The New School does not look like most other universities, even those in large cities. It has no college green around which buildings are situated; no common architectural style; no grand monument-like buildings with Latin phrases carved into granite. Instead, it is a disaggregated collection of buildings, most in the middle of residential streets in Greenwich Village. They tell a story of a school burrowed into its place, an already densely-built city etched by opportunistic real estate deals.
The first two buildings built specifically for The New School — 66 West 12th Street (1931) and the addition to it and extension to 65 11th Street (1957) — also tell a story of the school’s internationalism. Architect and developer Albert Mayer influenced the design of both buildings and they reflect his changing ideas about urbanism. The building on 12th Street was the first in New York designed in the International style. The architect Joseph Urban was from Austria, and the murals by José Clemente Orozco from Mexico and Camilo Egas from Ecuador graced the walls of some of its rooms.
This building was, in retrospect, a family project. The family firm constructed and subsidized the building: the auditorium was dedicated to his father, and his sister Clara was a longtime influential administrator. Most importantly, it reflected Mayer’s largely European modernist ideals: a flat façade, forceful horizontal lines, and lack of ornamentation. Joseph Urban’s 90-color interior design added warmth to the steelier exterior.
But Europe was not the only influence on Mayer’s urbanism. The second New School building project he oversaw almost three decades later, an expansion of the 12th Street footprint, was influenced by another part of the world: India.
By the 1950s, Mayer had shifted his gaze, following a path to India set by the British urbanist Patrick Geddes, who taught the first course at The New School devoted to city and regional planning in the summer of 1923. Geddes was by then well-known for his broad approach to planning. Working off the triad of “folk-work-place,” Geddes focused on the dynamic interaction of people, livelihood, and environment that shapes daily life — all of which had been influenced by his travels to India in the 1910s and 1920s. Town planning should, Geddes believed, move away from a more linear, cartographic approach to spatial organization to one driven by social needs, and become “folk planning.”
This vision brought other architectural luminaries to The New School as well. Geddes solicited the architecture critic and urbanist Lewis Mumford to teach at The New School in the fall of 1923. Geddes, Mayer, and Mumford remained in conversation for the next several decades. Patrick Geddes in India, a compilation of Geddes’s town planning reports published in 1947, brought together these New School urbanists. Lewis Mumford wrote the introduction; Mayer gave it a glowing review in the journal The American City.
And it was Mumford who suggested that Joseph Urban design The New School’s first dedicated building at 66 Wests 12th Street. There is little evidence to suggest that Geddes’s planning ideas shaped the building process. Instead, the International style relayed a more authoritative message about modernism and the city, imposing a stand-alone tower amidst rows of brownstones. If the building did not knit itself architecturally into its neighborhood, it did create an intellectual, cultural, and social hub in the heart of an urban community, bringing people onto the street and into the school. The New School became a node in an urban village.
Geddes, Mumford, Charles Abrams (another mainstay New School teacher), Mayer, and others anchored a conversation about social needs and community processes in architecture and urbanism that reshaped the idea of the modern city in the 1920s and 1930s. Much of that conversation focused specifically on how to foster community through housing design, and Mayer and others formed the Housing Study Guild in the 1930s to promote these ideas. The group often met at The New School. They debated how to solicit participation by community members in the design process, how to resist the dominance of market forces, and how to prioritize human scale and sociability.
Abrams was the one to propel these ideas into reality as part of Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia’s administration: he wrote the legislation for the first public housing projects in New York in 1934. A few years later, Mayer began to implement these ideas to meet the need for temporary housing for troops in the run-up to World War II. In 1940–41, as part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mayer worked on the plan for Bellmawr, New Jersey, one of the few sites sponsored by the federal government built in response to the war that created planned housing around centralized services such as schools, parks, and shops. The town realized a version of the community-centered planning and focus on neighborhoods that the Housing Study Guild had imagined and promoted.
That domestic focus soon shifted to an international one. Mayer continued his work for the Army Corps of Engineers abroad as United States troops fanned out across the world, designing airfields, supply depots, and officer clubs in Burma and India from 1942–45. Perhaps following Geddes’s lead from decades before, Mayer was drawn to India, particularly in the excitement of what was possible as the country moved towards independence from Great Britain. He met with Jawaharlal Nehru, who would become the first Prime Minister of India, as well as the influential thinker and activist Mahatma Gandhi to discuss India’s future.
Decolonization meant imagining a new nation, with its own distinctive style. Here was a chance for Mayer to think about housing, design, and planning on a world stage, and with collaborators who would push his urbanist imagination. He read Gandhi’s writings on Indian villages, which argued for these communities as the sustaining connections between people, a contrast to the severe isolation and individualism that Gandhi believed ruled Western modernity. All this began to shift Mayer’s belief in the primacy of the neighborhood unit that had undergirded his work on housing in the New York area. Neighborhoods prioritized residential life; in contrast, Gandhian villages sought to instill self-sufficiency and promote participation in government, work, culture, and recreation.
Mayer jumped at Nehru’s invitation to grapple with these ideas by outlining development plans for the rural area of Etawah, in Uttar Pradesh, immediately upon Indian independence in 1947. There, Mayer spoke and worked with numerous local officials over three years to develop villages around agriculture, public health, and education. He also brought New School ideals of social research with him. He pushed for the appointment of a Rural Life Analyst in Etawah, a sociologist or anthropologist who would study the unarticulated or misunderstood needs of villagers, needs that might be overlooked in the planning process. In this way, Mayer continued working in India for the next decade, consulting on city plans for Bombay, Cawnpore (now Kanpur), Delhi, and Chandigarh.
We can also imagine Mayer thinking throughout this exciting time: How might these ideas translate to a place like New York City?
In fact, Mayer initiated ongoing dialogue with both places, half a world apart. He brought what he was learning about Indian urbanism to The New School in multiple events and lectures that began in the 1940s and continued through the 1950s. Steeped in these ongoing discussions and plans about India, Mayer was simultaneously overseeing the next major physical expansion of the institution. The New School acquired the buildings to the west of the 12th Street building and parallel properties on 11th Street to create an L-shaped plot that greatly expanded the physical space of the school. Mayer and his family construction company designed the plot with two buildings in a modernist style typical of the time, flat-façade with clean vertical lines in metal and glass that invited the public into the classrooms. The lightness and brightness of the new buildings complemented Urban’s dark, horizontal bands, accentuating the contrast with the streets’ bulkier nineteenth-century brownstones.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the design, however, deliberately de-emphasized that contrast. The buildings’ recessed entrance on 12th Street and sunken one on 11th Street softened the impact of their footprint in the middle of a residential block. Trees planted on 11th Street further disguised that entrance, while the enlarged sidewalk space on 12th Street allowed students and faculty to congregate. Any passerby could also look into and through the transparent lobby, to be both in, and outside of, the school at the same time.
What was unusual about the design for these New School buildings was how much space was left open. Given the lax zoning laws of the time, it would have been possible to create a solid building throughout. But for Mayer, open space was an invitation to community. The 12th Street set-back gave more room not only to the sidewalk but up above it as well, creating an eddy in the linear block and airspace. Inside, Mayer designed a courtyard with a two-floor hanging bridge that connected the buildings. Many of these were signature elements of Mayer’s firm, Mayer & Whittlesey, which was constructing multiple buildings around Manhattan in the 1950s–60s. This included the Butterfield House, an apartment building just down the block from The New School at 37 West 12th Street, designed between 1959 and 1962 with an enlarged sidewalk and an interior courtyard.
Mayer’s design realized a vision for communal space that captured The New School’s dynamism and enacted the principles that guided Mayer’s work in India: to design spaces for informal interactions that support participation, heterogeneity, and the fusion of people, work, and environment. It had little to do with formal learning and much more to do with cultivating community, creating an intellectual and social hub that was crucial to the school’s foundational mission of promoting adult education. In a dense city where space was highly prized, Mayer committed to an open interior landscape with very few trees and benches, dotted by a few contemporary sculptures. The courtyard was sandwiched between multi-floor buildings, human-sized and relatively spacious, inviting lingering. This layout created an internal urban village, rather than just another cultural hub in Greenwich Village.
In the 1960s, Mayer took his urban planning ideas uptown. Following another longtime New School urbanist Charles Abrams, he helped develop a graduate degree in urban planning at Columbia University. While the academic program may have suited him, it’s not likely that the place did, particularly as the university began to erode the communities around it. He condemned Columbia in his 1967 book, The Urgent Future: People Housing City Region, for its expansion into residential neighborhoods, many poor and Black, an expansion that created “one vast university-sterilized location.”
Mayer’s true legacy stands at The New School: loosely linking together disparate buildings in the middle of a city block, not apart from the city but nested within it, and building community from dynamic interaction rather than imposed authority — an urban village with international roots.
Julia Foulkes is professor of history at The New School for Public Engagement.