A call to raise the bar for architecture in Oak Park

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By Garret Eakin


On April 9 at Pleasant Home, Dr. Robert Bruegmann from the University of Illinois Chicago gave a lecture regarding the current position of architecture beyond the edges of our great city. He speculates that there are a number of reasons suburban architecture is overlooked and underrated. 

First, simply the land area of the combined communities is far greater than the concentration of buildings in the Loop or city proper. To see Mies, we can walk the Loop or ride the train to IIT. Oak Park provides the best outdoor museum to view and tour a concentration of Wright's work — especially this Saturday with the All Wright Plus housewalk. 

Second, Bruegmann postulates that all of the architectural press is from New York and has little interest in traveling beyond the borders of Chicago. Unfortunately, we have not produced much work that is newsworthy since Wright was in town and Harry Weese completed our village hall. Recently, two projects on Madison Street — the Walgreens and the Grove Apartments — are responsible and important but hardly great architecture. 

Why an architect's town, chock-full of extraordinary architecture, cannot generate significant architecture with consistency is baffling. Don't get me wrong, our village has shaped layers of wonderful architecture. Unfortunately we are only as good as our last building. 

Third, we are completely built, with little land opportunity for new construction. The community needs to raise the bar on what we want and what we allow to be built. We should not build anything that is not exciting, responsible and progressive. Procrastination and apathy cannot be allowed to creep into the process. 

Reestablishing our traditional role as a daring dynamic community that gets things done and is not saddled with excuses should be our mantra. 

As they say, timing is everything. We have a new village president who is interested in developing the economic and physical community. The potential development climate is materializing as we speak, with a number of new projects proposed after years of doldrums. Unfortunately, these projects, as proposed, are going to bring us little positive attention. 

At Chicago Avenue and Maple Avenue, on an existing surface parking lot, we have a five-story, 11-unit, empty-nester condominium project planned. This lot longs to be built on as it is so underused. Residential type of housing offering large modern flats, attached parking and minimal maintenance is much needed. 

 This is a good idea addressing a growing market. Sadly, the underwhelming design is basically a box with inset balconies — a sort of glorified four-plus-one design. The largest flaw is placing the parking on the first floor where retail shops should be. Parking lining the sidewalk kills the vitality of the pedestrian experience. The poorly proportioned box-on-steroids overwhelms the adjacent one- and two-story buildings. For a preview, the same developer and architects built the clumsy Opera Club at Marion Street and South Boulevard. 

The project should be reconsidered, reducing the parking and placing it where it should be — in the basement or off the alley. The first floor should contain the residential lobby with retail stores or live-work storefront residences. A reduced height by at least one floor would better relate to the neighbors. I get that this project economically makes sense, that it offers needed variety in housing type and will produce property taxes, but what I don't get is why it has to be so bland and disrespectful to the neighborhood. 

 I see no category in the Planned Development Application proposal on rating the aesthetic quality of the project. The application states, "This development will not substantially diminish the use or enjoyment of other property in the vicinity. In fact the building has been designed with quality materials which will be more appealing." 

Of course, we expect that the materials to be of quality. More importantly, we expect quality design, which is not considered or articulated in the lengthy description. 

What about the community context, the height in relation to the neighborhood (45 feet allowed, 62 feet proposed)? Density should be consistent with adjacent properties (7 units allowed, 11 proposed) and what about the lack of concept or style that speaks of our history or architecture? 

The flat two-dimensional façade is lifeless with little character or human-scaled detail. The materials, red brick and cement masonry units, seem anonymous, having little relation to the adjacent neighbors. The building would destroy the quaint street quality of Chicago Avenue. 

One block away, some of Wright's best work would be in stark contrast to this proposed building. 

I believe Dr. Bruegmann would agree the fourth reason we get no respect is we simply have not earned it.

Garret Eakin is a practicing architect, a member of the Historic Preservation Commission, and an adjunct full professor at the School of the Art Institute. 

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