impossible engineering

This Wednesday, January 22, I’ll be on the Science Channel show Impossible Engineering talking about shear walls. The episode will focus on the super-skinny skyscrapers now rising in New York City (rising, but largely unoccupied). Not surprisingly, I’ll point out that none of these towers would be possible without a particular Chicago innovation, and a much shorter and largely overlooked 1960s building that pioneered a handful of structural ‘hacks’ that make today’s shear walls particularly effective.

Which building? What hacks? Tune in at 9EST, 8CST to find out… The episode will post to the Science Channel’s website sometime afterwards, too…

old chicago skyscraper of the week–ogden courts

Part of the pitch for the new Chicago Skyscraper book is that studies of postwar high-rise construction in the city have focused exclusively on the well-known commercial towers downtown. That’s a fascinating story, of course, and one that will form the bulk of this project, but it’s not a story that’s completely devoid of context. In addition to the few dozen towers downtown that led to the Hancock and Sears Tower, there’s a largely untold story about the city’s other skyscrapers–the residential high rises that populated the lake shore, largely for the city’s middle and upper classes, and those that were built by the Chicago Housing Authority that ended up becoming notorious concentrations of poverty and crime.

What’s particularly interesting to me is that, in many cases, the same offices worked on all three types of projects. And, at least in the early years of the CHA’s foray into multi-story construction, some of their work on public housing was innovative, progressive, and–for a time–reasonably successful. In fact, in January, 1950, Architectural Forum focused on low-cost housing in Chicago, celebrating the opening of Mies’ Promontory Apartments, the announcement of 860-880 Lake Shore Drive, and this week’s star–SOM’s Ogden Courts project.

The Mies buildings are well known, of course, but they’re rarely recognized for how inexpensive they were to build (more to come on those; the Promontory and 860-880 stories are a lot richer than the textbooks make them out to be). Promontory, in particular, used rudimentary, almost primitive concrete and masonry techniques for its construction, eschewing the stone or finish brick that was expected for any apartment block of the era. Completed in 1949, half of its units sold before construction started, proving that modern design and raw material expression had untapped market potential.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Housing Authority was facing increasing cost pressure from declining federal support–just as the second wave of the Great Migration began. As black migrants arrived in the city, they found plenty of work but little in the way of acceptable housing. Forced by restrictive covenants and often-violent racism from white neighborhoods, black families were forced into narrow strips on the south and west sides where they found overpriced, substandard housing. The CHA had been slow to address this, building row houses and garden apartments such as the Ida B. Wells homes through the early 1940s but falling far behind the growing need. Aldermen in white neighborhoods resisted so-called ‘scattered site’ housing, meaning that the CHA’s projects were crowded into dense, already occupied sites in the ‘black belt’, further escalating prices and requiring carefully phased projects that resettled residents in the same sites from which they had to be evicted.

By the late 1940s, the combination of restricted sites and decreasing budgets forced the Authority to abandon its preferred strategies of walkup apartments and to concentrate on ‘elevator buildings,’ towers or slabs of seven to ten stories. CHA Director Elizabeth Wood acknowledged that this was far from ideal; social research showed that multi-story structures presented challenges of supervision, recreation, and storage for families, particularly those with multiple children. California sociologist Catherine Bauer had Chicago’s abandonment of row housing and garden apartments in mind when she wrote, in 1952:

“…high rise apartments do not offer the amenities for low-income families with children that row houses do.  There is no opportunity for the head of the family to engage in gardening.  There are fewer opportunities for social contacts between neighbors.  Mothers cannot keep close supervision of their children while doing their household work.  The use and storage of children’s toys such as carts, velocipedes, and bicycles constitute a problem, and the care of pets becomes a nuisance….”

Catherine Bauer, “The Low-Income Tenant.”  Progressive Architecture, May, 1952.  61-6

The CHA sought solutions to the problem of such higher densities by “picking the brains of enterprising architects” from the city, resulting in a brief flurry of innovative designs that explored different ways of providing modest recreation space immediately adjacent to apartments that could be supervised while maintaining desirable attributes of low rises such as cross-ventilation and daylight. Loebl, Schlossman, and Bennett adopted cruciform tower plans from New York examples for the Dearborn Homes, completed in 1948, which offered indoor play spaces and shared pram storage on each floor that complemented open park spaces between the towers. Harry Weese and the Keck Brothers also contributed designs for Loomis and Prairie Courts.

But the project that won praise from both Architectural Forum and Progressive Architecture for its planning was Ogden Courts by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. This project, at Ogden and Talman on the southwest side, consisted of two seven-story buildings that furthered the developing gallery type by borrowing exposed construction techniques that had been put to use in Promontory Apartments, which achieved a remarkably low construction cost of $10,400 per unit.[i]  Completed in 1951, Ogden Courts used air-entrained concrete to produce a surface dense enough to avoid issues with water infiltration, and SOM carefully arranged its structure to align beams with partition walls, leaving flat slabs exposed to form durable architectural ceilings.  Such “building straight” required “neither veneer nor paint,” and it was complemented by red brick and glass block panels detailed to allow construction from inside, which avoided the expense of scaffolding.  Ogden Courts’ exposed frame became a signature for future buildings by the CHA, finding academic justification in the rise of so-called beton brut, or exposed rough concrete, in the work of Corbusier and the rising fashion for ‘brutalism,’ which called for an ‘honest’ exposure of materials.  At $9400 per unit, this approach certainly found favor with the CHA.[ii]

Still, the key design feature of SOM’s plan lay not in its exposed materials or its proposed (though apparently never installed) program of glazed tile ornament, but rather the simplicity and targeted thoughtfulness of its plan. While six apartments on each floor were clustered into pods that inhibited cross-ventilation, their arrangement in conjunction with two pairs of linear apartments meant that each gallery could be seen from four kitchens, the idea being that children playing on these eight-foot-wide balconies could be supervised by parents while they were preparing meals. Similarly, each apartment had room to store a pram, and storage for each tenant was provided immediately adjacent to the elevators, making trips to and from the ground-level playgrounds relatively efficient.

Forum was effusive in its praise for the simple but rigorous solutions SOM found to the combined problems of cost, supervision, and circulation:

“Photographs…show the unusual skill with which the exposed skeleton of hard-surfaced, self-finished concrete has been integrated decoratively with the plan and with other materials.  Columns fall between alternating bays of living rooms and bedrooms, so that strings of aluminum windows, continuous from column to column, vary in sill height according to whether the space inside is a bedroom or a living room.  Red brick filler panels, contrasting with gray frame, can be laid from inside without scaffolding.  The access balconies or porches seen in photo below are semi-sheltered upstairs’ sidewalks, faced with alternating panels 4-in. glazed tile and of open-wire, floor-to-ceiling fence.  These areas serve as rainy-day recreation space (conveniently supervised…from kitchens);

“In contrast with the sumptuous planning, construction is neat and cheap. Modeled closely on Mies van der Rohe’s Promontory Apartments, the concrete skeleton of columns, slabs, and beams calls for no visible crossbeams in the apartments.  The exterior surface, rendered dense by use of air-entraining cement, will require neither veneer nor paint. 

“Open Corridor Design [Ogden Courts].”  Architectural Forum, Vol. 92, no. 1.  Jan., 1950.  84-85.

The CHA’s progressive moment was short-lived; these mid-rise ideals evaporated in the face of shrinking budgets, further demographic pressure, and white neighborhoods’ unwillingness to accept equitable distribution of public housing throughout the city . Wood was forced out of her position in 1954, replaced by bureaucrats and political appointees who capitulated to the demands of white Aldermen for racially-based siting just as the Eisenhower administration–and a vocal coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats in Congress–insisted that public housing budgets be made even more punishingly tight. These political and social pressures forged the infamously over-dense and under-serviced skyscrapers of Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes, where problems overwhelmed the limited political will of the Daley machine; over time, as D. Bradford Hunt and others have shown, Chicago’s entire public housing program was poisoned by the political and racial forces that concentrated the city’s poorest and neediest residents in skyscraper housing. Even well-intentioned, highly praised designs like SOM’s Ogden Courts, along with those of Keck and Keck and Harry Weese, fell victim; all were demolished in the CHA’s “Plan for Transformation” between 1995 and 2015.

[i] “Glass and Brick in a Concrete Frame.”  Architectural Forum, vol. 92.  January, 1950. 

[ii] “Open Corridor Design.”  Architectural Forum, vol. 92.  January, 1950.