The rehabilitation of the postwar glazed white brick apartment building continues apace, with the condoization of 530 Park Ave., a 1941 (okay, almost postwar) 19-story white brick building. I happen to like New York’s postwar white brick buildings, and am even warming up to the red brick variants – I’ve always consider anonymous white brick to be the most New York of New York buildings.
One reason that I like them is that because of the history of New York City zoning, they have the form of prewar buildings, with the embellishments (or lack thereof) of the postwar era.
Up until 1961, New York’s developers were still building under essentially the 1916 code. While the 1916 code definitely restricted and guided growth in the dense commercial core, where it encouraged set backs and discouraged Equitable Building-like dense massings, developers in residential neighborhoods like the Upper East Side generally did not bump up against the zoning limits. The setbacks on 530 Park are slight and decorative, and likely built according to the style of the day (which was heavily influenced by larger buildings downtown whose shapes were dictated by zoning).
So buildings erected before the 1961 code took effect tended to be lower than those that came after, but they covered more of the lot and their façades were flush with the sidewalk. Some of them included garages for the newly-motorized middle- and upper-classes, but they were small compared to those that came after. Above all they were governed by the laws of supply and demand. If you ignore the materials and lack of ornament, they were a lot like prewar buildings. But the brick apartment buildings of the ’40s and ’50s were the last in New York City built according to supply and demand, which is why I think we’ll come to hold them so dear in the future.
After the 1961 code went into effect, building form in New York City changed radically. The new FAR system combined with public plaza bonuses rewarded taller, thinner buildings (where new buildings managed to sprout at all), breaking the street wall, and perhaps encouraging architects to pay less attention to surrounding structures for context. It also downzoned the vast majority of the city just as people were seeking more living space per capita, meaning that these taller apartment buildings didn’t always hold more people.
And then there were the minimum parking requirements, which required huge garages and parking lots that forced developers to think of cars before they thought about good design, obliterating any trace of good architecture in the outer boroughs, where the buildings were the most modest and the margins were the slimmest. The parking minimums also did some damage in Manhattan, until the EPA stepped in and forced the city to stop requiring parking in neighborhoods south of Harlem.
Most of the city is still zoned according to the 1961 code, but the post-Jane Jacobs emphasis on the pedestrian view has corrected some of these issues. There are no longer plaza bonuses, and there are some incentives for ground-level retail.
But the overall densities of the 1961 code are still in effect, which means that virtually all construction in the desirable parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn bumps up against zoning limits, and land prices are so high that even luxury builders end up having to skimp on materials to make projects pencil out financially.
I know it’s a risky thing to say, considering how drastically aesthetic tastes change, but I have a feeling that 20 years from now, we aren’t going to feel as good about the architecture of the ’70s as we do today about white brick.