Both/and instead of either/or

Opinion: Columns

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Eric Davis

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This is a story of two guys named Bob and how the way they went about things can help us build a more perfect community.

When I was in architecture school in the early 1980s, the raging debate was around the shift from second-generation Modernism — the first having been a revolution — and the counterrevolution, which called itself Postmodernism. The theoretical fulcrum for this noisy evolution was Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. Written by Robert Venturi from Philadelphia and published by the Graham Foundation in Chicago, it embraced the "messy vitality" that was both possible and, in "Bob's" view, desirable — the idea that richness and depth might be qualities that result from inclusion and juxtaposition rather than the exclusion and reductivism of, for example, Miesian modernity.

Venturi described it as being more about both/and than either/or. In recent years we have seen issues arise that get characterized as situations where choices must be made, to preference one over another. While some fall back to what might be called a more passive "kumbaya" approach, there is a more pro-active version that seeks an active synthesis, a Gestalt if you will.

Should we embrace development or historic preservation? Should we have balanced budgets or strategic spending? Should OPRF High School focus more on the STEM subjects or its historic strengths in liberal arts? Should we maintain our strong faculties or involve more community members in teaching? Should local governments become more efficient in their meetings or engage more discussion and public participation? We are consumed by debates on false choices.

The second Bob was my friend Bob Wulkowicz. He moved here from the city to take care of his mother and sister and was a part of my life, off and on, for 25 years. At his memorial service at the Morton Arboretum this past Saturday, there was a wide array of folks who felt compelled to speak about him to his friends and family.

Artists, arborists and architects — and that's just the A's — saw in him the ability to take on life in every arena with vigorous curiosity, a childlike stubbornness and eagerness to ask the better questions that some "experts" either didn't see or shied away from.

Bob was both an electronics designer and a genuine innovator in our understandings of trees, a painter and an inventor who saved countless lives, and above all an instigator, a thorn in the complacent side of many a government official. His was the pursuit of quality and insight and because of him, people from PhDs to pipe-fitters knew that what they did could be better if they applied their minds more openly.

I want to suggest that ours is already a both/and community. When we forget this, we tend to stray off into the weeds. It is a source of our strength and distinctiveness and a characteristic that, when we move away from it, is part of our more vexing conflicts.

The active synthesis of such posited opposites, the both/and approach, is often our best way forward.

Eric Davis is an architect and a former trustee of Oak Park Township.

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