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Issue 1: Community Revitalization

The Value of Community: Review of Rudy Bruner Awards Program and Publication

by Liane Lefaivre

Excellence in the Urban Environment was established in the mid-1980s, a boom time for architecture and real estate development. Both awards offer unique opportunities for recognizing outstanding work in the fields of architecture and design. The perspectives of the two prizes, however, are dramatically different, which may explain why the Bruner Award has gone almost totally unheeded by the architectural press compared to the more glamorous Pritzker. By ordaining their own celebrities, prizes like the Pritzker, which awards a lotterylike sum of $100,000 to one fortunate architect a year, do help in promoting fine design and raising public awareness of architecture. But at the same time, by casting a seductive, gold-tinged spotlight on these personalities and their distinct, typically monumental works, they have also made it much harder for practitioners to care about the deterioration of the environments in which their projects are built.

This is precisely the purpose of the Rudy Bruner Award. Few architectural organizations are less concerned with glamour than the Bruner Foundation, which gives priority not to the formal qualities of a building but to how a building performs in its social context — in other words, how it is used and contributes to community. This value is not easily captured in glossy photographs, as the Bruner Award’s obscurity in a world hypnotized by image-oriented media attests. The $50,000 biannual Bruner Award was founded in 1986 by architect Simeon Bruner in memory of his father, Rudy Bruner, owner of Horizon Press, the primary publisher of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. The Bruner jury weighs social, ecological, and economic factors, in addition to aesthetic concerns, when evaluating competition submissions. Interestingly, the honorees are not necessarily architects; rather, they represent a broad spectrum of interests and have included landscape designers, urban planners, community activists, real estate developers, economic advisors, as well as municipal and state agencies or foundations. The projects are diverse, spanning urban and ecological revitalization and preservation programs, mixed-use, public and private ventures, and community development strategies.

The Bruner Award grew out of the idea of community-centered design which blossomed in the United States during the 1960s. The hopeful spirit of the Kennedy period and of the Great Society policies of the Johnson Administration precipitated an “American Renaissance,” so to speak, when for a brief moment, new technologies, ecological concerns, and the value of community all came together and shaped actual design practice. Many architects of Bruner’s generation saw the work of traditional architects as overly concerned with the surface appearance of design. What really mattered, according to them, was not how buildings looked but how they functioned. This value of process over product grew out of notions first posited by Louis Kahn and Team X, which deployed such concepts as “flow,” “rivers,” and “mobility” as a means of encouraging community through the regulated movement of people in the big housing and urban projects so prevalent at the time. These ideas were further refined in the writings of critics and theoreticians such as Jane Jacobs’ Life and Death of Great American Cities (New York: Random House, 1961), Kevin Lynch’s Image of the City (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1960), Serge Chermayeff and Christopher Alexander’s Community and Privacy (Garden City: Doubleday, 1963), Chermayeff and Alexander Tzonis’ The Shape of Community (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), and Michael Harrington’s The Other America (New York: Macmillan, 1962).

In fact, the publication of Harrington’s The Other America was one of the major events that brought Bruner’s generation to its feet. This shocking book disclosed that in the midst of a society called affluent was another America, somewhere between forty and fifty million people (20 percent of the population) living below the poverty line. The ideal of community could not be satisfied, this generation felt, if such a significant segment of the population — the underprivileged, marginalized, poor, or newly migrated — was not taken into consideration.

The idea of community “process” as adopted by this generation was subsequently shaped by the idea of participatory politics put forth by political scientists and sociologists active during the Johnson Administration. These included Saul Alinsky, Paul Davidoff, Chester Hartman, and others who recognized the need to redress the situation of the “other America.” They proposed welfare programs that had a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach, reversing the structure of support that traditionally ran from the government to the experts to the people. This is how participatory and advocacy architecture and planning was born.

Unfortunately, by the end of the 1960s it was already becoming clear that housing projects based on the good intentions of the 1950s — such as Toulouse-le-Mirail in Europe and Pruitt-Igoe in the United States — were actually graveyards in terms of community. With the eclipse of the Great Society programs by the mid-1970s and the total collapse of the American version of the welfare state by the end of the decade, experimental social architecture ceased being funded. But at least by then, this brief renaissance had produced numerous professionals able to cope with the architectural and planning problems of the “other America.”

Despite the vacuum of federal support, this subsequent period proved to be unexpectedly fruitful. These professionals continued to struggle, adapted to new conditions, or found their way into academia where they prepared the next generation of specialists. Out of their efforts emerged a new, hybrid paradigm for developing social architecture, and housing in particular: the so-called “private-public partnership,” which combines the old participatory model with a financial approach adapted to the withdrawal of public funds in the fight against poverty, homelessness, and urban decline. In other words, the development of social architecture would no longer be seen as the result of solely architectural, urbanistic, and civic processes, but of financial ones as well. In fact, the latter came to be seen as an essential factor in fostering community.

The archive of the Bruner Foundation charts this development, with information on over six hundred projects (entries from the course of the Award’s history) which provides insight into the various social and financial mechanisms that underlie community-oriented development. Among its distinctive features, the Bruner Award makes a point of publishing the five finalist and award-winning projects, clearly explicating the criteria and rationale behind their selection. These biannual publications also include detailed post-occupancy analyses which bear out the importance of comparing a design’s anticipated function with its actual performance and use.

The Bruner Foundation’s publications are useful in their own right. In particular, the ones written by Jay Farbstein and Richard Wener — Connections: Creating Urban Excellence (New York: Bruner Foundation, 1991) and Rebuilding Communities: Recreating Urban Excellence (1993) — are exemplars of rigorous method and should be basic reading for any architectural student, developer, or foundation administrator seriously interested in the vitality of the urban realm.

It is difficult to generalize about the Bruner projects but one characteristic they share is that they all provide some direct benefit to the communities in which they are located and improve the quality of the social relations of their users. These projects are also unified by their emphasis on participation, which means they function as a sort of school for responsible citizens: people learn to identify their individual well-being with that of the neighborhood and of the larger natural environment, and hence gain a sense of personal empowerment.

But this is where the common features end. Demonstrating that “urban excellence” takes a diversity of forms, the projects vary from highly aesthetically oriented designs, such as the restoration of the Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s Harlem Meer in Central Park, to the amorphous, social service focus of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in the Roxbury and Dorchester areas of Boston. There are also considerable differences in terms of size, type, and use, ranging from the gigantic, million-dollar Lowertown Redevelopment Project in St. Paul, Minnesota, which involves residential, cultural, and commercial uses, to the small-scaled Maya Angelou Community Initiative in Portland, a housing project for forty-two single mothers. Although most of the projects are located in blighted or fast-declining urban areas, there are exceptions. The Brooklyn-Queens Greenway, for example, is an ecologically conscious “ribbon of green” linking Coney Island to Little Neck Bay on Long Island Sound. It is aimed at making the cultural institutions located along the route, such as the Brooklyn Museum and the Queens Hall of Science, more accessible to bikers, joggers, and walkers.

Among previous recipients of the Bruner Award, the one most often singled out is the New Community Corporation in Newark, New Jersey. Founded by Monsignor William Linder as a remedy for the community after it suffered from race riots in 1967, it is not only one of the oldest community development corporations in the country but it is the largest and wealthiest. It has an annual budget of over $100 million and has developed projects worth more than twice that. The most inventive aspect of this project is that it incorporates housing into broad-based, multifunctional complexes containing a variety of commercial activities — a necessary mixing of uses in a world of ever-shrinking government subsidies. The most significant provider of affordable housing in Newark, the New Community has redefined the very meaning of the term “housing,” expanding it to include a diverse array of services and facilities for the needy, as well as several privately owned for-profit businesses including a shopping center, a restaurant, and a newspaper. As a developer, Monsignor Linder has displayed remarkable financial acumen in leveraging his assets to support both social service programs and commercial buildings. In addition to being effective at securing grants, he is recognized as a genius at syndicating tax credits from his profit-making enterprises to fund new projects.

In 1995 the finalists for the Bruner Award include a highly entrepreneurial multi-use revitalization project modeled loosely on Monsignor Linder’s New Community. Campus Circle in Milwaukee was the brainchild of the president of Marquette University, Father Albert DiUlio. In 1991 DiUlio recognized that enrollment at Marquette had dropped because of the soaring crime rate in the area surrounding the campus. Applications to the school were down at least 50 percent. If nothing was done to intervene, DiUlio envisioned a fate for Marquette not unlike that of the University of Detroit, which has seen its student body shrink by half in recent years. His options were to make the University into an isolated enclave or to use its resources to improve conditions in the neighborhood. Joining forces with a local real estate developer and armed with a gift of $9 million from the University’s Board of Trustees and matching funds from an anonymous donor, he opted for the latter. As a result, social and economic decay has been stopped in no less than a ninety square-block area. All the deteriorated housing stock has been renovated without rent increases, new construction and rehabilitation have provided 153 new units of off-campus student housing, 88,000 square feet of commercial space has been created providing neighborhood residents with additional services, and crime has been dramatically reduced.

In a similar vein, the Lowertown Redevelopment Corporation, a nonprofit, non-governmental organization, has revitalized the riverfront district in St. Paul, the northernmost navigable point on the Mississippi River. Conceived and directed by Weiming Lu, a planner by profession, the Redevelopment Corporation’s purpose is “to intervene where government alone would be very cumbersome or slow.” While it was not involved in projects directly, it played some role in almost every project, often catalyzing action between private developers, public agencies, and funding entities. Lu acted as promoter, banker, coalition builder, negotiator, liaison, and ombudsman. His plan was to turn Lowertown into what Herbert Ganz has called an “urban village,” and he has succeeded. Many historic buildings have been restored and new construction has included a large mixed-use project, a studio for the public television station, a parking garage, and infrastructural improvements. A total investment of $428 million has created 6,700 jobs, and 1,500 housing units, of which 25 percent were for tenants with low or moderate incomes. This translates to $3.84 in million property taxes annually for the city (up fourfold from previous years) and an additional $1.6 million in sales taxes. It is widely acknowledged that, were it not for the Redevelopment Corporation, Lowertown would now be one big parking lot.

The winner of the Bruner Award for 1995, the Maya Angelou Community Initiative in Portland, is in a category of its own. Although it is exceedingly modest in scale, involving only forty-two units of low-income housing, the jury gave it top honors because it is so daring and because of its immense potential as a model for other neighborhoods. Initiated entirely by very poor women with children and located in a neighborhood beset with drugs, crime, and deteriorated businesses, the project evolved out of a highly organized advocacy group which had, in turn, emerged out of African-American feminist consciousness-raising activity. With consultation from the National Congress of Neighborhood Women, the project got off the ground with a 100 percent loan from the Portland Development Corporation (PDC), which provided nearly $1.2 million at an interest rate of 3 percent. The funds were drawn largely from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s home program. About half of the funding has since been replaced by private financing.

This project, which was developed by Housing Our Families: A Women’s Community Development Corporation, could not have happened through private mechanisms alone, as Farbstein and Wener stress in their report. The PDC’s loan covered the hard cost of purchasing the property as well as the soft costs of rehabilitating it. While the PDC typically finances only parts of a project and turns to private lenders for the rest, they took a chance in this case and provided full funding in the hopes that later private refinancing would return about half of their investment. Their risk paid off. The city got the return it wanted and the housing is profitable today. Moreover, as a result of the revitalizing action of these women, crime has vanished from the neighborhood, property values are higher, the number of houses in the area defaulting on taxes has dwindled, private investment has increased, and people feel more optimistic about their future.

The realm of socially minded architecture and urban development recognized by the Bruner Foundation is robust and growing. Today the Pritzker Prize and the Rudy Bruner Award speak to different constituencies within the design professions. This disparity only highlights the need to narrow the gap between the two ends of the architectural spectrum, between formal aesthetics and notions of community, so that ultimately the same projects may be eligible for both Pritzkers and Bruners.

LIANE LEFAIVRE is a researcher and lecturer at the Technische Universiteitat Delft. She coauthored, with Alexander Tzonis, Architecture in Europe Since 1968 (New York: Rizzoli, 1992) Architecture in North America Since 1960 (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1996), and Architecture Since the Second World War (Penguin, forthcoming). Her book, Leon Battista Alberti’s Hypneroto-machia Poliphili (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997) won three awards, including an AIA International Best Book of the Year Award and an Association of American Publishers Award for Best Scholarly Book of The Year.

This article reprinted with permission from Design Book Review #37/38 on Home, House, Housing, Winter 1996/1997.

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