Event: The Ratensky Lecture by Conrad Levenson, FAIA: Restoring Buildings, Reclaiming Lives
Location: Center for Architecture, 11.05.07
Speakers: Conrad Levenson, FAIA — Director of Properties Management, Phoenix House; Introduction: Carmi Bee, FAIA — Principal, RKT&B Architects and Planners; Lynda Simmons — President Emerita, Phipps House
Organizer: AIANY Housing Committee
Cycling through a number of projects he completed during his career, perhaps the most poignant example of the impact that Conrad Levenson, FAIA, director of properties management at Phoenix House and this year’s Ratensky Lecturer, has had on affordable housing is the Federal City Shelter in Washington, D.C. In the 1980s, the abandoned building was occupied by the activist group Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV) and housed hundreds of homeless in the D.C. area. After years of pushback from the Reagan administration and two hunger strikes led by activist Mitch Snyder, the property was leased to CCNV and funds were provided for renovations.
When it seemed as if the government would not follow through with its promise, Levenson, along with professor Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, orchestrated a month-long student design charrette funded by a National Endowment for the Arts. The project was completed quicker than the government anticipated, and plans were filed for a three-story building with five self-contained units, sleeping cubicles, toilets, and showers. After two more years of political negligence, Levenson opened an office and the students collaborated with local firms to complete the project in less than six months, by the end of 1987. Today, the Federal City Shelter remains the largest shelter in D.C.
The government tends to segregate the afflicted, compartmentalizing troubled groups and implementing short-term programs that solve problems only temporarily, claims Levenson. This is evident in the affordable housing field where the disadvantaged are faced with poor living conditions — a lack of privacy in disease-ridden circumstances. Yet social groups celebrate the fact that individuals are given roofs over their heads and politicians brag that they are helping remove people from the street.
Levenson blames the economy in the 1970s for the housing crisis that left many doubting NYC’s future. Housing became unsafe and poorly maintained. Psychiatric hospitals expelled residents when they could not afford to keep them. Those who could, fled the city; and those who remained were the poorest of the underprivileged poor. Levenson distinguishes between architecture (safe, functional, energy efficient, durable) and social architecture (sustainable, community-oriented, program-driven, resourceful, disciplined, creative). And with over 35 years of experience designing for transitioning individuals and the homeless population, he is nostalgic for the 1960s when it was believed that housing could bring about positive social change.
For Levenson, the benefits of working in affordable housing is knowing that literally thousands of people have used his designs to achieve independence, not in the many awards he has received. Social architecture demands more than just tolerance. “Live and help let live” is his motto.