Impromtpu designs for utopia?

On a field trip to New York packed with memorable experiences, a group of architecture students from Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences designed a block of flats for affordable co-living for students and homeless people in the heart of Manhattan. They also experienced endless wow moments as they strolled between the skyscrapers and got a taste of the working world of famous architectural offices. Also fascinating were the building culture and way of teaching so different from at home.

By Alexandra Welsch, 16.1.2024

Is it an unrealistic utopia or a viable solution in cities suffering a housing shortage? A block of flats where students and homeless people live together under one roof, side by side in shared apartments, meeting up in communal rooms or a leafy inner courtyard, cooking together in the shared kitchen or joining up for lunch in the building’s own restaurant. This is what architecture students from Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences (h_da) envisaged in the designs they produced as part of an unusual field trip – in the middle of New York.

Where else but in the city of utopias, the utopia of the modern world, can such ideas develop? “New York is a place of extremes,” says Katharina Körber, teacher for special tasks at the Faculty of Architecture and co-organiser of the week-long field trip in May led by Professor Lars Uwe Bleher and Professor Thorsten Helbig. “Architects in New York are trying out so many things and setting new milestones all the time. It’s crazy!” says Körber. This was something she had already experienced during her time as a student in the USA. For her colleague Jasmina Herrmann, on the other hand, it was her first visit to the Big Apple, and she was thrilled by it: “You are immediately part of it because the population is so diverse and the atmosphere so open,” which, as Körber adds, “is also mirrored in the building culture.”

Jaw-dropping skyscrapers

The happy faces of the 47 students looking out from the photos of the field trip are filled with amazement and often directed upwards to the peaks of the skyscrapers. The photos show them on a walking tour of the city, where they visited row upon row of prominent buildings, from modern museums such as the Museum of Modern Arts or The Guggenheim to classic skyscrapers such as the Chrysler Building or the Seagram Building, how they captured the architecture in their drawings in the time-honoured Grand Central Station or explored the impressive Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan Bridge by bike.

“It’s so enormous that you just can’t keep up with it,” says Jonathan Uhlemann, one of the students in the group, summing up his impressions. For him, it was very exciting to see all the world-famous buildings in real life and to be able to understand why they occupy such an important place in the history of architecture. “It’s on a scale that teaching cannot convey,” he says. His fellow student Yasaman Zeinali agrees: “New York has a special urban structure based on a very pronounced grid,” she says. “Experiencing this in reality is something completely different.” Jonathan tells us about urban planning features, such as Central Park as a huge green island in the midst of Manhattan’s mountainous skyscrapers, or the fact that residential buildings – notwithstanding the domination of business – account for 50 percent of all real estate in the Financial District. “The whole city is much more hybrid,” he says. “It’s like a functioning utopia.”

“New York is crazy in terms of housing prices”

Which brings us to the students’ own building designs, which some of the participants in the field trip developed during a two-day workshop in cooperation with the college “The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture”, part of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. The preliminary work had been done at the two universities in the previous semester. “New York is also crazy in terms of social differences and housing prices,” remarks Katharina Körber. The monthly rent for a tiny flat with just a few square metres can be two to three thousand dollars. This is why social housing projects in the city that offer affordable housing for people with low incomes have become a tradition. In conjunction with this, the students looked at model neighbourhoods such as Stuyvesant Town – Peter Cooper Village. The aim was for the young architects to build on these examples with a novel, hybrid approach.

Under the title “(Don’t) Mind the (Social) Gap”, students from the two universities, under the guidance of Professor Mersiha Veledar (Cooper), and Professor Thorsten Helbig and lecturer Jasmina Herrmann (both h_da), designed a multi-storey block of flats for temporary mixed housing for students and homeless people on an existing vacant site on East 4th Street in The Bowery, a district in the centre of Manhattan – in other words, for two groups particularly affected by the housing shortage. Having evaluated the site themselves and following an input lecture on homelessness in New York, small groups of students developed several designs. “We didn’t want to design just a house, we wanted to create a community,” says Yasaman, explaining her approach. The basic structure consists of small cluster apartments with a kitchen and a bathroom in combination with generous open spaces, from communal rooms to a roof terrace and a garden to a restaurant on the ground floor run by the tenants themselves.

The other group, which focused on interior design, took part in a workshop at the Pratt Institute, the second partner university in New York, with one of the professors there, Alison B. Snyder, as well as Professor Lars Uwe Bleher and Katharina Körber from h_da, and dealt with the differences and similarities between teaching at the institute and at h_da. Yasaman Zeinali, for example, gained the impression that there are “very different ways of working and thinking” and cites the following example: “For us, designs must above all be functional, whereas our partners in New York are freer in their thinking and pay more attention to attractive forms and ideas.” In contrast to Germany, notes Katharina Körber, only a third of the architecture lecturers there are also involved in construction, and some of them come from other disciplines. “This leads to a broader perspective, architecture courses are much more experimental, and a lot is also happening in terms of interdisciplinarity,” she says. “But on the other hand, teaching is sometimes too far removed from reality, and our study programmes in Germany prepare students for the profession in a more practice-oriented way.”

Wow moments

The group’s insights into the working world of New York architects during visits to four renowned and very different offices also brought a lot of wow moments. The firms ranged from nArchitects, specialists in affordable housing with similar approaches to the students’ building designs, to Diller Scofidio + Renfro, designers of Highline Park and The Shed art centre, which the students were able to admire in situ the next day. Other leading companies such as SOM also left a lasting impression on the students, also because of the breathtaking panoramic views over the city from their offices and their current construction projects in the surrounding area. And, last but not least, the typically American laid-back attitude was also in evidence.

Jonathan was delighted: “We simply wrote to them, and they said ‘Come round!’” “It was so easy-going, the way they opened their doors to us,” adds Katharina Körber, who also noticed something else. “I realised that even global players put their trousers on one leg at a time.” They even handed out business cards. “It makes you dream of what it would be like to work there one day,” admits Jonathan, who is in this eighth semester. But even if it never comes to that, it was an important experience that has already convinced him: “It has made me pluck up courage and apply for jobs abroad.”

The group did not ignore the fact that such a long flight produces a lot of CO2 emissions. Instead, the issue was brought into focus by a monitoring tool developed at h_da to calculate carbon footprint. That those participating in the field trip to New York had to pay a contribution of between €600 and €700 for the experience, which was so valuable both professionally and personally, was “100% worth it,” confirms Yasaman Zeinali. “You take something away with you every second, not just by visiting the architectural offices and seeing their projects – being able to experience it all at first hand is something completely different.” Jonathan Uhlemann also found it inspiring: “We all know that we don’t want to build in the classic way, and that has opened our eyes even more: So much is possible in the world of architecture.” In the end, even utopias.


Christina Janssen
Science editor
University communications
Tel.: +49.6151.533-60112

Translation: Sharon Oranski