The Ratensky Lecture by James McCullar, recipient of the 2019 Thomas Jefferson Award

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A Celebration of Innovative Housing and Community Design in New York City

By Ludivine Cornille, Editor of CSU NEWS

Public housing often echoes with social barriers, poor design and neglected living conditions. New York’s landscape is no exception. Aging buildings must remain habitable for decades to come and innovative housing and community design interventions are essential in providing for new generations of residents in our ever growing city.

The Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization (CSU) is actively engaged in supporting the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the implementation of the New Urban Agenda, advocating globally for a better understanding of sustainable and resilient design in the planning of the cities. Based on the progress of the SDG11 “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”, a sustainable future can only be accomplished if adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services are accessible to all.

One of our Founding Board of Director, James McCullar, FAIA, has dedicated his career to the advancement of housing and community design, since opening his own offices, James McCullar Architecture, PC, in 1979 in New York City. On behalf of CSU team and as the Editor of CSU NEWS, I am glad to share that he is the honoree of the 2019 Samuel Ratensky Lecture initiated by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) New York Housing Committee and the recipient of the 2019 AIA Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture.

Each looked back from the aspirations for housing and community design of the 1960s in America, to the traumatic fiscal and demographic collapse of 1970s and the subsequent rebuilding over four decades, yet “much remains to be done to address the challenges of social equity, climate change and the New Green Deal that will transform the way we live”, as stated by McCullar.

“His rehab, adaptive reuse, and infill housing, often on abandoned sites, have for more than 30 years contributed to neighborhood revitalization.” wrote Feniosky A. Peña-Mora, the Edwin Howard Armstrong Professor of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at Columbia University.

1660 Andrews Avenue, Bronx, NY  “A new kind of public housing”. Photo by Taylor Crothers

Some examples of his work are the renovation of two walkup tenement buildings in the South Bronx, his firm’s first project, that received an AIA New York housing award and was heralded as “a new kind of public housing” by TheNew York Times; theJamaica Market in Queens which created an unofficial town center; and McCullar’s LEED Gold modular supportive housing in the Bronx, nicknamed “the LEGO Building” by residents, formerly homeless and returning veterans, who observed the construction process

The Jamaica Market, Queens, New York. Photo by Wade Zimmerman

“James McCullar’s career is an example of what can be accomplished when architects take the lead on quality housing and sustainability,” wrote David Burney, FAIA. “The quality of his work defies the constraints of low budgets and difficult government procurement processes. His commitment to the goal of quality housing and sustainability makes him well-deserving of the Thomas Jefferson Award.”

The LEGO Modular Supportive Housing, Bronx, NY. Photo by Aslinn Weidele

As highlights the AIA “great public architecture embodies the identity and values of a society”. Like the mission of the 2 influential architects, Thomas Jefferson – who positioned architecture as an essential element in establishing the new nation – and Samuel Ratensky – who was responsible for major housing initiatives in New York City from 1946 to 1972 – it becomes clear “how architecture is an essential element in defining our cultural identity and sustainable future”.  A mission that McCullar as co-founder of CSU serves proudly.

For additional information, I invite you to read the reporting of the 2019 AIA Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture and look at the video of the 2019 Ratensky Lecture titled “From Sam Ratensky to the Present: The rise, collapse and rebirth of housing and community design” at the Center for Architecture of New York.