Since graduating from Springfield High School in the late 1960s, John Norquist has enjoyed national renown as a politician, author, and advocate for historic preservation. The former mayor of Milwaukee returned to his hometown last Friday as a featured speaker at the American Institute of Architects' annual conference.
Norquist, 55, gave an hourlong lecture on the importance of architecture, an art form that he says has been marginalized in recent years in favor of urban sprawl and cookie-cutter development. Architects, he argued, have a critical role to play not just in residential development but also in public projects like building bridges and highways.
"[Architecture is] looked at as a frill, as something extra, something that may be nice but not needed," he said to the more than 100 architects who filled the third-floor theater at the Hoogland Center for the Arts.
"We've got this kind of architecture that looks like every place and no place."
Norquist today serves as president of Congress for the New Urbanism, a Chicago-based nonprofit group that advocates the restoration of urban centers.
During the lecture, Norquist discussed what he considers botched urban planning in cities throughout Illinois. Some cities, he said, have zoning laws that prohibit the integration of residential and commercial development, leaving areas devoid of any "sense of community."
He recounted a tour of Bloomington-Normal he took earlier this year during which he visited a subdivision that had no windows on the sides of the newly built homes. "That's a failure of architecture," he said. "That's a triumph of engineers over the basic needs of people."
For Springfield, Norquist proposed rebuilding the intersecting commercial arteries of South Grand Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard: "We need to create streets again where architecture becomes important, where buildings are close enough to the street that architecture matters."
Mayor Tim Davlin, who introduced Norquist at the convention, called Springfield "a city that is changing on a daily basis." As evidence, Davlin pointed to the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, as well as the planned Capitol Avenue project.
Davlin said he is counting on state funds to jump-start the project, which aims to redesign Capitol Avenue as a grand downtown entryway that connects neighborhoods on the city's east and west sides. "We hope to get funding for that in the veto session," said Davlin, whose spokesman confirmed that several million dollars in state grants may be secured for the project this month.
Norquist tipped his hat to Davlin as a "mayor who cares" about preservation. This has not been the case for many years, he acknowledged, noting that more than a dozen historically significant downtown buildings have been demolished in just the last quarter-century.
"In a city like Springfield, 20 years ago they would have carelessly torn down old buildings," said Norquist. "People now understand there's money in historic buildings."