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Building Health and Social Bridges

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, October 17, 2016

The spaces we live in help shape our lives 

The new 12-story Boston Road Supportive Housing apartment building in the Morrisania section of the South Bronx has internal spaces carefully designed to meet the individual and social needs of its low income and formerly homeless residents and a cheerful façade with colored metal panels that brighten its lackluster  surroundings.

“It engages your eye in much the same way a catchy pop tune gets into your head and refuses to budge,” writes Martin Filler in a New York Review of Books story about the building.  It differs from Manhattan’s new luxury towers, he writes, in being conceived not for society’s most privileged, but for the least privileged, the once-homeless, the working poor, and people who are aged, in poor health and survivors of HIV/AIDS.

The building was designed by Alexander Gorlin, an architect whose work includes exquisitely detailed modernist houses and interiors for billionaires, and what Filler describes as aesthetically ambitious synagogues for wealthy congregations in up-scale New York suburbs. Filler calls Gorlin an architectural Robin Hood who uses some of his lucrative commissions to subsidize time he spends on less remunerative but more socially beneficial work. Gorlin collaborates with Breaking Ground, a nonprofit organization formed to provide housing that integrates formerly homeless people into the community with social services as well as shelter.  “Gorlin’s pragmatic gem proves that America’s ever-widening gap  between rich and poor is neither inevitable nor unbridgeable when it comes to architecture,” Filler writes.  

In a Metropolis magazine story by Vanessa Quirk, Breaking Ground president and  CEO Brenda Rosen explains that  the 154 unit Boston Road project was financed by the New York State Medicaid Redesign Team, which consider housing a way to reduce health care costs.  With emergency room care, hospitalization, jails and shelters, Rosen says, the average mentally ill person costs the city $56,350 a year, while the same person in supported housing costs the city $24,190. In addition to comfortable apartments, Boston Road and other Breaking Ground buildings provide centers for education, job searches, a gym, a medical clinic, common areas, and spaces for meditation and recreation.  Rosen said creating new facilities rather then rehabilitating old ones allows for such designs as one floor where all the amenities, building staff offices and communal areas are arranged in a semi-circle so that people are encouraged to socialize as they use them.  The mixed population of low-income workers and former vagrants, supporter say, is planned as a step to de-stigmatize homelessness and prove that solutions exist.  

The construction cost of $30 million, or about $325 per square foot, is about half of the cost of luxury condo construction in New York today, Filler writes, and the architect and funders were determined that the building would combine beauty with function. Gorlin has studied the uses of light in built environments, and he’s been inspired by mystical elements of Jewish symbolism.  His most recent book is Kabbalah in Art and Architecture, and his in-depth  essay on the subject is on the Gorlin Architects website.  

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