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A Study in Humility

Reflections on the David Woodhouse Architectural plan presented at the Rosewood Beach Meeting on Wednesday, May 2.

Few things say more about a society than the structures we build and the public space we set aside for future generations – tasks we bestow on our architects.

The work of an architect becomes part of our landscape and daily life – immediately and unrepentantly.  Once a job is complete it lives in public view and remains open to comment for generations. Unlike many professions where we can revise, edit, and change our work product endlessly, once a building is done, it is permanent. And this permanence is part of the appeal to the profession.

Famed American architect Philip Johnson summed it up saying, “All architects want to live beyond their deaths.”

Today, architects have moved beyond even the goal of infamy, developing brands and becoming cult figures. We’ve seen a trend towards “destination architecture” where building form takes center stage and creates a destination or reason to visit.

But large or small, no matter what the goal or project, a successful architect must believe in their ability to shape our landscape and have the utmost confidence in his or her work.

Confidence can breed arrogance, and generally, humble and reverent aren’t words I would use to describe architects. After the presentation I saw on Wednesday, though, I realized that it’s time for me to expand my vocabulary.

Wednesday night I attended the Park District meeting regarding the proposed work at Rosewood Beach. What I saw from the architectural firm was perhaps the most humble and thoughtful presentation I could have imagined.

The firm, David Woodhouse Architects, came to this commission by way of competition, having been selected from 15 or so organizations who submitted plans. It's easy to see why.

 Wednesday night they walked the public through the thought process that they used to develop their ideas. They had specific guiding principles: go natural, think green, touch lightly, focus outdoors, and evolve naturally. They approached the project with the idea that the natural environment, not the buildings they would design, would be the focus of any development.

They considered the site as a whole, understanding the “loop” that makes up Rosewood, including the Ravine path to the west and the walk way on the east. They described the notion that this beach, this water, this place is sacred ground for all of Highland Park and for generations to come.

The design they presented then showed how they would incorporate their ideals into the park. They suggested a wooden board walk to replace the asphalt walkway which snakes along the beachfront, tying together simple buildings designed for their functional purpose. The buildings rise out of the boardwalk, unobtrusive in height, narrow in width, clad in glass when practical. The materials are natural, invisible, and whenever possible, minimal. They worked to preserve sightlines and vistas. Nature painted this canvas and Woodhouse treaded lightly.

I watched with reverence for this was not the work of arrogance. This work expressed humility and appreciation for the natural. Rare is the designer who approaches an architectural problem and offers a design which disappears into the background. Imagine Frank Ghery’s reaction if his commissioners would have asked him to design an “invisible” band shell at Millenium Park or a quiet Guggenheim Bilbao. I doubt we would have either.

And while I do realize that we’re not talking about a project on the scale of Millennium Park or destination architecture, we are talking about a transformational project in our community. This renovation of the beach, the restoration of the sands and the improvements on the shores is the most important project our Park District has undertaken in decades. We have other choices for fitness, swimming or athletics, but save a lucky few lakefront property owners, only one people friendly lakefront beach.

Wednesday night brought many people together to express feelings and ideas about the plan. We shared differing opinions on the scope and necessity, concerns about costs and upkeep, praise and doubt. Yet I sensed and heard from most an appreciation for the thoughtful design process presented by the architects.

The well-moderated meeting offered civil discourse and introduced important information. Undoubtedly, more will come. The debate about the scope of the project will continue, and we don’t need to rehash it here, we already have several other blogs on the subject. We can, I think, find some common ground and appreciate the work process offered by David Woodhouse Architecture, and the thoughtful and conscientious approach offered in their proposal. 

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Ed Brill May 04, 2012 at 07:49 PM
Doug, your frequent comments seem to try to use the "presumptive close" approach in an area where there is significant diversity of opinion. Many at the Wednesday meeting - and I assure you, many at the Sunday meeting - speak/spoke in favor of the interpretive center. I am personally excited about the year-round opportunity to use the beach as a resource, and will be writing more about this in my column next week after I attend Sunday's session.
Peggy L. May 05, 2012 at 06:08 PM
Another fine article, Michelle. The architects have given us the type of naturalistic design we all requested. The buildings will blend into the background and, with their sustainable designs, make the smallest footprint possible on our beach front. When the project is completed, residents who have not visited Rosewood Beach in 20 years (or more!) will stop in for a look, and want to return. Often!
Peggy L. May 05, 2012 at 06:10 PM
Doug, The Interpretive Center belongs at our beachfront. People and nature co-exist elsewhere and will do so here.
Sally Higginson May 05, 2012 at 06:19 PM
As I said during my comments at Wednesday night's meeting, these structures look to me like trailers, or boxcars. They are boxes, hardly a design inspired by nature. The interpretive center has 3 sides of glass, effectively separating anyone inside from the elements so vital to enjoying the site: the wind, the spray, the scents of the beach and the bluffs. One might as well sit inside a parked car and gaze at the lake - the experience would be the same. I fear birds will fly into the large windows, as anyone with a picture window knows. I feel strongly that the interpretive center should be a 3 season structure, providing shelter but not separation from the elements. And at the base of a steep bluff, why resist a vaulted ceiling structure, which provides natural relief from the heat when the weather is hot. Rosewood is a gem, and we should improve it. But adding trailers, even glass ones, is not the answer.
David Greenberg May 06, 2012 at 07:07 AM
All I saw from the architects was a wonderfully crafted MARKETING PLAN. The design was certainly interesting, but we don't need an Interpretative center regardless of how it's connected with other structures. We don't need a boardwalk - regardless of what it's constructed of. We need some bathrooms, a concession stand, a guard shack. Some sand. We don't need some iffy project by the Army Corps of engineers for MILLIONS of dollars. We don't need a wider beach that will attract seagull flocks who will leave their E.Coli infested deposits, requiring us to spend even more money to remediate... We don't need even more programs for the Park District to operate, staff, and tax us for. If someone doesn't get a spot in a day camp - oh well, that's unfortunate, but it also teaches a valuable lesson about limits. We don't need to spend $50K or $60K a year on Rosewood Beach. If we're going to put these structures down there and they don't pay for themselves, we don't need them. By the District's best estimate - the IC would only reduce the burden by $10K (and even that's suspect because we don't know the methodology) - so it's not a positive effect at all. And the icing on the cake? The phrase: "This is sacred land"... Well, I agree it's special. But if we're going to call it sacred, then ought we not to build upon such a site?

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