“NO ONE WILL MOVE ANYWHERE BUT UP”
JORDAN ON SPACE, ARCHITECTURE, COMMUNITY, & DESIGN FOR HUMANS (1964-1971)
[June Jordan knew a thing or two about urban housing. She spent her earliest years in the just-inaugurated Harlem River Houses. “In New York City there were very few places anybody not ‘white’ could live”; it was a “necessity and a safe harbor for Black families.” Among low-rise redbrick buildings and wide pathways, lawns, and maple trees, with the “man-made valley of light to one side and the slow flowing of the river on the other,” as Jordan wrote in her memoir, Soldier (2000), she felt very happy. All that was to change when her family moved to a fixer-upper in Bedford-Stuyvesant when she was five. There, on Hancock Street, she became aware of the roughness of city life. Later, at Barnard College, she studied with Herbert Gans, a leading sociologist in urban planning. When she and Michael Meyer married, the couple lived in the projects of Long Island City. There, in 1958, their son Christopher was born.
Raising a young boy deepened Jordan’s fascination with land use, architecture and design, and its impact on people. On early walks with her son, she took him to the East River to experience the sense of horizon. When a friend suggested she spend a summer in Greece, Jordan began studying photographs of the country. “I began to think about what I was seeing, what I was learning to see,” she wrote in Civil Wars (1981). At the Donnell Library, she pored over pictures of Japanese gardens and Bauhaus chairs and common objects made with care and beauty. “The picture of a spoon, of an elegant, spare utensil as common in its purpose as a spoon, and as lovely and singular in its form as sculpture, utterly transformed my ideas about the possibilities of design in relation to human existence.”]
FROM “LETTER TO R. BUCKMINSTER FULLER”
[In July 1964, a white police officer in Harlem shot and killed Black youngster Jimmy Powell. Riots erupted in Harlem. Esquire Magazine commissioned Jordan to write about the riots. But rather than describe the police brutality and the violence she had witnessed and experienced, she proposed a collaboration with visionary architect, innovator, and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller, whose work she had discovered at the Donnell Library. Together, they developed a radical architectural plan. It would go to the roots of the problem and make riots obsolete. (Jordan was actively tackling point four of the Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program for self-determination: “decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.”) And since “urban renewal” more often than not meant “Negro removal,” their plan made sure that wouldn’t happen. A new Harlem would—literally—be built above the old. When construction was completed, residents would just move up into their new apartments.
Today the architectural renderings for “Skyline for Harlem” may look dystopian; concave cylinders jutting into the sky remind us more of the towers of nuclear plants than the desirable tall-storied, light-flooded high-rises with community gardens that the collaborators envisioned, an ecological oasis for living and growing with organic connections to the landscape, the rivers, and the rest of New York City. But Jordan and Fuller were working at the time of the 1964 World’s Fair, where Americans were being enticed by visions of a Brutalist future. It goes without saying, for example, that Walt Disney and General Electric’s Carousel of Progress, with robot-powered “actors” playing the roles of fathers, mothers, and children in the bourgeois homes of tomorrow, were all white.
In the fall of 1964, as they were beginning their work, Jordan wrote to Fuller. She published the letter in Civil Wars in 1981. Here is an excerpt.]
Dear Mr. Fuller,
I hope you are very well. [….]
Recently I was able to get away to the country for several days. As the plane tilted into the hills of Laconia, New Hampshire, I could see no one, but there was no tangible obstacle to the imagining of how this land, these contours of growth and rise and seasonal definition could nurture and extend human life. There was no obvious site that might be cleared for housing. No particular grove nor patch visually loomed as more habitable, more humanly yielding than another. And yet, I surmised no menace of elements inimical to life in that topography. It seemed that any stretch, that every slope, provided living possibilities. With just a tent and a few matches, just the minimum of provisions could convert a randomly selected green space into human shelter. Perhaps one explanation of this easy confidence is that such land clearly suggests the activities required for construction of efficient shelter, and, further, these requirements imply necessary labor both feasible and quickly rewarding for human beings to accomplish.
By contrast, any view of Harlem will likely indicate the presence of human life—people whose surroundings suggest that survival is a mysterious and even pointless phenomenon. On the streets of Harlem, sources of sustenance are difficult to discover and, indeed, sources of power for control and change are remote. Nor is labor available—labor that directly affects, in manifold ways, the manners of existence. Keeping warm is a matter of locating the absentee landlord rather than an independent expedition to gather wood for a fire. This relates to our design for participation by Harlem residents in the birth of their new reality. I would think that this new reality of Harlem should immediately reassure its residents that control of the quality of survival is possible and that every life is valuable. Hospital zones where strict control is exercised over noise, dirt, and traffic serve as examples of peculiar exception to city habits of chaotic indifference to environmental functions on behalf of human life. I am much heartened by your insistence on the invention of a physical device rather than efforts of social reform. I also believe that the architecture of experience deeply determines an incalculable number and variety of habits—i.e., the nature of quotidian existence.
… The map you kindly gave me indicates Mt. Morris Park and Morningside Park in Harlem. Mt. Morris Park is just a rock. Morningside Park does not function as a pleasurable means of escape from entirely man-made environments. These two might well be replaced by park-playgrounds such as I have seen designed in the studio of your friend, Isamu Noguchi.
I plan to explore the New Jersey coastline just below the George Washington Bridge to see if another bridge might be justified between New Jersey and New York at a level invading Harlem. From the Lincoln Tunnel to the George Washington Bridge is quite a leap. Similarly, might there be a possible unification through design of the convergencies of the 8th Ave. Subway, the IRT Subway, and the N.Y. Central Railroad on 125th Street?
I notice on the map that, from W. 125th St. to W. 155th St., the land body of Manhattan is progressively squeezed as the Harlem/East River swerves westward. And, as you see, the sense of green space as a center of island life ends once you stand north of W. 110th St., with the termination of Central Park. While Riverside Drive affords some park area to the west of Harlem, there is no corresponding usage of the eastern shore.
Now, this last year, N.Y.C.’s Planning Commissioner, William F. R. Ballard, has attempted to proceed toward two aims original with his tenure of office. One is the construction of waterfront housing and the use of waterways for daily transit. His second aim is the procurement of a feasible, master plan for New York City. Apparently, N.Y.C. has had nothing that even resembles a master plan since 1811!
I wonder if our plan for Harlem could provide for access to shoreline and thus to natural fluency that would devolve from dwelling places alternating with circles of outdoor safety along the water’s edge. This would mean domestication of the littoral, but not the occlusion of the autonomous energies of the river. Would you think it worthwhile to connect interior green space with peripheral rivers?
And interconnection—an arterial system of green spaces leading to water; an arterial system psychologically operative from any position in Harlem. For example, a concentric design with the perimeter touching water east and west. Interior orbitry would spot open spaces—plazas, playgrounds, campus, parks.
Given our goal of a pacific, life-expanding design for a human community, we might revise street patterning so that the present patterns of confrontation by parallel lines would never be repeated. The existing monotony limits pleasures of perspectives. Rigidly flat land is ruled by rectilinear form. The crisscrossing pattern too often becomes a psychological crucifixion; an emergence from an alleyway into a danger zone vulnerable to enemies approaching in at least two directions that converge at the target who is the pedestrian poised on a corner.
I suppose I am appealing for as many curvilinear features of street patterning as possible. This bias seeks to overcome physical patterns of inevitability; the sense of inexorable routes, the impossibility of differentiated approach, of surprise. All of these undesirable effects now result from the gridiron layout of city blocks.
I remember the comparison you drew between the two professions of architecture and medicine. If the physician had continued healing practices determined by the criteria of tradition and expectation, his practice might well have lost its justification, namely, the patient.
I would wish us to indicate the determining relationship between architectonic reality and physical well-being. I hope that we may implicitly instruct the reader in the comprehensive impact of every Where, of any place. This requires development of an idea or theory of place in terms of human being; of space designed as the volumetric expression of successful existence between earth and sky; of space cherishing as it amplifies the experience of being alive, the capability of endless beginnings, and the entrusted liberty of motion; of particular space that is open-receptive and communicant yet sheltering particular life.
FROM “SKYRISE FOR HARLEM”
[At the same time that Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) was moving to Harlem, and founding the Black Arts Repertory Theater, Jordan was proposing her and Fuller’s radical, revitalizing architectural innovation for that community. Esquire published their project in its April 1965 issue. The collaborators called it “Skyrise for Harlem.” The editors of the magazine, however, re-titled the article “Instant Slum Clearance,” and credited Jordan as only the writer, not the co-creator, of the visionary plan. As late as 2008, when the Whitney Museum mounted an R. Buckminster Fuller retrospective and displayed drawings for the project, Jordan’s role was not included in the museum signage or materials. Scholar and writer, Cheryl J. Fish, alerted the Whitney curators to their mistake (Fish is the author of “Place, Emotion, and Environmental Justice in Harlem: June Jordan and Buckminster Fuller’s 1965 ‘Architextual’ Collaboration,” published in Discourse, vol. 29, 2007, and Jordan’s name was reinstated three weeks before the show closed. Here are excerpts from “Skyrise for Harlem.”]
Harlem is life dying inside a closet, an excrescence beginning where a green park ends, a self-perpetuating disintegration of walls, ceilings, doorways, lives. It is also, of course, a political embarrassment for which no political solution is adequate. A housing project planted in the middle of a slum is not an answer. […]
Redevelopment generally means the removal of slum residents while land is cleared for new buildings and new purposes. In fact, “redevelopment” is frequently a pretext for the permanent expulsion of Negro populations. Fuller’s design permits all residents to remain on site while new and vastly improved dwelling facilities rise directly above the old. No one will move anywhere but up. New Harlem will be supported by columns driven into the backyards of the slum, and once the elevated replacement is complete and inhabited, the lower depths will be cleared for roadways and park space. The design will obliterate a valley of shadows: Skyrise for Harlem means literal elevation of Harlem to the level of Morningside Heights. Partial renovation is not enough. Piecemeal healing provides temporary relief at best and may create as many problems as it cures. A half century of despair requires exorcism. […]
An aerial view of New Harlem will disclose a radical landscape: vast, cleared ranges of space with fifteen peaks rising into the sky. These fifteen widely separated conical structures will house a half million people. A cross section of these structures resembles abstract, stylized Christmas trees evenly broadening toward their base with central, supporting trunks. Each tree town is one hundred circular decks high. The lowest level begins ten stories aboveground, above dust level and major cloverleaf-...