For the second time in a week, a deadly fire has ripped through a low-income apartment building in an American city.
Last Wednesday morning, a fire broke out in the top unit of a duplex row house owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority in the city’s Fairmount neighborhood. Twelve people were killed, nine of them children.
On Sunday morning, a faulty space heater ignited a blaze on the third floor of a 19-story Section 8 rental building in the Bronx. As of Monday afternoon, at least 17 people had died, and 15 more were in critical condition in local hospitals.
At first glance, each of these tragedies appears to be indicative of the culture of neglect that characterizes low-income housing in the United States. In Philadelphia, the three-story building was home to 26 people—representative of the dangerous overcrowding that plagues many urban U.S. ZIP codes where affordable housing is nearly impossible to find. It also may have had malfunctioning smoke alarms.
In New York, the question is how the smoke from a third-floor apartment fire managed to fill the entire building within minutes. Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said the apartment where the fire started had a door that didn’t close on its own, allowing smoke to quickly fill the building’s corridors and stairways and injure people on every floor. (The ownership group said the building did have self-closing doors, which are required by the city fire code.)
The Philadelphia row house and the Bronx tower are linked by history as well. Today, we might be more likely to associate the row house with high-quality lodging and the brick tower with maligned housing projects. But when Twin Parks North West, Site 4, was built in the Bronx in 1973, it was supposed to be a high-design antidote to two kinds of decrepit “slum” typologies: not just crumbling tenements and row houses, but also the troubled modernist tower blocks that replaced them. To see Twin Parks North West transformed into a site of tragedy and a symbol of disrepair is a bitter irony for a building once held up as the cutting edge of public design.
At the time, the Bronx’s East Tremont neighborhood was suffering from the consequences of highway construction, disinvestment, white flight, and a dwindling, substandard housing stock. In a Canadian documentary about the Twin Parks project, one pastor said the neighborhood was losing 1,000 housing units a year to fire and abandonment. “Back there is the kind of house we wanted to tear down,” Paul Matson, the longtime minister of Tremont Methodist Church, told the filmmakers, gesturing to a typical row house. “It’s wood frame, it may last two years, it may burn down tomorrow.”
The Twin Parks project—an archipelago of 1,900 income-restricted units on sites scattered around the neighborhood, named for nearby Bronx and Crotona parks—was a collaboration between Mayor John Lindsay’s Public Design Committee and an assembly of neighborhood faith groups. It was funded and built by New York’s Urban Development Corporation, headed by the crusading planner Ed Logue. Its architects included Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Richard Meier, The Architects Collaborative, and Giovanni Pasanella, an unusually talented group for an affordable housing project.
Twin Parks was a closely watched experiment in getting inner-city housing right. Apartments, facades, and public spaces were built according to surveys of resident preferences. The buildings included three day care centers and three schools, family-size two-story apartments, programs like a tenant orientation course, and countless touches of thoughtful design. At the Twin Parks North West, Site 4, tower on 181st Street, for example, a ground-floor laundry room connected to an enclosed patio, playground, and herb garden labeled the “mother’s watch.” For two weeks in 1972, Logue, Meier, and several other UDC officials moved into one of the buildings themselves.
In addition to the documentary program, this curious exercise in neighborhood planning warranted a three-part feature in Architectural Forum, which noted how the buildings had been explicitly designed to avoid public housing debacles like the notorious Pruitt-Igoe buildings in St. Louis, which would meet the wrecking ball before Twin Parks was complete. “The theme of anti-project architecture permeated the entire planning process, shared both by the community and the architect-planners,” the magazine wrote. “All schemes emphasized the need for new buildings to fit into the existing physical fabric [and] remedied past deficiencies such as the appalling lack of convenient and usable open space.” Twin Parks North West, Site 4, got a full-page spread, complete with photographs, sketches, and floor plans.
Whether all the open space was truly welcome for crime-wary residents has been a topic of debate ever since. The Canadian documentary shows kids playing double Dutch and dancing to a merengue band in the courtyard. But at least one critic, Kenneth Frampton, concluded that the most successful buildings were those designed by Prentice & Chan, Olhausen, in part because they had embraced a more restricted, fortified concept of public space. (The architect Oscar Newman had popularized the idea in his book Defensible Space the year before, based partly on a study of New York public housing projects.*) Afterward, the Cornell sociologist Franklin Becker surveyed all the residents about the results and found that the best responses for an urban project came from Twin Parks North West, Site 4—by Prentice & Chan, Olhausen—in part because they had a single, guarded entrance lobby. (Two means of egress via a scissor stair, though.)
For a 2013 story in Urban Omnibus, Juliette Spertus and Susanne Schindler brought several Prentice & Chan alumni back to Twin Parks North West for a bittersweet survey of their work on its 40th birthday. As you might expect, many of the finer touches had been worn down or demolished, including the “mother’s watch” patio. The superintendent considered the vaunted “defensible” spaces that still existed to be “dead zones.” On the other hand, the group met a resident of three decades with the tower’s facade tattooed on his forearm. “I love this building,” he told them.
At the time, Spertus and Schindler used the reunion tour to muse on the paradox of “successful” architecture. “By which criteria, and in terms of which timeframe do you judge the ‘success’ of architecture in housing?” they wrote. “How can we advocate for better design if we can’t relate it to non-design issues such as management, maintenance, and use, in both the short and long term?” The practice of appraising buildings just after they’ve opened—or worse, just before!—is blind to the particular way that time and use reveal a place’s true nature. But it works both ways: Sometimes condemnation is unfairly put on design concepts compromised by poor upkeep and disinvestment.
In short, for many years Twin Parks North West remained a symbol of success—a symbol of New York’s commitment to rebuilding the Bronx at its lowest point, of sticking to project-based affordable housing as Washington gave up, of thoughtful design in public work. And of getting people out of the borough’s fire-trap, overcrowded row houses. In time we will learn more about what allowed a malfunctioning appliance to turn into the city’s deadliest fire in three decades. For now we can think of Twin Parks North West as a symbol of something else: the vulnerability of a building, however celebrated by architects and occupants, to a door that didn’t close right when it mattered most.
Correction, Jan. 10, 2022: This piece originally misspelled Oscar Newman’s last name.