Roula Alakiotou's rewarding half century

Posted on Tue, 09/01/2020 - 12:30pm

By Ron Cohn

Roula AlakiotouRoula Alakiotou was an architecture student at the U. of I. Chicago when she was invited to a Fourth of July house party at Malibu East. Some of her classmates had landed a commission, exceedingly rare for students, to design the interior of a condo for an original owner in the brand-new building, and the finished product was ready to be shown off.

In a way, for Roula, that party has never really ended.

Along with the expected fireworks, a romance exploded that evening for Roula and the unit owner, Al Borenstine, and, before the end of the year, she was living with him in unit 5K. She and Al went on to get married, have twin daughters in 1978, expand into a palatial A and B combined unit and raise, with the help of her mother, their family at Malibu East. Roula and Al both recorded outstanding accomplishments and success in their respective fields, became grandparents, traveled widely and were happy here together until Al’s passing in 2016.

Roula, still youthful, is living gracefully in the grand space and is filled with an architect’s enthusiasm for the building’s future. Asked whether she had thought of moving, she replied, “Where else would I want to go?”

Al Borenstine had not become a Malibu East owner by chance. A Wharton MBA and expert in the new computer field of systems design management, he was receiving the industry’s National Distinguished Service Award by the Boston chapter of the Association for Systems Management, for consistent service and contributions to the systems profession. Among other achievements, he had directed the management information systems for New York’s Levittown, the world’s most famous housing development.

Al was approached at the awards ceremony by developer Herb Rosenthal of Dunbar Builders, who “made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.” He was recruited to come to Chicago and apply his computer magic to Malibu East. Working with the architects and engineers, Al designed the systems that made this mammoth project operationally possible. He also purchased 5K, one of the first units completed.

The building, notable for its architecture, was well-known to Roula, who had its designer, the colorful John Macsai, as one of her professors at UIC. “I thought the building was beautiful,” she remembered. “It had an order that was missing from all the other Sheridan Road buildings.”

An Athenian girl’s architectural dream

From her earliest memories, Roula Alakiotou had always wanted to be an architect. As a girl growing up in Athens, her dream was taking shape at Athens Tech, but, halfway through, she elected to pursue it to completion in Chicago and the U. of I. “In the ’60s, we Athens Tech students of the neoclassic city were in awe of Chicago’s modern kings, Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright,” she explained. “Chicago was the mecca of architecture, and UIC was in the heart of it all.”

She said that, for students, “the city itself was the study model, the professors were associates of the masters and were all practicing architects at the great firms in the city.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree, with honors, from UIC, the next step in Roula’s grand plan was to go on for her master’s in architecture at the U. of I. at Urbana-Champaign, which she received, also with honors, while maintaining her relationship with Al. The final step in the plan, however, had always been to return to her family in Athens and continue her career, which had already included an internship in professor Constantine Doxiadis’ inspirational work for Athens’ decentralization and other large-scale civic projects in Greece and the Middle East.

A crisis was looming, but a Greek tragedy was averted when some well-deserved recognition came Roula’s way in the form of a life-changing offer from the Chicago city Architect’s Office. The public sector brilliance she had shown was just what they needed for the epic transformation of Navy Pier and other award-winning urban and historic projects.

Three years later she founded her own architectural firm and, with Al’s enthusiastic participation, a pair of beautiful twin girls.

Raising children in Malibu East’s early days

Roula said that Sheridan Road in general, and Malibu East specifically, was pretty much a senior citizen/empty nester environment.

“There were very few young families, and the seniors weren’t that crazy about having little kids running around,” she explained. “The use (by children) of public amenities like elevators, the pool, etc., was frowned on and difficult, and the reason why Al and a couple of other parents sought to get elected to the Board of Directors,” she went on. “Once there, they were able to broaden the building’s tolerance, created a children’s room (where the ramp and Management Office are presently located), and make the building welcoming to young families.”

There was no real playground in the neighborhood except for a couple of swings at Thorndale Beach, with a flow of traffic off Sheridan Road making the partially fenced park less than safe for children. Roula, through her work with her own firm, was quickly earning a reputation for community-based projects, including authoring The Chicago Beautification Manual, which included guidelines for neighborhood improvement. With that credential, she worked successfully with then-Alderman Marion Volini to restrict auto travel on Thorndale east of Sheridan to remove the traffic hazard for kids using the playground.

Getting her twins a safer place to play was a natural move that quickly positioned her as a leading force in making Edgewater a better place to live, when Alderman Volini recommended Roula to the Edgewater Community Council to work on a neighborhood project of historic importance.

Creating today’s Berger Park

In the late 1970s, Berger Park was a narrow strip of land at Granville and Sheridan, along the south edge of the property known as the Viatorian mansions. Rights to the beachfront parcels had been purchased by the Park District in 1965 from the Clerics of St. Viator. They comprised three turn-of-the-century beachfront mansions and two coach houses that the Viatorians had used to house student priests since the order acquired the land and buildings in the ’40s. They were allowed to continue that use until they moved out in 1979.

Developers soon came in with a $6 million bid to purchase the houses and tear them down for the construction of high-rise condos. The Edgewater Community Council, in a preservation movement led by Kathy Osterman, Bob Remer, Alderman Volini, David Orr and Roula, opposed this sale and ultimately convinced Congressman Sidney Yates to apply for urban grants that would allow the Park District to exercise its purchase rights. The Viatorians agreed to sell the property to the city for the $2 million in grant money, with the condition that the buildings be used for nonprofit purposes.

This victory for the community was the first in a decade of uphill struggles under Roula’s leadership to deliver the mansions for community use, and which ultimately resulted in the National Park Service naming Berger Park to the National Register of Historic Places on Jan. 10, 2010.

All through the ’80s they worked to raise the money needed for the demolition of the third, northernmost mansion, which was beyond repair; the salvation of the middle house, which was almost as dilapidated; the creation of an 8,000-square-foot playground; and the development and operation of the café just behind the two mansions, now named the Waterfront Café. Roula was a force behind these undertakings, serving pro bono as the president of the North Lakeside Cultural Center for nine years while juggling motherhood duties and running an increasingly successful, award-winning architectural practice.

Community recognition and architectural honors

Roula’s talent, leadership and boundless enthusiasm have earned her wide recognition and many coveted awards.

The preservation of the Sheridan Road mansions for posterity was an achievement honored by the Edgewater Community Council and the Edgewater Historical Society, which honored Roula by naming her an “Edgewater Living Treasure” in 2013.

She served under three mayors as the only architect on Chicago’s Zoning Board of Appeals and serves on Chicago’s Building Department Committee on Standards and Tests. Roula has taught at UIC as an adjunct associate professor and mentors international architectural interns from the School of the Art Institute.

She is responsible for many significant projects, including a groundbreaking design for the 1,600-capacity maximum security facility of the Cook County Department of Corrections, for which Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin wrote, “She brought considerable vision to the job … melded a tough-minded concern for security with an innovative, humanistic vision.” She designed the Remote Station for the O’Hare People Mover System, the 35th and Archer, and a State Street subway CTA station, Chicago public schools, an 80-acre monastery complex near Kenosha, Wisconsin, and many other projects in her 40-year practice.

She is co-founder of Architects for Social Responsibility, and in 1997 her peers elevated her to a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, granting her the coveted designation FAIA. She is on the board of the Chicago Women Architects Foundation, supporting the next generation of women architects, from which she received a lifetime achievement award in 2018.

None of these accomplishments is as rewarding, Roula insists, as having two beautiful granddaughters.

Borrowing the title of the Edgewater Historical Society’s iconic award, we must agree that Roula Alakiotou is a living treasure of Malibu East.