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Housing in the USA by IM Pei & Associates

Archive: a series of housing projects constituted the early works of the then newly founded IM Pei & Associates

First published in the AR in September 1963

The American architect IM Pei operates at several levels in the field of urban design: as planning consultant, as independent architect and as ‘captive’ designer for the huge American real-estate firm of Webb & Knapp. Though all his work is unified by a common set of definite, and visually very apparent, principles, it naturally varies with the scope of the task before him. In such urbanistic studies as those done independently for the cities of Rochester and Cleveland, we get some glimpse of his aspirations for the cityscape as a whole. In his housing designs especially in the projects for Society Hill in Philadelphia, and Kips Bay in Manhattan – we can see how he adapts his formal theories of urban aesthetics to the exigencies of modern real-estate practice.

At both levels, Pei clearly aims for a kind of lofty simplicity in the cityscape: and his method of achieving this is more that of the sculptor than of the planner. A perfectly rational analysis of objective factors (land use, traffic, building costs, etc) no doubt underlies all his major decisions. Nevertheless, one has the impression that his manipulation of land and buildings is inspired more by plastic than by strictly functional considerations. Since great taste and discrimination are the mark of all Peisian work, this sculpturesque approach often leads to extremely dramatic results.

All of Pei’s urban renewal work, including the early Mile High Center at Denver, displays this quality. It is very evident in the schemes for Rochester (where the river and its bridges offer the pretext for a conversazione of big buildings) and for Cleveland (whereas only his aerial perspective can fully reveal his long, low apartment blocks are folded into a sort of running Greek key with the towers as centrepieces).

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But Pei’s search for a dramatic cityscape is perhaps best exemplified at Kips Bay. Here the site is framed by the big, bright New York University Medical Centre to the east, the huge mass and chimneys of consolidated Edison to the north-east, a forest of skyscrapers along the north and western boundary; to the south, low brownstones still prevail. Into this already melodramatic setting, Pei has inserted his own composition-two immense, severely plain apartment blocks, standing in the midst of a huge open platform, surrounded by open air. The effect is astonishing. Emerging from the constricted spaces of the surrounding streets, it is much as if one had stepped into a de Chirico painting. The scale of everything is very large. Pei has taken advantage of the falling grade toward the north to conceal an underground garage. The windowless outer wall of this garage becomes, in effect, a gigantic retainer for the platform on which the northern building stands. Its 600ft run is broken only where the driveaway ramps up between curved balustrades which terminate in newel posts, 10 ft in diameter and 9 ft high.

In purely plastic terms, such passages in the Pei design may accurately be described as monumental. Their scale is Pharaonic. One can assume that, when the landscaping is complete, the planting will somewhat soften the visual impact of the terrace. But the street beneath the retaining wall will be hot in summer and cold in winter, without visual interest in daytime and frighteningly empty at night. One has the feeling that no pedestrian will ever use it after the photographs are made. And it is this problem of the ultimate viability of these Peisian spaces that is worrying. They seem based upon a set of almost Platonic premises: a way of life for the inhabitants as formal as the Spanish Court; a climate that is undeviatillgly benign-windless, clean, free of ice and snow; an immaculate maintenance which is very rare in real life. This is a landscape more to be looked at than lingered in. It offers little opportunity or incentive for stopping short of the lobby doors.

The glass-walled lobbies themselves, and the loggias which surround them, occupy the whole of the entrance level. Characteristically elegant in line and proportion, and handsomely (if rather spartanly) furnished, they echo the spaciousness of the grounds outside. This opulence is suddenly abandoned, however, when one steps out of the elevator into the upper corridors. These are surprising in their very ordinariness, and disappointing in their lack of daylight and effective ventilation. The apartments themselves, though conventional in plan and rather top deep for their width, do somewhat recall the pretensions of the piano nobile. Pei’s special system of construction eliminates the beams and columns which create so many awkwardnesses in the usual interior. This feature, and the continuous window walls with their deeply recessed glass, give the major rooms quite an air of space and security. The deep embrasures, which are an integral feature of the structural system, also afford more protection against glare and heat than is usual in such towers.

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Plan of Kips Bay

The result of all this is, at Kips Bay, a discrepancy between the lofty expectations aroused by the exterior grounds and public spaces and the quite ordinary interior reality of the actual dwelling units. Pei’s altogether admirable ambition to replace squalor and confusion with serene and noble order defeats itself. Visual coherence, organizational clarity, are Important elements in any successful environment, but here their importance has been exaggerated. It is as though the architect has expended too much of his total resourcesin land, air, enclosed spaces-upon the public aspects of his design; and too little upon those private amenities-commodious corridors, larger and better proportioned rooms, higher ceilings-which are the essence of true luxury. By the same token, the carefully developed relationships with the surrounding city seem pictorial rather than organic, by their very monumentality more apt to hinder than to help social relations between the project and its neighbours.

One has the same misgivings about the planning at Hyde Park, in Chicago. A new centre is created by placing the high-rise apartments in a newly created island in the middle of a heavily-travelled East-West thoroughfare. It was argued, in the original Webb and Knapp presentation, that this device would reduce traffic on 55th Street. This seems unlikely; at most, it will reduce its velocity. In any event, the noise, glare, fumes and physical violence of the traffic will surround the apartments. The landscaped areas seem wholly inadequate buffers against such nuisances, while the traffic will be heavy enough to isolate the centre from its surroundings. Granted the logic of using these high-rise units as the nodal point around which to crystallize a new development, one wonders why the street could not have been depressed to pass beneath them. Underground garaging for the apartments and service docks for the shopping centre could have been simultaneously achieved.

The site planning of the New York, Chicago and Cleveland projects is formal, elegant, inert. Since all three sites are nominally fiat, topography imposed no special demands. But orientation to sun and wind. is also ignored completely. It may be true, as American technicians never tire of saying, that our heating, cooling and insulation techniques have liberated housing from its historic dependence upon correct orientation (though they tend to exaggerate the efficacy of the first and to minimize the importance of the latter). It remains a fact, however, that the doubleloaded corridor plan of the Hyde Park apartments assures that about half of the units will get no winter sun whatever. (Due to the fact that Kips Bay is orientated with the New York street pattern, it will fare better.) The row houses at Hyde Park are organized into patterns as formal as an eighteenth-century minuet. This approach yields scraps of land that, for no very convincing reasons, are labelled as ‘playgrounds’ and ‘commons.’

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A pedestrian way among Harry Weese’s terrace housing at the north end of South Harper Square

Judging from its stylistic relationship to his other towers, we can assume that Kips Bay represents Pei’s most considered response to the esthetic problems of the tower. But at Society Hill, Philadelphia, we can see his reaction to another set of quite special conditions. Here he was called upon to perform a delicate urbanistic operation - the insertion of a large new redevelopment project into the immediate environs of Independence Hall. In addition to its sentimental significance, the whole area-streets, buildings, even the Hall itself-is built to a diminutive scale. Any successful intervention would require tact, taste and a sense of history. Pei seems to have been fully aware of this and his main decisions have been conditioned by it.

The monumental scale of the New York and Cleveland designs has been avoided. A plan at once less rigorous and more open has been adopted; and, judging from the drawings, a certain degree of naturalism is envisaged for the landscaping.

The towers have been grouped at the centre of the tract and cushioned by a large park. This has been at once an economic necessity and an esthetic choice. For, given the returns required by the investor, only high-rise units could yield the required densities. On the other hand, it would have been disastrous to confront that eighteenth century townscape with three 30-storey towers. The intention of the plot plan is therefore to isolate them visually, to place them in the background of most points of view. The new town houses which Pei has disposed around the periphery are part of this same urbanistic aim. And further to soften the visual discontinuity between old and new, a number of the better old houses within the project are scheduled for preservation and renovation.

‘While wisely refusing to copy these facades, Pei has sought to create new ones which would be visually congruent with the old ones across the street’

A critical test of this Peisian strategy occurs along that line of discontinuity where old and new town houses confront each other across a narrow street. How successful will it be?

One such area is now complete - Third Street south of the Philadelphia Mission and some generalizations seem possible. The eighteenth and nineteenth century houses along the west side of this street have a common scale which derives from an almost uniform lot width of around 20 ft. and building height of 3 to 3 floors above grade. This basic module is firmly outlined by deep cornices and prominent chimneys and downspouts. But inside this larger pattern a subsidiary one is created by windows, dormers and stoops, all of them regularly-spaced, tall and fairly narrow. The cumulative effect of this, when seen in perspective, is that of a delicate, almost lacy, screen: for which the gentle colours of rosy brick, white woodwork and green shutters seem exactly appropriate.

While wisely refusing to copy these facades, Pei has sought to create new ones which would be visually congruent with the old ones across the street. Since he has used much the same lot size and floor plan, his houses have much the same bulk. They are faced with a brick somewhat darker than the old, their woodwork and stone trim are an off-white. Evidently, it was assumed that these steps, alone, were enough to guarantee the essential unity of the streetscape. However plausible this reasoning might have sounded in the drafting room, it fails in stereometric reality. Unaccountably, the new houses abandon the most characteristic feature of the old fa~ades, i.e. the strong delineation of the party walls. On the -contrary, a whole series of devices is employed to conceal the cellular nature of the block. The walls are an unbroken plane from end to end.

The arched and recessed entrances are overscaled to read like a block-long arcade. The fenestration is arbitrarily manipulated to form a contrapuntal series of bays. And the top floor windows are detailed to form a continuous unbroken line, partitions and even party walls being masked behind uniform jambs. As a result, they appear as an enormous entablature, uniting the separate volumes below into a single mastaba-like block. The block loses all sense of domesticity. Despite its modest dimensions, it assumes a kind of portentous monumentality that is the antithesis of the airy, hospitable fa~ades across the street. Far from having been preserved, the unity of the streetscape is destroyed.

Given the care and talent that obviously went into this design, it is hard to understand how such coarse and unperceptive solutions were accepted. One has only to look at the garden facades of the same houses to find the obvious source of the error. Here a series of practical considerations (good daylight, privacy, view) find straightforward expression in functionallydisposed elements (big windows, recessed terraces, garden walls). These features ‘automatically’ yield a much more interesting composition and pleasantly domestic scale. Since the interiors are rationally planned and most carefully detailed, showing none of the affectations of the street fronts, one is forced to accept these latter as the expression of calculated policy. The question is here, as at Kips Bay: what are its premises? What kind of people are supposed to live behind this facde? What sort of life is it supposed to express and facilitate?

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Model of the tree tower blocks which will give Society Hill economically workable densities, while keeping developments on the fringes of the site down to the scale of existing streets

In this, as in similar projects in the urban redevelopment programme, there has been some criticism of the propriety of including private houses at all. The argument is that such houses cannot possibly carry their full share of the cost, being twice subsidized-Qnce by the taxpayer whose subventions make the whole programme possible; and again by the tenants of the high-rise units, who pay proportionally more. There is certainly some basis for such reasoning, even where the sales price ranges from $45,000 up, as it does at Society Hill. But here, Pei’s reasoning seems entirely correct for supraeconomic reasons. The houses serve a vital transitional function between the old and the new. It is a pity that they do not do it more elegantly.

The Society Hill towers are not yet finished, so that any estimate of their ambiental relationships would be premature. However, they employ substantially the same structural system as that at Kips Bay and this system displays that immaculate detailing which marks all of the work of Pei’s office. In this sense it belongs to the Miesian phylum of American design, in which no two members ever join or intersect one another accidentally. Such details, taken individually, may only be visible to the expert. But, taken together, they endow his work with a kind of unmistakable lustre.

The concrete work at Kips Bay shows how the great resources of a large, wellstaffed office have been mobilized to solve specific problems in both the physical and the aesthetic properties of the material. As has been pointed out, the structure yields an exterior wall grid with deep embrasures for the glass. Tllis grid, in its even texture and flawless profiles, gives every appearance of being formed of precast members. It is, however, a cast-inplace monolith. For all its purported economies, Pei has found precasting too expensive for the budget. He therefore set about bringing on-site pouring methods under such firm control that no finish treatment of any sort would be required. This was accomplished by extensive experimentation with aggregate sizes, mixing and pouring control, cement colours and various types of formwork.

Since the material is so reliable, and the factors of safety so huge, Pei’s research has been motivated as much by aesthetic as by structural considerations. Unlike too many of his contemporaries, he has been aware of the cosmetic aspects (as opposed to the purely physical problems) of ageing. 16, play-sculpture in Kips Bay Plaza. 200 Most urban climates are very unkind to cementitious materials, especially when used in slab form. Crazing, cracking, flaking and erosion, even where they offer no threat to the physical stability of the member, violate clarity of surface and sharpness of contour. Soot and smoke, even where they do not set up chemical erosion, soil and stain the original purity of colour. This ageing tends to violate the aesthetic raison d’ etre of architectural concrete. Failure to anticipate this fact of life makes travesties of the elephant house and penguin pool at Regent’s Park or the early Le Corbusier villas around Paris; and is apt to reduce much contemporary concrete to the same sorry state very quickly.

‘These projects are no longer mere architectural containers for isolated function: they supplant whole sections of complex urban tissue and their task is correspondingly more complex’

To minimize such effects, Pei has sought to control the colour and texture of his mixes and has paid special attention to pouring and forming techniques. Since he cannot eliminate drip and capillary action, he has sought to control them at expansion joints and ‘pour lines’; since he cannot avoid soil and stain, he has sought to manipulate them in his favour by giving vigorous curving profiles to all the members of his exterior walls. The result, he hopes, will be a wall which ages gracefully. The problem is subtle and, though it is ultimately aesthetic, it involves the chemistry of smog and soot; the hygroscopy and capillarity of materials; even the botany of mosses and lichens. It is to Pei’s credit that he is one of the few arcllitects working in concrete to have paid serious attention to this problem.

In trying to reach a rational and balanced estimate of the ultimate viability of urban projects like these of Pei’s, one deals with supra-architectonic qualities for which there is not yet an accepted nomenclature, much less a recognized scale of values. These projects are no longer mere architectural containers for isolated function: they supplant whole sections of complex urban tissue and their task is correspondingly more complex. Such tissue, to be viable, must satisfy a whole spectrum of human need-social and private, somatic and psychic-which lies far below the reach of plastic or pictorial manipulation. These new monumental cityscapes do not facilitate such complex relationships. They are more apt, actually, to impede them because-to borrow Jane Jacob’s inspired phrase-they attempt to isolate sacred from profane land uses.

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Parking yards, Third Street facades and Jane Jacobs-type neighbourliness in the back yard of Third Street Housing, Society Hill, Philadelphia

The inherent dangers here are by no means limited to Pei’s work. On the contrary, they are common to all American urban redevelopment work and they derive from the legislation upon which the entire programme is built. The norms of this legislation are those of American business. The programme is being executed largely by private capital, operating under very inadequate architectural and urbanistic controls. In such circumstances, major design decisions turn on the question of profitability, the natural tendency being to maximize profits. The projects are, therefore, like Pei’s, escalated into the luxury class. Yet, even when viewed within this reference frame, they fall short of their promise, lacking many of the authentic luxuries of urban life: clean air and clean grounds; first rate public transport; freedom from dangerous traffic snarls and ugly parking lots; a cosmopolitan choice of goods and services; streetscapes rich in interest, safe and enticing in all seasons of the year. For all their visual splendour, they are not truly luxurious.

The fact is that urbane amenity is the end result of processes, many of which are simply not the proper medium for artistic inve:p.tion or subjective expression. These processes may not be necessarily ‘ugly’ but neither are they interested in becoming ‘beautiful.’ For, though we cannot expect urban tissue to grow spontaneously, by cellular division, without human intervention or guidance, neither can we expect it to survive a formal manipulation for purely pictorial ends. The problem goes much deeper.

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