By Blair Kamin

February 13, 2012


Cicero, infamous for its history of corruption, and Jeanne Gang, famous for her futuristic buildings, would seem an unlikely pair. But something unexpected has brought them together: America’s foreclosure crisis.


On a recent morning, Gang drove her gray Toyota Prius past the town’s sturdy but overcrowded brick bungalows and envisioned something different: a high-rise resembling a Rubik’s Cube, its profile constantly shifting as affordable units for living and working are plugged into its superstructure, each tailored to the needs of residents.


A concept rather than a blueprint, her plan will be prominently featured in an exhibition, “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream,” that opens Wednesday at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and is sure to be provocative.


The Chicago architect, who won acclaim in 2009 for the undulating silhouette of her Aqua tower and last year was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant, leads one of five teams that were asked by the museum and Columbia University’s Center for the Study of American Architecture to formulate new housing prototypes in response to the national foreclosure epidemic. The other teams focused on sites outside New York, Los Angeles, Tampa, Fla., and Portland, Ore.


While there are ample reasons to be skeptical about Gang’s design for Cicero, it should help kick-start a much-needed debate about alternatives to the standard single-family house on a grassy lot. Our homes should fit the realities of how we live, not some preordained myth of the American dream. But making the right fit among form, function and finance is no simple matter, as a close look at Gang’s design reveals.


There is no small irony in Gang being assigned to Cicero. The gritty suburb, which sits on Chicago’s western flank, is routinely bypassed by tourists heading to nearby Oak Park and its cache of Prairie Style homes by Frank Lloyd Wright. Cicero wants desperately for the world to forget its sordid legacy of mob ties, which stretch from Al Capone in the 1920s to the more recent exploits of former Town PresidentBetty Loren-Maltese, who was convicted in 2002 for helping steal $12 million from a municipal insurance fund.


The town turns out to be an ideal venue for clarifying the scope and impact of the foreclosure crisis.


The poster child for the crisis is the exurban home in the unfinished subdivision, yet the crisis has hit equally hard at older, close-in suburbs like Cicero. According to the Woodstock Institute, the town had 1,066 new foreclosures in 2010, an increase of 8.6 percent over the previous year. While foreclosures declined slightly in the first half of 2011, no one in Cicero expects the problem to go away anytime soon.


The town, Gang notes, is an “arrival city,” where immigrants proceed directly instead of settling first in Chicago. The official 2010 census population is 84,000, but town officials say it’s probably closer to 100,000 to 110,000 because of undocumented residents. The super mercados and taquerias that line Cicero’s commercial streets hint at its shift from a haven for Eastern European immigrants to those from Mexico.


Many of the town’s families are crammed into bungalows, doubling and tripling up as they struggle to pay mortgages taken on during the boom years. They have converted basements and attics into bedrooms or, in a further attempt to make ends meet, transformed garages into makeshift workspaces for car repairs and other odd jobs. Technically, such arrangements violate the thrust of the town’s zoning code, which calls for a strict separation of homes and businesses.


Gang calls the situation a “housing mismatch,” and she correctly diagnoses Cicero’s response to the foreclosure crisis as inadequate. While the town has used subsidies from the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program to rehab and sell foreclosed homes, only about 10 homes have been fixed up, town officials acknowledge. As Gang points out, Cicero’s deeper problem is industrial decline, as exemplified by the fate of the long-gone Hawthorne Works plant, where the Western Electric manufacturing arm of AT&T once employed as many as 45,000 people.


The lone remnant of the plant, a marvelous castlelike tower with a peaked roof, rises incongruously behind the Hawthorne Works shopping center.


To remedy the town’s underperforming economy and overcrowded bungalows, Gang proposes what she calls a “born-again factory.” In essence, a shuttered factory would be given a new identity as a place where people would both live and work.


Toxin-absorbing trees would be planted to help decontaminate the site. Concrete cores would rise from the shell of the former factory, housing stairwells, elevators and utility stacks. Reclaimed steel trusses would span the cores, framing communal spaces such as a day care center.


Individual dwelling units would be mounted above and below the trusses, with different sizes meeting the needs of different families. Some units would have their own kitchens, while others would share communal cooking areas. Workspaces would be located in the apartments if they entailed simple tasks like crafts, but would be in a separate ground-level space if they involved noisy machines or noxious chemicals.


All residents would have access to rooftop gardens and street-level gardens that would fan out from the high-rise. A garage would provide space for cars.


Gang gives this reformulation of the bungalow’s uses a catchy title — the “bungalow shuffle.”


The building’s financial architecture would be equally unusual. A private trust known as a limited equity cooperative would own the land beneath the former factory and the shared amenities. Residents would own their units but not the land. If they wanted to leave, they would sell their units back to the trust, whose charge would be to provide affordable housing, not make a profit.


The aim is to shield residents from what Gang calls “the casino effect,” those wild swings in home values that, along with rising unemployment, have left millions of Americans unable to pay their mortgage.


Factor in mixed-use zoning that would allow alleys to become vibrant marketplaces lined by cottage industries that residents would run out of garages, and — presto! — you have a vision fit for displaying on the walls of a prestigious museum.


Whether it would work is a different matter.


Cicero officials offered Gang several factory locations, but the one she settled on — at 31st Street and Central Avenue — is still operating, making her concept seem even less grounded in reality. Among the occupants is a firm that makes gears for wind towers.


While Gang promotes her vision as eco-friendly, the site is about a mile from the CTA’s Pink Line station in Cicero — a distance that would discourage people from using transit instead of driving.


“I was a little surprised” by Gang’s site, said Craig Pesek, a Cicero project manager, though he added that her plan was “something we would take a good hard look at.”


Irrespective of the high-rise’s location, its proposed height — more than 10 stories, as pictured in a booklet about the plan — raises concerns that would go beyond Cicero’s need to buy a firetruck to reach that high. The town’s tallest current building is nine stories.


As anyone familiar with the tragic history of public housing in Chicago knows, high-rise housing has often proved ill-suited to the needs of low-income families, especially large families. A mother on the 10th floor can’t look out her kitchen window and keep a close eye on her child playing in the backyard. Unsupervised children often play in elevators, causing them to break down.


To be sure, as Gang argues, she is proposing one or two high-rises, not an entire housing project. Yet even some of the community leaders she consulted during her research expressed doubts about the design and the way it echoes the shipping containers and lifts in nearby rail yards.


“People would look at this more as an apartment than their own home,” said Cristine Pope, director of the Interfaith Leadership Project, a church-based community organization in Cicero. While some buyers might like the affordability of the units and their modern conveniences, she added, others “would say, ‘I don’t want to live in it. It looks like a factory.'”


The point is: Who is this design for? The conceit of an ever-changing building that morphs like a Rubik’s Cube might advance Gang’s reputation for innovative high-rise design, but is such a plan really feasible? And would it truly advance the cause of better housing? Gang’s research included talking to Cicero residents, but she designed her plan for them, not with them.


Perhaps the design would appeal to the children of immigrants, eager to shed their parents’ ways. To young men forced to live dormitory style in the basements of bungalows, the high-rise’s expansive views and shared kitchens would be a breath of fresh air compared with their current homes.


But the failures of high-rise public housing teach harsh lessons: Architectural experiments often bring unintended consequences. At Cabrini-Green, earnest architects left out conventional hallways in favor of perimeter breezeways that were called “streets in the sky.” The architects never foresaw that children could throw other children off of those breezeways. That forced the Chicago Housing Authority to fence in the breezeways with chain-link, making residents feel caged in.


It’s hard to imagine anything so tragic unfolding as a result of Gang’s new plan, which would not, after all, be a public housing development. Her concept for Cicero is a vivid demonstration of her ability to join the diverse strands of ecology, finance, form and function into inventive new prototypes. Whether this experiment would serve its intended users remains an open question.


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