Old Social Engineering Concept to be Reborn as Chicago Architecture

The 1960’s and 70’s were a great time for public art. Cities around the world spent millions of dollars on sculptures, paintings, and other works of art not for the lucky few, but for the unwashed masses. They were placed in public plazas, municipal buildings, schools and other places where they were intended to inspire, enlighten, and even passively educate.

The idea was part of a utopian social engineering concept born in the early part of last century which posited that if you surrounded worker bees with great art, they would be better, happier, more productive citizens.

Today we know the main beneficiaries of all this public money turned out to be America’s pigeon population, and a few Soviet artists who were able to parlay their position as objects d’art into escape attempts underneath the Iron Curtain.

But what only sort of works for art works great for architecture. From the Golden Gate Bridge to the Chrysler Building, architecture has a long and proven track record of doing all that inspiring and educating that the art world strives for.

To that end, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is embarking on a new project to infuse the city’s less grand spaces with architecture to inspire, and libraries to educate.

Three new public housing projects will be built, and the mandate for each is that they “break from the standard, cookie-cutter designs that are common to government buildings.”

It sounds like a great idea, and one that is long overdue. But in Thursday’s Chicago Tribune, architecture critic Blair Kamin asked Hizzoner the most important question: The city is already having trouble making ends meet, how can it afford high-calibre architecture?

His response was a simple, “We will make the numbers work.”

Mr. Kamin points out that the city is already behind on some of its recent architectural promises. Specifically, the lakeside kiosks that everyone oohed and aahed over a couple of years ago, some of which were never built because the money isn’t there.

One way the mayor thinks he can make our tax dollars stretch farther is through colocation. Into each stunning new public housing project will go a stunning new public library. By putting chocolate into the peanut butter this way, Mayor Reeses hopes to not only save cabbage, but also make it easier for the underserved and undereducated of our city to make use of the wonderful resource that is the CPL system.

Rahm & Co. think they’ve hit upon something new here. But if, like me, you spend too many of your weekdays rocketing across the more lonesome spaces of this great nation in a red Fiat with an odd-smelling cat, you will eventually run into this concept in many ways. From U.S. Post Offices inside Wal-Marts, to the one-room library trailer in a desert RV park, to seeing a line of people casting votes inside a casino. Public-sector shack-ups are everywhere that things are desperate.

Not to say that Chicago is desperate. But in spite of the recent international ballyhoo about SOM’s new library in Chicago’s Chinatown, there are still real fiscal problems that can easily scuttle a project as ambitious as this.

You can read Rahm’s vision in the press release below.

Mayor Emanuel Announces Innovative Partnership between Chicago Housing Authority and Chicago Public Library that Will Deliver Co-Located Housing and New Libraries

Design Competition to Be Held Encouraging Innovative Architectural Style

Mayor Rahm Emanuel joined Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) CEO Eugene Jones, Jr. and Chicago Public Library (CPL) Commissioner Brian Bannon today to announce an interagency partnership that will provide three new mixed-income housing developments with co-located libraries – strengthening communities with affordable housing and community anchors that support life-long learning. In a break from the standard, cookie-cutter designs that are common to government buildings, Mayor Emanuel envisions striking and bold architectural designs for these buildings. As part of the projects, he will call on architectural firms to bid on the work and use their creativity to leave a lasting legacy of public art in neighborhoods across Chicago.

“Chicago will be one of the first cities using this type of partnership between housing and libraries to benefit and beautify our neighborhoods,” said Mayor Emanuel. “This model will create spaces everyone can enjoy, and I hope will be the next great civic projects here in Chicago.”

The announcement was made on the site of a planned senior housing building at Pratt and Western avenues that will include a ground floor library. Two other mixed-income housing developments with co-located libraries are also planned for the Near West Side and Irving Park communities. As part of the ongoing redevelopment of the Roosevelt Square community, a new Roosevelt Branch Library is planned near Taylor and Aberdeen streets. A new Independence Branch Library is also planned near Elston Avenue and Pulaski Road.

“By creating a new library and affordable senior housing we are able to meet vital West Ridge community needs,” Alderman Debra Silverstein (50th) said. “I am grateful for the leadership and cooperation of Mayor Emanuel, the CHA and the Chicago Public Library.”

“Brining mixed-income housing and a library together will be a great addition to the 25th ward,” said Alderman Danny Solis (25th). “I look forward to the benefits of this community asset for our residents.”‎

“I am pleased that these projects will allow CHA to deliver new housing units on the North Side and expand affordable housing opportunities to more communities,” said CHA CEO Eugene Jones, Jr. “We know that housing is vital to our neighborhoods but strong, healthy communities also require community anchors like libraries and CHA is proud to be a partner with CPL as we move forward with this innovative plan.”

For each site, a two-stage design competition will be held to attract top-quality architects who will fully engage the community to produce an architecturally significant and community-inclusive building. Initially a Request for Qualifications will be sent to design firms. From that group, up to three pre-qualified architectural firms will be chosen to develop a conceptual design, budget and schedule. Each firm will receive a stipend for this work. An evaluation committee will review the submissions and select the winning firm.

Once the architects are selected for each project, CHA, CPL and the City of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development will host a design workshop with the community in which the libraries are located. The two-stage process is expected to get underway by the end of this year and take approximately 10 weeks to complete.

“Libraries play a vital role in making knowledge and learning accessible, as well as offer a common space where the community comes together,” said CPL Commissioner Brian Bannon. “Partnering with CHA is an innovative approach that better positions both of us to build a stronger foundation for our communities.”

Jones noted that with this partnership, CHA becomes one of the first public housing agencies in the country to develop co-located housing with other municipal facilities. “By combining key community assets like libraries with housing, we will ensure that affordable housing and services and programs are available to neighborhoods across the city,” Jones said.

The new library facilities will offer programs and spaces for both CHA and area children and families. Each branch will include a built-out early childhood active learning space. School-aged children will have access to the Library’s Teacher in the Library program which offers free small one on one homework assistance. Teens will have access to technology, resources, and classes that inspire exploration, creativity and learning through the YOUmedia program.

In recent years, CPL has increased technology and workforce programs for adults. These new branches will offer computer classes and one-on one coaching to build digital literacy and technology skills for adults and seniors. Staff will be trained to connect job-seekers to best-in-class career services provided by workforce development organizations and educational institutions. The Library will also continue to partner with expert workforce organizations to deliver trainings on additional skills, such as resume writing, interview prep and industry-specific skills. Traditional library programs, such as book clubs for seniors and intergenerational educational and cultural programming will also be available to these communities.


Location: 121 North LaSalle Street, The Loop

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at chicagoarchitectureinfo@gmail.com.

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