Architecture Design Core Studio II — Public Body Building: The New Bronx YMCA

Open only to: 
2nd-year MArch students
Required of: 
MArch students

The Second Core studio poses three challenges for the semester: Who do we envision as our architecture’s subject and by what means do we conjure up this subject for the purposes of design? In what ways might architecture reinforce and transform an old but historically progressive institution? And finally, how do we understand and manage disciplinary lineages in an anachronistic time like ours? Each of these issues is meant to prompt different modes of contextualizing and to enable definitions of criteria for a design of a synthetic architectural proposition.


The subject of the era of globalized capitalism - the multitude - constitutes itself as a public only occasionally through shared concerns, or a collection of personal turn-ons. It makes itself visible more often on twitter than in architecturally defined “public space.” This is not to say that architecture does not have a role to play in the constitution of the multitude, but rather that the relationship between public space and the type of public that assembles from the networked multitudes has yet to be properly conceptualized. We will take on this issue of defining the contemporary subject of architecture in the studio as we re-imagine an architecture dedicated to collective play, sports, and health in the Bronx. Our partner in this endeavor is the New York City YMCA.

The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was founded in 1844 in London as a world organization for social reform through recreation. A decade later the first US based YMCA opened in the Old Church in Boston. Others followed, with this institution and its sister institution YWCA (incorporated separately) shaping American urban life and politics from the East to the West Coast. YMCA was the first institution to offer English as a second language to immigrants in 1856. From 1869 on its buildings included gymnasiums and shortly thereafter at a Boston YMCA, Robert Roberts coined the term “body building” and developed exercise machines to support this newly codified activity. Launching at the height of the Public Bath movement in the US (with 99 indoor and outdoor public bath facilities in the US opening between 1895 and 1904), and providing additional social and sports facilities with its baths and pools, the YMCA has also been credited with codifying and popularizing two sports that are now fully part of the American and global urban imaginary, as well as the Olympics: basketball in 1891, and volleyball in 1890. Conceptualized from the outset as a progressive, reformist and missionary institution, the YMCA transformed with the times, opening at first dedicated Y’s for African Americans, for railway workers, Native Americans; operating residences for young men arriving to the city and also offering classes and lodging to the new female working force. Its identity politics and social policies evolved at the liberal forefront of the times. Though its name still carries a series of labels (young, men, women, Christian)—indeed demographic lenses through which one might be tempted to understand its public—all of these  have been surpassed by the type of wide-ranging community center that the Y has become. No longer housing an exclusive religious, gendered, ageist institution, the modernized YMCA buildings across the U.S. function like ultimate urban social condensers. In the greater New York City network they offer programs for diabetes prevention, turn more than 60,000 young New

Yorkers (and sometimes their families) into swimmers every year, provide work for neighborhood youth, and camps for kids. In cases such as the Bed-Stuy Y, which multiplied its membership by over a tenfold after its renovation in 2007, they successfully transform the physical and social health of the city.

Whether they are housed in beaux arts buildings (from the end of the 19th and turn of the 20th century) like the famous 23rd Street Westside Y, or in later era neo-Georgian buildings such as the Harlem Y, their architecture still signals the institution’s old missionary, reformist role through reserved and inward oriented (and sometimes quite beautiful) citadels. The outdated signifying role of Y’s architecture coupled with the fact that its “public” is still located behind a paying barrier and oriented toward a single neighborhood location, prompt the studio to seek an important architectural adjustment and offerings that the new Y could make to its city. With its swimming pools, dance classes, daycares, saunas and exercise machines, the Y is obviously a site where an intimate exchange of bodily energies occurs among its users, but also between them and the building. Sweat is here constantly countered by the mechanics of AC, the piezoelectric potential of the many steps taken here simply gets absorbed by the internal gears of the elliptical machines, electricity gets piped in to do it, while all the pool water gets flushed every 80,000 gallons or so. The projected Southeast Bronx Y, along NYCHA’s Edenwald Houses has been welcomed by Mayor de Blasio for advancing his OneNY goals, providing over 100 jobs and including health, sports and care programs for youth, elderly and new Americans. The challenge of Core 2 will be to find compelling ways that architecture might contribute to the reimagining of this institution’s literal, cultural and urban operation in the Southeast Bronx.