by Bill Millard
Event: 2010 Samuel Ratensky Lecture
Location: Center for Architecture, 11.15.10
Speakers: Richard Ravitch — Lt. Governor, State of New York
Introduction: Herbert Oppenheimer, FAIA — Past President, AIANY (1974)
Organizers: AIANY Housing Committee
Sponsor: Jonathan Rose Companies
Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch minced no words in his sobering overview of the current state of housing and infrastructure, two components of the built environment that he treats as interdependent and inseparable. During the life of architect/city planner Samuel Ratensky (1910-1972), housing was a central political question and an unquestioned public responsibility. Now, Ravitch and his colleagues lamented, housing makes headlines only when toxic mortgages spread instability through the financial system. The prospect that state governments will invest adequately to accommodate the new Americans expected over the next half-century — at least 40 million, by conservative estimates — appears slim to none.
In the days when Ratensky worked with Ravitch’s HRH Construction and Davis Brody (precursor of today’s Davis Brody Bond Aedas) to strengthen the city’s affordable-housing stock by building Riverbend, Waterside, and other mixed-income developments, achievements against long odds were occasionally realistic. But today’s policy challenges, as he describes, them, are formidable.
“We have a society that’s broke,” he observed, rattling off disturbing facts and statistics: a $1.6 trillion federal deficit, a $10 billion state deficit, 12-14% unemployment, 41 million people on food stamps, more millions functioning below the poverty level, and “China and India beating our pants off” in productivity and global market share. Under these conditions, just catching up on minimal bridge and road maintenance seems beyond us, let alone forward-thinking investments, particularly in housing and transit. Freight infrastructure is particularly fragile: in 1900, he said, there was one rail crossing over the Hudson, at Selkirk, NY; 110 years later Selkirk’s is still the only functioning trans-Hudson rail bridge. Meanwhile, he said, “there are 50,000 diesel trucks that cross the George Washington Bridge every day,” bringing essential goods to the region but also giving the South Bronx the nation’s highest incidence of respiratory disease.
These and other physical manifestations of a crippled political will, Ravitch said, call for a revived public-service ethos like the one that motivated Ratensky, a Frank Lloyd Wright trainee with a lifelong respect for high-quality design. Most politicians respond to public opinion, and Ravitch believes architects, carrying more intellectual prestige than they might realize, have a special capacity for influencing that critical variable. The public needs a clearer understanding of how civic investment brings benefits in the future, and of how any serious approach to these problems begins with a mature understanding of taxation (it has to rise; the belief that “efficiencies” in public finance can overcome resource limits, he said, is a political myth). The architectural profession is a critical center of expertise; Ravitch called for a greater visibility for that expertise in public debates about what kind of society we intend to build.
Bill Millard is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in OCULUS, Icon, Content, The Architect’s Newspaper, and other publications.