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Lecture Notes: don't blame the buildings

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Has architecture been made the scapegoat for the failures of public housing in Chicago? Not exactly, says Roberta Feldman. "It's more serious than that. It's been used to mask failed government policy. And now it's being used to conduct another grand experiment on the poor."

Feldman, who teaches architecture at UIC and codirects its City Design Center, has been involved in public housing issues since 1987, when Northeastern Illinois University sociologist Susan Stall invited her to participate in a conference on women and housing. Feldman conducted a workshop on designing for small spaces. "The public housing residents there saw an architect who had a social heart," says Feldman, "and I saw there was a story here that's been invisible."

Feldman and Stall next began working as technical assistants to the women leaders at Wentworth Gardens, a low-rise CHA development on the near south side. Their book The Dignity of Resistance: Women Residents' Activism in Chicago Public Housing, recently published by Cambridge University Press, chronicles the women's activism during the 80s and 90s as they progressed from low-key undertakings like organizing a cooperative laundry to confronting city and state authorities over the publicly funded reconstruction of Comiskey Park, which encroached upon the neighborhood surrounding the housing complex.

In Feldman's view the modernist public housing put up by the first Mayor Daley and now being demolished by the second wasn't doomed by its design but by segregationist policies, underfunding, and official indifference. But she says the new architectural dogmas that have replaced modernism won't provide a cure either. "Architects are encouraged to believe they wield tremendous power," she says. "I'm going to horrify a lot of people by saying that you can't create community through architectural form and you can't uplift the poor through good design.

"Don't get me wrong," she adds. "Architecture is still deeply important, and I'm in favor of quality design in public housing. But it has its place and its limits, and we can't look to it to cure poverty."

Feldman calls the New Urbanist ideal of mixed-income developments the latest flavor of utopianism. "The ideas are very soothing to a lot of people but we have no idea how these mixed-income communities will work," she says, noting that there's bound to be discord over working-class customs like fixing your own car on the street, drinking a beer on the front steps, and letting teenagers hang out in public spaces. But she adds that these aren't truly practical considerations yet because most public housing refugees are still being shunted into low-income black communities already stretched to the limit.

Instead of embracing theoretical systems, says Feldman, architects who work on public housing should consult the people who live there. Her views, she claims, are too contrarian for the mainstream media. "NPR uses me for other issues," she says, "but not this one."

She'll give a lecture titled "Is Architecture to Blame? The Demise of Public Housing" at 6 PM on Wednesday, May 26, at the Arts Club of Chicago, 201 E. Ontario. It's sponsored by the Graham Foundation and it's free; call 312-787-4071.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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