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he sight is improbable enough to bring a passerby to a full stop and entrancing enough to keep him there, gazing skyward as long curtains in a sheer sun-yellow fabric flutter and twirl gracefully in a soft breeze. Suspended from a rooftop cable that spans the U-shaped courtyard of a new three-story burnished-block house in Old Town, these balletic sentinels shimmer across from a reflective entrance of glass and steel.
“I’ve always wanted to have outdoor curtains-as they did in Roman times, as they do in Venice at the Piazza San Marco,” says Rodrigo del Canto, the designer and owner of the house and the managing principal of the Chicago firm Macondo Corp Architects & Planners. “This is the equivalent of having the sea in front of you because the curtains move and they dance with the wind and they’re really beautiful.” (On buffeting days, to prevent them from sailing onto the roof of the house, they are tied just above their ground-level hems or secured to a fence or the columns flanking the courtyard; in the winter, they are removed and stored.)
Producing this visual reverie seems natural for an architect who named his firm Macondo after the fictional town in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the acclaimed novel by the Colombian Nobel Prize winner, Gabriel García Márquez. Originally from Chile, del Canto earned degrees in engineering, architecture, and urban design and planning in the United States and in Europe before moving to Chicago in 1977. After working for several small firms and serving as the deputy commissioner of economic development for the City of Chicago during the administration of Mayor Harold Washington, he founded his own firm in 1991.
At this point, del Canto believes, his profession would benefit from a touch of the magical realism that informs García Már- quez’s work. “Architecture is so complex today-the legal and the financial requirements you have to comply with,” del Canto says. “We have lost the enchantment of architecture, and few are able to exercise their minds truly the way it was meant to be.”
In 2004, he aspired to that in the design for his new house. Previously he had renovated a three-flat and a noodle factory in Lincoln Park and was then living in a town- house while deciding what he would rehab next. Now single, he has three children from previous marriages: a son, Tristan, 32, an ethnomusicologist who lives in Austin, Texas, and two daughters in Chicago, Isabel, 14, and Catalina, 18, who divide their time between their father’s place and their mother’s. Initally, del Canto had not planned to build, but a broker found land not far from Cabrini-Green that he could not resist-a 30-by-125-foot vacant lot situated on a block of Chicago Housing Authority buildings and relatively new condominiums and single-family houses. The properties were well kept, del Canto says, and his feeling was that they would stay that way.
Finding a lot that was five feet wider than the norm was an unexpected gift, but the site still presented challenges. To the south was a two-flat owned by the CHA, meaning that the brightest exposure was blocked. To the north was a vacant lot owned and cultivated as a garden by a couple who lived in the next house. “I had a fixed property to deal with and an unknown one,” del Canto says, explaining that he had to assume the lot might eventually be sold. His solution was to orient his house to the north, with a walkway leading from the street to the entrance. Even if a house were built next door, the courtyard would continue to provide openness and light.