Mutations

Brown & Guenther, Jackie Robinson Apartments (photograph by Emmett Zeifman, 2011)

Amidst the vast quantities of anonymous and unremarkable modernist architecture—especially large-scale housing—that are distributed throughout the twentieth-century city, there appear occasional exceptions, aberrations, and mutations that, despite the obscurity of their origins, offer important lessons on the potentials of architectural and urban form. These works of what we might call the modernist vernacular do not come equipped with the already evolved discourses of works by acknowledged masters, and they are therefore not so easily understood to constitute meaningful precedent in precise, architectural, terms. Symbolized by Minoru Yamasaki’s demolished Pruitt-Igoe complex in St. Louis, they were largely discredited as the straw men in the argument for post-modernism. Yet as Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown developed a theory, or at least rhetoric, from the exceptions of other dismissed vernaculars and typologies—the subdivision, the strip mall, the casino—we can imagine the possibility of developing a framework that supports the discussion of specific modernist buildings without remarkable authors or histories. This is not to resort to cheap anthropology. It instead means to discuss, and learn, from these buildings on formal terms, as we discuss the formal characteristics of both authored buildings and author-less cities. Modernist development, in redefining the figure-ground relationship of the city, begs us to confront the object, rather than the figure, the single structure, rather than the urban accumulation, even when that object is not the work of an acknowledged master.

One such modernist exception is the massive housing complex known as the Jackie Robinson Apartments, located near the eastern edge of Prospect Park, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Standing on the polygonal site once occupied by Ebbets Field, the development and the poverty it houses are emblematic of the ills associated with post-war urban redevelopment—it appeared in Super Size Me, and has been the subject of lamenting features in the Times and elsewhere. But the easy narrative and irony offered by its name, location, and socio-economic condition matter less, in architectural terms, than its form. Designed by the firm Brown & Guenther and completed in 1962, the basis of the project is the familiar slab tower, in beige brick and concrete. However, here those basic units are not dispersed in the rows, grids, radial patterns, and other typical site plans of modernist housing developments found in cities throughout the world; they are simply agglomerated into one continuous mass. The realtor tells us that these are seven addresses—a distinction no doubt borne out by the distribution of elevator cores and fire rated walls. In fact, the Jackie Robinson Apartments are something else altogether, an unexpected apparition of mirrored, rotated, intersected, and butt-jointed building blocks rising out of the mixed bag of architecture that populates the eastern edge of Prospect Park.

Perhaps the same constraining site dimensions that led to the demise of the too small Ebbets Field spurred the mashing together of these slabs. Whatever the case, whether the experiment was conscious or not, the complex poses an alternative to the expected object-field relationship of modernist developments. Here the object is of such a vertical scale and horizontal organization as to land somewhere between the tower in the park and the neoclassical palace. It is both isolated in space and encloses space; with its inboard corners, well-defined courts, and wings stretched to the limits of the site, the project has the unrealized capacity to establish some of those qualities of defined urban space that modernist urban development is accused of destroying. It is a mutation, which, like the best of such singularities, contains a whole host of formal trajectories. In its moment it was an evolutionary dead end, a one-off. Yet today we can find in this remarkable complex an unexpected and potentially productive synthesis of scales and archetypes that suggests new possibilities for the construction of high-density housing.

Emmett Zeifman