Designing High-Rise Disasters

in Blueprint for Disaster

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print July 2009 | ISBN: 9780226360850
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226360874 | DOI:
Designing High-Rise Disasters

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For many, the failure of public housing in Chicago and elsewhere can be blamed on its architecture, especially the stark elevator buildings built from the late 1940s on. Few defended these designs, even in their early years. Catherine Bauer in 1954 privately called early postwar projects “monstrous barracks blocks,” while the Chicago Defender in 1957 labeled Chicago's first wave of postwar high-rise buildings “prison-like.” While the Chicago Housing Authority's high-rises did function poorly because of a host of design choices, blaming architects for public housing's failure exaggerates their importance. Such arguments assume that the complex social problems of families and cities could be solved merely by proper design—a variant of the environmental determinism that plagued the logic of progressive slum reformers. Instead, architects operated within planning assumptions and policy restrictions that tightly constrained design possibilities. The main issue is not low versus high, as the debate was framed, or whether children can live in high-rise buildings—they can. Instead, the issue is how many children can successfully live in a high-rise building.

Keywords: Chicago Housing Authority; public housing; Chicago; architecture; design; high-rise buildings; children; Catherine Bauer

Chapter.  8030 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History of the Americas

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