Renaissance towers or honking high-rises?

The new Elevate Oak Park building looks like a squandered opportunity

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By Garret Eakin

Architecture

Oak Park has a strong sense of place. Many of the residential blocks have not changed in 100 years. The streets are layered with architectural styles reflecting the history. There is a keen logic that supports the decision-making in the village. Fortunately, it is a diverse community that is engaged in building quality architecture.

I have recently had the opportunity to discover what is going on in the city of Chicago, specifically in the western neighborhoods of Bucktown, Wicker Park and Logan Square. These communities are similar in many ways to Oak Park. The density is comparable, they enjoy excellent transportation, and they are in the midst of spectacular growth. 

Chicago, currently has 46 high-rise residential buildings under way within its neighborhoods. Five of those are located within the aforementioned districts, close to public transportation. Trains, buses, bikes and automobiles are the assets these communities foster in the spirit of inclusion.

Two new city high-rise residential projects are nearing completion, one in Logan Square at the California el stop and the other at Division and Ashland, both designed by very good architects. They represent the potential outcomes associated with this building type. The Logan Square complex is essentially twin towers (almost), located on a flat featureless site. The crystal-like form executed in dark aluminum, charcoal glass and raw concrete is not something to love as it is more suburban than urban, recalling office parks — yet it is wondrously contrasted by the linear stone wall, the urban plaza and the tremendous granite blocks so eloquently placed and contrasted with a row of perfect young trees.

Both projects are new building types, transit-oriented with little or no parking integrated into the program. The strategy is by omitting parking, the tenants become more dependent on mass transit, decreasing the traffic and congestion at these critical intersections. This all goes back to the livability and walkability of historic neighborhoods. Aesthetically, the buildings are urban, modern, minimal and un- sympathetic to the context.

In urban design a sense of place may have soul, producing a special or unique experience. Christopher Alexander argues in his book Pattern Language, that "human-centered design is fitting in our urban centers. Designs that ignore sensitivity to human scale or appropriate materials may result in an awkward disconnect with the community." 

Without the challenge of integrating parking at approximately one space per dwelling unit, the design strategy is freed up. Retail shops, appropriate to support the neighborhood, can be placed for the convenience of the surrounding. Unfortunately, the opportunity is lost on this project resulting in anonymous form that could be anywhere — suburbs maybe?

In Oak Park, we are witnessing a similar Renaissance of towers. Some of our vertical masses are a good deal more successful than our Chicago cousins described above. These masses not only have parking, beautifully concealed, but provide appropriate retail space for a commercial developer to be successful. 

The design completed at Lake and Forest, for instance, is detailed with references and concepts derived from the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District and the Downtown Oak Park business district. The integration of brick walls in an elongated pattern, sporting a horizontal raked pattern, recalls Wright and his passion for this heroic material. The masonry or Roman brick walls produce a counterpoint to the more modern glass walls of the tower.

The random pattern of storefronts mimic the variety of designs found in the Lake Street shops. This delightful collection of facades is modern yet traditional. The Architects' sensitivity to the street and its human character is admirable. I like very much the zipper-like balconies that relieve the great wall of glass, which are more symbolic than functional. This is a good building, one that will be appreciated for many years. It is also a great example for us all to learn.

On the old Colt site on Lake Street another high-rise with pretty much the same program is under way. Unfortunately, the outcome is questionable. Parking for the building, the downtown district, and the train station is adequately planned to be functional and concealed. The southern wall of the multilevel parking garage will be skinned by an "artful" perforated metal pattern. This urban design offers more than just a new street, concealed parking and towers of housing.

It seems to be designed as a collage of forms that might have been built over the years. Good idea to perhaps scale the elements, but the outcome shows a lack of interest in Oak Park. This is a community that wants to move forward not stagnate in history and their interpretation of it. The forms and details are all semi-traditional but with little harmony developed to create an appropriate unity. The pedestrian bridge was an opportunity for something interesting but was squandered. It looks bland and predictable.

Order and conceptual thinking is lacking in this huge building complex. They have considered the scale of the existing buildings and made them lower on the new street and along Lake Street, thereby losing an opportunity to generate more unity. I am sure when the new Target store is built, everyone will forget about what seems esoteric or academic. 

Trust me, these buildings must be learned from to prevent it from happening again in another layer of history. Urban patterns that could produce a much better sense of place could be realized.

Garret Eakin is an award-winning architect, a preservationist and a professor at the School of the Art Institute.

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