Jeanne Gang Breaks Open the Bungalow to Save Cicero’s Housing

Studio Gang was invited to address the housing crisis in Cicero. Following the lead of its immigrant residents, Gang and her team (which included Theaster Gates) broke up the bungalow into its component pieces and re-envisioned it as the Recombinant House.

Chicago bungalows


Chicago is justly proud of its bungalows: stout, well-built, handsome structures that were “the first really ‘modern’ house for the working class.” So I’ve always wondered what would happen if architects returned to the form. What would we get? Would it look anything like a bungalow?

MoMA asked Jeanne Gang to address the housing problems of bungalow-dense Cicero, one of my favorite architectural regions of Chicagoland (along with neighboring Berwyn). Gang’s response, as she and Greg Lindsay wrote in the New York Times, was to just break it up:

Most of Cicero’s housing is detached, single-family homes. But these are too expensive for many immigrants, so five or six families often squeeze into one of Cicero’s brick bungalows. This creates unstable financial situations, neighborhood tensions and falling real estate values.

Too often, we see such mismatches as a purely financial issue. But instead of forcing families to fit into a house, what if we rearranged the house to fit them?

This doesn’t mean bulldozing Cicero’s housing stock. Instead, it means using existing, underused properties that might be renovated to provide a better fit. In Cicero’s case, that might mean turning to the scores of abandoned factories around it.

Over at MoMA’s site, you can see Studio Gang’s modular approach to Cicero housing, and how it represents both an old and new approach to urban housing. The “vertical neighborhood” is nothing new; Gang is working within the tradition of the city’s most famous residential building, the “city within a city” of Marina City, Le Corbusier’s Radiant City, and so on. It’s an old modernist dream, and one that’s gotten a bad rap in the wake of modern architecture’s dead end: public housing. How much architecture has to do with the failure of massive public-housing complexes is controversial, but fair or not, the one-size-fits-you reputation dogs the vertical-city concept.

What Gang took from Cicero is that bungalows, which have so long represented nuclear family units, are already being turned into communal neighborhood space even with the barriers their design entails. For Studio Gang, the next step was obvious:

Team members asked, “What if the bungalow could be taken apart and sorted into separate pieces—bedroom, kitchen, lawns—and reassembled as needed?” Their response is the Recombinant House, which remains affordable because people may buy only the parts they need and add or subtract spaces as families grow, shrink, or change.

In short, it’s an attempt to combine the best aspects of apartment and condo living (affordability, financial flexibility) and private homes (flexibility of use), a clever means of addressing the central complaint of the vertical-neighborhood concept.

Gang and her team (which included artist and urban planner Theaster Gates) are smart to identify the architectural aspect of the housing crisis and address it with her architectural idea. But it’s still more of a financial problem than a physical one, and Gang’s Recombinant House would require a different approach to the financing of the space. It’s closest in physical nature to a condo, and that’s what Gang and Lindsay’s financial scheme resembles as well:

One long-term solution would be a type of co-op in which residents buy and sell shares according to their changing needs and circumstances. Unlike traditional co-ops, residents could purchase shares corresponding only to the units they occupy, not the land beneath, which remains in the hands of a “community land trust.” Such a structure would keep housing costs down while limiting residents’ exposure to the market. It would also provide a backstop for struggling homeowners, since the trust would have the legal right to step in and assist residents in the event of foreclosure.

A couple years ago, just after the bubble burst, the Trib’s Mary Ellen Podmolik described how ritzy Highland Park (2011 median home price: $405,000) used a land trust to keep surprisingly sophisticated housing affordable for its teachers, bureaucrats, and public-safety officers:

Started six years ago, the Highland Park Community Land Trust so far has completed 30 housing units, including 14 units at Hyacinth Place, a townhouse development completed earlier this year that features 3-bedroom, 2 1/2 -bath units with two-car garages, geothermal heating systems, bamboo flooring and other “green” features like a wind turbine that powers common areas. The units, appraised at $365,000 apiece, sold for $165,000 to $239,000 and only one remains.

When Hyancith Place was in the works, Dennis Rodkin previewed it:

The complex, which will also have four rental apartments and several important green features, is a good example of what can happen when a municipal government throws its weight behind the idea that the people who work in a town ought to be able to afford to live there.


The townhouses have a spacious three-bedroom layout on three levels, not counting the garage, and will feature attractive contemporary styling outside (in other words, they won’t look like anything less than a good addition to the neighborhood). A wind turbine that generates electricity to power all common-area lighting will sit atop one of the complex’s three buildings. The rest of the roofing is highly reflective, to cut down on heat absorption, and the structures will have energy efficient walls and windows. Native plants needing little water are planned for outside, and there will be sustainably grown bamboo flooring inside.

The most exciting of the green touches is the geothermal heating/cooling system, the first I know of in a suburban multifamily development. Geothermal systems rely on the steady temperature below ground to help cool homes in the summer and heat them in the winter, dramatically reducing the use of air conditioners and furnaces.

Gang was joined by longtime Chicago journalist Kari Lydersen for the presentation as part of the “Public Dreams and Private Needs” symposium:

Watch live streaming video from museummodernart at


Photograph: Chicago Tribune



2 years ago
Posted by Penny

The homes in the photo accompanying this story are: (a) not in Cicero; they are on the southwest side of Chicago; and (b) not bungalows; they are Cape Cods.

2 years ago
Posted by bungalowdweller

Cicero's housing is fine, thank you. The problem has been unqualified illegal aliens and others buying homes they could not afford and turning them into rooming houses. Cicero is a working class neighborhood with an average family income of $50,000. The flood of foreclosure is due to job loss and fraud in the lending process.

What is to be "saved"? Would Jeanne Gang recommend building such a high-rise structure in Oak Park? Why not? How are the brick bungalows of Cicero inferior to those of our neighbor to the north or those of next-door Berwyn? My bungalow boasts stained glass,red oak trim and doors, arches, interior windows and built-ins. I don't want to see my North Cicero neighborhood destroyed to make way for what looks like the failed public housing structures of the past.

Cicero and Berwyn have been successfully combating gang problems. Such structures would be a magnet for crime. What is the benefit to those of us who have held on to our homes in these tough economic times?

As usual, the residents of the town are the LAST to know about such a plan. Why not ask long time residents and/or retirees who are mortgage free?

If a family cannot afford to buy a home that costs only $100,000-$200,000, they don't belong here. This is not Englewood; it's a solid working class town that needs to take a page from its successful neighbor Berwyn and start marketing itself to a diverse demographic. Why reward the deadbeats and illegals who can no longer afford to pay for the flophouses they have created with new living arrangements?

I don't know of one neighbor who would want this. The American dream is alive and well for those of us in Cicero who can pay our way. That dream is a single family home with a garage and a yard---not a communal living space. The town needs to rebuild its image, not tear down great housing. Stop making it a mecca for illegals. The market collapse started in Cicero with illegals getting liar loans. Sell to qualified people and this would not be an issue.

And no accusations of anti-immigrant bashing. We're immigrants ourselves who came here legally and are American citizens.

2 years ago
Posted by jefferson1971


You hit it right on the head but nobody wants to speak the truth. Besides, Ms. Gang needs something to do now that her claim to fame Aqua is fading. Since when do architects champion social causes?

2 years ago
Posted by odenplan76

I agree with both the above posters. If there are 4 or 5 families stuffed into a single family home, the city should be enforcing the housing codes. Especially since this foods the streets with extra cars.
Dave in Berwyn

1 year ago
Posted by Christie in Cicero

I live in Cicero, and have a paid off mortgage. Now that I am older and live alone, I would be interested in possibly living in recombinant house. And by the way, I have had neighbors with up to 19 people living in their home, and they were not "flop houses". In all cases, on both sides of me, the residents were sons or grandchildren in an extended nuclear family. And of the several young people I know who have had houses foreclosed in Cicero, none of them were illegals or people whose jobs at the time of purchase could not support their mortgage. What changed was their employment status. I wonder if those who wrote above actually know the neighbors they are talking about, or have they merely bought into steriotypes.

1 year ago
Posted by Christie in Cicero

By the way, Morton Freshman Center could use the idea of using trees to decontaminate land. Since it opened 8 yrs ago the open field to the S that is owned by the school district has been fenced off because it is contaminated and there is no money to clean it up. I believe the article states that 5 years is all the trees would need to clean the land. What is the district witing for? And yes, you proud Cicero homeowners, what other city builds their schools on contaminated land knowing they do not have the money to clean it up? I'm ashamed, and they should be too.

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