Oak Park Village Hall: Learning from Säynätsalo

The Council Chambers at Harry Weese’s Oak Park Village Hall. Photo by author.

by guest author Matt Crawford

Architect Harry Weese once described himself as a “man ten years ahead of a time that never comes,” but many of the ideas he had championed throughout his career, such as the lessons from Scandinavia, the importance of context and nature, the priority of human needs in architecture, and the value of history all began to gain wider acceptance in the 1970s.  By this time Weese had produced a body of work so diverse in form, material and type that any attempt to classify him in terms of a “mainstream” in modern architecture is futile.  He acknowledged “we are willing to risk seeming inconsistent.  I get a great deal of pleasure in discovering old things that can be made new again as well as discovering new combinations.”  The modern architecture of Scandinavia exerted an early and lasting influence on Weese, and his 1975 design for the Oak Park Village Hall pays homage to Alvar Aalto and his 1952 hall for the village of Säynätsalo, Finland.

An open interior with a laminated timber structure and boarded ceiling. Photo by author.

Aalto and his Scandinavian contemporaries believed that “function” in modern architecture had drifted away from its original goal of accommodating human activity.  In its place “function” began to be driven by the economics of construction, which favored machine-made materials and processes and which led to predetermined forms.  The Scandinavians instead worked to redeem modernism by reconnecting it with nature and human needs, creating comfortable buildings with natural and handmade materials like brick and wood.  This is the same approach chosen by Weese for the Oak Park Village Hall, and while this modern structure was built using machines in 1975, it could have been easily built by hand in 1875.

Following the recommendation of a comprehensive 20-year plan for the suburb, the Village of Oak Park began planning the new hall in 1971 to consolidate its offices under one roof.  Though the site at Madison and Lombard Streets was some distance from Oak Park’s central spine on Lake Street, village leaders hoped that the new hall would spur investment in the southeast corner of the suburb.  Construction began in 1973 and the building was dedicated on July 4, 1975.

Plan of Oak Park Village Hall.

Like the town hall in Saynatsalo, the Oak Park Village Hall is a low-slung brick building, square in plan with a central courtyard.  It is best approached on foot from Madison Street where one is met with the council chamber, a sharp wedge of a building jutting out from the village hall and hovering above it on brick piers.  To further emphasize its importance, the chamber is pared from the rest of the building, minimally connected to it by a narrow steel tube passageway.  A second entrance to the council chamber is provided by a ramp which passes through openings in a series of heavy piers.  Such flourishes are unusual for Weese, but here it is a blunt expression of architecture yielding to human needs.  The piers below the chamber are similarly perforated with circular voids which would have been more dramatic when the plaza below the chamber contained a reflecting pool.

Columns open up to let the ramp pass through. Photo by author.

Next to the council chamber a wide ramp draws the visitor up to the building’s heart, an open courtyard harbored by the wings of the village hall on four sides.  The walls facing the courtyard are entirely glazed, making real the ideal of a transparent and accessible government.  To enhance the human scale of the courtyard, Weese stepped the volume of the second story away from it leaving the enclosing walls only one story.

The glass walls enclosing the courtyard are sheltered with wood eaves and rafters. Photo by author.

From the outside, the hall’s four street-facing elevations read as a two-story building making it appear larger than it really is, a sensible approach given the building’s small square footage and civic importance.  It is hard to imagine this building rendered in anything but brick, yet in the early stages of the design stucco and wood were considered as a nod to the Prairie School masterpieces of Oak Park.  Fortunately these were abandoned in favor of common brick, Weese’s favorite material which he composes in disciplined geometric forms of planar relieved with square and circular window openings.  The architect’s signature ribbon windows are located at the intersection of wall and roof planes, an apparent structural impossibility.  It is unknown if Weese specified the ivy covering the outside walls, though it is not incompatible with his effort to intertwine nature and architecture.

A view of the Village Hall offices from the mezzanine. Photo by author.

The revolving door in the courtyard leads to interior of the village hall, a warm and open-plan space with few partition walls.  Staffers who interact with the public are located on the ground floor surrounding the courtyard, behind them and above on a mezzanine are the private offices and conference rooms.  The roof and mezzanine are carried on a straightforward exposed timber structure of columns, beams and buttresses built up from laminated ponderosa pine.

Weese described the hall as “a marriage of function and monument, expressed modestly in pure forms and human scale,” the Oak Park Village Hall was completed in 1975, the same year as the Prentice Women’s Hospital.  Though radically different, these two buildings show how modern architecture of the 1960s, with its predictable forms, had by the mid-1970s evolved into something far more diverse in its goals and forms.

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