Architecture can be quiet and unassuming or bold and exciting. A 20-story apartment high-rise can be contextual or create a new context. Architects like to talk about how a tower touches the ground and slices the sky. The proposed building at Lake Street and Forest Avenue, providing 270 contemporary rental apartments, could be good. We should have high expectations with an experienced developer, a world class architect and a healthy apartment market.
The developer, Sertus Capital Partners of Chicago, was faced last year with a shift in the market, with condos and hotels dead (as it was originally designed) to a lively rental apartment purpose. Along with the programmatic change, Sertus has replaced their original architect with Gensler. Two seasoned Gensler architects, Bryan Vitale and Steven Miller, are providing the design and management leadership for this prime site. Both of these respected and talented professionals live in Oak Park.
Gensler’s proposal is not a classical designed monumental tower; such as, the Hancock with its defined base of travertine, a tapered shaft of steel and glass and a capital expressed as a observation floor with twin antenna. The scheme is a collage of parts that seeks to break the mass of the building down to better relate to the village scale-easier said than done. At the urban scale, the building is layered in a variety of masses that are intended to blend the building into the context. This is good. These big moves and scale shifts respond to the residential neighborhood to the north, the multi-family and institutional buildings to the south, and the retail business’ to the west.
The slender tower is oriented north and south to decrease the shadow effect to the residential neighborhood and maximize the unbroken views to the city skyline. The tower is articulated into multiple masses that are rendered in glass, steel and concrete. The individual masses are subtly faced in patterns that the architects offer as a gesture to Oak Park’s favorite architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.
The architecture firm states that, “the building is designed to engage the public and contextually build on the history of Oak Park while looking to the future.”
Gensler’s nod to Wright is found in these patterns, inspired by the master’s art glass designs. The fundamental difference is Wright’s compositions always had a beginning, middle and end; whereas Gensler’s patterns are applied like wall paper. Appropriately, the design does make the pedestrian experience unpredictable, and that is good.
An effective detail that embellishes the pattern transition is the zipper-like cantilevered balconies that appear to have colored glass guard rails. This human scale detail is a delightful contrast to the massive glass walls. Conversely, the north elevation of the complex shows a solid wall 245-feet long and 40-feet high facing the 19th Century Club without attempting to be a ‘good neighbor.’ We understand this massive wall will be designed to give scale and human detail complimenting the elegant club south elevation.
Regarding Lake Street, the architect’s noble goal to continue the variety and human scale of shops and their ‘ability to surprise,’ I believe the design comes up short. The introduction of masonry (Roman brick) walls breaks the scale, providing contrast and subtly recalls the Prairie esthetic on Forest Avenue. Between the masonry ‘bookends’ the continuous two-story glass storefront is 175-feet long, hardly the appropriate scale of storefronts on Lake Street. This façade also contains a monumental faceted glass wall that is surprising as it cantilevers over the storefronts. Unfortunately, at this point the perspective rendering’s bold façade reminds me of North Michigan Avenue not Lake Street.
As critical as this may sound, I am confident and excited about the potential of this creative modern building. There is much to like and time for this professional team to correct the weakness.
Garret Eakin is an award winning residential architect, a preservation commissioner, and an adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute.