Without Fuss or Feathers: Bertrand Goldberg, Hilliard Homes, and Architecture for the Poor

Hilliard Homes. Photo by Orlando R. Cabanban

This is the first part in a 2-part series on Bertrand Goldberg’s Hilliard Homes by guest author Susannah Ribstein

Nestled between the South Loop and Chinatown, near the rumbling elevated tracks of the CTA Red Line, sits one of Chicago’s most architecturally distinguished housing projects: the Raymond Hilliard Center. Designed by Bertrand Goldberg from 1963 to 1966 Hilliard is a rare, highly visible and (now) well-maintained reminder of a time in the not-too-distant past when architects and urban planners relied on high-density housing projects to address the social ills associated with poverty. In reaction to the boxy post-and-beam towers of Chicago’s other housing projects, Goldberg’s round towers at Hilliard were an attempt to provide more humane living conditions by taking advantage of the possibilities of poured concrete construction. Hilliard is a product of the “in-between” attitudes towards architecture that were popular in 1960s Chicago: the failings of Miesian modernism were just beginning to become clear, especially in public housing, but architects like Goldberg were still devoted to the Miesian idea that architecture could shape society in specific and predictable ways. Hilliard was also an important development in Goldberg’s approach to concrete structural engineering, and his first and only attempt at designing for low-income tenants. Finally, late in its life, Hilliard has become an exciting example of how historic preservation tax incentives and creative private development can serve needy populations by prolonging the useful life of quality modern architecture.

Caption: Site plan. Source: BertrandGoldberg.org

The Hilliard complex consists of four main buildings – two 18-story curved slab towers and two 16-story round towers – originally containing a total of 756 units. The round towers were designed to house elderly tenants while the slabs were for families with children, making it the first Chicago Housing Authority project to have this demographic mix. The elderly towers have flower-shaped floor plans similar to those at Marina City, which Goldberg had just completed when he began work on Hilliard, but their structure is entirely different. Marina’s towers are supported by a concrete core, while Hilliard’s structure is in its exterior walls. The towers’ outer edges are rippled into a series of self-supporting arcs. Goldberg called this a “Detroit approach” to building materials. Instead of using poured concrete to make rigid logs and plates that would mimic wood and steel, he took full advantage of its fluid capabilities by deforming it into curves – just as sheet metal is deformed to make stronger car bodies.

Floor Plans. Source: BertrandGoldberg.org

This technique is an example of Goldberg’s signature ability to use groundbreaking structural and material techniques to create benefits for a building’s tenants that would not have been possible using traditional means of construction. The shell construction at Hilliard grew out of the fact that Goldberg wanted usable space in the building’s center, instead of sacrificing it to structure. As at Prentice Women’s Hospital, he wanted to provide the building’s physically needy occupants with centrally located support services on each floor, equidistant from every unit. At Prentice this care came in the form of nursing stations, while at Hilliard it was community rooms – space for the kind of interpersonal activity that can be just as life-saving for single elderly residents as medical attention is for the sick. The family towers are supported by the same shell system, but without the need for interior communal space on every floor, Goldberg was able to “unroll” them and provide exterior hallways that could function as a sort of yard for children to play outside their front doors. The undulating walls along this exterior gallery broke up the monotony of rows of identical entrances in order to give residents a feeling of individualism within the massive complex.

Which brings us to another fascinating topic of discussion: how was it to live at Hilliard? Was it really any better than the other high-rise housing projects against which Goldberg was reacting – the ones that he called “storage for people”? Goldberg was convinced that his design achievements would result in a better life for Hilliard’s tenants, but he also understood that the creation of a healthy community needed programming, staff, and amenities in order to flourish. He designed an outdoor amphitheatre for presentations, plays, and other forms of home-grown recreation. He donated a TV and a pottery wheel to Hilliard’s community center and advocated for the creation of activity groups for tenants. But few of these initiatives were taken up by the project’s managers at the Chicago Housing Authority.

In the second part of this story, we’ll read about Goldberg’s struggle with the local and federal housing authorities, the public’s reaction to Hilliard once it was complete, and how its present-day renaissance as a mixed-income community was made possible by Goldberg’s avant-garde design and the strategic application of historic preservation tax incentives.

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