do better?
Here are some tentative explanations:
1) Unusually high building costs — some of which was due to the so-called “mob tax” (monies siphoned off by organized crime). In such an environment, higher quality design and construction would have cost just too much.
2) The widespread acceptance of “modernism,” and its belief that ornament is a crime, provided an acceptable cover for this kind of expedient, bare bones architecture.
3) A good number of these buildings were “grace period” buildings — built in a rush to beat out the change from the 1916 zoning code (with its higher FAR’s) to the 1961 zoning codes (with its lower basic FAR’s).
4) Sellers Market — even as the rest of New York City was going down the tubes, the market for living in Manhattan held steady (or even grew stronger, as New Yorkers fled the outer boroughs for either the suburbs or Manhattan). Thus builders could say, “take it or leave it.” Given strong demand, it was hard for people to find anything better, so people just gave up caring.
Sun., July 22, 2012, 10:35 p.m.
New York City Apartments saysAugust 26, 2012 at 6:20 pm
Living in Queens white brick buildings are rare and viewing them in the city is always a treat.