Cheese on a Plate
A bigger, not better, capitol complex
September 15, 1983
When the State of Illinois decided to build a new Department of Revenue headquarters, I endorsed the idea of building it downtown. I was wrong. Because if its size—a pre-digital tax processing facility operated more like a factory than an office buildings—it had to be built several blocks from the statehouse. Its promise was that it would enliven downtown, but it is too far for Springfieldians to walk from the site to downtown on a 30-minute lunch break; instead Springfield got lots of fast-food franchisers located five minutes from the building. Dozens of buildings around it were razed for parking lots and the building itself turned out to the badly built. Better it was built on the edge of town, near an interstate, in a complex that offered space for cafes and restaurants and cleaners and day care within walking distance of the desks.
No one who drives along Jefferson Street just west of downtown Springfield is likely to overlook it anyway. The State of Illinois' new Revenue Center, all ten acres of it, is moving toward its scheduled completion in mid-1984. It is neither the most ornate nor the costliest nor, the ugliest building the state has ever built. But it's for sure one of the biggest. Imagine a White Oaks Mall without the Orange Julius stand and you get the idea.
Actually, the bulk of the building is buried below ground, a practice which, if more widely followed, would no doubt improve our opinion of modern architects. The model of the structure was unveiled in the spring of 1980. It showed a slab-like base of precast concrete covering virtually the entire four-block site; rising from this extended horizontal plane like cheese on a plate were twin office blocks connected by an atrium. The design seemed uncluttered, restrained, and perfectly anonymous.
Well, as architecture critic Paul Goldberger remarked a few weeks ago in the New York Times, "Almost everything looks good in model form." We awaited the actual building with trepidation. The design was the work of the Springfield firm of Ferry & Henderson, which has had more to say about the way Springfield looks in the '80s than any other firm; in the process, F&H reveals the risks one runs in catering too obligingly to clients who spend their weekends dressed in golf outfits.
The real building is certainly different from its model. But, Goldberger to the contrary, it looks much better. (There have been the usual changes made in the initial design, chiefly in the office block. Instead of concrete panels interrupted by ribbons of horizontal windows, the entire blocks have been sheathed in the same tinted glass used to roof the atrium. The change detracts from the stated original intention to making the atrium the dramatic focus of the design, but not fatally.) [Note: The glassed-in central tower became a heat sink.]
But it is not any difference from the model that makes the building so much more interesting but differences between the way we look at models and the way we look at buildings. Goldberger points out that while one usually views models from above, no one really sees buildings from above except helicopter pilots—and, around here, the governors who ride with them. From above, the sheer expanse of the building is vividly plain. The office blocks shrivel in significance in the midst of all that square footage. Seen from street level, however, that expanse is hidden by the concrete walls which ring the building and loom nine feet and more above the sidewalk. Undistracted by the intervening distance, one's eye fastens instead on the office blocks, which from the street regain their place as a focal point of the structure. The overlapping horizontal planes, punctured by vertical outcrops, seemed insignificant in model form but give it a surprisingly mobile image to the viewer passing by.
Further, the building's sheer breadth has the effect of creating its own setting, creating its own horizon almost. (Only the state's electrical generating plant mars the otherwise uninterrupted vista.) It is not inspired design but intelligent. Its charms are in its shapes rather than its details. If it shows an indifferent face to the pedestrian it's because it was designed for access by automobile. (There is a nice irony here. The most interesting view of the building may be looking east up Jefferson Street. The site slopes considerably toward the west as Jefferson descends into an old creek valley, and the building sort of reveals itself plane by plane as one moves uphill. Few people will see it this way, however; Jefferson Street is a one-way street that leaves cars heading the wrong way.)
One is often tempted to overpraise new buildings which manage to not be actually ugly; we no longer expect art, but are grateful to get anything better than insult. We don't know how well the building will actually work, of course, and one of those office blocks does tend to put one in mind of the Wizard of Oz's Rubik's Cube. Still, one need only glance a block to the south at the Bicentennial Building, a private office building which looks like it was built out of Lego blocks by a twelve-year-old nursing a grudge, to be reminded of what the revenue center could have become.
Alas, there is no doubt about the revenue center's effect on its neighbors. The building—which will house as many as 3,000 lunching workers who will arrive each morning aboard as many as 2,000 cars—landed like a bomb on the edge of a modest residential district. It is still throwing up debris from the impact, in the form of gravel and asphalt parking lots. The Department of Revenue has allowed for parking for only 600 or so cars on the site itself. Department officials reportedly are still talking about incentives to reduce the influx of cars (including charging for those spots, and offering discounts to car poolers). But since private rental parking is already available nearby as cheaply as $15 a month (a weekday spot in Chicago's Loop, of course, is more like $75) such a policy is hardly likely to help.
This is precisely the sort of thing that makes us long-time Springfield residents regard the state as an occupying army. Like any occupied people, we have our share of collaborators. Already ten houses have been razed for rental parking. The fact that many such lots (including backyard lots) are in contravention of the city's zoning laws seems not to bother the city any more than it does their owners. Back in July the city council spoke of the need for a licensing procedure to insure that such lots are at least properly screened—this while they approved construction of two more new ones. The city continues to act as if the problem is not having enough parking spaces in its increasingly congested central core, when in fact the problem is that there are too many cars.
Indeed, the Capitol Complex (an area now effectively extended at least a dozen square blocks by construction of the revenue center) is approaching the design ideal to which two generations of architects and urban planners have devoted themselves. The entire complex of public and private buildings extending for several blocks north of the Statehouse is rapidly coming to resemble an archipelago. Isolated office blocks like the Alzina Building (wherein the State Board of Education cowers) and 222 S. College rise like islands out of a sea of cars. Soon the views between these buildings, along with Jefferson West, 325 W. Adams, and the state's new computer center will be separated by nothing larger than a Country Squire. Thus the hoped-for efficiency of concentrating state agencies in one place will be achieved at last: Employees won't need to use telephones to transact interagency business, they can use semaphor flags.
This failure to consider buildings in their urban context is not a fault unique to Springfield or state government, obviously. The state, by building such a massive complex without serious attention to where its employees will eat and park as well as work is merely passing off the public cost of expansion to the private citizen, in the form of traffic congestion, dirtier air, undesirable land uses, and ugliness. The state has both the money and the legal power to acquire and develop not just individual sites but the whole Capitol Complex—not just the "official" complex but the actual complex. What the state lacks is imagination and any sense of commitment to the task extending farther into the future than the next election. That and conscience.
And the city? Well, it is helpless against the state's pre-eminent legal authority. But until the state takes responsibility for adjacent land, the city could at least put new muscle into land use controls (including lawsuits where needed). Failing that, the city council might at least protest; it might not save many houses or trees but it might salvage something of its honor.
In the meantime, I suggest that you drive around the revenue center twice. Look at the building in its different aspects the first time around. On the second trip, look at everything surrounding the building. That way, if anyone asks you at a party how not to plan a city, you'll be able to tell them. ●