This is about commercially-driven, banal boxes

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By Antony Wood

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As the executive director of the Chicago-based nonprofit, the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), the international association that exists to disseminate best-practice information on skyscrapers and ratify their height/"tallest" status globally); an architect; a professor of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology; and most pertinently, a resident of Oak Park (I live three blocks north of the proposed Albion development), I would like to offer perhaps a unique perspective on the Albion project, and other high-rise projects in the village. 

I moved my family to Chicago from the UK 11 years ago to take up the role with CTBUH/IIT, and Oak Park was the obvious choice for our home life, largely because of its fantastic physical environment. I have lived in half a dozen countries and traveled extensively across all seven continents and, in comparison to many places around the world, I think some Oak Parkers don't truly realize what an exceptional place this is! The blend of fantastic one-off houses of all styles and expressions, beautiful well-kept yards, extensive parks and gardens — not to mention the walkability and facilities at our disposal — make this place close to utopian, especially when compared to a typical American suburb. Unfortunately, however, our main street(s) pale into utter insignificance in comparison to this "suburban" charm. Actually, it is worse than this — much of the recent modern development is a gross embarrassment. 

However, the debate on the Albion development, and several other recent projects, is largely missing the mark by focusing on whether the height should be allowed. The reality is that our cities — and our suburbs — do need to "densify" to accommodate population growth in a more sustainable way, i.e. reducing the consumption of vital natural land at the ever-increasing periphery of urban sprawl and reducing the massive amount of energy required to both create and operate the "horizontal" city. The connection between denser developments and transport nodes is also the right way forward. 

What I suspect many of my neighbors and fellow Oak Parkers are reacting to in the case of Albion, however, is not necessarily a blanket rejection of height/density on that site, but the rejection of a complete lack of creativity or quality in the massing, design and expression of this project. In my opinion, the Albion proposal (and several other recent projects) do not even come close to accurately being described as "architecture" in the progressive sense of the word. They are 100 percent commercially driven, banal boxes whose only purpose is to generate a maximum financial return for the developer. 

This is especially galling in a village whose essence and reputation, far beyond these shores, lies primarily in the flourishing of a progressive brand of architecture for a 20-year period about 100 years ago. If this is in danger of being understated or dismissed as irrelevant, then let me spell it out for the record: The work of Frank Lloyd Wright (despite his many personal flaws!) is likely the closest the USA has come to an "American" architecture ever — a building form and expression that feels so intrinsically "right" in its landscape that it largely has not been surpassed in the 80 years or so since. And it all began on these very streets! 

It is this progressive spirit that largely makes Oak Park what it is — and it is certainly a quality that should not only be cherished; it should have been nurtured into new, but equally appropriate, forms of architecture through every generation since then. It is just so depressing to see the onslaught of low-effort commercial architecture (to which downtown Chicago is also guilty) taking hold in Oak Park, destroying the essence of what makes the place unique — and in the face of so much architecture that really is special. 

The problem, as with much that is not working in our country, is down to politics and political systems. It is not necessarily the architects who are at fault. They are working to a brief, which is, again, 100 percent commercially driven, and leaves no room for innovation or even decent design approaches. The sad thing, not yet realized by some developers, is that, in the same way "sustainability" has moved away from "tree-hugging" to mainstream and even financially lucrative in many businesses over the last decade or two, such an embrace in innovation and quality in modestly-tall buildings would bring its own financial reward, and attract occupiers or residents (and likely from a much wider field) who value those qualities. 

But how can that happen in a village that doesn't even have a proper committee to judge the quality of proposed architecture? Even tribal villages in the middle of Africa have a group of elders who rule on whether the latest built addition to the community is valid or not! 

How can it happen in a village where the only real architectural body is a "Historic Preservation Commission," whose remit is so narrow as to be self-canceling? ("Preserve at all costs," unless your house was built after the middle of last century, in which case you're not at all important!) 

How can that happen in an environment where Oak Park seems too eager with its begging bowl, grateful to accept any development proposal that "luckily" comes our way, on the basis that it will increase taxes/revenue? The view needs to be much more long-term than this for if we continue on this path, those who really have a choice will not want to live here in another 20 years, for what makes us special will have become impaired — or very likely lost.

Oh, Oak Park, we can, and should, do much better. It is not the 18 stories that is the real issue here. It is what is being done in those 18 stories, including the all-important environment around the ground level. Every day in my job with the Council on Tall Buildings I see "tall" projects that are so innovative around the world, they make your jaw drop — buildings that work in creative ways to engage, not destroy, the setting in which they exist; buildings focused around communal spaces in the sky, not only for inhabitants but for the public at large; buildings that maximize the great opportunities for harnessing energy at height; buildings that incorporate greenery within their facades and roofs to deliver multiple benefits to the environment as well as the building inhabitants; buildings that move away from all-glass facades to give greater, more appropriate, creative opportunities for expression; buildings that innovate and address the real issues of sustainability and community within their physical constructs. Buildings, in short, that are so far removed from the commercial containers being proposed here, it is deeply depressing. 

I really hope we can foster a discussion about what these buildings — and Oak Park — could become, rather than degenerate into a discussion focused purely on height vs. economics. There are many taller objects of inspiration and beauty around the world, directly related to their setting, that would allow Oak Park to both keep what is special, but regain its lost reputation as leading the way architecturally.

I stand ready to talk to the village board, or any other group for that matter, to visually illustrate some of the examples I mention above — and perhaps to even directly help attract the type of developers we need to deliver this vision here. 

Antony Wood RIBA, PhD, is executive director of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat in the Loop; studio associate professor, Illinois Institute of Technology; visiting professor of Tall Buildings, Tongji University, Shanghai; and an Oak Park resident.

Reader Comments

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Ada Johnson Tikkanen  

Posted: June 4th, 2017 8:55 PM

well Bill sometimes really smart, creative, super pissed people get a bit tongue-tied when talking about things which are important to them. I know I do. The hoops he was put through were ridiculous.

Bill McDonald  

Posted: June 4th, 2017 7:51 PM

@Tikkanen: what was ludicrous was Dr. Woods' agitated, ranting behavior at one of his hearings in front of the OP Historic Preservation Committee and in the face of a village-commissioned special report by an Art Institute of Chicago expert advising against the changes Dr. Wood made on his house.

Brian Sharpe  

Posted: May 27th, 2017 9:49 AM

Re: the OP Historic Commission, it is interesting to read some of the opinions ventured at the inception of the idea almost 30 years ago. The irony here is that the same ordinances designed to prevent someone from dismantling a Frank Lloyd Wright home... might have prevented the revolutionary architect from ever building here, if such a commission existed a century before. Good read.

Ada Johnson Tikkanen  

Posted: May 26th, 2017 11:49 PM

Bill. Dr. Wood is my neighbor. And someone I'm proud to know. Both he and his wife Tansri contribute to this community SIGNIFICANTLY. And I'm calling BS on the Historic Preservation committee for causing issues on putting a thoughtfully designed and placed dormer on their house which in now way detracted from the curb appeal or beauty of it. I'm quite certain all the hundreds of FLW tourists who walk by their lovely home would even think twice about this addition. At some point people need to realize the necessity of working livability and necessity into the mindset of historic preservation. I followed the entire "battle" and it was absolutely ludicrous.

Bill McDonald  

Posted: May 26th, 2017 10:36 PM

The author is the same Dr. Wood who thumbed his nose at the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission about three years ago and redesigned his own Oak Park house in such a way that it violated the appearance of the old house, which had been constructed in the time of Frank Lloyd Wright. The house at the time was a "contributing property" in the Frank Lloyd Wright - Prairie School of Architecture National Historic District. But not after Dr. Wood and his contractor defaced it to the point that it had to be reclassified as a "noncontributing property" that no longer fit the desired ambiance of the Historic District.

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: May 26th, 2017 5:27 PM

Good luck talking to the brick wall that is basically a majority of the Oak Park Village board, Mr Wood. Abu-Taleb has made it clear that anyone opposed to the tower is "not in their right mind". Not a single one of his rubber stamp trustees has spoken out in defense of those who are worried about the impact on Austin Gardens and quality of life issues in the neighborhood. It's basically a done deal as soon as the slick move to carve up the TIF is approved. Those who recently addressed the board in were able to witness the complete disdain the Village President demonstrated towards concerned .citizens who believe the developer's vision is a nightmare for Oak Park.

Ada Johnson Tikkanen  

Posted: May 26th, 2017 2:31 PM

well said Brian I agree completely - but in the case of the Albion building, it is, in fact, very much about height and scale.

Brian Sharpe from Oak Park  

Posted: May 26th, 2017 12:15 AM

I was inspired by reading one of the more thoughtful opinions ventured regarding the past, present and future state of architecture in our community. As a true Dooper with family roots here back to 1920, I am more than familiar enough with the emotional angst inherent in any discussion surrounding the "urbanization" of our quasi-utopian enclave. After reading the responses here, it's clear that many residents struggle to grasp the real issue. Inspired design is not about dimensions. Nor is it about financial resources or even the desire for historical aesthetic continuity. Good design simply entails an intelligent approach that seamlessly integrates innovative engineering solutions with practical space planning and an emotionally stimulating exterior. Like Mr. Woods, I can also could provide numerous examples both locally and internationally where such an intelligent approach is possible even on a shoestring budget. The fact that our village officials are too insecure to admit that they have little education or appreciation for inspired design is painfully evident in their willingness to naively embrace any slick developer who peddles their snake oil with a few pretty pictures and promises for full-occupancy tax flow. Their desperation not only underestimates our unique history, but severely limits Oak Park's future potential both architecturally and financially. We, as a community, should be outraged and embarrassed by this new ho-hum facade that could have been so much more. No, it is never about the height, or width, or density, or any other dimension. This struggle is about imagination. And a willingness to either advocate... or abdicate our unique spirit.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: May 19th, 2017 6:38 PM

Professor Woods opinion piece is well written but ultimately nonsensical and absurd. Cities and towns develop "personalities" just like people. Chicago's "personality" (as well as NYC) demands dramatic high rises. In fact that is their signature trait to the world. High rises in Paris? Disastrous. How about Washington, DC? Ain't gonna happen, thank God. Charleston, SC? Equally ridiculous and ruinous. And so it is or should be here in Oak Park. Simple: 18 stories is too high. End of story.

Bruce Shabino  

Posted: May 19th, 2017 5:28 PM

Sorry, but it is about the 18 stories to me. The density is too much and our schools are already over crowded. Holmes School is going to have to put a classroom trailer on site this next school year for craps sake!

Charles Vietzen Jr  

Posted: May 18th, 2017 12:53 PM

I realize that the close location, of all these developments, to public transportation makes them more viable. However, few have stopped to realize that all are currently in the boundaries of Holmes grade school and Brooks Junior High? There could be a very real overcrowding problem very soon.

Ada Johnson Tikkanen  

Posted: May 18th, 2017 2:59 AM

Beautifully written Antony...I hope it provokes thought. However I still don't wish that sucker to be over 80 ft. I just wish someone would come in with a boutique hotel makes perfect sense.

Adrian Ayres Fisher  

Posted: May 17th, 2017 11:43 AM

Very well written article; it's nice to hear from an urban design perspective. I completely agree about the banal nature of the new buildings, both proposed and already built. It would be nice to see more innovation, biophilic design, and so forth. Clearly, good, dense, urban design can help prevent suburban sprawl. However, in this case, poor visuals aside, it really is about the height. Context and location mean everything. An eighteen story building, even if draped with greenery, would not be appropriate and would not save even an acre of prime Illinois farmland. I'm glad you appreciate Oak Park so much. Many of us long time residents also fully realize and appreciate what our village has to offer.

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