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University Village/Silver Towers – Urban Design that Stands the Test of Time

University Village/Silver Towers and Sylvette
University Village/Silver Towers and Sylvette

Greenwich Village is home to what is considered by many one of the finest examples in the nation of a mid-century modern residential complex: the University Village/Silver Towers. Designed by I.M. Pei & Associates with James I. Freed as lead project architect, the complex was built between 1964 and 1966. Critics from the time of its completion extolled the virtues of the design.  GVSHP proposed and secured New York City landmark designation of the complex in 2008, as well as getting the site determined eligible for the National and State Registers of Historic Places (no small feat given that the complex was less than 50 year old at the time, which required it to be found of “extraordinary significance” for it to qualify for listing). So we here at GVSHP are big fans.

The question though is:  what makes this design so successful when so many of its peers — concrete urban renewal, tower-in-the-park high-rises from the post-war years — are not?

By way of background, NYU first acquired the space in 1960 to build university housing. This purchase was executed with the understanding with New York City that one-third of the units would be reserved for middle class residents of Greenwich Village, preferably those displaced in the 1950’s by the construction of Washington Square Village just to the north. The future University Village, like Washington Square Village, was built on one of the three “super blocks” created by an urban renewal initiative which took nine city blocks and combined them into three super blocks and demolished the existing buildings. NYU selected the firm of I.M. Pei and Associates, who at the time already enjoyed a reputation as a leading modernist architectural firm.

University Village Site Plan
University Village Site Plan

Pei stated in his essay, “The Nature of Urban Spaces,”*: “A city’s essence, like a vessel’s also lies in its voids – its public spaces.” He goes onto say that architects find themselves designing the buildings and spaces as a single entity. In looking at the design for University Village, the success of the design lies in the fluidity and energy of the space executed through several key components. The three thirty-story identical towers are asymmetrically sited and ‘pinwheeled’ around the site creating a variety of wide and narrow facades. The energy of the design is furthered by the alternating wall surfaces between smooth surface and the deep grid of modulated windows. Finally, the concrete sculpture reproduction of Pablo Picasso’s Bust of Sylvette further relates the surrounding building to the human scale. However, the best way to understand the success of the design, is by experiencing it first-hand. This is the perfect time of year to go and explore the Village’s architectural gems, including University Village/Silver Towers.
*Harry S. Ransom, ed., The People’s Architects, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1964.

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