Architect: Paul Rudolph
Address: 40 W Mosholu Pkwy S, Bronx
Among the tallest buildings in the Bronx, at 38 and 41 stories, Paul Rudolph’s Tracey Towers dominate the Bronx skyline – two concrete towers, comprised of nine narrow windowless cylindrical columns, rising straight up without setbacks. From a distance, the two towers appear impossibly complex and futuristic. But, on closer inspection, the buildings are fairly ordinary, maybe not that surprising, considering how banal many, if not all, of Rudolph’s housing towers turn out to be once you get past the jubilant volumetric expression of their massing.
Like its predecessor Morrisania Air Rights, Tracey Towers was created using air rights above an MTA train yard and maintenance shop, platforming over the site. The two towers are positioned at different elevations on the site because one is set over the tracks. Between the platform and the entrances to the building is a parking garage that is accessible by two curving ramps on Mosholu Parkway. From the sidewalk, the parking lot and elevated lobby create a large concrete barrier, one story tall, that wraps around the entire complex, isolating the buildings from the surrounding streetscape.
Tracey Towers was created through the Mitchell-Lama middle-income housing program, totaling 869 one, two and three-bedroom subsidized apartments. When they opened, Tracey Towers were the tallest buildings in the Bronx–before Harlem River Park Towers claimed the title three years later –and are still the second-largest housing complex in the borough next to Co-Op City.
The towers were designed by famed architect and concrete pioneer Paul Rudolph, who had returned to private practice following six years as the chair of the Yale School of Architecture where he designed the school’s Art & Architecture Building.
Over forty years later, Rudolph’s Towers harness a futuristic approach, setting them apart from the surrounding red brick tower in the park slabs that accounted for so many postwar housing developments in New York City. Close up, the towers take on a new texture; that of Rudolph’s signature corduroy concrete, also used in Rudolph’s Endo Pharmaceuticals Lab in Garden City. The towers’ facade and surrounding walls are all clad in thousands of these precast concrete blocks, delineated by white concrete floor slabs, which gently flow around its curves and crevices. The extruded cylinders appear structural, but are in fact purely aesthetic. Unlike Lincoln Plaza Towers by Horace Ginsbern & Associates, which opened a year after Tracey Towers, or the Corinthian Apartments which opened in 1987 – both in Manhattan and market rate – Rudolph chose to keep the windows and balconies flat and rectangular, lining the building’s core between these cylinders.
The curves continue inside the building, creating a spectacular lobby with several levels connected by twisting ramps and stairwells. But while the number of entrances and pathways may be aesthetically pleasing, it has caused confusion among residents and visitors, as Fred Bernstein noted in his review, “it is impossible to know where to enter; ramps lead to more ramps, which lead to chain-link fences blocking access to the building’s labyrinthine public spaces. The lobby level is really half a dozen levels, interconnected in ways that even an architecture writer can’t suss out.” (Fred Bernstein, Oculus, 2005)
The towers almost 900 apartments have square plans, enlivened by nine elliptical engaged columns that jut out from the sides of the building and rounded turret-like corners. These elements terminate at different heights to further cement the buildings’ mechanical, techno-futurist look. While the entry sequences and lobby levels maintain Rudolph’s trademark complexity, the residential levels themselves are quite traditional, with central elevator cores ringed by largely rectilinear apartments that hardly register the buildings’ outward complexities by omitting the most interesting parts of the design - the curved elements - to closets and poche. While the buildings’ apartments may be lackluster, the towers themselves are still a great addition to the bronx skyline and one of New York’s top examples of Rudolph’s signature brand of brutalism, corduroy and all.
The towers’ apartments are accessed by a dozen skip-stop elevators, which have gained notoriety over the years. In 2005 a chinese food delivery man was trapped inside one of the express elevator cars for three days after it broke down between floors.
Today Tracey Towers apartments are still part of the Mitchell Lama program, and had the lowest rent ($163 per room in 2011) out of any city development in the program, but in 2012 the city approved a 61.5% rent increase over four years. Tenants sued but were unsuccessful. The rent hike was used to fund much needed maintenence and repairs on the complex including the elevators.
Rudolph, Paul; Moholy-Nagy, Sibyl. The Architecture of Paul Rudolph. New York: Praeger, 1970. p. 220.
Wilson, Michael. 3 Hungry Days For Deliveryman Stuck in Elevator. The New York Times, April 6, 2005
Bernstein, Fred. Paul Rudolph's Tracey Towers. Oculus (Journal of the New York AIA chapter), October 2005.