This summer the Chicago Housing Authority–the people who brought the city the minimalist monotony of Cabrini-Green–seems to have been infiltrated by a band of eager design students. Click on the CHA’s Web page (www.thecha.org), follow the “Design Competition” link, and you’ll be presented with the sans serif fonts and single-word slogans that are the graphic hallmarks of the MTV era.
The agency’s sweeping “Plan for Transformation” calls for the demolition of 18,000 units of mostly high-rise housing and the construction of 25,000 units of mixed-income housing. So, in conjunction with the National Endowment for the Arts’ New Public Works program, the CHA invited seven archi-tectural firms to contribute plans for a mixed-income devel-opment to be built at Roosevelt and Loomis, in the middle of the near-west-side ABLA Homes. The seven submissions make up the exhibit “Transform: Chicago’s Design Competition for Mixed-Income Housing,” which is currently installed on the ninth floor of the Harold Washington Library Center.
All the submissions share a set of core features: low, long horizontal lines, pleasantly landscaped lawns, and an emphasis on the creation of community spaces. While each develop-ment has a style all its own, their similarities speak to a simple design consensus: housing projects shouldn’t look like the Robert Taylor Homes.
None of the entries bears the name of the firm that created it, only a number. Entry two has a gently curving orange facade that “weaves” through the development. This structure provides a relief from the standard symmetries of large-scale developments and seamlessly integrates the three income levels for which the housing is intended–subsidized, moderate, and market rate. In marked contrast, entry one places low-income units on the ground level, moderate-income units on the second floor, and market-rate units on top.
Entry seven seems to have abandoned all traces of “tree” planning–the repetitive hierarchical organization of devel-opments into spaces, subspaces, and sub-subspaces that accounts for the depressing quality of most postwar Ameri-can housing developments. Entry seven’s site model is convincingly organic, as if the natural contours of decades of urban growth had been condensed into one set of jutting lines and unbalanced lots. But a common aesthetic unites the entire square block. Geometric windows in all sorts of odd places throw scattered shafts of natural light into the units; there is open space and an intimate, terrace-lined alley.
Some of the exhibit’s other welcome ideas include the choice to make each building a different color (entry five), a cobblestone alley that serves as a community walkway (entry four), and noise-reducing screens along Roosevelt Road (entry three). Taken as a whole, the exhibit signals faith in the power of good design to right social wrongs.
On the way out of the library, on the fifth floor, I picked up a copy of the latest issue of Residents’ Journal, a monthly magazine published “by and for Chicago public housing residents.” The headline of the August issue: “Wanted: A Place to Live.” Inside are several articles harshly critical of the CHA’s transformation.
Low-income units make up about one-third of the housing developed for the competition. This means for every CHA development demolished, three new mixed-income developments must be built
to provide the same amount of affordable housing. While architects dream up the mixed-income neighborhoods of the future, thousands of CHA residents are searching for affordable housing in an increasingly tight rental market. The contrast between the utopian ideals of the contest submissions and the current reality of life in CHA property provides a reminder that good design can obfuscate as much as it can reveal.
“Transform” is on display through September 2 on the ninth floor of the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State. The architects will be identified at a ceremony on Monday, August 27, from 5 to 7 PM in the library’s Winter Garden. One of the entrants will win a $15,000 honorarium–and a possible contract with the CHA’s developer. The event is free and open to the public. Call 312-747-4883 for more information.