Staying in context



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Something is going to be built on the northeast corner of Longcommon Road and Burlington Street in Riverside. Exactly what and just when is completely up in the air at this point, but likely not any time in the near future.

But because of some very candid observations last week about the most recent proposal for a commercial/condo development at that site, Riverside may end up getting a building it can be proud of.

In short, members of the Preservation Commission?"a number of whom are architects and historic preservation experts?"voiced very clearly that the former Henninger drug store site was simply too important to the village for a piece of timid architecture. During the many hearings on the development, never before has that message been stated so clearly and forcefully to the developer and his architects.

Riverside, the Preservation commissioners say, should demand something that wouldn't seem equally at home in any of the various cities and villages scattered along the commuter train lines. Moreover, they say, architects needs to stop simply looking at architectural context as a mandate or an excuse for producing lifeless imitations of bygone styles.

It's not that context isn't important; on the contrary, it is. But context isn't a prison from which architects can't escape. When Frank Lloyd Wright built the Coonley estate in Riverside back in 1907, it could not have been more different than the Stick Style Victorian homes nearby. Wright looked not at neighboring buildings for context, but the topography of the site. The low-slung roofs, sunken gardens, and Wright's choice of materials marry the sprawling estate to its site.

In the same way, the office building at 333 W. Wacker Drive in Chicago doesn't seek out context from the nearby Civic Opera House or the International Style building just to its south. It uses the Chicago River for its context, arcing along the bend of the river with its green glass mirroring the color and reflecting the river itself.

They are buildings of striking originality that are also contextual in a tangible way. But neither uses imitation to proclaim its context. They are contemporary buildings whose architects sought to use context to free them from the predictable.

And that is what the members of the Preservation Commission are asking for the Henninger property. They're asking the architect to look beyond context as it has been narrowly defined in this case. Instead, let's break through the barrier that has spawned a generation of timid architecture throughout the village during this most recent rush to rebuild the village's residential buildings.

It's encouraging that the lead architect on the project seemed freed from his cautious approach to the site and styling. Here's hoping that he will respond with a plan that is both original and contextual. And here's hoping that the developers of the property see the Preservation Commission's criticisms as a way to approach this important development in a fresh way.

Of course, all they really need to do is conform to the village's zoning codes and convince the village's Board of Trustees that their building is worthwhile. We hope that the final product will offer more than that. Not only do the developers and architects owe that much to Riverside, they owe it to themselves.

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