An urgent renewal scheme for Chicago

Residential Architect

February 2015 

Chicago is a city known for erecting massive, mega-scaled, dysfunctional housing projects, like Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes, and tearing them down again a handful of decades later. Since the 1990s, the Chicago Housing Authority(CHA) has sought to atomize and disperse poverty by redeveloping more granular, neighborhood-scaled subsidized units alongside market-rate homes. The Dante Harper Townhomes in the South Side’s Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood could have easily shared the fate of these dethroned monuments to urban dysfunction. Shuttered in 2007, they were taken over by squatters. But now, nearly a decade later, the Dante Harper projects are still standing and have completed a 180-degree turnaround.

Why? The answer is probably art.

Redeveloped by Landon Bone Baker Architects (LBB) as the Dorchester Art+Housing Collaborative, the renovated buildings will serve as a community hub for the arts. LBB’s plan joins 32 two- and three-bedroom apartments with a multipurpose art center. In a unique arrangement, the CHA still owns the land the buildings sit on, but affordable housing developer Brinshore was brought in to develop the site along with the Rebuild Foundation, which manages the property and its cultural programming. The units will be priced as subsidized housing, affordable (60 percent of median income), and market rate. Five artists were invited to live at the complex and volunteer at least 10 hours a month to work with residents and the neighborhood.

Far from the gleaming museums and cultural institutions of the Loop—both geographically and socioeconomically—the project offers a chance to rebuild some of the cultural capital lost by the once solidly working class and predominantly African-American Grand Crossing neighborhood. But the Rebuild Foundation says the art and housing collaborative is not at all about importing the civilizing aspects of art and culture to a poor neighborhood. More than anything else, it’s about using architecture to give residents a forum to tell their own story, through culture and the arts. “Art is embedded in this community,” says Rebuild community and artist engagement manager Lauren Williams. “We’re not creating anything that isn’t already happening. It just becomes more visible to people who wouldn’t otherwise know about it.”

“There is already value here”
Rebuild is the creation of Chicago artist and urban planner Theaster Gates, one of the more culturally relevant and galvanizing figures in Chicago architecture and design today. His mission for the Rebuild Foundation is to catalyze and re-energize inner city neighborhoods through arts and culture with community art spaces. Gates has invented a seemingly self-perpetuating cycle of urban reinvestment, commerce, and media buzz that’s become an engine for his art. In 2006, he began buying dilapidated properties on Dorchester Avenue in Grand Crossing and redeveloping them, with reused materials, into community centers and arts spaces. He turns the excess materials taken out of the houses into artworks, which are then sold and the profit used to buy up more property. This cycle has grown quickly in scale and ambition. The massive and dilapidated Neoclassical Stony Island Trust & Savings Bank will be Gates’ latest art and community space when it opens this spring.

While the Dorchester collaborative is a direct but less expressive realization of Gates’ artistic philosophy, the project does have some of the richly textured reclaimed materials found in his other work. A sliding steel door on tracks separates the main art venue from an auxiliary workshop, and inside the workshop wooden tables with metal frames are made from lintels harvested during the renovation. These rough edges and mottled patinas call to mind industrial histories, and mark the building and neighborhood as a place with a unique history that’s being rebuilt into something new.

But the art center is mostly a modest, cleanly designed glass pavilion. The main art center room features a wooden floor fitted with springs, ideal for dance, but flexible enough to display art or host meetings and events. A burly steel frame holds the structure up, and the ceiling is covered in offset patterns of acoustic tiling, sloping upward towards the main entrance. Its materials and finishes are simple, but they have a definite institutional architecture presentation, aided by the wide expanses of glass.

LBB’s Jack Schroeder, AIA, calls the arts center a “beacon” for the neighborhood. It is open and transparent in ways not often seen in neighborhoods stigmatized by poverty and crime. The main entrance is fronted by a terrace that creates a pleasingly asymmetrical composition out of a metal footbridge, grayish-brown Trex, and brilliantly red dogwood plants, contrasting with New York bluestone gravel.

The state of the original apartments put LBB’s commitment to preservation to the test. The red brick exterior looked well enough from the outside when LBB arrived, but behind its boarded-up windows was a litany of shoddy workmanship and decay. Completed in the 1970s, early on there was an air of “mystery” around the building’s inception, says LBB’s Catherine Baker, AIA. “The buildings were well designed, but perhaps the construction budget and construction oversight limited proper construction practices.”

It was likely designed in-house by the CHA, and built by “a mason without any pride in [his work],” Schroeder says. “It was a disaster.”

Brick joints were simply butted up against each other, not threaded together, which required all of the second-floor façades to be rebuilt. A broken water main washed out the foundations of three units. There was mold, roof damage, and more mystery, such as fire damage that no one could explain.

In the end, the project (which cost $11 million to build) still preserved the contextual townhomes, telling the residents of an impoverished neighborhood something they rarely hear: “There is already value here,” as Baker says.

Today, the renovated units are simple and airy, with several apartments featuring double-height spaces that open to lofted bedrooms. These could be used as artist studios, but the Rebuild Foundation intends for most of the artists’ work to engage with the community in the art center.

“The premise of affordable housing here starts with a different assumption,” Baker says, “that of what residents can offer the development, as opposed to what they will take from it.”

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