Most American cities, including Evanston, fall apart visually as soon as one approaches the center. The one exception is Washington, D.C, where height is uniformly regulated and side yards are not required. Consequently, the structures form a continuity – a uniform facade like those of many European cities, such as the boulevards of Paris or the streets of Vienna.
The Paris boulevards were constructed in the second half of the 19th century, under the direction of the renowned urban planner Baron Hausman – a tyrant, according to some, who ruled the reconstruction of the city for about 30 years. Under those rules urban design was easy. Today, it must be among the most frustrating of occupations.
In a sizeable American city such as Evanston, the low-rise residential hinterland starts at the periphery. It continues for some distance, but then at a certain point, the umbrella of green foliage that, in winter, becomes a dense calligraphy of branches, comes to an end. This is where trouble begins. It is called downtown.
The trouble is the result of “zoning,” of unregulated – in fact unregulatable – capitalism that permits anyone to build anything as long as it fits maximum heights, minimum of required setbacks and provides a minimal number of required parking spaces. Under this system it is perfectly acceptable to build a one-story structure next to an eight-story one, or to leave a parcel or two open to be followed by a five-story structure, as long as they are below the permitted maximum in the zoning district.
The visual chaos is further exacerbated when a greedy developer, wishing to outsmart his building’s neighbor by two floors, hires a clever zoning attorney. This attorney will bring in well-educated experts, who will attempt to sell anything “not unreasonable” to the City Council, a citizens’ group whose members are by and large uneducated in architecture or urban design.
The result is similar to the games we used to play in school in which the first child drew a head, stopping at the neck, and folded the paper so that the next participant saw only the neck. He or she drew the torso and then folded the paper and passed it to the next. When unfolded, the figure was a cobbled-together oddity.
Current urban design is like the product of that game, an ill-regulated, unplannable cacophony of architectural “music,” resulting in vacant lots adjacent to multi-story structures not unlike a toothless mouth.
In Evanston, Davis Street starts and ends with leafy, low-rise residential. No problems here. When it becomes downtown, however, cacophony begins, though there are exceptions. The north side of the street, between Hinman and Chicago, is quite harmonious. Beyond that, north and south, stand a mixture of dissonant events: a brutally ill-fitting structure on the southwest corner of Hinman and Davis, empty lots, a stylistic mish-mash on the southwest corner of Chicago and Davis, a bank drive-in, and, among other horrors, our tallest high rise on the northwest corner of Orrington and Davis.
This “vista” is the result of several architects and City officials playing the paper-folding game. Even the Miesian bank building is lifted on a pedestal to turn its back on the street. Few rewards are to be found in this mess. The elegant two-story building on the south side of Davis that faces the “modern” monster across the alley has sensitive proportions and beautiful Corinthian capitals. The high rise by David Hovey with the orange balconies is another success, as are the charmingly detailed building at 620 Davis and the best-proportioned little urban place, Chandler Plaza. The monotony of the rest of the street is interrupted only by the imposing Art Deco post office.
And along came Matthew Barry and Andy Spatz, two talented architects who bought and remodeled a two-story building on the south side of Davis, second from the corner of Chicago Avenue, in the midst of visual chaos. They could do nothing but clean up the facade and make it a simple, stark and neutral design – or go a grade louder and really capture the attention.