Bauhaus Blunders: Architecture and Public Housing

Article excerpt

CABRINI-GREEN IS a large, inner-city public housing project on Chicago's Near North Side. It attracted national attention in October of 1992, when a seven-ye -old boy walking to school with this mother was fatally shot (for no apparent reason) by a sniper from an abandoned apartment in one of the project's high-rise buildings. The tragic shooting was widely reported, and journalists drew predictable, if farfetched, parallels with violence-ridden Sarajevo. What struck me was how much the background behind the television reporters really did resemble Sarajevo--that is, it looked European rather than American. It was not only the bleak expanses of grassed public spaces rather than streets, and the lack of private gardens, but also the sight of tall, institutional-looking apartment blocks rather than of neighborhood streets lined with single-family houses.

It is perhaps our most notorious housing project, though it has a great d eal of competition, and it was thus appropriate that it was chosen as the subject of an international architectural competition, sponsored by the Chicago Tribune this year, the handredth anniversary of the great Columbian exposition in Chicago which launched the "City Beautiful" movement in the United States. The problem set: What could be done about Cabrini-Green?

What I saw of Cabrini-Green on television after the shooting was a reminder, as the housing critic Catherine Bauer wrote more than thirty-five years ago, that "Life in the usual public housing project just is not the way most American families want to live." That this was not always so is evidenced in Cabrini-Green itself, which is a veritable Olduvai Gorge of American public housing policy evolution.

Frances Cabrini and William Green

The oldest housing on the site dates from 1941, not long after the Housing Act of 1937 that signalled the first involvement of the federal government in funding housing for what there then called the deserving poor. Frances Cabrini Homes was named after a soon-to-be-canonized Chicago nun, famous for her charitable work, and it was built on the site of a notorious Italian-American slum kown as Little Hell. The new housing consisted of almost 600 dwellings in two- and three-story brick buildings; the total area of the project was relatively small: sixteen acres. The unassuming architecture of these row homeses--every dwelling had its own front door on the street--was not substantially different from the popular urban housing then being built by the private sector in the surrounding city. The brick facades even incorporated some decoative elements. The overall design, like that of most prewar public housing projects, is modest but uremarkable; it was taken for granted that poor people would perfer to live lie everyone else.

During World War II, construction of publicly subsidized housing virtually ceased, and, in 1949, the Truman administration passed a new housing act intended to reactivate the government's commitment to providing rental housng for those who could not afford the private market. The ambitious new act provided funds for more than 800,000 new public housing units across the country. In Chicago, the 1940s and 1950s coincided with a large immigration, much of it black--from 1940 to 1960, the number of the city's black residents grew from 278,000 to more than 800,000. Some of these were from the rural South (their story has been documented by Nicholas Lemann in The Promised Land), some wre from other northern cities, but all were poor, and many needed social assistance, at least for a time.

The Chicago Housing Authority responded to a big problem with big solutions. In 1955, work started on a huge extension to Frances Cabrini called William Green Homes, after a Chicago labor leader. This was the era of urban renewal, and more than fifty acres of the surrounding neighborhood were cleared. This time there were more than 1,900 apartments in fifteen free-standing buildings, ten- and ninteen-stories high; in 1962, eight additional fifteen- and sixteen-story apartment slabs were added. …