How New York Should Build Socially — According to the Dutch

  • How New York Should Build Socially — According to the Dutch



    It is the place where (American) dreams come true, the most popular place of residence among young people worldwide, and the city that every city wants to resemble: New York. From Dubai alias ‘the Manhattan of the Middle East’ to Sandton in South Africa (‘the Manhattan of Africa’) to our own Manhattan on the Maas, Rotterdam.

    New York, particularly Manhattan, has everything, it seems the money from Wall Street, the culture on Broadway, and the greenery of Central Park. And yet there is something that is missing in this ideal picture and that we do have in the Netherlands: affordable housing. That is why they are now calling from New York to Amsterdam for help. They want to know how Dutch architects do that: build good, cheap housing that keeps young, talented people in the city. In response to this question, the Dutch architectural firm Concrete developed a new living concept: Urby. At the end of June, the first branch opened on Staten Island.


    It is a modern, warehouse-like building complex of 900 homes in size and with rents starting from $ 1,700 per month for 45 square meters. Converted that is 1,175 euros – a pittance for New York, with an average rent of 3,000 euros for a small apartment.

    ‘Our client wanted a European or Japanese office’, says architect Erikjan Vermeulen of Concrete. Why? ‘Due to the high population density and a limited amount of land, we are used to being creative with small spaces.’ A good example is CitizenM, the hotel chain with which Concrete has been conquering the world since the opening of the first branch at Schiphol in 2008. With box-like rooms (14 square meters), equipped with all comforts and a flashy design. The designers put the square meters saved on the rooms into a common ‘living room’, with reading tables, flex workstations, and a bar – also popular with local residents.

    Urby has a similar setup. The so-called micro-units are arranged as efficiently as possible, with sliding doors between the living and sleeping areas, a built-in bed, and mirror cabinets, which optically increase the space. The shared facilities consist of an urban farm on the roof, a kitchen with a live-in cook, and a café where, as in the nineties hit series Friends, you can hang out with your friends.

    Housing revolution

    The living concept is just the opposite of Friends. ‘That series was about living with roommates, because only in this way can New York starters afford the rent. Cozy yes, but in the long run, the residents want their own place. The problem is that they earn too much to qualify for social housing and too little to be able to afford a ‘normal’ apartment. In between, there’s nothing in New York.’ With Urby, Concrete and developer Ironstate want to jump into that hole. Vermeulen: ‘Hotels and cars are developing rapidly. It is strange that in the field of housing construction, hardly any attention is paid to the needs of the market.’

    The project does not stand alone. In Manhattan, the spectacular ‘courtscraper’ of the Danish agency BIG has just opened: a cross between the classic European housing model – a block of houses around a courtyard block – and the American skyscraper. This is also a distinctly social building, with a collective outdoor space, fitness, children’s playroom, library, and cinema.

    Concrete and BIG are not the first European architects to realize housing in New York. Previously, Jean Nouvel (known for example from the Philharmonie Paris) and Herzog and the Meuron (Tate Modern in London) enriched the skyline with apartment complexes. The difference is that these famous architects were recruited to make the lives of the super-rich even more beautiful, with luxury penthouses, which sold for millions. BIG’s new complex consists of 20 percent social rental apartments. For the smallest one-room home, residents pay – including subsidy – 565 dollars per month.

    Is this the beginning of a ‘European’ housing revolution in New York? A second Urby is under construction: a residential tower in Jersey City, directly opposite Manhattan, third and fourth projects are in preparation. Vermeulen is already thinking about the follow-up question: what do you do when the first child comes?


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    What America can learn from the Dutch housing tradition

    1. Think small

    Architect Erikjan Vermeulen: ‘In the Netherlands, we are used to building compact, in America everything is big, especially in the suburbs, where there is no lack of space. We think 30 square meters is generous, they call it a micro-unit.’ The studio or one-room apartment is not new to New York in itself. ‘What we bring in is a grand feeling, with lots of daylight – that’s free – and a smarter layout with built-in furniture. American rules sometimes make it difficult. For example, all rooms, including in Urby, must be wheelchair accessible. Then you get a bathroom like a ballroom in such a studio. There is experimentation with competitions in which rules are released that hinder the development of affordable housing.’

    2. Ask the best architects

    In the Netherlands, social housing has traditionally been linked to architecture. The housing associations founded in the second half of the 19th century wanted to build more than decent houses at an affordable price: it was a cultural act that was supposed to ‘elevate’ the workers. To this end, the best architects were attracted: Hendrik Berlage, Aldo van Eyck, Herman Hertzberger, Mecanoo, and Rem Koolhaas – almost all the big names realized social housing. This a big contrast with America, where affordable housing equals non-descript flats with brown facades and small windows, and where well-known architects are only hired when big money can be earned.

    3. Build prefab

    ‘Prefab construction is relatively new in New York’, says Vermeulen. “Americans immediately think of military barracks, it has no architectural image. While in the Netherlands there are numerous examples of beautiful prefab student housing and hotels. The profit is in the short construction time: hoist a few hundred residential units on top of each other and you have a building. In addition, the quality of the finish is higher, because you can better control the production in a factory. Our ambition is to also build prefab Urby’s, but the first two projects were carried out in a traditional way. For the new CitizenM branch, which we are building in New York, prefab hotel rooms will be used.’

    4. Social central

    Commonality already played a leading role in the earliest form of social housing in the Netherlands, such as in the well-known courtyards, where houses were built around a communal courtyard. Vermeulen: ‘In New York apartment complexes you sometimes see a common living room, but then tucked away in a corner and without active programming. We see that due to digitization and increased mobility, the need for ‘analog’ contact and a sense of home is growing. We want to meet that. For example, we have made the café, linked to the entrance, the heart of the building. And in addition to a live-in cook, there is a gardener who involves residents in growing vegetables in the city garden.’

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