Sugar Hill, an area of Harlem that got its name from the “sweet life” that many African Americans experienced during the Harlem Renaissance, has changed dramatically over the years. Harlem as a neighborhood no longer reflects the community as during the Renaissance, however Sugar Hill, the development by Broadway Housing Communities (BHC) is working to uplift the black community through its design and amenities. The building, designed by David Adjaye, has 124 affordable housing units, as well as 25 units for homeless individuals, all for residents in the area. Additionally, the building houses an education center for children between the ages 3 and 5. All of these design features come together as part of a mission on behalf of the BHC to raise the neighborhood and its residents to new heights. These parts of the complex have been rightfully applauded and celebrated, however the architectural design of the building is the truly unique aspect to this housing complex, boasting a more modern and architecturally unique design, that blatantly tackles the stigma that has plagued and surrounded public and affordable housing.
The building immediately stands out among others due to the unique material used on the facade. The dark gray concrete on the Sugar Hill development can be seen blocks away. The dark color creates a sleek silhouette and suggests a modern sensibility, a design element not commonly found in affordable housing projects. Generally, subsidized housing is designed to satisfactorily meet a necessity, rather than go above and beyond. This is exemplified well in the Ralph J. Rangel Houses just a few blocks away from the Sugar Hill complex. This public housing development, built in 1975, employs the use of standard brick, symmetry, and repetition, strongly implying that this complex was constructed to meet a shortage of housing- Sugar Hill looks to design beyond these standards.
The contrast between the developments does not stop at the materials used in the facade. The use of contours in the design creates a unique feature not typically found in similar housing projects. This design is juxtaposed greatly with the rectilinear structures found in the Ralph J. Rangel Houses. Sugar Hill makes use of cantilevers throughout the building. Much like the gray concrete, this design element is meant to distinguish this Sugar Hill from the standard in affordable housing. These cantilevers introduce an unusual form into the building that not only separate it from the majority of the buildings in the area, but also introduce an artistic touch, demonstrating that meeting necessities is no longer enough.
The irregular window pattern is an additional distinct design aspect. The windows are all different sizes, with no real rhythm to speak of, creating a subtle element that adds a layer of complexity to the building. Looking across to the Ralph J. Rangel Houses, or most other buildings in the area, the windows are more than likely the same size in an organized array. While utilizing custom windows is not as cost efficient as ordering one size in bulk, it brings together the look of higher design that the other low cost housing in the area does not achieve.
The Sugar Hill complex works in direct contrast to the neighborhood of Harlem, particularly in regards to the public housing. All facets of the design paint a new image of affordable housing, with a message that implies that attention to detail and high standards of living should not be privileges only for the upper classes. Overall, the new Sugar Hill development challenges the rest of Harlem to see buildings not simply as shelter, but as a vehicle of significant change.
In what other ways can a building such as this contribute to an area? Are there any buildings in your area with a similar impact? Share your thoughts and your city's stories in the comments area below.
Credits: Images by Quinn Harding. Data linked to sources.