By Krisann K. Rehbein
Although the city, in the throes of the biennial, is engaged in a full-throated, future-oriented discussion about architecture, it’s worth looking at the work of architects past to learn the lessons of the legacy they’ve left, especially when thinking of a typology in seemingly ever higher-demand: affordable housing.
As a disclaimer, this is a story about my home. I live in affordable housing. Well, technically, housing that was designed by architects to be affordable to people of modest incomes, and remains so today.
The eighty-eight-unit Lunt Lake Apartment buildings are midcentury-modern cool: high-density housing built for the masses. Designed by the firm of Holsman, Holsman, Klekamp and Taylor (HHK&T) in 1949, the collection of three buildings sit east of Sheridan Road in Rogers Park; two nine-story buildings and a four-story walk-up. With structural brick exterior walls, thick, precast concrete window frames, and diagonal balconies, they are unlike other high-rise developments of the period. Distinct, but not fancy.
Holsman, Holsman, Klekamp & Taylor are most famous for partnering with Mies van der Rohe on several of his residential projects, including 860-880 Lake Shore Drive, but their own designs diverged from the strict Miesian vocabulary. Inspired by the work of Alvar Aalto and European social housing, and anticipating the flush of federal money that would soon be spent on public housing in Chicago, they created housing that was scalable and designed for livability. Motivated by the desperate need for affordable postwar housing, they built several complexes similar to Lunt Lake including: Winchester Hood Garden Apartments in West Ridge, the Sherman Garden Apartments in Evanston and Parkway Gardens Apartments in Woodlawn.
The architects acted as their own developers—a practice relatively unheard of at the time—by using a financing tool called a “mutual ownership trust.” The Community Development Trust, as it was called, operated similarly to a co-op in that mutual owners had a share in the trust that owned the building. With the architects acting as the developer, they created the renderings, published marketing materials, and sold shares in the trust. Once they sold enough shares, they sought financing for the remainder of the construction. They paid themselves only a modest salary out of the trust, rather than charge a traditional fee, because they believed that architects had an obligation to give to the community.
Their design was comprehensive and pushed the boundaries of sustainability half a century before it was in vogue. They patented a system of radiant heating consisting of three-inch precast concrete slabs, reinforced with exposed steel beams. The beams contain the hot water pipes to produce radiant heat. Everything was designed for energy and cost efficiency. They created a lower floor-to-ceiling height to cut back on materials, including the number of stairs needed. They even developed the closet doors including the extrusions that they slide on and the pipe edging for closing the doors.
The interior walls were also designed for efficiency and affordability. Working in plaster was time-and-cost prohibitive so HHK&T developed and patented precast concrete blocks that were machine fabricated. The firm even owned the plant that manufactured the bricks. Combined, these techniques saved an average of ten to twenty percent versus the average housing projects of the time.
Partner D. Coder Taylor, interviewed for the Art Institute’s Chicago Architects Oral History Project, said: “There were no firms that I’m aware of in this area that were doing the research and development that we were doing. That all came from the Holsmans. It was their inspiration, their will, their desire to do something that was beneficial. It was an ideal type of philosophy—trying to do something for the community and the shortage of housing.”
The design holds up well today. After seeing it during an open house, my husband convinced me to buy it by referring to it as our “martini lounge.” The living space opens up to huge, floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook a generous balcony. The geometry of the space lends itself to multiple uses within the relatively tight 950 square feet. Standing in one spot, I can give the tour of our library, dining room, living room, bar and office. In Miesian style, rectangular closet units divide the entrance from the living space and another to create a hallway with the bedrooms and bathroom.
True to its original design, the building remains affordable and has become a “naturally occurring retirement community” (or NORC). When we moved in, the three neighbors on our floor were all bachelors who retired from public sector work; a social worker, Metra and CTA employee.
Many within the profession lament that architects can’t DO anything. That the client rules and money talks. Great design is often diluted by market forces but, in notable examples, architects have created their own market. And I am still reaping the benefits, martini in hand.
Ben Schulman is the editor of the design section of Newcity and co-host of “A Lot You Got to Holler,” the Newcity podcast on design, architecture and urbanism. His work with Newcity is one of many ventures he engages in to communicate the value of design and cities. Ben serves as the communications director for Small Change, a real estate crowdfunding platform that works to catalyze the development of transformative real estate projects. Previously, he was the communications director for the Chicago chapter of The American Institute of Architects, editor of Chicago Architect magazine and communications director for the urban think-tank, the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). His writing has appeared and been noted in outlets such as ARCHITECT Magazine, Belt Magazine, ICON, New Geography, Streetsblog, The National Review, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pop City Media and as a contributor to The Urbanophile, among others. When not writing about cities, Ben serves as an editorial assistant for the journal New Media + Society, and helps head the Contraphonic Sound Series, an attempt to document cities through sound.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org | Website: benschulman.com