Healing the Machine

Like Chicago, many US cities face postindustrial conditions.

Jeanne Gang

Harvard Design Magazine No. 40 (Spring/Summer 2015) 


In the global work of architecture, there is no lack of urgent problems to solve. Each new situation arising from disasters of climate or human conflict seems more critical than the last.

Today’s media is able to make the plight of far away places more immediate to empathetic designers who want to answer the call. But because of our studio’s North American base of practice, and a healthy skepticism about how effective we can be at a distance, we have become increasingly focused on local situations where we think we can have an impact. Maybe it’s disturbing to know that innumerable exigencies happen nearby. As architects, but also importantly as citizens, we have the specific knowledge and the responsibility to conjure architecture’s restorative function in the cities where we live.

Identifying these difficult issues and pondering their solutions is the lifeblood of our studio, sparking our collective imagination. It often leads us to explore some of cities’ least glamorous locations, be it a foul urban waterway, a contaminated parking lot, a crumbling factory, or a neighborhood full of flooded basements. The signs of decrepitude and dysfunction are everywhere in the post-industrial city. But knowing a place extremely well gives one the confidence to identify what is needed and to take action with less chance of creating unintended consequences. We deploy the tool we know best: architecture.

Arrival city: Immigration patterns in Cicero, IL

One such project presented itself in a geographically close place called Cicero, Illinois, an inner ring suburb founded as a railroad town on the outskirts of Chicago. It was a city of immigrants (initially Poles, Czechs, and Lithuanians), a city of churches and bungalows, and most of all a city of industry that came to occupy more than a third of its land. 

Factories began leaving in the 1980s, along with their employees. Their departure left an empty and frequently toxic industrial landscape. It also created vacancies in the bungalow-dense city that made room for a new wave of arrivals. The New Cicero, as the city calls itself today, is largely Mexican, with nearly half of its Hispanic population foreign born.

Simultaneous factory and housing foreclosures have created a twofold challenge in Cicero: to remediate the former industrial sites and to imagine a housing typology that better matches current residents’ varied household structures and access to opportunity. In our project for this area, industry is revived, albeit on a smaller scale, leveraging both the workforce and the existing rail infrastructure to encourage light manufacturing and to create cottage industries. We propose a transformation of contaminated lands that would take place over time, with trees and plants initiating the soil cleansing process. While phytoremediation does its work, clean sites and available structures are reconfigured to create a new combined living and working network. Rather than the “Machine in the Garden,” Leo Marx’s metaphor for the startling contrast between our American pastoral ideal and our industrial ambition, our project is about mining the potential of its inverse, the Garden in the Machine. The factory, when disassembled and reconfigured, creates a tighter interwoven mix between the elements of rail, cargo, living, working, green space, and networks animated by productive and functional garden spaces. The former division between leafy green neighborhoods and enormous swaths of giant assembly plants and active rail lines becomes blurred and nuanced as the garden heals the machine.