brutalism in the bronx: morrisania air rights

in a city so architecturally diverse - albeit increasingly sleek and glassy - as new york, it should come as no surprise that concrete has carved its own niche in the city’s architectural landscape. though nyc is not the quintessential brutalist city, brutalism is represented well thanks to buildings like the met breuer, 33 thomas street, nyu’s silver towers, and the macy’s at queens center, to name a few. this is especially true in the bronx, where the style takes the shape of buildings like the massive tracey towers, the bronx community college (another breuer beauty), and morrisania air rights

what is morrisania air rights?

the morrisania air rights public housing complex as seen from the intersection of morris and park avenues in the bronx borough of new york city

the northernmost air rights tower, separated from the others by 161st street, is the only one out of the three that faces west

morrisania air rights is a 5.38-acre new york city housing authority (nycha) complex located along park avenue at its intersection with 161st street in the morrisania and melrose neighborhoods of the bronx, the city’s northernmost borough. the complex consists of three towers: two towers south of 161st - one 23 stories tall and the other 29 - and a 19-story tower north of it. it was designed by the eggers partnership and completed in 1980

according to nyc.gov, this housing development got its name from the fact that it was built using the air rights above the metropolitan transportation authority’s melrose metro north railroad station. the three buildings have a combined 843 apartment units and house 1834 residents - though one of the site’s archived web pages states that the number of residents is 1952

morrisania air rights is an 11 minute walk from the b,d, and 4 nyc subway trains at their respective 161 street-yankee stadium stations. the walk to the complex will take you past the bronx criminal court and the bronx county hall of justice, the latter of which was designed by rafael viñoly (432 park avenue, london’s 20 fenchurch street)

new york city brutalist architecture - morrisania air rights

the 29-story tower situated between the two others is the tallest out of the three

the towers’ windowless concrete frames rise into the sky as the brick-lined façades face the street

the three separate buildings that make up morrisania air rights look roughly the same. each tower is rectangular by nature and rises up to the sky on a massive concrete frame. the front and rear sides of each building, which have a concrete trim delineating each story, are largely made up of brick

these frames are what give each building the flat, windowless concrete walls that make up its sides. the walls have a smooth finish to them and are marked throughout with what appears to be restorative work. the sheer size of the walls, along with their austerity, lends the housing complex an ironically lifeless look

the buttresses present at the base of each air rights building are roughly four stories tall and are perhaps the towers’ only ornamentation

about 1800 residents call the nycha-owned complex and its 843 apartments home

the buttresses present at the base of each building contribute to this bleak aesthetic. these triangular concrete slabs - each roughly four stories tall - are connected to the towers at ground level and make a stark contrast to the otherwise flat design of the buildings. nycurbanism refers to them as being “anti-street life”, and they do jut out from the base of each building into the immediate sidewalk with seemingly little other purpose than to provide foundational support. however, the buttresses are the tower’s only ornamentation and are arguably their most distinguishable characteristic

bronx brutalism - morrisania air rights houses

in addition to its already ascetic design, morrisania air rights does not appear to be in optimal physical condition, at least from street level. the buildings’ surfaces and their housing offices look old and worn from the outside. some of the complex’s public spaces seem forgotten. the basketball court by the tallest tower, for example, has a hoop that stands slightly tilted, which gives the court an abandoned feel. neither of the two hoops has a net

as i learned when i photographed the towers in 2018, the less-than-perfect condition of the complex extends to the inside of the towers as well. i spoke with an elderly tenant from puerto rico during my visit, and he shared what life was like in the air rights. the man, who was sharing a one-bedroom apartment with his brother in one of the towers, told me that he and his neighbors had recently gone five days without water. while i didn’t confirm his statement with other residents, ny daily news did report that the housing complex went without water for several days near the time of my visit. the news outlet stated that while the initial cause of the issue was a broken water pipe that nycha resolved the day it busted, its prolonged effects were in fact aggravated by a series of further incidents which included more broken pipes and someone trying to steal a washing machine

the basketball court by the middle tower - the tallest of the three -  appears a desolate landscape

the concrete walls on the side of each of the morrisania air rights buildings are marked throughout with what appears to be restorative work

the nyc department of city planning is aware of what they call the “notoriety” surrounding morrisania air rights. in a report titled sustainable communities in the bronx: leveraging regional rail for access growth and opportunity, they outline the challenges that both the complex and the area around it face. they also offer several recommendations for improving them

the proposed solutions include a mural program to adorn the “spare” concrete walls of the towers, commercializing the ground floors and plazas to “create an income generator for nycha”, the development of a vacant lot to remove its current function as a trash depository, and renovating the air rights plaza to “contain amenities found in more successful public plazas, such as trees, planting, and a variety of seating types”

people gather outside one of the towers’ front offices tucked between two concrete buttresses

nycurbanism refers to the towers’ design as “anti-street life”. here a bench and a lone table adorn the space between two buttresses

the report doesn’t contain recommendations aimed at improving the quality of life within the towers as morrisania air rights is ultimately the responsibility of nycha. the organization, however, isn’t always held in the highest regard by the residents of their complexes. this public letter written as a response to the covid-19 pandemic by the justice for all coalition - which, per their website, tasks itself with addressing community needs like housing in astoria and long island city in queens - points out some of the hardships nycha tenants have to face: mold, rodent infestations, and lead paint

based on the water incident, the air rights is also prone to problems that require the organization’s attention. whether nycha more fully addresses them, and whether the dcp goes through with their proposal, is yet to be determined


ian campo is an architectural photographer specializing in brutalism and the concrete structures that define the style. his work is available for purchase here. follow ian on instagram

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