[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #13 in April 2013]
Tower in the Park. Was the high-rise project as we knew it actually inevitable?
The “tower in the park” model is often invoked to explain the failure of highrise public housing constructed in major American cities from the 1950s to the 1960s, including Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes, once the largest housing project in the world, now entirely demolished. Yet, this narrative is troublingly vague and ahistorical, as it downplays the specificities of politics, budgets, and demographics to focus on a single common enemy: the abstract and hygienic fantasies of European modernists of the early 1930s, chiefly Le Corbusier’s spectacular vision of tall superblocks surrounded by large tracts of green space. Not only were modern architects in Europe deeply divided on the issue of the high-rise, this narrative overlooks the nuanced debates and progressive building programs of many of the public housing pioneers in the United States in the intervening years, including Chicago’s Elizabeth Wood. The United States built its first public housing projects under the New Deal’s Public Works Administration (PWA) in the early 1930s, and in 1937 Wood was named the head of the newly formed Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), having begun her career as a social worker and quickly ascending the ranks in the nonprofit housing community. At the CHA, she was responsible for structuring the administration of PWA projects around the city and planning for future building programs. The PWA courtyard buildings were similar to middle-class apartments of the 1920s, with solid masonry construction, large rooms and amenities such as plastered walls and closet doors that would later be eliminated in Federal guidelines. National programs for slum clearance permanently changed the formula for housing in Chicago in the late 1940s, creating an urgent need for replacement housing on top of the city’s severe housing shortage.
Wood supported urban renewal’s goal to create a better standard of living for low-income families, yet she worried that restricting all new public housing to cleared sites in the dense South Side Black Belt and other segregated areas would prevent subsidized housing from being an accepted and natural part of urban communities and public policy. She lobbied instead to build on vacant land located in outlying, predominantly white areas of the city. Members of Chicago’s powerful City Council staged violent opposition to Wood’s selection of vacant sites in their wards, and yet Wood and her staff found ways to advance their work alongside city politics, by building integrated housing on the edges of predominantly black areas.
At the same time, Wood was active in national debates about housing design. Although she was a vocal supporter of low-rise housing, urgency and budget concerns led her to begin building higher after WWII with nine urban renewal “relocation” projects in neighborhoods across the city. Rather than serving as a gateway to the mega-high-rises of the 1960s, as some have claimed, these projects contained buildings of all types in a variety of site plans, including experimental attempts to fuse the qualities of the high- and low-rise. From the late 1940s to early 1950s, Wood commissioned ambitious modern architects including George Fred Keck and Harry Weese to create mixed height developments and high-rise buildings with outdoor “streets” or play galleries that were nationally recognized as the forefront of housing design. After Wood was ousted in 1954 in a shift at the CHA away from the “social aspects” of housing, the majority of new projects took the form of austere high-rise buildings in groups of well over 1,000 units, and nearly all were located in low-income, predominantly African American areas. ◊