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Project at a Glance

Location:
New York, New York
Date:
1960-1967
Architect:
I.M. Pei & Associates
Advocacy Status:
At Risk
The towers are an extraordinary example of I.M. Pei’s structural and sculptural sensibilities meshed; Pei’s urban plan is testimony to what could be done well on a superblock.
— DOCOMOMO New York/Tri-State LPC testimony letter



 

This three-tower apartment complex exemplifies the elegant spatial compositions and refined use of exposed concrete found in the work of I.M. Pei & Associates. Widely considered one of the most architecturally distinguished residential developments in the city, University Village stands today substantially as it was when completed, with only the most minor, inconspicuous alterations.

DOCOMOMO US, New York/Tri-State energetically supported the 2008 designation of the complex by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, recommending the designation of the entire redeveloped "superblock" on which it stands, rather than just the immediate University Village property. While the low-rise buildings that share this block were not designed by the Pei firm, their massing and location were established by a master plan drawn up by that firm, and the possible development of their sites at greater density would adversely affect University Village.

The complex had its origins in the urban renewal programs of the post-World War II period. Three city blocks between West Houston Street and Bleecker Street, extending west from LaGuardia Place, were acquired by the city in 1953 and combined as a superblock, a favored redevelopment strategy of time—although the pattern of small blocks here yielded a tract of only five acres. When ownership of the property was acquired by New York University in 1960 to fill a need for faculty housing, its agreement with the city stipulated that one-third of the units would be reserved for middle-income residents.

Reflecting this operational division of the complex, the Pei firm, with associate James Ingo Freed in charge of design, drew up a design comprising three identical freestanding 30-story towers. Although the middle-income tower (built as a limited-equity cooperative under the Mitchell-Lama program) is officially at 505 LaGuardia Place and the faculty apartments at 100 and 110 Bleecker Street, the three towers are strongly integrated architecturally as a group. They rise at the edges of a 100-foot-square central space in a kind of pinwheel arrangement, so that none of them obstructs the views out of the others.

The towers' bold expression of exposed concrete construction built on the firm's experience with the material on such landmarks at the Society Hill apartment towers in Philadelphia, the Earth Sciences Center at MIT, and the Kips Bay Plaza apartments in Manhattan. While the exposed concrete structure of these earlier buildings framed vertical openings corresponding to window dimensions, the boldly projecting concrete grid framing here is at larger scale, with the widths between vertical elements corresponding to the width of entire bedrooms inside. Operable windows are recessed 21 inches from the face of the concrete grid, modulating sunlight and offering a sense of privacy. Individual air-conditioning units are concealed from view between horizontal and sloping spandrel elements. At the ground level, the vertical members of the structural grid maintain the same spacing, forming deep colonnades along the entry fronts of the towers. Broad, blank areas of concrete at the ends of the buildings serve as structural sheer walls.

While such uses of exposed concrete, characteristic of the 1960s, are generally characterized as examples of Brutalism, the Pei firm did not generally expose the heavily textured concrete usually associated with the movement. Instead, their visible concrete surfaces were as precise and smooth as possible. The fiberglass formwork used here not only yielded the desired surface, but allowed for faster, more economical construction than the more common wood-surfaced forms.

The layout of the site mitigates the isolation typical of "superblock" developments of the time by carrying the lines of two streets that once crossed the site as public walkways. Open areas around the towers rise gradually from the bounding streets to allow for the insertion of parking garages under the structures. Much of the site is treated simply as shared park land, with a modest playground in one area. The central square on which the towers front is given a treatment more reminiscent of a traditional urban piazza. Enhancing this space is a 36-foot-high enlargement of "Sylvette," a 1954 sculpture by Pablo Picasso, executed in sand-blasted concrete by the sculptor Carl Nesjar, who collaborated with the artist on several public art projects.

In 1974, the two towers housing NYU faculty were renamed Silver Towers, in honor of alumnus Julius Silver, class of 1922, a major donor to the university, and the entire complex has sometimes been referred to since by this name.

University Village was widely honored upon its completion. In 1966, it was selected by Fortune magazine as one of "Ten Buildings That Climaxed an Era"; in 1967, it received a national Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects. At the time of architect James Freed's death in 2005, Museum of Modern Art architecture curator Terence Riley called the complex as one of "the most refined examples of modern architecture in Manhattan." In November 2008, University Towers was designated a city landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. As part of its statement of support for landmark designation, DOCOMOMO US New York/Tri-State observed: "New York University was an enlightened client both for integrating city sponsored Mitchell-Lama housing within its campus development and for hiring an internationally recognized architect." The result, said the organization in another supporting statement is "a pivotal work of architecture.....that triumphs over the negatives often associated with superblock urban renewal development."

—John Morris Dixon, February 2010

May 2010 Update:
On April 29, 2010 New York University announced plans to build a fourth tower for a hotel and faculty housing on the University Village/Silver Towers site. Any proposal for new buildings on the site must go through NYC Landmarks Commission review, however cut outs to the superblock in the designation boundaries make such incursions more likely to be built. The tower proposal will undergo Community Board review over the summer and will probably be presented to the Commission in Fall 2010.