Chronicling the Evolution Of America's Public Housing

Washington museum exhibit showcases safe, clean living environments

In an era when national problems quickly reach the status of "crisis" - savings and loan, health care, and a long list of others - the public-housing crisis may be considered the dean.

It has logged a lot of history, and it has an assured impact on the next generation.

Sheltered by Design, a five-month-long exhibit at the National Building Museum, walks us through what works.

With photographs, renderings, and floor plans put together by the Chicago Architectural Foundation, the images capture some of the very best ways to work with what exists, and to replace what cannot be salvaged.

One need not go far to see that much of America's urban landscape has long been rife with decay.

The blight of South Central Los Angeles or the South Bronx has been undeniable during the past several decades.

To public-housing officials, today's conditions are even more troubling. Millions of Americans in substandard housing are sinking deeper into poverty, and many more are just a paycheck away from living on the street.

Present in every major city, homelessness is now creeping out to the suburbs and the rural areas.

The enterprising and well-intentioned have tried to counter the effects of inner-city riots, rampant crime, and middle-class flight to suburban areas. But much of what they've tried - including elaborate urban-renewal schemes, empowerment zones, and community-development plans - have had very limited success.

While unsightly, run-down housing projects still tower over many cities, urban planners are busy working on face lifts.

By creating quarters where residences and common areas are more integrated, where it is easier for people to see and be with each other, these planners are making neighborhoods safer and restoring a sense of integrity to their inhabitants. Sheltered by Design draws on the best of them, or draws on the best of the lessons learned.

The exhibit is striking, not in its beauty, but in how it informs. The first, engaging view is a long wall at the entrance, covered in a time line that begins in 1932 with the Museum of Modern Art's introduction of the avant-garde European modernism of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. Their tall cement buildings - boxes with neat rows of windows punched out - inspired designs that would dominate city skylines for the next 50 years.

The time line and accompanying images clearly show that the labyrinthine US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) poured billions of dollars into constructing those blocks of vertical concrete, avant-garde in the 1930s, which became an eyesore in the 1990s.

The display casts HUD, which had humble beginnings with a half dozen workers in 1933 and today numbers 12,000 employees, as a study in the "big is better" approach that the federal government now wants to change.

While the curators would probably see the optimal choice as razing decrepit high-rises and supplanting them with safer, cleaner town homes, they also laud improvements in old structures that remain standing.

Each wall highlights different housing design elements that attempt to transform the alienated resident into a caring member of a community.

Witness the tree-lined streets, accessible recreation areas, separate entrances, and front porches where residents can feel like individuals, and also like neighbors.

With pictures and words, Sheltered by Design celebrates designs that enhance the quality of life.

Light-filled rooms, new courtyards, and roof-top gables can go a long way toward removing the stigma of public housing.

But as the exhibit makes abundantly clear, without gainfully employed residents who take pride in their homes, these measures are short-lived and purely cosmetic.

* 'Sheltered by Design' is at the National Building Museum in Washington through Dec. 9. Travel plans to be determined.

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