Living against the rules, or, how to gentrify a city

kenny wong + pool editorial team

Artists’ lofts were a unique vehicle of urban revitalization in mid-1960s New York City. The illegal residential conversions of industrial lofts in the South Houston Industrial Area, or SoHo, brought the disused building type back into urban and economic life through artists seeking an affordable place to live and work. These pioneering artists recaptured the latent use value of industrial lofts as they took advantage of low rents and ample space to informally and illegally occupy them as homes and studios. Through their organizing and cultural clout, they were able to bend the rules of the city to make a place for themselves. Yet by considering the political economy of living lofts, it can be seen that a unique conjuncture of social, cultural and economic factors is what allowed this shift in use, borne out of scrappy necessity, to be successful. The history of Donald Judd’s studio and residence at 101 Spring Street provides a focal point to illustrate the unfolding dynamics that shaped this neighborhood in Lower Manhattan. Many cities have since pursued strategies of revitalization through the arts and mixed-use housing—seeking to harness their own “SoHo effect”—but it is arguable that SoHo’s particular version of success may ultimately be one that both cities and artists would be wise to avoid. Ironically, their creative success in adapting ways of living in the city changed the game of urban development, and the rapid increase in exchange value of SoHo real estate that followed would in turn displace many artists as the neighborhood grew beyond what anyone could imagine.



In November 1968, Donald Judd purchased 101 Spring Street (Figure 1). Fresh from staging a successful solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Judd bought the 1870 manufacturing loft with a cast-iron facade at the northeast corner of Spring and Mercer Streets for $68,000. As many other artists of the time also found, the old industrial buildings south of Houston Street were spacious and—most importantly—affordable. Buildings were in various states of disrepair, some lacking hot water and heating, but they provided the room for artists to live and produce large-scale artwork. Subversively, they all flouted legal restrictions on the use of industrially-zoned properties for their residence and livelihood. Judd’s particular loft contained 8,500 square feet across five large open floors and two levels of basement on a 75’ by 25’ lot.

The qualities of this space were unmatched by anything conventionally residential. Most of SoHo’s cast-iron buildings were built in the 19th century when the area emerged as a warehouse and dry-goods commercial district. Uninterrupted interiors for storage were coupled with large expanses of glazing on the facade for natural lighting. At 101 Spring Street, 7,000 square feet of facade was comprised of 40 window bays. The cast-iron structure allowed such a thin envelope that the composition can be considered a predecessor of the modern glass curtain wall. Like the art he produced, Judd valued the raw quality of 101 Spring Street for its directness of expression. In his plainspoken language, Judd writes of the studio in 1989:

"I thought the building should be repaired and basically not changed. It is a 19th century building. It was pretty certain that each floor had been open, since there were no signs of original walls, which determined that each floor should have one purpose: sleeping, eating, working."

Despite the fact that living lofts were mixing living and working at the urban scale, at the architectural scale 101 Spring Street kept divisions in the use of space intact. From the first floor up to the fifth, each floor’s use was respectively dedicated to meeting, eating, working, socializing, and sleeping (Figures 2, 3, 4). Judd’s minor alterations to the interior surfaces accentuated this approach to differentiation. On the third floor, there is no base board and a gap between the floor and walls forces a reading of the floor as a separate plane. On the fourth floor, both floor and ceiling are clad in the same oak material. Finally, on the fifth floor the high baseboard is made of the same oak as the floorboards, creating a reading of the floor as a recessed plane. Across them all, artworks by Judd and others were installed permanently to be viewed as their authors intended. These highly specific interventions work together to resist the homogenization of space within the large, industrial building. Yet outside of its walls, the dynamics of the changing city were conspiring to flattening lofts into abstracted, exchangeable space as real estate.