Image courtesy of School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Public housing is complicated, and attempting to explain its failures in the late 20th century proves even more complex. In the case of the decline and collapse of the Cabrini-Green Housing, historians have bounced between placing the blame on Chicago officials, federal politics, the residents themselves, too much policing, not enough policing, and even down to the architecture itself. This claim that the modernist style of simplistic and compact high-rises — as pioneered by the familiar Ludwig Mies van der Rohe — is to blame for the failure of public housing leaves a lot to unpack. If bordering on victim-blaming, the neighborhood’s white-brick high-rises were based on designs from Mies himself, begging the almost absurd-sounding question: since the entire modernist design philosophy of the neighborhood was seemingly built in his image, should we blame Mies van der Rohe for the collapse of public housing?
Placing the blame on the modernist style requires the belief that, somehow, the arrangement of dense 12-plus story high-rises filled with public-housing residents is untenable. At the time of the construction of the Green Homes, much of the opposition was centered around a distrust for the residents themselves, around the fears from the — mostly rich, mostly white — alderman that the residents — mostly working class, mostly black — would somehow naturally devolve into crime or addiction or other dysfunctional behaviors in such close proximity to each other.
The Green Homes, made of white brick actually, finished construction just north of Division Street in 1962; the designs for these high-rises were directly based off of Mies van der Rohe’s Promontory Apartments in Hyde Park, white-brick high-rises which feature his signature exposed, supportive skeleton. The project itself was taken up by the architectural firm Pace Associates, which did not directly employ Mies, but the simplified and adapted end-product was undoubtedly a Mies building with that distinctive modernist stamp; its blueprints are attached to this article. The thought that the design behind what would become the city’s most troubled housing project didn’t look so unlike the design of our familiar housing in Carmen or Gunsaulus Halls is a sobering one.
Soon after the homes opened, those irrational fears of the concerned and well-to-do were proven false, though hardly done away with. While proper funding and management remained, with plenty of factories and employment opportunities in the area, the citizens of Cabrini-Green were just as industrious as any other, going to work in factories or worked as janitors in their own high-rises or stayed to tend home. If an awkwardly neoliberal explanation, and even if the houses were not utopian, it proved a far cry from both the situations its residents faced before arriving at the projects and the unfounded anxieties of the city government.
Irrational fears are just that, irrational, not able to be easily fixed with facts, reason, or even clear examples of success. Acting on just that — irrational fear — all levels of government started pulling money from the public housing “modernist experiments” as jobs started leaving the neighborhood, racial violence erupted with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, and even basic city-ran maintenance and housekeeping services faltered and stopped altogether.
In its total abandonment, not in its design or quality itself, those initial, irrational fears of the city became a self-fulfilling prophecy for the people of Cabrini-Green. If not on modernism, where exactly the blame falls is beyond the scope of this particular article — on federal policy or the Chicago Housing Authority or policing or a number of others variables — but the anti-modernist claim that so many “undesirables” in the same place would inevitably lead to collapse is as facetious as it is problematic.