Forget politics. Forget the pool. I’d like to ask a different question: Is architecture dead in Oak Park? Did it die with Frank Lloyd Wright? Is there anything new to say in recent buildings or are we stuck in a ninth circle of Prairie School hell?
I’m not talking about village government mandating architectural styles. I’m not presuming to speak with the rarefied authority of architectural historians. I am asking the vox populi to evaluate the state of modern architecture in Oak Park.
My answer? Recent building design in Oak Park is pretty much a mixed bag, with several — dare I say it? — inspiring additions.
Any review of recent architecture in Oak Park has to start with the Whiteco building (or whatever company owns it now) at Harlem and Ontario, the one that houses Trader Joe’s. I call this style “Brutalist El Cheapo.” It would be at home in East Berlin during the Cold War. Its main design feature is precast concrete slabs that display all the finesse of an expressway sound wall. The main driver is throwing up as quickly as possible a big block of apartments, and its closest cousins are public housing units built in the 1950s. It makes the adjacent village parking garage appear thoughtful.
Around the corner on Lake Street (across from FFC), a new large project is going up with a Target on the first floor (yeah) and rental units above. Here, the developer takes a different tack. It’s a style I call “Prairie School College Dorm.” You can almost hear the developer instructing the architect: “Look, it’s Oak Park, so give me Prairie. Throw in some horizontal banding. But nothing too fancy.” It looks like the monotonous multi-unit buildings lining main streets on the North Side of Chicago in “up and coming” — but not yet there — neighborhoods.
A glimmer of light on Lake Street? The Vantage Building. That big, glass structure at the corner of Lake and Forest, a few blocks south of Wright’s Home & Studio? I like it. I’m a modernist. There, I said it. I like the airiness of the main glass structure. I’d like to ride up the elevator and take in the view from the three-sided apartments fronting Lake Street. I like how the design separated out the retail units below in brick to make them relate more to the street. The only part I’m not crazy about is the white monolith at the back. It’s as if the developer let the architect have fun on the front of the building, but drew the line and economized in back.
Down Lake Street just east of Oak Park Avenue, across from Starbucks (I never know where buildings are when newspapers refer solely to the address), an even more successful attempt is going in the ground called District House, judging by the computer renderings. The developer realized that buyers of condos in Oak Park will pay a premium for forward-looking architecture. I like the 5-story glass pagoda effect at the front of the building. It forgets the faux-prairie nonsense. It says that glass and steel are OK to use in Oak Park. It’s trying to find a way forward here.
Not so the condo building going up on Chicago Avenue near Harlem, and bookended by Dressel’s Hardware and Giordano’s Pizza. I call this “Drive-By Architecture.” People will drive by and never register that the building is there. And it is a literal stone’s throw from a Frank Lloyd Wright bootleg house. This new building — still under construction — seems to say, “Whatever. We got condo units to sell on a tight lot.”
I have saved the best for last. For years, the small lot on the north side of Chicago Avenue at Marion Street housed a hair salon. There is currently a hole in the ground and a drawing of the building promising the new home of Yuppy Puppy Dog Walking. The building, remarkably, is designed and built by the owner. And if it looks anything like the drawing, it will be a modernist head-turner, only a block from the Home & Studio. The drawing has the feel of Phillip Johnson’s Glass House, with two work pods connected by a glass and steel structure. Simple. Elegant. And in your face, Frank Lloyd Wright, who would have hated it.
What are your most and least favorite new buildings in Oak Park? Let’s get a discussion started on design.