Students explore the fantastic rooftop garden framed by offices and classrooms atop the Gary Comer Youth Center, above. Village Trustee Lonnie Sacchi reveals the subtle qualities of the planning and landscape plan to the Triton architecture students with the historic water tower in the background, below.

Architecture is not bound by history, style or function.

Riverside, the idyllic community designed by Fredric Law Olmsted in 1869, is known as the Village in the Forest. The inventive town plan of winding streets contrasting with the grid planning of Chicago and surrounding communities created an environment of green that set aside one half of the village’s best land for public use. To mark the center of town, a fanciful water tower was designed by William Le Baron Jenny as an icon for the community with an observation level to assist in real estate sales.

A small group of students and I toured the tower in Centennial Square adjacent to the Prairie School train station, the spectacular Arts & Crafts library and the surrounding residential neighborhood. We toured, photographed and measured the site that we were asked to provide plans for a new youth center. The project site paralleling the Des Plaines River is primarily needed to provide a constructive environment for area youth to spend their after-school hours.

We learned that everything built in Riverside was intended to recede into the landscape, to avoid competition with nature. This ideal is seen in the use of natural materials, muted colors, expansive lots, organic landscape and the antique gas street lamps that all combine to create an eloquent and bucolic life style. The village culture respects and protects these principals to maintain their municipality in contrast to the hard edged qualities of the city.

Continuing our tour to discover what a modern youth center can be, we traveled south to 71st Street in Chicago, under the shadow of the Skyway, to the 74,000 square foot Gary Comer Youth Center. Designed by John Ronan Architects, this structure could not contrast more with Riverside as it is located in one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. The hard edge grid is reflected in this honed singular cubic form clad in colorful fiber cement panels. The bright colors symbolize the pageantry of the well-known 300 member South Side Drill Team. This unorthodox jewel-in-the-rough was financed and endowed by the late Gary Comer, founder of Lands’ End, an amazing gift to his childhood neighborhood.

The security oriented site strategy fills the land with two singular cubic three-story masses with minimal glazing and a walled in parking lot serving the center and the new College Preparatory School to the north. One could think of this complex as a “Compound in the City.”

The heart of the structure contains the gymnasium/theater, surrounded by an incredible variety of spaces that support their mission to provide a constructive place for children to go after school. The cafeteria not only feeds hundreds of students two hot healthy meals daily—free of charge—but is designed as a teaching facility for the culinary arts. The main stair leads to a library bright and open to the cafeteria below. Following the loop corridor we find classrooms for academic assistance, a recording studio, a music room, a two-story light-filled art studio, a huge computer lab, a game room with pool tables and computer games opening into a two-story dance studio. The top floor is reserved for offices and meeting rooms that ring an 8,000 square foot garden for learning about nature and urban gardening, all run by the students and designed by Hoerr Schaudt, Landscape Architects.

A steel and mesh 80-foot high tower marks the entrance and is crowned by a LED billboard to communicate the programs available. Like Riverside, the heroic shaft is intended to be iconographic with the purpose of outreach in a modern dress.

Perhaps these towers, like Dickens’ Tale of Two Cites, represent the aspirations of these communities from which we can share and learn.

Oak Parker Garret Eakin is an architect, preservationist and educator.

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Garret Eakin

Garret Eakin is a practicing architect, preservation commissioner and adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute.