Apartment buildings for New York architecture

“Apartment Buildings for New York” is a previously unpublished manifesto by Frei Otto from 1959. It is a continuation of Otto’s long-standing but underestimated interest in redesigning urban politics of accessibility and property. In this project Otto deals with one of the eternal challenges facing a global metropolis: the possibility of living comfortably and in the immediate vicinity of the city center. Otto proposes highly adaptable residential towers in the most attractive and exclusive area of ​​the entire city – on the edge of Central Park – and underscores the need to expand access to land. The central mast and the hanging platforms should offer every resident a spacious and open living space on which they can build at their own discretion. The project is based on the idea that simple architectural elements such as a floor, wall or roof can serve as conceptual starting points to expand the habitability of the built environment and work towards the universal right to housing.
– editors

What charm does this city have! Though his demise has been prophesied time and again, he lives on.

New York began as both a residential and a commercial city. But today the commercial buildings have pushed the residential buildings far aside. A wide landscape of single-family houses now surrounds the city.

But his heart beats between the Hudson and the East Rivers. Not only do people work here, they also live here. That is the focus of everyday life.

There are hundreds of thousands of people here and they are not being pushed aside. They want to live their lives here as long as the city exists. New York is a huge magnet. People let themselves be squeezed into tiny holes – anything to stay in the city.

But who wouldn’t want a good life, especially in this city? Who doesn’t want to live as close to Central Park or one of the smaller squares as possible? Who wouldn’t want to catch a glimpse of green in this dense city?

Here, on the edge of Central Park, on the most attractive properties, I can imagine apartments that don’t feel cramped or crowded, apartments that suit their residents and are adaptable.

I can imagine masts embedded in the bedrock and supporting the apartments (Fig. 6 / 83-6). Street noise is shielded by multiple horizontal levels filled with shops, galleries, etc. covered with green roofs, while parking lots and building entrances are in the areas below. Despite the high concentration of surrounding buildings and heavy traffic, it is possible in this neighborhood of artists and art galleries to create a quiet oasis and accommodate many apartments on premium properties.

The idea of ​​buildings supported by a central mast is not new (Bodo and Heinz Rasch in the 1920s, Frank Lloyd Wright with the Johnson Wax building, and many more). The only aspect that has not been exploited so far is the fact that an internal, centralized structure such as a central mast does not significantly affect the external perimeter of the building. Such a building could have many floors that grow outward from the central mast like a tree. While there would inevitably be structural and economic constraints, they would not imply the need to adhere to any particular shape.

It is important to us that fixed end columns can be made relatively inexpensively from concrete using the slipform method and are great for attaching apartments or cantilever platforms at any point.

The inspiration for these ideas came shortly after the war here in Berlin-Zehlendorf in the form of a disused chimney that was large and wide. The consideration of this structure led to ideas about the possibilities of such a use.

In Fig. 6 / 83-1, for example, mobile homes are raised along a bare mast. From the start, holes can be drilled in the mast (Fig. 6 / 83-2) so that supports can be used to create platforms on which houses can be built.

If further construction work is planned, outriggers can be built together with the mast (Fig. 6 / 83-3). The cantilevered beams support the apartments and lead the supply lines inwards under the various rooms.

In Figure 6 / 83-4, concrete platforms with different layouts were built using a shell construction. Although a mast prepared with platforms is less adaptable than that of a bare mast, platforms have the advantage of being more residential. An already existing surface that can be seen and walked on and whose influence on neighboring buildings and structural effects can be examined in detail after completion is more attractive for residential construction than a place that does not yet exist.

Figure 6 / 83-5 shows a cross-section through a central mast. The elevator goes through the middle; The stairs wind around it. The installation ducts for warm water, drinking water, cold water and waste water are built into the wall of the mast. for heating, garbage disposal, exhaust air, electricity, gas, telephone lines, a pneumatic postal system and everything else that is needed.

These buildings are not meant to be cheap mass housing. They should be designed with the utmost architectural finesse, but always with the aim of enabling the highest possible degree of individualization for each residential unit. Fig. 6 / 83-7 is therefore not to be understood as a cost-effective design, but rather as a vision of what the peak of such a tower could look like. The roof and the balcony are covered with greenery. The outer skin is not tight, but interweaves the outside world. If desired, there is plenty of air circulation and sunlight in the buildings and apartments. The building is oriented on all sides. There will be sunny, shady and sheltered areas. There will also be areas that no one can see, even in this dense city.

Every wall, every roof is used to fulfill the task of creating an expanded human environment.


Housing is a collaboration between E-Flux-Architektur and the Chair for Architectural Theory at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.

Frei Otto (1925-2015) was a German architect and civil engineer. He was the winner of the 2015 Pritzker Prize.

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