Michael Sorkin’s latest project is affordable housing for the African-American community

American architect, critic, urban planner and educator, Michael Sorkin, whom the world lost in the first wave of coronavirus in March 2020, was considered one of the most outspoken public intellectuals in architecture. Sorkin wore many hats: he was the director of his eponymous firm based in New York; the founder of the nonprofit research and advisory group Terreform; and the editor of its publishing arm, UR Books. Beyond a practice and a key presence in the production of writing around the state of architecture in his city as well as his vision of a sustainable world where disparate communities could live in harmony Also, Sorkin was a prolific teacher. He was a distinguished professor of architecture and director of the graduate program in urban design at the City College of New York, in addition to teaching at several other universities, including the Yale School of Architecture and the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School. of Architecture in New York. York.




Michael Sorkin Image: Jeff Bernett-Winsby, courtesy of Terreform


Those who knew him always knew that Sorkin took his town very personally. In a tribute written for STIR, acclaimed New York-based author and poet Laurie Sheck expressed this passion for her dear friend: “The well-being of the city, its promises, its struggles and its possibilities, the character and education of its diverse communities…along with its all too frequent desecrations by the rich and powerful—were at the heart of its [Michael Sorkin] life Project. How could his city and others become truly sustainable? What about the tailor shops and shoe repair shops that have disappeared from the area? Piece after piece, project after project, he made palpable the many ways in which sameness is impoverishment.



House as Garden is an initiative of Michael Sorkin Studio and Chicago-based nonprofit Blacks in Green (BIG) |  Michael Sorkin |  Affordable housing |  STIRworld
House as Garden is an initiative of Michael Sorkin Studio and Blacks in Green (BIG), a Chicago-based non-profit organization. Image: © Michael Sorkin Studio


Sorkin’s latest project, along with other works from his four-decade practice, such as the Brooklyn Waterfront masterplan in New York; housing and master plans for Wuhan, China; and a floating forest in Hamburg, Germany, was an exercise in generosity, sustainability and community building. Titled “House as Garden,” the project was designed for the African-American community in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood of West Woodlawn. A collaboration between Michael Sorkin Studio and the Chicago-based nonprofit Blacks in Green (BIG™), House as Garden aims to provide affordable housing to “a typical black community with a high rate of vacant lots. where buildings have been demolished for structural, political or social reasons,” according to Blacks in Green Founder and CEO Naomi Davis. Residing in West Woodlawn herself, Davis’ role at BIG sees her serve as a bridge and as a catalyst in the design and development of green, self-sustaining, mixed-income walkable villages in black neighborhoods.

Chicago, which has a population of 2.7 million, has 29% African American residents. During the Great Migration, between 1916 and 1970, legions of them from across America moved to the Lake Michigan city where they largely settled on the South Side township. Around the middle of the 20and century, the area (called the Black Belt) turned into a sprawling African neighborhood, particularly because the community was unwelcome in the white-dominated pockets of Chicago. The African-American community, persevering in hard work and resilience, has faced racial inequality at every step: from being denied career opportunities, less income than their white counterparts, to a restricted share of public resources . House as Garden is helping fill a major void for the South Side: access to affordable housing and a sustainably self-sufficient future for the African-American community that lives there.



Site plan of house as garden |  Michael Sorkin |  Affordable Housing |  STIRworld
Site plan of the house as a garden Image: © Michael Sorkin Studio


The project evolved from Sorkin’s former affordable housing work, the award-winning vision of Greenfill: the house as a garden, a New York-based, five-story terraced development accommodating seven units in a compact 17-by-100-foot site. Following the innovations featured with the previous scheme which included the use of solid wood and a new prototype for daylighting, House as Garden in Illinois also uses a sustainable material palette, climate-sensitive design and community facilities to ensure that neighbors don’t just live next to each other, but live together.



Structural diagram of the Garden House |  Michael Sorkin |  Affordable Housing |  STIRworld
Structural diagram of the Garden House Image: © Michael Sorkin Studio


The site on which the project is planned is land owned by BIG. Half of this property is a community fruit and nut orchard, tended by BIG with the aim that it will one day provide House of Garden residents with stunning pastoral views. The built form is envisioned as four residential wings collectively creating a mews. A far cry from the east-west orientation typical of Chicago urban planning, buildings here face south to make the most of sunlight. Apartments come in a range of sizes and living spaces to meet the different needs of residents. In addition to the residential spaces that are housed on the upper levels, the ground floor remains the community heart of the place. It includes a coworking space, a meeting space accessible to the neighborhood, as well as charging stations for electric vehicles, a waste sorting and recycling area and a bicycle room.



Circular interventions in the project design scheme |  Michael Sorkin |  Affordable Housing |  STIRworld
Circular interventions in the project design scheme Image: © Michael Sorkin Studio


House as Garden has a particular focus on circular design. The program features an on-site agricultural system that includes a greenhouse, crop processing station, root cellar and composting chambers. Speaking of the intention to bring these facilities to the project, Davis says, “Chicago has the dubious distinction of being one of America’s worst recyclers. At BIG, we understand the value and harm of what we throw away. Other interventions include a battery system that works in congruence with photovoltaic panels on the roof for the building’s energy needs, thermal glazing preventing heat transfer between the indoor and outdoor environments, and a water harvesting system. for the use of gray and black water on site.



Building service |  Michael Sorkin |  Affordable Housing |  STIRworld
building department Image: © Michael Sorkin Studio


The structural system of the housing is constructed from engineered wood. Although this style of construction is quite rare in the United States, it helps minimize transportation distances due to the pre-engineered nature of the elements which have been designed for easy handling on site. In response to Chicago’s wildly variable temperature where freezing winters give way to scorching summers, the facade and walls are treated with strategic materiality. The vertical surfaces are thick and multi-layered, consisting of wood panels, waterproofing membrane, plywood, batting installation and a layer of mineral wool insulation. The windows feature insulating glass that prevents thermal bridging and heat loss from the interior, as well as season-specific shades to regulate daylight into homes.



  • Layout plans |  Michael Sorkin |  Affordable Housing |  STIRworld
    Layout plans Image: © Michael Sorkin Studio






  • Elevations |  Michael Sorkin |  Affordable Housing |  STIRworld
    Elevations Image: © Michael Sorkin Studio



Designed as a living organism, House of Garden features several organized green pockets. These include an on-site greenhouse, raised beds, planting for all units on the terraces, and community maintenance of plants growing in the residential orchard.



The team behind House as Garden in Illinois, USA;  Naomi Davis is pictured in the front row, far left while Michael Sorkin is seen next to her |  Michael Sorkin |  Affordable housing |  STIRworld
The team behind House as Garden in Illinois, USA; Naomi Davis is pictured in the front row, far left while Michael Sorkin is seen next to her Image: © Michael Sorkin Studio


The brainchild of Naomi Davis and Michael Sorkin, the project hopes to ensure sustainable accessibility across generations with an ingrained sense of place. With its architectural author gone, one wonders about the future of this vision, but in the words of Davis comes a sigh of hope. “Michael lives in this project, and I gave him a solemn promise – just weeks before he died – that BIG would build it. He embodies Michael’s gift of life. […] Although there are still conversations with officials to be had – Michael and I agreed that nothing would stop our vision.


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