Vishaan Chakrabarti is on a mission to change the way people in the US live. Elbows pressed against the dining table in his Flatiron District loft, he elaborates on what he calls “the American Scheme” of suburban home ownership. A multi-decade government push towards a lifestyle that evokes tree-lined streets, white picket-fenced houses and manicured front lawns is, according to Chakrabarti, the leading cause of many of the US’s most pressing problems, from foreclosures and unemployment to spiralling healthcare costs and climate change.
So it is no surprise that the 47-year-old architect, professor and city planner is a New Yorker and an advocate for high-density living. A lift delivers visitors to Chakrabarti’s 12th-floor, three-bedroom apartment where he lives with his wife, two children and their dog. It is light and airy and has views of downtown Manhattan, parts of which he has helped to shape. The city, whose population largely commutes to work by subway and lives in apartments at ever-increasing elevations, would be for Chakrabarti a close to perfect model of urban living – “if it wasn’t for New York’s affordability crisis”.
As he looks out of the floor-to-ceiling living room windows on to a skyline of high-rises, Chakrabarti is careful in his choice of words. Americans, he says, should “live however they want”. His problem is that cities, which he defines as metropolitan areas that are dense enough to support mass transit, are not reaping the benefits of generating 90 per cent of the country’s economic growth and jobs. This is the basis of his data-packed polemic, A Country of Cities (2013), a copy of which is propped up on the coffee table. In it, Chakrabarti argues that city dwellers are on the whole more energy efficient, have lower car usage and live healthier lives, and yet the federal taxes they pay are helping to subsidise an expensive suburban lifestyle for others. In the meantime, he says, cities are suffering from substandard schools and infrastructure.
Chakrabarti was born in Kolkata, India, but grew up in Arizona and the outskirts of Boston, where his father was a professor. His parents, who he says in A Country of Cities “came from humble villages and immersed [him] in the world’s cities”, have influenced his work. Family portraits hang along the narrow corridor that stretches from the bedrooms, past the den – where Chakrabarti enjoys movie and pizza nights with his children, Evan, 11, and Avia, 5 – into the kitchen, dining and living area.
“Our other place was a lot bigger. I worked in real estate back then and made a lot more money,” says Chakrabarti, who made his name as the director of the Manhattan office of the Department of City Planning, and later as an executive at Related Companies, a developer that is helping to transform parts of New York. “When I decided to become an architect and professor and have a life I really enjoyed, we had to downsize. This is hardly the poor house, but you know what I mean.”
The family moved out of a Tribeca duplex and into their current home 18 months ago and recently completed a major renovation. Chakrabarti and his wife, the architect Maria Alataris, changed the layout of the apartment so that the open-plan living, kitchen and dining area is now situated at the south-facing back of the building, allowing the sun to stream in.
Although modest and minimally furnished, by the standards of most New Yorkers, Chakrabarti’s home would not fit into their definition of dense living. Rising property values and rents, amid greater demand for Manhattan residential investments by both Americans and foreigners, has pushed those seeking more affordable spaces to live in cramped conditions or to live outside the city centre altogether. Lofty ceilings and numerous windows only add to the spacious feel of Chakrabarti’s apartment.
“The neighbourhoods [in New York] that I’ve lived in are great. They’re walkable, they’re mixed-use, there’s nothing you can’t find on the streets. But their fundamental flaw is that they’ve become very, very expensive,” he says. Like other urbanists, he wants the government to scrap mortgage interest rate deduction, a policy that favours homeowners over renters. Rebalancing the federal transport budget so that it pays for fewer roads and more railways is also on his list. This alone would raise the cost of a rural or suburban way of life enough to nudge more Americans out of houses and into apartment buildings.
Through his work, Chakrabarti, who has degrees in art history, engineering, architecture and city planning, is tackling a loaded subject. For many Americans, suburban life is intertwined with their national identity and the Jeffersonian ideal of independence. But in the post-financial crisis world where US home ownership has taken a hit – together with tighter credit conditions – and where there is growing anxiety about the sustainability of the country’s energy resources, the prospect of city living has come back to the fore.
For all the talk of environmental consciousness, Chakrabarti owns an old BMW station wagon and admits he loves to drive. He is keen, however, to emphasise that he uses the subway to travel between his apartment and work, namely Columbia University’s Center for Urban Real Estate, which he runs, and SHoP Architects, where he is a partner. “We drive [the car] 1,000 miles a year … I just don’t believe in driving to commute. Only for long road trips into nature.”
Chakrabarti romanticises his urban life, from trips to Union Square’s weekly farmers’ market to walks around Madison Square Park, his favourite green space. Still, he acknowledges that New York is increasingly becoming a playground for the wealthy, who often own sizeable out-of-town properties as well.
As we tour the apartment, Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake comes into view on shelves that also include political biographies and architecture tomes as well as an old record player. It has been rumoured that Chakrabarti, who briefly dated Lahiri, was the inspiration for Gogol, the book’s young Indian-American protagonist who has trouble assimilating. “I think it’s completely overblowing it to say I was,” he says of the theory. “There is probably 60 to 70 per cent in there that’s kind of true. Good writers draw from the experiences they have and the people they meet.”
We continue talking about Chakrabarti’s own projects, such as the redevelopment of the Domino Sugar Refinery site in Brooklyn. These seek to answer his call for the creation of well-designed, mixed-income, dense, transit-rich, urban areas. But some ask if this public entrepreneur will be able to extend his utopian ambitions to other areas of the US as well as overseas. That is the theme of “my next, more global book,” he says. Chakrabarti is looking to cities in emerging markets such as Mumbai and São Paulo, where the creation of enclaved urban neighbourhoods for the wealthy – “vertical suburbs” – are preventing a true cosmopolitanism.
His travels have also taken him to Kashmir, where he recently bought a rug that is now in the living room floor. Other pieces in the apartment are older acquisitions brought over from the family’s previous home. A grand piano is in one corner of the room. “I don’t play but my children do,” says Chakrabarti who prefers to read, take photographs, and entertain. “I like to bartend.”
While critics question how Chakrabarti plans to achieve his aims amid tension between private and public entities, he remains optimistic. He is confident that change is on the way, citing shifting consumer patterns among young people who look at energy usage, as well as car and home ownership, differently. Whether this has more to do with cost concerns amid greater economic instability is debatable. But the question remains – can Chakrabarti and his peers shift the aspirations of millions of people?
Anjli Raval is the FT’s US property correspondent
Chakrabarti chooses a collection of analogue cameras as his favourite objects. “It’s just much more deliberate,” he says. “When you’re out there and you have 12 shots … every shot counts and you’ve really got to think about it.” He uses his Leica, Rangefinder and Voigtlander cameras to take photos of his children and the cityscape.