Sunnyside Gardens, 2016
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On Sunnyside Gardens and Justus van Effen

Sunnyside Gardens, 2016

On December 5th, the 2016 World Monuments Fund/Knoll Modernism prize was conferred on Joris Molenaar, Arjan Hebly, and Michael Van Gessel for their outstanding rehabilitation of Justus van Effen, a social housing complex in Rotterdam that was designed by Michiel Brinkman and completed in 1922. 

When I traveled to the Netherlands  to visit Justus in mid-November, I was struck by the careful architectural detailing of the project, which looks fairly severe in photographs but does not feel that way at all in person. The attention to design that was given to Justus was not unique at the time; in the early twentieth century, the Netherlands was a leader in providing decent and livable housing to the underserved.

This was also true of some housing developments in New York City of the same period, among them Sunnyside Gardens and the slightly later Phipps Gardens Apartments in Queens, designed by architects Clarence Stein, Henry Wright, and Frederick L. Ackerman, working with landscape architect Marjorie Sewell Cautley. They were all heavily influenced by urbanist Lewis Mumford, who moved to Sunnyside himself.

So, I thought our Dutch award winners would enjoy a visit to Queens for comparative purposes while they were in New York to receive their prize.

We went to Sunnyside on a sunny December morning in the company of Claire Weisz, a New York architect who has just designed a new affordable housing project to be constructed on the site of the notorious Spofford juvenile detention center in the Bronx. At Sunnyside, our group was greeted by Laura Heim, an architect with a storefront office adjacent to Sunnyside Gardens, and her husband Jeffrey Kroessler, an urban historian. After an introduction to the history of Sunnyside Gardens by our hosts, we set out for a walking tour.

Jane Jacobs, the high priestess of urban planning, panned Sunnyside Gardens when it was built, feeling it lacked the variety of scale, building use, and architectural design that made for the most livable kind of urban community. Weisz disagreed, pointing out that the visit “offered a unique insight in what size and scale works today as well as it did in the 1920s. Absorbing the urban spaces from [Heim’s] storefront architect's office to the lanes and raised shared mews gardens of the residential buildings proved how well Sunnyside works. Also the mix and scale of buildings and spaces has resulted in something  a bit more mixed use than Jane Jacobs feared. Somehow Sunnyside strikes me as the ideal scale of residential development that doesn't overwhelm its neighborhood, yet supplies density and thus affordability.”

Nor does Justus overwhelm its surroundings; rather, it set the scale for projects to follow. The outstanding feature of Justus is the unique elevated “street” which provides access to the upper floor living units and shelters private areas below belonging to the ground floor units. These personal spaces provide an opportunity for individual expression at Justus, which is unified by carefully mowed green lawns in the courtyards. A similar concept is provided at Sunnyside Gardens, where Molenaar observed the “attention to subtle division and zoning between the public space and the private domain as originally designed in Sunnyside, although now deteriorated on several parts. The fine pattern of paths, common greens with private terraces and mews, all in a very detailed urban scheme, has originally much in common with the subtle urban scheme of the Justus van Effen complex.”

To my earlier point about the severity of Justus being mitigated by the complexity of detail, a similar thing happens at Sunnyside. It happens through the mature plantings, to be sure, but Hebly saw it as well through a different kind of detail—the porches: “In restoring the houses of Sunnyside the porches are of great importance—the porch as the ultimate space between the public and the private sphere. The porches, open or glazed, give the houses the special American touch. Very nice.”

Very nice, indeed.