This is about commercially-driven, banal boxes

Opinion: Columns

May 16th, 2017 2:33 PM

A rendering of the Oak Park Station complex (recently renamed "the Emerson") which is currently under construction between Lake Street (left) and North Boulevard (right) by the Metra station. | Provided by Oak Park Economic Development Corp

View All Photos (3 Photos)

By Antony Wood

One View

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.