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A New National Public Housing Museum Begins in the Gap Between “House” and “Housing”

Architectural Record Ι Oct. 27, 2015 

For its first home, the National Public Housing Museum in Chicago fittingly chose a local public housing architect—not a globetrotting museum designer. After funding is secured, Landon Bone Baker Architects (LBBA) will adaptively reuse the last standing Jane Addams Home—one of the first public housing projects built in the city, named after a Progressive-era reformer—for the fledgling institution. It’s a unique-meta exercise for LBBA, which has excelled at designing community-oriented dwellings in a city with a tortured housing legacy.

A museum dedicated to a stigmatized building type isn’t an intuitive choice, but LBBA’s Peter Landon says a closer look reveals a dense nexus of cultural, social, and economic history. From New Deal-era optimism, to decades of segregation and neglect, to endemic privatization and demolition, the development of public housing in many ways mirrors the evolution of 20th century American urbanism itself. “The American history that can be told through public housing needs a museum to gather all of it,” says Landon.

An exhibit now on view at the Addams building as part of the Chicago Architecture Biennialtakes an equally broad look at housing, public and private. Organized by Columbia University’s Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture, House Housing: An Untimely History of Architecture and Real Estate assembles 23 historical anecdotes on private and government-assisted dwelling to ask why we feel so differently about each; to put the positive connotations of private “house” next to the ignominy of public “housing.”

The exhibit groups magazine articles, photos, videos, and audio recordings into five non-chronological groups, each with a shared theme. The intent is to illustrate the feedback loops in which the national conversation about public housing is stuck: progressive action followed by disappointment, then cynical retrenchment. “We’re trying to draw attention to a problematic history to galvanize public interest in resolving these issues,” says NPHM curator Todd Palmer.

“We very directly want this to be a statement of facts,” says Buell Center curator Jacob Moore. “We’re not making a stump speech here.”

The exhibition’s setting—the shuttered Addams building, abandoned since 2002—demonstrates the consequences of not resolving these issues. Visitors stroll past boarded up windows, peeling paint, and rusted doorframes, once the dwellings of residents. The rabbit-warren corridors where audio clips whisper Frank Lloyd Wright’s qualified approval of the Soviet Union and Frank Gehry’s ambitions for his Santa Monica House creates an aura of domesticity torn apart from within and without.

LBBA’s plan for the museum’s first phase will renovate the southern half of the three-story 1938 red brick building. The entire budget is a modest $6.3 million ($2.9 million is already in hand). The museum is still negotiating construction timelines with the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), which owns the site, but they hope to begin next year.

Primary renderings show a light design approach throughout. The most dramatic feature is a long ground-level window that alternates floor-to-celling transparent glass with bands of bright color. Landon says he took this cue from photos of high-rise housing projects mid-demolition, after wrecking balls exposed painted apartments like a dollhouse torn open. In addition to standard gallery space, the southeast corner of the original John Holabird-designed structure will contain apartments restored to their appearance as various communities cycled through over the decades.

The stories of residents will be central and the museum has stocked its board with current and former public housing inhabitants, like photographer Annie Stubenfield. She says the museum has offered often-marginalized voices a chance to be heard, and praises staff for hiring housing residents in their community for everything from cleaning up the site to gathering exhibition collections. “We’ve never had that type of closeness with any organization outside of the CHA,” she says.

The museum’s preservation mandate includes residents’ cultural heritage, as well as the built history of Chicago public housing. The Addams Homes were part of the ABLA complex, an acronym spelling out the names of four public housing complexes on the city’s Southwest Side. These complexes, built from the 1930s to the 1960s, ranged from row houses to high-rises. Only approximately half of these dwellings remain, torn down by the CHA’s “Plan for Transformation,” which has demolished public housing across the city and replaced them with housing vouchers and developer-led mixed-income developments. The CHA is planning Roosevelt Square, containing 2,441 mixed-income units and 755 subsidized units in place of ABLA, which contained 3,600 subsidized residences.

Chicago’s public housing history and that of the Addams Homes may be exceptional, but public housing and its residents are omnipresent, if invisible. Landon hopes building this museum can shine a light on public housing in places where these stories aren’t told. “Maybe they can help other cities understand their own history,” he says.

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