High-rise public housing that works

06Oct16

by Maya Dukmasova

The Goldberg variation: High-rise public housing that works

Bertrand Goldberg’s Hilliard Homes opened as a model community in 1966. It still is today.

The first tenants moved into Bertrand Goldberg’s Hilliard Homes 50 years ago this fall. - ORLANDO CABANBAN

  • The first tenants moved into Bertrand Goldberg’s Hilliard Homes 50 years ago this fall.

It was July 1966, and Chicago architect Bertrand Goldberg was celebrating his 53rd birthday at the construction site of his latest development. Although not yet complete, the four concrete towers of the Raymond Hilliard Homes emerging just east of Chinatown already had what would come to be Goldberg’s signature bulbous, organic shapes, reminiscent of corncobs or honeycombs.

Goldberg, likely dressed in the gold suspenders, speckled shirt, and gold sneakers he often wore for such occasions, had the construction site decorated with Japanese lanterns strung up on bulldozers and other heavy equipment, and set trays of canapes out on two-by-fours. His 50-odd guests, culled from the city’s social, cultural, and business elite, chatted and danced to live music. Some even donned hard hats, but as the night wore on and fear of falling construction debris was subdued by gin martinis, the hats disappeared.

Goldberg was at the peak of his career, having already garnered international acclaim for his now-iconic Marina City, a city within a city meant to showcase the wonders of dense, urban living to an American public increasingly fleeing to the suburbs. And years later the architect would clearly remember one of his wealthy guests strolling up to him at the party, looking around the site, and asking: “Why can’t you build this for us?”

Unlike the recently completed Marina City, Hilliard Homes was a public housing project, intended to shelter not the well-heeled elite but the poorest of Chicago’s citizens. Goldberg designed the two 17-story round towers for senior citizens, and the two 22-story crescent towers for families with children. His goal was to demonstrate that public housing didn’t have to be bleak, ticky-tacky boxes like the ones that dotted the landscape to the south of the site.

Eventually, upon its completion, the grounds of the Hilliard Homes would be planted with honey locust, maple, and flowering crabapple trees. A community center would be built for activities ranging from literacy classes for the elderly to dances for teens. A playground with slides, swings, and concrete animal figures for climbing would be situated within easy view of the mothers who would come to look down from the open-air gallery hallways. A drag- racing path for bikes would wind around the periphery. Goldberg was particularly proud of a sunken amphitheater at the heart of the site that could seat 800 people, “a first in public housing” the Chicago Housing Authority Times declared in January 1966.

“I hope that the people who will live in these units will not feel that because they are poor they are being punished,” he explained at the completion of the project.

But less than a decade after Hilliard opened, America began to embrace the idea that high-rise public housing doesn’t work. This mantra has been repeated countless times by politicians, planners, and policy makers alike, ever since the televised demolition of the Pruitt–Igoe development in Saint Louis in 1972. The notion that high-rise public housing is inherently flawed gained so much traction that by the 1990s the federal government launched a National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing. The commission determined that public housing high-rises in most cities were in such poor condition that the only way forward would be to demolish them, cementing the notion in the minds of observers across the country that high-rise buildings weren’t viable spaces for poor families.

Chicago’s own so-called Plan for Transformation—the 1999 overhaul that ultimately led to the demolition of two-thirds of the agency’s housing stock and nearly all of its high­rises—was predicated on the commission’s findings. Most of the CHA’s buildings failed the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s viability test, which meant to determine whether it was cheaper to rehab a property or demolish it and give all the tenants Section 8 rental vouchers.

But while the towers of Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes were torn down, Hilliard conspicuously survived. Today the quality of life at the development flies in the face of conventional wisdom about high-rise public housing and serves as a call to reexamine the root causes of dilapidation and despair at CHA’s more infamous projects.

“Hilliard is here to prove to you that it can work, and will work,” as one longtime resident puts it. “It depends on management.”

Completed in 1966, the Raymond Hilliard Homes were the CHA’s final attempt at high-rise public housing. - ORLANDO CABANBAN

  • Completed in 1966, the Raymond Hilliard Homes were the CHA’s final attempt at high-rise public housing.
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