Living on an NYU superblock

Video 1 washington square village

In an innocuous courtyard between Bleecker and Houston streets stands one of only two outdoor Picasso sculptures in the United States, a country the artist himself never visited. In the summer of 1968, Norwegian artist Carl Nesjar completed “Bust of Sylvette” according to Picasso’s specifications, using sandblasted concrete, with etched basalt lines to illustrate the face and hair. At 36 feet tall, the bust is exponentially larger than Picasso’s original “Bust of Sylvette,” which was based on his portrait of Sylvette David, a favored muse who went on to become an acclaimed painter known as Lydia Corbett.

Reviewing the sculpture in the New York Times shortly after it was unveiled, critic John Canaday wrote: “The sculpture is completely successful in its site—perfectly scaled to the buildings around it, harmonious in color and texture with them and placed for perfect visibility.” The bust stands in the midst of the so-called Silver Towers, the trio of 30-story buildings officially known as University Village, designed by renowned modernist architect I.M. Pei, who, at age 101, is a half-century older than his creations.

When lists of Pei’s greatest structures surface, they tend to include the glass and steel pyramids of the Louvre in Paris, the geometric design of the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, the Bank of China tower in Hong Kong. The Silver Towers in Greenwich Village rarely, if ever, make these lists.

While researching the history of the Brutalist towers and their neighboring complex, Washington Square Village (designed by S.J. Kessler and Sons, Paul Lester Weiner, and landscape architects Sasaki, Walker and Associates), I found myself doing something I rarely do: reading the online comments sections. Following one article, a heated debate unfolded, representative of the criticisms and appreciations heaped on the buildings for decades. They are a “scourge on the city’s landscape,” wrote the forum’s moderator, or they are “the most attractive modernist buildings in the city,” argued another commenter, who cited Pei’s numerous honors, including the American Institute of Architects’ National Honor Award, for the buildings.

The “scourge” line of thinking seemed a little unfair. Often, after stopping in at Mercer Street Books or walking between the East and West Village, I’d cut through each of these superblocks. In spring, cherry blossoms bloomed in the vast and largely empty courtyard that bridges Washington Square Village; in summer, a verdant community garden thrives on the south side of Silver Towers, its outsized cabbage heads overlooking Houston Street.The superblocks are anomalies in this part of the city, massive and Brutalist, like Soviet bloc housing.

I often wondered about the people who lived inside them, what it meant to experience Manhattan from here, and, the ultimate New York City question: how they’d managed to get those apartments. Recently, the photographer Chris Mottalini and I, who are exploring New York City’s boroughs through its blocks, one each in the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, invited ourselves over to four apartments in Washington Square Village and University Village (Silver Towers).

Not to be confused with the Hell’s Kitchen complex of the same name, the Silver Towers were completed in 1967, shortly after the buildings across the street, massive twin slabs painted in alternating primary colors—bright red, yellow, blue. Built as an urban renewal project in response to the Mayor’s Commission on Slum Clearance, the 1,292 apartments in Washington Square Village were marketed to middle-class New Yorkers who might otherwise have fled the city. But the buildings—like many lonely luxury condominiums today—initially failed to attract enough tenants.

New York University purchased Washington Square Village in 1964 and transformed it into housing for students and faculty; years later, the complex would appear on recurring episodes of Friends (in the show’s early days, the character Ross lived in Washington Square Village). In the mid-1960s, the school commissioned Pei to build the Silver Towers to add to its housing portfolio.

Currently NYU offers a number of Washington Square Village shared studios for graduate students, as well as other apartments in varying sizes as faculty or graduate housing. Silver Tower I and Silver Tower II house faculty and graduate students, while 505 LaGuardia Place operates as a co-op run not by NYU but by the Mitchell-Lama program, which provides affordable housing to middle-income individuals and families through an application process.

Looming over the buildings is the ongoing construction of 181 Mercer, a multi-use building that will hold more faculty and graduate housing, plus performance-art training spaces, an athletic facility, classrooms, and an atrium. Expected to be completed in the fall of 2021, it’s one of the earlier steps in NYU 2031, the university’s long-term plan to acquire 3 million more square feet of Greenwich Village.

John Rudikoff’s grandparents owned a Maison Louis dry cleaners nearby and were among the first residents in Silver Towers, in a co-op building. “They loved this place, they were so proud of it,” he says. Rudikoff, who is 38 and teaches at Brooklyn Law School, grew up sleeping over in the living room when he and his family visited the city from the Hudson Valley. The walls were papered then, the furniture brown velvet—“They had great taste,” he remembers. “It looked very cool.”

Rudikoff’s parents were married in the living room too, with the sweeping city view as a backdrop. His nephew was born in the apartment. The potted plants they grew were ancestors of the same ones that reach the ceiling in the apartment now. “It feels more like home than my own childhood home does,” he says.

The lease was eventually transitioned to Rudikoff and his brother, who shared the place with their grandparents. “My grandmother passed away in this apartment surrounded by family,” Rudikoff says. He sleeps in the bedroom that was theirs. “I definitely feel their presence in the apartment, and in the building.” A neighbor in her 90s remains active in the community garden; the same window washer who regularly scaled the towers in earlier decades still makes frequent ascents to clean tenants’ windows, including Rudikoff’s. “People here remember my grandparents, remember me from when I was a kid,” he says.

The view now is of a city dotted with cranes, the skyline of perpetual high-rise construction. Inside, the wallpaper of his grandparents’ days is gone, and in its place, dominating most of one wall, is a set of bookshelves, built by Rudikoff’s brother, the color-coded spines practically mirroring the view of the vast, primary-color Washington Square Village across the way. On a side table is another echo, a monograph by photographer Andreas Gursky, whose elevated views of high-rises also resonate with Rudikoff’s vantage on the surrounding city, and his neighbor complex in particular. He finds a real beauty in them.

“I love the human side of Brutalism,” says Rudikoff. “I love the way the buildings last and I love the way they age too. I love the philosophy they represent. What I love most, maybe, is the human scale of the hallways and the entryways. These buildings have a dignity and quality of space about [them]. You can’t say that about most housing that’s built in this way.”

Jean-Louis Cohen, who holds a chair in architectural history at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, moved into his upper-story one-bedroom apartment in Silver Towers 22 years ago, in 1996. The apartment’s proximity to teaching and the libraries was, of course, unparalleled; the panoramic south-facing view, which frames the bridges across the East River, downtown, the Jersey shore, and the “open-air mall” of Soho at his feet, is a continuous subject of fascination but also of actual research, Cohen, who was born and raised in Paris, wrote to me recently while on a trip to France. “I could write an entire history of the skyscraper just looking out of my window, and as a stage for contemporary architecture, from excellent (Gehry’s Spruce Street building) to mediocre (the new World Trade Center).”

He’s matter of fact about the downside of the buildings and the way they integrate—or don’t—with the rest of the neighborhood. “The best part of Washington Square Village is the garden,” Cohen says, “but the fronts on Bleecker and Third are boring, the one on Mercer inconsistent. Only the little stretch along LaGuardia Place has some urbanity.”

As an architect, Cohen is confident that the plans for NYU 2020 will revive the currently dormant stretch around the construction zone, but it will forever alter life for the residents of Silver Towers. “The building currently in construction at 181 Mercer—a multilayer sandwich which will put together all sorts of programs, including housing—will change the atmosphere of the ST, blocking the view to the east,” he says. “Yet, it will activate the block and restore urban life on Mercer.” It comes at a personal and academic cost for an architect who has long relied on his own unique vantage onto the changing city. Cohen notes, “I’ll lose the view from my bedroom.”

Christina Spellman, who has lived in both Silver Towers and Washington Square Village, is a prodigal daughter of the Village—“I am the New Yorker who finally came back home,” she says. Spellman was born in the now-shuttered St. Vincent’s Hospital, the Greenwich Village institution formerly located on 12th Street. She grew up in Washington Heights, and spent stints in her adult years in London, Italy, and Paris, returning to New York in 1989, to an apartment 10 blocks from her birthplace.

She and her husband, Juan Corradi, NYU professor emeritus of sociology, lived on the 23rd floor of Silver Towers. They had a view of the Hudson River and Houston Street, and regularly watched vivid sunsets that morphed from brick red to orange. Recently they relocated across the street to a studio apartment in Washington Square Village, which they share with their 7-year-old springer spaniel, Cleopatra. (Pets are allowed in both Washington Square Village and Silver Towers.)

On an early summer day, light filtered through the windows—not as dramatic as the Silver Tower front-row view of the sun. “Our space now is so small that the whole idea is to make it feel calm,” Spellman says. Echoing the custom cast of the bricks outside, they hung artworks and textiles with shades of blue. The bathroom is tiled white and surprisingly spacious; the kitchen roomy enough for real cooking. One of the most prominent pieces of furniture, a Saarinen table, was chosen to lighten things up further; today it’s topped with a vase of orchids from the Union Square Greenmarket. “The biggest miracle was that the bookcases fit,” says Spellman, gesturing to the wall of shelves crammed with art and architectural history, fiction, and biographies.

Cleopatra settles at the foot of the bed, and Spellman suggests I try the same perspective. “When you lie on the bed and stare out the window, it’s like looking at an IBM punch card,” she says. I crouch next to the dog and look out. A sliver of sky is visible, but most of the view is swallowed by the backside of the neighboring building, covered in gridded primary colors, which makes for a weirdly pleasant and hypnotizing geometry. It’s easy to imagine lit windows appearing across the courtyard at night like the punched holes of those cards.

Spellman nods. “These buildings deserve more credit than they’re given,” she says.

“They have the beauty of standing out because they’re so odd.”

In her novels, among them the Lambda Literary Award-winning The Gift, Barbara Browning frequently uses Washington Square Village as a setting; sometimes it becomes a character in itself. “I wrote a novel where the narrator is subletting the apartment, and he looks outside at the other windows as if they are TV screens—very Rear Window,” she says, referring to the Alfred Hitchcock film in which James Stewart and Grace Kelly try to solve a murder they’ve witnessed through a courtyard (the real inspiration for Rear Window is located not far away, at 125 West Ninth Street).

In Browning’s hilarious, obsessive, and engaging novel about performance and intimacy and real and imagined connections, I Am Trying to Reach You, the protagonist lives in Washington Square Village too, and his voyeurism soon extends to the world of YouTube dance videos and their creators. The novel is illustrated with screenshots of the videos—“which were actually made by me, right in this apartment,” Browning says.

Striking, lithe, and muscular, Browning is a dancer, a writer and a musician, a longtime professor in performance studies at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and a resident of Washington Square Village since 1985. Originally from Madison, Wisconsin, she moved to Brooklyn during graduate school. “Then I lived on Elizabeth Street when it was super cheap, which is crazy to imagine now,” she says. “I was living in a storefront there when my son was born, with his father. It didn’t last long with him, but neither did the living arrangement. At first they put my son and me in a really small one-bedroom.”

When her son was a year old, the larger apartment Browning lives in now opened up. Before they moved in, a wall was knocked down between two former units. “Everything is strange—the angles are strange, the windows are strange, that’s what I like about it,” she says. “I love living in the Village too.”

Her son, now a musician and photographer, attended P.S. 3, “this great hippy-dippy school on Hudson Street,” and made friends with other kids in the building. “These buildings are really their own village,” she says. “We spent all our free time in Washington Square Park, and we’d go to the local butcher shop, Ottomanelli Bros. I had a little flirtation going on with the guy behind the counter. Now I go in there and he’s got pictures of his grandkids.”

She’s lived long enough in Washington Square Village to watch similar changes occur in the building. “When NYU took the buildings over, there were previous residents who were grandfathered in,” Browning says. “Some of them are very old now and they’re great. They hang out in the lobby; the doormen know them all.”

The art on the walls of Browning’s apartment is recognizable from the dance videos in I Am Trying to Reach You. Some pieces she picked up on extended trips to Brazil and France, but much of it comes from local—very local—artists, including a man in his 90s who sells his pieces on Bleecker Street, and others in the Village. “I call those the butt-chested horses,” she says of one painting. The face and startlingly upswept hair of another portrait subject, posing stoically next to the most famous boxing promoter in history, are instantly familiar. “This one I got from a Jamaican guy who sells paintings in Union Square; it’s a painting he made in a deli,” she explains. “You know who that is—Don King—but the other guy, painted as this very heroic-looking guy, is actually the owner of the deli. Don King went into his deli to buy a Coke. So it was painted from a photograph.”

When we visit, chairs on the balcony and pots of basil seedlings await the peak of summer. In another room, Browning’s partner and musical collaborator (their most recent project is the novel Who the Hell Is Imre Lodbrog?), visiting from France, works out a song. Ukuleles and guitars are scattered around the apartment, and leaning against the walls are extra chairs (for many years, Browning has hosted a feminist knitting group in her home, and in The Gift, a character knits a balaclava for the band Pussy Riot). Otherwise the room is open and uncluttered, which befits its primary purpose. Her favorite moments in the apartment, Browning says, are when she opens the curtains onto the courtyard, pushes the furniture to the edges of the room, and begins to dance.

Rebecca Bengal lives in Brooklyn and writes fiction and nonfiction. Recent and forthcoming publications include the Guardian, Aperture, Vogue, Bookforum, the Paris Review, Oxford American, and Lapham’s Quarterly.

Chris Mottalini is a photographer based in New York City. Much of his work deals with the photographic preservation of Modernist architecture and its place in the American landscape. His most recent book is Land of Smiles.

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