Welcome to Urban By Design Online! This blog is a notebook of my travels as a city planner, historic preservationist and nonprofit advocate. It's a virtual collection of the many things that I adore, featuring cities, the arts, architecture, gardens, interior design, and retail. Enjoy! - Deena
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Entries in The Bronx (2)


The Bronx is Modern: Below East 161st Street

Entrance to the Melrose Community Center [Deena Parham]

This year, I've decided to include a few posts dedicated to architectural treasures in the Bronx.  Today's installment is about Bronx modernism.

Recently, I mentioned to friends that I went on a tour of modern Bronx buildings.  I received several quizzical looks, followed by a collective, “Really?” 

As quiet as it is kept, several giants of the modern architectural movement such as Paul Rudolph, and Marcel Breuer had early commissions in the Bronx.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the Bronx is still stuck in the “buildings are burning” narrative, so this fact is not widely disseminated.  This post will venture into territory where most tours fear to tread- celebrating the borough’s modern architectural heritage!

The Melrose Community Center, 286 East 156th Street, Bronx, NY

[Formal name of building: South Bronx Classic Community Center at Melrose Houses]

A mere five minutes from Manhattan are the Melrose, Morrisania, and Jackson public houses in the South Bronx.  It’s a typical Post World War II, superblock, Robert Moses-era assemblage of functional architecture that met basic housing needs, but was miserably low on inspiration.  The formidable brick buildings with small patches of green space were meant to resemble towers of park. Unfortunately, the sheer density of the high-rise apartment buildings makes the community feel closed, like an impenetrable fortress. 

The gym at the Melrose Community Center [Deena Parham]

After walking past several mature trees, I was pleasantly surprised to see the Melrose Community Center.  The 20,000 square foot building was designed by Agrest and Gandelsonas Architects and Wank Adams Slavin (1998-2001) for the New York City Housing Authority.  It’s currently used as a cultural, recreational, and educational center for local teens.

The Melrose Community Center [Agrest and Gandelsonas Architects]

 Agrest and Gandelsonas Architects made the following design statement:

The design of the Bronx South Classic Center reflects a desire to avoid a fortress-like environment and instead provide the community with a building that conveys a sense of openness and accessibility. The symbolic aspect of the project is of major importance in its social function for the local residents who live amongst one of New York City's highest crime rates; it has generated a point of identification and pride for the community. The Melrose Community Center is composed of two main volumes enclosing programs, the bar and the oval gymnasium connected by a link which provides the entry space. The gymnasium, with its strongly recognizable form, is a symbolic element of identification for the entire community.

We chose to make the classrooms building as transparent as possible. Curtain wall glazing along the length of the bar exposes the interior to public view in both directions. The various activity rooms have a glass wall oriented towards the circulation corridor, enabling its users to see the activities of everyone else. This visual exchange creates a great sense of energy and excitement.

The Bronx Criminal Court Building 215 East 161st Street, Bronx, Harrison and Abramowitz

A travertine sculpture by Constantino Nivola at the Bronx Criminal Court Building. [Deena Parham]

This $31 million imposing courthouse was designed by the architectural firm of Harrison and Abramowitz (1973-1977).  It currently houses the Family Court, Criminal Court and their associated offices, the District Attorney, and offices of the Departments of Probation, Human Resources, Corrections, and NYPD.  The bulky limestone clad building is 13-stories tall, and is 600,000 square feet. This building's unwelcoming public presence resulted in a radical design approach when the Bronx Hall of Justice was proposed.  

 The Bronx County Hall of Justice 215 East 161St Street, Bronx, NY, Rafael Vinoly Architects

The glass facade of the Bronx County Hall of Justice [Deena Parham]

Architect Rafael Vinoly’s courthouse project opened to the public in 2008.  It is two blocks long, and is one of the largest courthouses in the country. The East 161St Street facade is known for its accordion-fold curtain wall of windows that reflected the brightness of the sunlight.  This building’s facade is a stand-out primarily because its intent was to show the transparency of justice, while maintaining a level of privacy. 

The $421 million, nine-story, 775,000 square foot building was constructed between 2001 and 2007.   The windows were made of translucent glass that was tested at a blast simulator in New Mexico, to ensure that they were resistant to any potential terrorist attack.  Overall there are 47 court rooms for the Supreme and Criminal courts, seven grand jury rooms, as well as offices for the Department of Corrections, the Department of Probation, and the Bronx District Attorney. 

Rear of the Bronx County Hall of Justice where the view of the public plaza is blocked. [Deena Parham]

While the building was supposed to be a shining example of superior public architecture, the courthouse has had its share of detractors since its opening.  Several newspaper accounts have quoted court personnel who have complained that the building is allegedly structurally unsound, has leaking ceilings and sewage pipes, and that overall, it is not very well-maintained. 

In the rear of the courthouse building is a public plaza that was meant to soften the institutional building, which faces a residential neighborhood.  However, the public space has not been open, due to structural problems with the two-story underground garage.  The plaza is currently hidden behind a series of fences that block most of the view.  Others wonder if it will ever be open to the public, due to security concerns in the post 9/11 era.  Apparently there's also a rooftop Zen garden that was intended for community space, but it is currently not accessible to the public.


Via Verde: The Bronx Continues to Rise


Via Verde under construction, May 2011 [Deena Parham]

There are times when I am surprised to find brand new real estate developments in the most unexpected places.  In May 2011, I was in the South Bronx for an event at a community garden, when I noticed the striking building across the street (above photo) under construction.  I later learned that it was Via Verde (700 Brook Avenue), a much-heralded new affordable housing complex.

Fortunately, I do occasionally find myself walking on the streets of the Bronx to witness neighborhood transformation first-hand.  The larger than life historical narratives that I've read about the borough's brushes with urban decay, and abandonment, are usually shattered the moment that I meet residents who are working hard to improve their communities.  The truth is that large swaths of the South Bronx have long-risen from the devastation.

Yes, 2011 was a banner year for the Bronx, as several prominent projects emerged that forced the media to take notice.  The borough continues to make tremendous strides in economic development. Here is a new real estate development on my radar this year:

 Via Verde (“the green way”) the South Bronx

View of Via Verde from the street [Phipps, Rose, Dattner, Grimshaw]

In September 2011, Michael Kimmelman, the new architecture critic at the New York Times, visited Via Verde, a new housing development in the South Bronx.  His first review brought considerable attention to the affordable housing complex.  The innovative environmentally “green” building, starts at three-story townhomes, gradually rising to a 20-story tower, and offers 151 rental and 71 co-op apartments to mixed-income families. Phipps Houses and Jonathan Rose Companies developed it with Dattner Architects and Grimshaw. 

Looking South from the Rooftop Garden [Phipps, Rose, Dattner, Grimshaw]

The building incorporates elements of nature, which includes a 40,000 square foot roof deck that will be used to plant fruit trees, and will have garden plots for tenants to plant their own gardens.  Via Verde is designed to achieve LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, for its innovative environmentally responsible design.  It also promotes physical activity, by placing staircases in prominent locations, to discourage residents from using the elevators, whenever possible.

 The 20-story rental apartment tower [Phipps, Rose, Dattner, Grimshaw]

What was most noteworthy about the New York Times article was the praise for Via Verde’s design.  Over the years affordable housing developments have rarely garnered accolades.   Michael Kimmelman said:

The rebirth of the South Bronx isn’t news. But Via Verde is. And it makes as good an argument as any new building in the city for the cultural and civic value of architecture. The profession, or in any case much talk about it, has been fixated for too long on brand-name luxury objects and buildings as sculptures instead of attending to the richer, broader, more urgent vein of public policy and community engagement, in which aesthetics play a part.

Via Verde helps shift the conversation. Like all good architecture, it is handsome. Unlike too much, it goes out of its way to be healthy. It evolved out of a competition five years ago, organized by Shaun Donovan, then commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, now President Obama’s secretary of housing and urban development. The idea was to spur developers to team with architects in combining the latest green concepts with high-quality architecture for a public-housing project, a “beacon,” as Mr. Donovan put it to me the other day, that would “re-engage design with the issue of affordable housing.”

 Occupancy is expected in March of 2012.

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