Michael Sorkin's last project is an affordable housing for African American community

'House as Garden' by the late architect is his vision to provide a "beautiful life" to the African American community of Chicago's West Woodlawn.

by Zohra KhanPublished on : Mar 24, 2022

American architect, critic, urban planner and educator, Michael Sorkin, who the world lost during the first wave of coronavirus in March 2020, was considered one of architecture’s most outspoken public intellectuals. Sorkin wore many hats: he was the principal of his eponymous New York-based practice; the founder of the non-profit research and consulting group Terreform; and the Editor-in Chief of its publishing arm, UR Books. Beyond a practice and a key presence in producing the written word around the state of architecture in his city as well as his vision of a sustainable world where disparate communities could live in harmony, Sorkin was also a prolific teacher. He was a distinguished professor of architecture and the Director of the Graduate Program in Urban Design at the City College of New York, in addition to teaching at several other universities including the Yale School of Architecture and the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture in New York.

House as Garden in Illinois, USA | Michael Sorkin | Affordable Housing | STIRworld
Michael Sorkin Image: Jeff Bernett-Winsby, courtesy of Terreform

To those who knew him have always known that Sorkin took his city very personally. In a tribute written for STIR, celebrated New York-based author and poet, Laurie Sheck, articulated this passion of his cherished friend: "The city’s well-being, its promise, struggles and possibilities, the character and nurturing of its various communities—as well as its too-frequent desecrations by the monied and powerful—were at the heart of his [Michael Sorkin] life’s project. How might his city and others become truly sustainable? What about the tailor shops and shoe repair places that disappeared from the neighbourhood? In piece after piece, project after project, he made palpable the numerous ways that sameness is impoverishment.”

House as Garden is an endeavour by Michael Sorkin Studio and Chicago-based non-profit, Blacks in Green (BIG) | Michael Sorkin | Affordable Housing | STIRworld
House as Garden is an endeavour by Michael Sorkin Studio and Chicago-based non-profit, Blacks in Green (BIG) Image: © Michael Sorkin Studio

Sorkin’s last project, much like the other works that came out of his four decade-long practice, such as the masterplan for the Brooklyn Waterfront in New York City; housing and master plans for Wuhan, China; and a floating forest in Hamburg, Germany, was an exercise in generosity, sustainability, and community development. Named 'House as Garden', the project was designed for the African American community of Chicago’s South Side neighbourhood, West Woodlawn. A result of a collaboration between Michael Sorkin Studio and Chicago-based non-profit, Blacks in Green (BIG™), House as Garden aims to provide affordable housing to "a typical blighted Black community with a high ratio of vacant lots where the buildings have been demolished for structural, political, or social reasons," as per Blacks in Green's founder and CEO, Naomi Davis. A resident of West Woodlawn herself, Davis' role at BIG brings her to serve as a bridge and catalyst in the design and development of green, self-sustaining, mixed-income walkable villages in the Black neighbourhoods.

Chicago, boasting a population of 2.7 million, has 29 per cent African American residents. During the Great Migration, between 1916 to 1970, legions of them from all over America moved to the city on Lake Michigan where they largely settled on the South Side commune. By the mid 20th century, the area (referred to as the Black Belt) turned into an expansive African neighbourhood, particularly because the community wasn’t welcome in white-dominated pockets of Chicago. The African American community, persevering with hard work and resilience all along, faced racial inequality every step of the way: from being denied career opportunities, less earnings than their white counterparts, to a restricted share of public resources. House as Garden contributes to filling a key void for South Side: an access to affordable housing and a sustainably empowered future for the African American community living there.

Site Plan of House as Garden | Michael Sorkin | Affordable Housing | STIRworld
Site Plan of House as Garden Image: © Michael Sorkin Studio

The project evolved from Sorkin’s former affordable housing work, the award-winning vision of Greenfill: House as Garden, a New York-based five storied terraced development accommodating seven units in a compact site of 17-by-100 foot. Following up on the innovations presented with the earlier scheme which included the use of mass timber and a new prototype for daylighting, House as Garden in Illinois too uses a sustainable material palette, a climate-responsive design, and community facilities to ensure that neighbours don’t just live next to one another, but live together.

Structural schematic of House of Garden | Michael Sorkin | Affordable Housing | STIRworld
Structural schematic of House of Garden Image: © Michael Sorkin Studio

The site on which the project is planned is a land owned by BIG. Half of this property constitutes a community fruit and nut orchard, nurtured by BIG with the aim that it would one day lend residents of House of Garden stunning pastoral views. The built form is envisioned as four residential wings collectively creating a mews. Away from the typical east-west orientation of Chicago's urbanism, the buildings here are oriented to the south to make the best use of sunlight. The apartments feature an array of sizes and living spaces to suit the various needs of the inhabitants. In addition to the residential spaces that are accommodated on the upper levels, the ground floor however remains the community heart of the place. It brings together a co-working space, and a neighbourhood accessible meeting space, in addition to electric vehicle charging stations, waste sorting and recycling space, and a bike storage space.

Circular interventions in the design scheme of the project | Michael Sorkin | Affordable Housing | STIRworld
Circular interventions in the design scheme of the project Image: © Michael Sorkin Studio

House as Garden particularly focuses on circular design. The scheme presents an on-site agricultural system which includes greenhouse, harvest processing station, root cellar and composting chambers. Speaking of the intent in bringing these facilities to the project, Davis states, “Chicago has a dubious distinction of being one of America’s worst recyclers. At BIG, we understand the value and the harm of what we are throwing away.” Other interventions include a batteries system that works in congruence with photovoltaic panels on the roof for building’s energy needs, thermal glazing preventing heat transfer between indoor and outdoor environments, and a water collection system for the use of grey and black water on-site.

Building services | Michael Sorkin | Affordable Housing | STIRworld
Building services Image: © Michael Sorkin Studio

Structural system of the housing is built of engineered wood. Though this construction style is quite uncommon in the United States, what it allows is minimised transport distances due to the prefabricated nature of elements that have been designed for easy handling on-site. In response to Chicago’s extremely variable temperature where ice-cold winters pave way to blazing hot summers, façade and walls are treated with a strategic materiality. The vertical surfaces are thick and multi-layered, composed of wood panelling, waterproofing membrane, plywood, bat installation, and a layer of mineral wool insulation. Fenestrations feature insulating glass that prevent cold bridges and thermal loss from the interiors, and season-specific shading to regulate daylight within the homes. 

  • Layout Plans | Michael Sorkin | Affordable Housing | STIRworld
    Layout Plans Image: © Michael Sorkin Studio
  • Elevations | Michael Sorkin | Affordable Housing | STIRworld
    Elevations Image: © Michael Sorkin Studio

Designed as a living organism, House of Garden presents several curated green pockets. These include onsite greenhouse, raised garden beds, planting for all units on terraces, and community care of the plants growing in the residential orchard.

The team behind the House as Garden in Illinois, USA; Naomi Davis is pictured in top row, extreme left while Michael Sorkin is seen next to her | Michael Sorkin | Affordable Housing | STIRworld
The team behind the House as Garden in Illinois, USA; Naomi Davis is pictured in top row, extreme left while Michael Sorkin is seen next to her Image: © Michael Sorkin Studio

The brainchild of Naomi Davis and Michael Sorkin, the project hopes to ensure sustained affordability across generations with a rooted sense of belonging. With its architectural author gone, one wonders about the future of this vision, but in Davis’ words comes a sigh of hope. “Michael lives on in this project, and I made a solemn promise to him – just weeks before he died – that BIG would get it built. It embodies the gift of Michael’s life. […] Though there are still conversations with officials to be held – Michael and I agreed nothing would stop our vision.”

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