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How Prairie School Architecture Influenced Wilmette’s Gillson Park

Offering more than 60 acres of breathtaking lakefront views and an array of thrilling activities on and off of its beaches, Wilmette’s Gillson Park is a local treasure. Located less than two miles from Optima Verdana, future residents will have access to one of the city’s oldest and most beloved stretches of public land. Today, we’re exploring the fascinating history behind Gillson Park. 

Nearly as old as the village itself, Wilmette’s Gillson Park was established in 1908 as Washington Park. The land sitting directly on Lake Michigan was originally used as a depot where clay from the North Shore Channel was placed after excavation. After becoming the first president of the Wilmette Park District that same year, Louis K. Gillson began devising how he could make the most out of Wilmette’s vast greenspace. 

Until 1915, the land existed merely as a plot of blue clay. However, in 1917, under Gillson’s leadership, the Wilmette Park District began its ambitious project to transform the area into a recreational hotspot. Shortly after, the Park Board hired landscape architect and engineer, Benjamin Gage, to elevate the park’s design. 

An architectural drawing of Gillon Park’s 1937 redesign by C.D. Wagstaff and Robert Everly, Courtesy of Wilmette Historical Museum

Following extensive additions contributed by Gage in the 1920s — as well as doubling the park’s size — the Park Board began to search for architects who would help conceive a new, sweeping plan for the greenspace. And, in the mid-1930s, they hired landscape architects C.D. Wagstaff and Robert Everly to lead the project. 

Their sweeping design proposal helped transform the once clay-filled plot into a vibrant landscape with a host of recreational features. Wagstaff and Everly were also heavily inspired by the prominent Prairie School architecture that dominated the area, and specifically by the work of landscape architect, Jens Jensen. 

Construction of the Wallace Bowl in Gillson Park, 1937, Courtesy of the Wilmette Historical Museum

There were numerous prairie-style elements added to the park, including stratified stone walls and steps, a stone council ring, curvilinear roadways and paths, and a host of informal gardens. The architectural team also designed one of the park’s most iconic spaces, the Wallace Bowl, which is a large open-air amphitheater situated in the park. 

Today, the Wilmette Park District is still home to the Prairie-style elements contributed by Wagstaff and Everly and remains a greenspace treasured by all of the village’s residents. To explore more of the park’s history or discover the various recreational activities, visit their website here.

New Book Release: Reflections on the Career of David Hovey Sr., FAIA

Hot off the press is the spectacular retrospective of the 40+ year career of David Hovey Sr., FAIA, Optima’s CEO and Founder. David Hovey Sr., released by Images Publishing, is a collector’s item that arrived on bookshelves in January 2022. The monograph opens with a beautiful introductory essay by the late luminary architect Helmut Jahn, who wrote about their decades-long friendship and Hovey’s “staggering” influence on architecture. Entitled “Living Beautifully,” Jahn explains:

“The best thing that can be said about the work of David Hovey Sr. in his chosen field of multi-family and single-family housing is that he builds unique and inventive dwellings for people to live beautifully. That he chooses to play not just the role of the architect but also that of developer, contractor, construction manager, sales and leasing agent, and building operator makes the achievement even more remarkable. As his own client and CEO of his company, Optima, Hovey demonstrates that it’s possible to successfully execute the very different skills of an architect and a developer by applying tremendous knowledge and tenacity and assuming great responsibility. Many who have tried to work as an architect-developer have failed because they did not find the right balance. David Hovey expanded the role of the architect to the level of a master building and in this, he is without equal in his generation.”

A sketch of Optima’s Sterling Ridge

In the words of friend and chronicler, Jahn talks about the arc of Hovey’s career:

“Hovey’s built work is a testament to constant refinement and improvement, each project a step along a path to take on new and bigger challenges, never being afraid of making a mistake by doing something new. The achievements of an architect become more evident with the passing of time. The good buildings become more important, the others will be forgotten.”

In Jahn’s reflections on Hovey’s deep understand of the complex issue of climate change, he shares his thoughts this way:

“David Hovey’s work should be recognized for more than its architectural design. This is particularly evident in his desert buildings where he addresses the important issue of climate change that challenges architecture today. Authorities measure energy consumption as the primary factor in building construction. Looking at energy efficiency alone is the wrong measure. We don’t have an energy problem, we have an emissions problem. Carbon dioxide is the principal culprit in climate change and the building industry contributes a considerable amount of it to the atmosphere.

Optima’s Biltmore Towers

“In Hovey’s buildings, there are strategies that address climate issues. This is demonstrated in the use of many prefabricated lightweight materials for load-bearing or non-load-bearing, enclosing parts. This extends to the use of recycled steel. Hovey regularly employs effective sun-shading devices. His strategies include LED lighting as well as energy-saving heating, air conditioning, and ventilation systems. Sustainability is assured by design and not through additional equipment or devices, which don’t pay off over time. Here, the mind of the architect and developer in one person can best design and build buildings where nothing can be taken away to come closer to perfection. Only through knowledge, determination, and a deep sense of responsibility can these energy goals be achieved, as the buildings show.”

Stay tuned for other inspiring excerpts from David Hovey Sr., along with stunning images of completed structures and his extraordinary sketches. For those who wish to purchase the book, it is available through a number of booksellers online.

The Future of Sustainable Design in Architecture

At Optima, sustainable design has always been part of our ethos, as we strive to create vibrant communities built with the surrounding natural environment at the forefront. And as technology continues pushing the boundaries of sustainability in architecture, we wanted to explore what the future might possibly hold. 

Historically, sustainable architecture has focused on lush outdoor environments, and at Optima, we know the benefits of urban greenspaces, which is why we have incorporated them into our communities for decades. Urban greenspaces and vertical landscaping are just some of the many sustainable features found in many of our Optima communities that help promote mental and physical health, while mitigating pollution and emulating the feeling of oasis. 

Today, as new age modernism continues to evolve and environmentalism exceeds formalism, designers and architects are developing new ways to create built environments that also benefit the Earth. The newest approach to sustainable architecture is found within regenerative building. 

Regenerative building looks beyond lessening harmful impact; it seeks ways to repair and restore the surrounding environment. In the regenerative design process, innovators conceive ways for each building to produce its own energy, treat its own water and emit a net-positive impact on the environment. 

The Centre for the Built Environment’s living wall which features 24 plant species and 7,000 plants, courtesy of Nova Scotia Community College
The Centre for the Built Environment’s living wall which features 24 plant species and 7,000 plants, courtesy of Nova Scotia Community College

While global contests like Redesign the World are encouraging designers to envision radical solutions to end environmental issues through built communities, some architects have begun to bring regenerative building to life. 

The Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design, Georgia Tech, courtesy of Justin Chan Photography, Lord Aeck Sargent, and Miller Hull Partnership
The Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design, Georgia Tech, courtesy of Justin Chan Photography, Lord Aeck Sargent, and Miller Hull Partnership

Buildings like The Kendeda Building For Innovative Sustainable Design found on Georgia Tech’s campus and Portal High School in Irvine, California use green roofs and water collection systems to reduce reliance on negative forms of energy. Other buildings like Nova Scotia Community College’s Centre for the Built Environment take advantage of multiple sustainable design features like living walls, geothermal systems and solar and wind energy to regenerate and restore their surroundings. 

As sustainable approaches to design continue to expand over time, we can’t wait to continue exploring how – through architecture – we can change contribute to a healthier, more sustainable environment.

Eileen Gray’s E-1027 Reopens to the Public

Previously, in our Women in Architecture Series, we highlighted the streamlined, industrial style of the modernist designer and architect Eileen Gray, which you can read here. Of her many projects, Gray’s French Riviera villa, E-1027, remains most notable. Over time, the grandiose structure fell into ruins, but following an extensive restoration project, Gray’s Villa E-1027 has reopened to the public.  

In its prime, one of the property’s most beloved visitors was Le Corbusier. Following his death, the villa experienced neglect from numerous tenants for years. However, the property was purchased in 1999 by the French agency, Conservatoire du littoral, to oversee its protection and preservation. Later, in 2014 they established the Cap Moderne Association to manage the rehabilitation. After six years of comprehensive restoration work, the E-1027 villa mirrors the original design that was completed in 1929 by Gray and her husband, Jean Badovici. 

The project aimed to restore both the exterior environment and the interior fixtures of the villa. Inside, new built-in and free-standing furniture and artwork reflect the villa’s original lived-in state from nearly a century ago. Visitors are invited to consider how Gray pioneered an interpretation of modernist warmth with welcoming internal fixtures that contrast the villa’s sometimes cold, concrete structure. 

A large room is filled with a bed, chairs, rugs, and artwork. All pieces are designed to look like the lived in style of the 1920's.
The interior of Villa E-1027, Photo by Manuel Bougot

On the exterior, vibrant blue awnings covering the outdoor walkways offset the villa’s bright white walls. The “house by the sea” is intended to be a living organism within the structure’s larger atmosphere. Surrounded by lush greenery and landscaping on its north and south-west sides and built on pilotis just above a plunging cliff into the sea, the villa successfully fulfills Gray’s goal of being harmoniously integrated into its environment.

Timed tours of this modernist wonder are currently available for small groups looking for a getaway. You can learn more about E-1027 and how to visit it on Cap Moderne’s website here

The Benefits of Urban Greenspaces

At Optima, we approach every project as an opportunity to explore the best possible ways to create harmony between the built and natural environments to allow our residents to enjoy a wealth of benefits that contribute to a healthier, more sustainable environment.

We understand that greenspaces; parks, gardens, conservatories, roof gardens and residential greenery are crucial to the vitality of urban spaces and the communities where they are found. Population density of urban areas is increasing swiftly. By 2050, it is estimated that 68% of the global population will live in cities. According to the WHO, urban greenspaces promote mental and physical health through the promotion of physical activity, mutual understanding, and mitigating exposure to air and noise pollution as well as excessive heat. 

In the summer, the heat generated by human activity, transport, and industry creates an increased need for energy consumption to cool spaces. Green areas have the ability to absorb that heat and pollution. They also allow urban dwellers to stretch their legs and be outside, improving cardiovascular health and relieving stress. Each space also promotes social cohesion, the coming together of people who would usually not interact with each other due to the individualistic nature of urban living.

Landscaping used to create privacy at Optima Signature
Landscaping used to create privacy at Optima Signature

At Optima we recognize the tremendous advantages greenspaces provide. In Chicago, Optima Signature’s inviting plaza filled with lush landscaping and 1.5 acres of amenity space encourages residents to spend time outdoors. Gardens, landscaped fire pits, swimming pools, and outdoor entertainment all radiate the feeling of an oasis within the larger urban environment.

Landscaped Courtyard at Optima Kierland Apartments
Landscaped Courtyard at Optima Kierland Apartments

Optima Kierland Center embraces its surrounding beauty and builds off of it. Lush greenery fills the more than 7.5 acres of open space connecting Optima Kierland’s buildings in a park-like setting. Similarly, Optima Sonoran Village utilizes more than half of its 10-acre property to house stunning landscaping, sculpture, and pedestrian paths while mitigating the desert’s harsh climate. We utilize rooftop gardens and our signature vertical landscaping at Optima Sonoran Village, Optima Kierland Apartments, and will be bringing it to Chicago at Optima Verdana, to create an oasis inspired by its surroundings that contribute to the greater environment. This type of green space brings both beauty and positive contributions to their communities. 

Greenspaces make urban living refreshing, enjoyable and social. And as our cities become more and more dense, urban greenspaces become a crucial part of the ecosystem — and of our enhanced quality of life.

Women in Architecture: Amanda Levete

Born in Bridgend, South Wales in 1955, Amanda Levete is known for her innovative practices and making organic and conceptual designs a reality. Levete studied at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London and worked at firms Alsop & Lyall and Richard Rogers Partnership before forming her own London-based firm AL_A (formerly Amanda Levete Architecture) in 2009.

Among Levete’s notable works are the current transformation of Paris’s famous Galeries Lafayette department store, Wadham College at Oxford University, the Museum of Art, Architecture, and Technology (the MAAT) in Lisbon for the EDP Foundation, and a new entrance, gallery, and courtyard for London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. 

An open grass courtyard sits in the forefront of the image while the buildings of Wadham College fill the area behind the grass.
Wadham College, Oxford, UK

Levete is known for her “intuitive and strategic approach to design” which captures the identity of the urban landscape in which a building is located rather than the identity of the building itself. This approach to architecture and design allows Levete’s creations to interact with the space around them and to become a part of a cityscape rather than existing in a vacuum. 

The rendering of the Monte St Angelo Subway Station shows a large burnt orange bean form that is the entrance to the station below.
Monte St Angelo Subway Station, Naples, Italy

An example of Levete’s intuitive and strategic approach to design, one that interacts with its surroundings, is her design of a SEPSA subway station in Naples, Italy. Levete’s station design simultaneously functions as a work of art and a subway station that allows commuters to travel with ease while interacting with a brilliant art piece every day. At the surface level, the station becomes a central element to Naples’ Traino district which has suffered from lack of infrastructure and neglect in past years. A large, smooth metal circle made in collaboration with renowned sculptor Anish Kapoor resides above the entrance, welcoming commuters in while reflecting and highlighting the surrounding architecture of the neighborhood to the viewer. Together Levete and Kapoor celebrate the already existing infrastructure of the district while bringing something new to it through the combination of beauty and functionality. 

A large white building (Galeries Lafayatte) sits on the corner of two streets. On the front of the building sits an image that seems to be a clothing at for what is inside.
Galeries Lafayette, Paris, France

Similarly, Levete’s work on the transformation of the ‘Cupola’ building of Paris’s Galeries Lafayettes celebrates traditional Haussmann-style architecture in order to create an innovative design in a landmark structure. Levete describes this design as a “metamorphosis,” one that acknowledges the importance Galeries Lafayette has to the daily life of Parisians and the architecture of the city of Paris. The Galeries Lafayette project is still in process and Levete plans to celebrate the original craftsmanship of the building while moving it forward into the lives of future generations of shoppers for years and years to come. 

In 2017, Levete was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to architecture. In 2018, Levete was awarded the Jane Dew Prize by the Architects Journal and Architectural Review. The Jane Dew Prize is seen as one of the biggest architecture prizes awarded to women and recognizes architects who “raised the profile for women in architecture.” Levete has also been awarded the RIBA Stirling Prize which is presented to “the architects of the building that has made the greatest contribution to the evolution of architecture in the past year.”

The Environmental Benefits of Vertical Landscaping

Vertical landscaping is a signature feature across Optima communities. In Arizona, we’re easily recognized by the lush greenery that makes itself a key element of the facade at Optima Camelview Village and Optima Sonoran Village. Most recently, we’ve even strategized how to bring our vertical landscaping to the inclement midwestern climate, with plans to incorporate it at our latest development in Wilmette, Optima Verdana.

Photo of Optima Verdana
Vertical landscaping at Optima Verdana in Wilmette.

Besides providing aesthetic value through added beauty and privacy for residents, our vertical landscaping system also serves another important purpose: bringing a broad array of environmental benefits to the natural environments in which we build.

The impact of our vertical landscaping system is something we calculated carefully through extensive design exploration, engineering and a multi-year research collaboration with Arizona State University.

The system, with self-containing irrigation and drainage, provides a haven for urban wildlife, promotes evaporative cooling, re-oxygenates the air, reduces dust and smog levels, reduces ambient noise, detains stormwater and thermally insulates and shields residents from the desert sun, all of which contributes to a sustainable urban environment.

Residents and community members alike also get to experience the direct impact of being surrounded by nature, with the vertical landscaping system serving as a connection to nature. Wherever this connection is made, it fosters a lifelong appreciation for the environment around us, and helps us all to stay mindful of the role we play in keeping that environment safe.

The Health Benefits of Being Outdoors

Considering we all spent a lot of time indoors in 2020, we’ll take any excuse to get outside this summer. Thankfully, there are numerous mental and physical perks to spending time in the great outdoors, whether it’s on a hiking trail or on your own terrace. Here are just a few of the many health benefits of being outdoors:

Boost Your Mood

Studies have shown being outdoors lowers levels of cortisol, a hormone that’s a marker for stress. Spending some time outside can help with stress, anxiety or depression, not to mention the added physical benefits of just spending a few minutes in the sun. Vitamin D helps with bone growth, regulates your immune system and can help battle depression. Even if it’s just a quick reset, getting out of the house and into nature can really boost your mood.

Improve Your Vision

Just like we’ve all spent more time inside over the past year, we’ve also spent more time on our screens. Whether you’re back in the office or working from home, your eyes probably need a break. Staring at computers, tablets and smartphones for long periods of time can cause Computer Vision Syndrome, but spending time outdoors can alleviate blurred and double vision, red eyes and headaches.

Photo of Optima Signature 7th Floor Outdoor Deck
Optima Signature 7th Floor Outdoor Deck

Refresh Your Focus

Nature and green space lets our brains take a break from the chaos of life (and in some cases has even reduced symptoms of ADHD). Spending more time outdoors is also linked to higher levels of concentration, creativity and improved mental clarity.

We hold these health benefits in high esteem, and it’s one of the many reasons we design our residential and communal spaces to invite the outdoors inside. Connecting to nature is an easy way to take some time and connect to yourself and to the environment around you.

The Legacy of Cornelia Oberlander

This spring, the design world lost a woman of fortitude, ingenuity and groundbreaking creativity. Cornelia Oberlander, a Canadian landscape architect, passed away just before her 100th birthday due to complications from COVID-19. Although her passing is mourned, Oberlander left behind an incredible and inspiring life story and legacy.

Cornelia Oberlander was born into a Jewish family in Germany in June of 1921. As the Nazi party rose to power, her family faced increasing dangers and chose to leave the country two weeks after Kristallnacht. Oberlander was eighteen by the time they emigrated to the United States in 1939, and there she was able to nurture her interests in the power of plants to heal. Her mother was a horticulturist who wrote gardening books for children and nurtured Oberlander’s appreciation for nature. Inspired by the landscaping and public spaces in Germany, she was determined to design parks from a young age. 

Oberlander received a BA from Smith College and was among the first class of women to study at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, founded by Walter Gropius, a leader of the Bauhaus movement. Armed with a degree in landscape architecture, Oberlander was on a mission to improve lives with public spaces nourished by nature. And indeed she did; she started out working in Philadelphia, where her initiatives in public housing included places for children and green space. After moving to Canada, she advocated for communities and designed over 70 urban playgrounds. Her notable projects included the Children’s Creative Center at Montreal’s Expo ’67, Vancouver General Hospital Burn Unit Garden and the landscape design at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, Vancouver (photo below). Over her lifetime, Oberlander was honored with Order of British Columbia, the Order of Canada and Vancouver Freedom of the City Award, amongst many other accolades.

The grounds and reflecting pool of the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, designed by Cornelia Oberlander / Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia
The grounds and reflecting pool of the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, designed by Cornelia Oberlander / Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia

Cornelia Oberlander’s work will impact landscape architects, urban designers and creative minds all over the world for years to come. Her beliefs in the ability of design to bring about social change and healing are ones we as creatives should all hold in high regard, as we build systems and buildings that elevate the human experience.

Green Space Spotlight: Optima Signature

In a dense urban area like Chicago, green space might look a little different. With all of our projects, we design our residences to welcome the outdoors indoors; at Optima Signature, that meant making sure residents could still get outside in the city. The green space at Optima Signature takes advantage of landscaping and contemporary, urban recreational design to embrace downtown Chicago living.

On the ground level, Optima Signature is surrounded by greenery with an inviting plaza. Lush landscaping features benches and seating areas, as functional for residents as they are for passersby or pedestrians. Kiwi, an original sculpture designed by David Hovey, Sr., adds visual movement and a playful quality to the entrance of the building.

Once inside, Optima Signature features an impressive 1.5 acres of amenity space, many of which are designed to bring residents outdoors. Heated swimming pools, outdoor terraces, herb gardens for resident use, fire pits and outdoor entertaining all contribute to making residents feel as if they’re in an outdoor oasis in the middle of the city. Strategic landscaping, plants and trees ensure a sense of privacy, despite sharing the amenities with other residents. Designed for residents in all walks of life, Optima Signature also includes an outdoor dog park and play areas for children (although there are indoor options for when the Chicago weather inevitably turns cold). In a concrete jungle, Optima Signature brings residents a bit closer to nature.

When moving to a city, many assume they’ll have to give up access to generous outdoor space. The residences, amenities and green space at Optima Signature offer the best of both worlds, all within a beautifully designed, Modernist tower that overlooks Chicago’s energetic downtown.

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