written by:
photos by:
May 13, 2009
Originally published in In Its Element

Helmut Jahn’s dynamic new supportive-housing facility brings green design and a new outlook on life to the Windy City.

Helmut Jahn’s new building is also known as “the train” because its sleek, aerodynamic styling makes it look like a railcar passing through the neighborhood.
Helmut Jahn’s new building is also known as “the train” because its sleek, aerodynamic styling makes it look like a railcar passing through the neighborhood.
Photo by 
1 / 8
On the roof, 18-inch-high prairie grasses alternate with gravel paths.
On the roof, 18-inch-high prairie grasses alternate with gravel paths.
Photo by 
2 / 8
Resident Dorothy Barry, a former public school teacher, gazes out the ground-floor windows at a city where she was once temporarily without a home.
Resident Dorothy Barry, a former public school teacher, gazes out the ground-floor windows at a city where she was once temporarily without a home.
Photo by 
3 / 8
The spacious corridors of the Schiff Residences are clean, well-maintained, and warmly colored—-a convincing hybrid of social housing and home.
The spacious corridors of the Schiff Residences are clean, well-maintained, and warmly colored—-a convincing hybrid of social housing and home.
Photo by 
4 / 8
A horizon-line of rooftop wind turbines turns the skies of the Windy City into an omnipresent source of electrical power. Installed by the Chicago-based firm Aerotecture International, the turbines give the building both a steady supply of power and a dis
A horizon-line of rooftop wind turbines turns the skies of the Windy City into an omnipresent source of electrical power. Installed by the Chicago-based firm Aerotecture International, the turbines give the building both a steady supply of power and a distinct appearance, visible from several blocks away.
Photo by 
5 / 8
Ernest Gladney reads alone at a worktable in his bedroom. Tall houseplants give Gladney a shade of privacy against the passing cars on Clybourn Avenue.
Ernest Gladney reads alone at a worktable in his bedroom. Tall houseplants give Gladney a shade of privacy against the passing cars on Clybourn Avenue.
Photo by 
6 / 8
Resident Ernest Gladney speaks with a friend in the Schiff’s lobby area. Site of many a domino match, the tastefully decorated room helps to personalize the Schiff.
Resident Ernest Gladney speaks with a friend in the Schiff’s lobby area. Site of many a domino match, the tastefully decorated room helps to personalize the Schiff.
Photo by 
7 / 8
The building’s stark but well-windowed exterior is clad with ridged sheets of stainless steel. Dorothy Barry steps outside for a breath of fresh air.
The building’s stark but well-windowed exterior is clad with ridged sheets of stainless steel. Dorothy Barry steps outside for a breath of fresh air.
Photo by 
8 / 8
Helmut Jahn’s new building is also known as “the train” because its sleek, aerodynamic styling makes it look like a railcar passing through the neighborhood.
Helmut Jahn’s new building is also known as “the train” because its sleek, aerodynamic styling makes it look like a railcar passing through the neighborhood.
Project 
Schiff Residences
Architect 

Dorothy Barry says that she moved in to the Margot and Harold Schiff Residences on a “blue-sky, ain’t-nowhere-I’d-rather-be-than-Chicago” kind of day back in the summer of 2007. She says you can’t do much better than this sleek, new Helmut Jahn–designed building on the north side of the city: She gets a millionaire’s view of the skyline and is just a short ride from downtown and the beaches of Lake Michigan.

At Division Street and Clybourn Avenue, though, she’s also within blocks of the infamous Cabrini-Green public housing. Those towers are mostly torn down, replaced by mixed-income residential towers and townhouses—but their shells remind Chicagoans to do better when it comes to housing the less well-off.

Neighbors call the one-year-old stainless-steel Schiff Residences “the train,” and it does indeed resemble a polished railroad car cruising through the neighborhood. Its walls angle out as they rise up five stories, curving back over to form a roof before sliding down the other side. In a practical city raised on railroads this residential railcar is romantic. Strips of dark windows punctuate the walls, staggered to evoke forward momentum. In the ground-floor lobby, sunlight pours through great panes of floor-to-ceiling glass. Prada or Barneys could set up shop on the ground floor and no one would be the wiser.

But the Schiff Residences are permanent supportive-housing, with onsite case managers and other voluntary services. All of the 96 units are single-occupancy studio apartments. Residents here have struggled with physical and mental illness, substance abuse, and limited education. At the Schiff, you can stay as long as you follow the rules. It opened in March 2007, and already 300 people have expressed interest in moving in.

Resident Dorothy Barry, 58, sports golden hoop earrings, and her short black hair is pulled back. I ask her if she has any children and she answers, “Not yet.” Barry is soft-spoken and slow to smile. She relays that she recently separated from her husband. They had a multiroom house on the south side; she never thought she’d end up in supportive housing.

Units here average 300 square feet—enough room for a bed, a desk, a coffee table, and not much more. Yet this new building does provide her with joy. “This is Chicago,” she says. “Most of us like modern architecture.”

Barry graduated from Chicago’s Roosevelt University and taught in the public schools. A few years ago she developed a condition. “My teeth started popping out,” she says. “My husband put me out of the house. I used to walk around in front of it but he wouldn’t have me back. It’s nice here, but I don’t want to stay here forever. I want more room.”

Before Barry moved in to the Schiff, her sister took her on a tour of other Helmut Jahn–designed buildings in Chicago. “I’d like to tell him how much I like his buildings and how seeing the sunlight in my room does brighten my day.” What she won’t tell him is that it also gets too hot in the summer, so the windows should slide all the way open, rather than swinging out at the bottom. “I have to live in air-conditioning and pull my shades down, so what good are the windows?” She has yet to meet Jahn, but she does see his name on a plaque in the lobby. “Everything is changing all around us,” Barry says. “There’s so much new building going on and everything is different. I like being a part of what’s new.”

And she is a part of it. Above Barry’s fifth-floor bedroom, 48 solar panels tilt towards the sun. The Chicago firm Solargenix developed these to heat water for the building. Rainwater is used for outdoor landscaping, and the Schiff features a graywater-recycling system. It collects water from the sinks and showers, filters it and hits it with UV rays, and reuses that water for the toilets. After a year, the system is still being tweaked: The management is on its third attempt to find suitable filtration after the first systems clogged easily and were too expensive to maintain. Today, the water in the toilets is sometimes gray—but odorless. People living there say they don’t mind.

Near the rooftop solar panels, sixteen wind turbines, organized into eight pairs, span the apex of the slightly curved roof. They comprise the world’s first urban installation of a horizontal, battery-free wind turbine system. They also look like a coil of barbed wire—unfortunate, due to the proximity to Cabrini-Green. Matthias Schuler, a managing director of the climate-engineering firm Transsolar, worked on the calculations for where to put the turbine system, itself developed by Chicago-based Aerotecture International. Schuler works on megaprojects around the world with Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, and others, but he says that this little project in Chicago is an important prototype for determining how much energy wind turbines can produce in dense urban areas.

Of course, Helmut Jahn’s firm, Murphy/Jahn, has designed other and larger buildings with minimal energy needs, but Jahn and his team put all of their previous sustainable ideas together in the Schiff. “We learned the depth of what we set out to prove: that affordable housing need not be of a lower standard or lesser quality,” Jahn says. “By designing an uplifting space, not just a shelter, you break the idea that comfort is connected to wealth.”

On the ground floor of the Schiff, the lounge is loaded with natural light, right-angled couches, and ottomans. The crack of dominoes smacked on a lounge table rings out and reverberates off the exposed concrete and glass walls. One of the Schiff’s original residents, Ernest Gladney, has just defeated, three games to two, a fellow resident. The other man, tall and dark, toothpick in his mouth, gets up to leave the lounge. “I normally beat Ernest,” he mutters, but Gladney just smiles and shakes his head. When the glass door shuts again he tells me, “No one here likes to lose.”

Gladney’s scarred nose looks like it has been cut by a knife; his watch hangs loosely on his wrist and glows aqua. He is now 50 years old. He grew up in this neighborhood, in Cabrini-Green. He remembers that if you walked on the grass they’d write you up and charge five dollars to your rent bill. Gladney’s dad was a minister at the nearby Eternal King Baptist Church. His five siblings did well, but he was a problem child. He explains that when Cabrini went downhill in the 1960s, so did he. He stands up and plants his right foot firmly on the concrete floor. “Do you feel that?” Gladney asks. “Do you feel that penitentiary-ness? This hard floor is good. It reminds you that you don’t want to go there. To the penitentiary.” He then invites me to see his room.

Waiting for the elevator we meet Oliver Thompson, who has lived here since it opened and is proud of the place. The only things he’d change would be to add balconies, because he wants to barbecue, and to improve the natural ventilation. He also points out that the corrugated-steel siding collects all the dirt from the construction sites in the neighborhood. Neither he nor Gladney likes the landscaping: In modernist style, it’s spare. Gravel paths alternate with 18-inch-high prairie grasses. “Who wants weeds?” they ask. We take the elevator up to the second floor, where we walk past vertical tubes of lighting embedded in the walls behind frosted glass. At the ends of the hallways, windows provide even more natural light as well as stunning views of the city.

In his unit Gladney uses houseplants to divide the entrance from where he sits. One wall is maroon—each room is colored according to a four-color palette—and Gladney has hung paintings of aqua-blue seascapes and a pastel-colored artwork of ballerina’s shoes. Above a leopard-skin throw on the sofa, the window opens onto Clybourn Avenue. Cars whiz by. The noise doesn’t bother him. “I used to sleep under the El tracks,” he says. I ask him where he slept when he was homeless. He smiles: “Abando-miniums!”

Back in 2003, as Chicago was demolishing the Cabrini-Green towers, Mayor Richard M. Daley introduced a supportive-housing initiative, part of a ten-year “Plan to End Homelessness.” The city sought to “facilitate the development of affordable, permanent housing with on-site social services,” issuing an RFP for the Clybourn site near Cabrini. Lakefront Supportive Housing, as it was then known, responded and won the competitive application process. The City of Chicago sold the land for one dollar.

It’s a visible—and very valuable—site near neighborhoods of wealth and power, so why not work with a high-profile architect? If all went well they’d get a good building and lots of press. One of Lakefront’s longtime board members, Harold Schiff, had worked with Jahn before, so Schiff recommended him for the job. But in Chicago, there is always one guy to have on your team—and that’s Mayor Daley. Daley met with Jahn and agreed that he was the right man for the job.

The Schiff cost approximately $18 million. The president of Mercy Housing, Cindy Holler, estimates that it cost about 20 percent more than comparable buildings. But, she says, “people who tour it ask questions about community development, homelessness, supportive housing, and green design—-and people ask for tours every day. They walk away with new insights. It was worth the investment.” The green features added about $1 million to the cost. Although they reduce operating expenses, it’s not yet known by how much. They do get press for Mercy’s work, however, and they also please Mayor Daley, who is making efforts to green Chicago.

Ernest Gladney is just glad to have a lease and his name on a mailbox. But he wants to move out of the Schiff eventually to give someone else a chance. He wants to buy an abandoned house like the ones he used to sleep in. He says he would fix it up. And though he’s lived in modernism for a year already, the house he’ll pour his sweat into will not look like this.

He draws a picture of what he’d like. “I ain’t no artist—-no great architect like Helmut Jahn—-but this is what I want.” Then he signs it: Ernest Gladney.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

45 dva 2270 persp1 cmyk 0
The prospect of retirement doesn’t just signal the end of a career; it offers the chance to recalibrate and re-prioritize in life.
July 25, 2016
18
You don’t have to choose between sustainable energy and curb appeal.
July 19, 2016
jakemagnus queensland 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
July 06, 2016
content delzresidence 013 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 29, 2016
abc malacari marwick stair 01 0
A simple set of stairs is a remodel’s backbone.
June 28, 2016
Design Award of Excellence winner Mellon Square.
Docomomo US announces the winners of this year's Modernism in America Awards. Each project showcases exemplary modern restoration techniques, practices, and ideas.
June 27, 2016
monogram dwell sf 039 1
After last year’s collaboration, we were excited to team up with Monogram again for the 2016 Monogram Modern Home Tour.
June 27, 2016
switch over chicago smart renovation penthouse deck smar green ball lamps quinze milan lounge furniture garapa hardwood
A strategic rewire enhances a spec house’s gut renovation.
June 26, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent coralie gourguechon treviso italy cphotos by coralie gourguechon co produced by isdat planche anatomique de haut parleur1
Coralie Gourguechon's paper objects will make you see technology in a whole new way.
June 26, 2016
green machine smart home aspen colorado facade yard bocci deck patio savant
Smart technology helps a house in Aspen, Colorado, stay on its sustainable course.
June 25, 2016
Compact Aglol 11 television plastic brionvega.
The aesthetic appeal of personal electronics has long fueled consumer interest. A new industrial design book celebrates devices that broke the mold.
June 25, 2016
modern backyard deck ipe wood
An angled deck transforms a backyard in Menlo Park, California, into a welcoming gathering spot.
June 24, 2016
dscf5485 1
Today, we kicked off this year’s annual Dwell on Design at the LA Convention Center, which will continue through Sunday, June 26th. Though we’ve been hosting this extensive event for years, this time around is particularly special.
June 24, 2016
under the radar renovation napa
Two designers restore a low-slung midcentury gem in Napa, California, by an unsung Bay Area modernist.
June 24, 2016
Exterior of Huneeus/Sugar Bowl Home.
San Francisco–based designer Maca Huneeus created her family’s weekend retreat near Lake Tahoe with a relaxed, sophisticated sensibility.
June 24, 2016
light and shadow bathroom walnut storage units corian counter vola faucet
A Toronto couple remodel their home with a special emphasis on a spacious kitchen and a material-rich bathroom.
June 24, 2016
Affordable home in Kansas City living room
In Kansas City, an architecture studio designs an adaptable house for a musician on a budget.
June 23, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment oak vertical slats office
By straightening angles, installing windows, and adding vertical accents, architect Aaron Ritenour brought light and order to an irregularly shaped apartment in the heart of Athens, Greece.
June 23, 2016
kitchen confidential tiles custom cabinetry oak veneer timber house
A modest kitchen addition to a couple’s cottage outside of Brisbane proves that one 376-square-foot room can revive an entire home.
June 23, 2016
feldman architecture 0
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 22, 2016
Blackened timber Dutch home
A modern dwelling replaces a fallen farmhouse.
June 22, 2016
hillcrest house interior kitchen 3
Seeking an escape from bustling city life, a Manhattan couple embarks on a renovation in the verdant Hudson Valley.
June 22, 2016
angular
Atelier Moderno renovated an old industrial building to create a luminous, modern home.
June 21, 2016
San Francisco floating home exterior
Anchored in a small San Francisco canal, this floating home takes its cues from a classic city habitat.
June 21, 2016
modern renovation addition solar powered scotland facade steel balcony
From the bones of a neglected farmstead in rural Scotland emerges a low-impact, solar-powered home that’s all about working with what was already there.
June 21, 2016
up in the air small space new zealand facade corrugated metal cladding
An architect with a taste for unconventional living spaces creates a small house at lofty heights with a starring view.
June 21, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent marjan van aubel london cwai ming ng current window
Marjan Van Aubel makes technology a little more natural.
June 21, 2016
urban pastoral brooklyn family home facade steel cypress double
Building on the site of a former one-car garage, an architect creates his family’s home in an evolving neighborhood of Brooklyn.
June 20, 2016
Modern Brooklyn backyard studio with plexiglass skylight, green roof, and cedar cladding facade
In a Brooklyn backyard, an off-duty architect builds a structure that tests his attention to the little things.
June 20, 2016
the outer limits paris prefab home living area vertigo lamp constance guisset gijs bakker strip tablemetal panels
In the suburbs of Paris, an architect with an eco-friendly practice doesn’t let tradition stand in the way of innovation.
June 20, 2016