Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Stellar Apartments Energy Study Presentation

Stellar Apartments Passive House building, by Bergsund DeLaney Architecture & Planning PC (photo from Bergsund DeLaney website)
 
The Cascadia Green Building Council invites everyone to an educational presentation detailing the results of a 2-year energy study of the Stellar Apartments, a 54-unit, 12-building multi-family housing project developed by the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County and designed by Bergsund DeLaney Architecture & Planning PC. The project is located in Eugene and provides affordable housing for low-income families and military veterans.
 
Bergsund DeLaney designed one of the twelve Stellar Apartments buildings to Passive House standards, focusing on extremely air tight and energy efficient construction. The energy study evaluated the health, environmental, and financial trade-offs of this type of construction by comparing it to another building on site with the same design and solar orientation, built to Earth Advantage standards. 
 
St. Vincent de Paul partnered with Alison Kwok at the University of Oregon, EWEB, and the City of Eugene  to monitor energy use and indoor air quality data between the two buildings and assess the value of pursuing the Passive House approach for multi-family projects. The presentation will include a background of the project, a summary of the Passive House philosophy and design principles, the results of two years monitoring the energy usage data, and a discussion of the lessons learned from this process. 
 
What promises to be an informative presentation will take place on Wednesday, February 24 at the NEW Barn Light East.  At 4:30 PM, directly prior to the presentation there will be a brief opportunity to network and enjoy light complimentary appetizers, with beverages available for purchase. The presentation will occur from 5-6 PM. Seating is limited, so please RSVP. And please walk, bike, share a ride, or take the bus! 
 
What: Stellar Apartments Energy Study Presentation 
 
When: Wednesday, February 24, 2016 – 4:30 PM-6 PM 
 
Where: Barn Light East, 545 East 8th Avenue, Eugene 
 
Cost: FREE 
 
RSVP: HERE

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Value of CDT Certification

 
Change is a constant in architecture and construction. If anything, the pace of this change is accelerating. We all struggle to keep up with the latest developments in an effort to remain competitive. Our success is contingent upon how quickly we adapt in an environment buffeted by forces largely beyond our control. Survival of the fittest is a maxim always in play. 
 
If there is another constant in our industry it is the importance of clear, concise, correct and complete construction documentation and communications. Architecture and construction are increasingly dependent upon the effective conveyance of design intent. They are likewise dependent upon the clear definition of project responsibilities and roles detailed by the forms of agreement most widely used in construction projects. It’s important and necessary for everyone—owners, architects, engineers, specifiers, general contractors, subcontractors, construction materials suppliers, and others—to understand project delivery options, standard forms of agreement, means for organizing drawings and specifications, etc. 
 
Change and the Four C’s of construction documentation are not incompatible. A key to managing the former and mastering the latter is knowledge, specifically fluency with the lingua franca of our industry. Knowledgeable employers highly value those who understand the language of construction, its underlying principles and terminology, and the critical relationships between all the participants in any design and construction undertaking. Employees who thoroughly understand this language not only survive but are more likely to thrive. They are the winners in today’s challenging and constantly changing environment. 
 
So, how can you demonstrate your construction knowledge and competence? How can you stand out in the crowd? One of the best ways is to achieve Construction Documents Technologist (CDT) status. 
 
The Construction Specifications Institute developed the CDT program decades ago to provide training in construction documentation for architects, contractors, contract administrators, specifiers, and manufacturers’ representatives. Since then, it has become the cornerstone for all of CSI’s certification programs, which presently include  Certified Construction Specifier (CCS), Certified Construction Contract Administrator (CCCA), and Certified Construction Product Representative (CCPR)
 
Passing the CDT examination means you have become fluent with construction project processes and communication. It means you’ve demonstrated professional commitment, credibility, and reliability to your employer, colleagues, and clients. Obtaining CDT status benefits you, your company, and your customers. Getting your CDT also means acquiring the privilege to add “CDT” after your name on your business card and resume. 
 
In some respects, I regard the value of the CDT as analogous to that of a liberal arts degree, in that both provide a foundation for more advanced learning. I became a CDT back in 1989, and subsequently achieved Certified Construction Specifier status a couple of years later. There’s no doubt in my mind that studying for and passing both examinations has served me very well professionally. What I learned provided me with a solid knowledge base I’ve relied upon throughout my career. I know I’m a much better architect than I might have been without the benefit of what I learned through those two certification programs. I truly believe this knowledge equipped me with the ability to better cope with the accelerating changes in our industry by ensuring I first thoroughly grasped the time-tested fundamentals of construction documentation and communications. 
 
I highly encourage any of you who are simply curious about CDT certification to seriously consider learning more about its value. Ask others besides me who have become CDTs. Or check out CSI’s YouTubechannel for informational webinars about its certification programs. The webinars provide more information than I have shared here. Each webinar covers the requirements and resources needed for successful exam preparation and study. Many local CSI chapters (including the Willamette Valley Chapter) also offer educational courses to help those interested prepare for the examinations. 
 
As the saying goes, knowledge is power. Knowledge provides a competitive edge. Give your knowledge about construction documents and communication a boost by becoming a Construction Documents Technologist. The true value of CDT certification is beyond calculation—it’s priceless. 
 
*     *     *     *     *

January 31 was the early registration deadline for the spring Certification Examinations but it's still not too late to sign up for them. If I’ve convinced you of the value of becoming a Construction Documents Technologist, why wait? Act now by clicking here. The last day for registration is February 29. The dates for the examinations are March 29 through April 30 in the US and Canada (the CDT exam is also offered internationally). If you’re not currently a member of CSI, consider joining and you’ll save on the cost of the examination registration fees. 

CDT Examination Fees:
  • CSI Member: $295
  • Non-member: $430

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Ready to Roll

CSI-WVC members with the engineering "mule" for Arcimoto's Generation 8 SRK (my photo).
 
Without a doubt, the first meeting of 2016 for the Construction Specifications Institute-Willamette Valley Chapter was a departure from the norm for our group. Rather than being devoted to a discussion about construction documentation, or construction project team communications, or the latest in building materials technology, we instead gathered at the home of Arcimoto, Eugene’s own automobile start-up, for a glimpse of what the company has been up to. 

I previously blogged about Arcimoto’s unveiling of its Generation 8 SRK, which the company touts as its market-ready, affordable, everyday electric vehicle. Because most routine trips involve only the driver and maybe one passenger, a small, efficient, and inexpensive means of transport makes much more sense than hauling around town in a huge, gas-guzzling and polluting SUV.(1) I’ve followed Arcimoto’s development of the three-wheeled SRK for several years now, and I’ve become a big fan of the underlying concept. As I wrote back in November, I regard the SRK as nothing less than a huge step toward a paradigm-shifting future for personal urban transportation.

It’s the SRK’s vast potential for changing how we get from point A to point B that makes a visit to see a company like Arcimoto relevant to anyone in the construction industry. After all, vehicles like the SRK may profoundly reshape our thinking about the built environment. They require far less parking space, meaning less precious land would be conceded to surface parking lots or structures. Their proliferation would reduce air pollution, resulting in improved air quality. Fewer filling stations would be required, so the land the stations might have occupied would be available for higher and better uses. Ultimately, our streets would be cleaner, quieter, and safer as oversized, over-powered, and polluting cars declined in number. The implications for the development and construction industries are huge.

The SRK, which Bloomberg Business fittingly described as being the “electric love child of a commuter’s bicycle and a multi-ton car,” may also serve as a template for tomorrow’s autonomous vehicles. If they proliferate, self-driving cars really won’t need to be big, heavy, and expensive because manufacturers won’t have to pack in the many safety features standard in today’s automobiles. Instead, they can be light, efficient, and very affordable. Arcimoto is wisely anticipating the likelihood that autonomous transport will become the norm and that its conception of the future for an economical personal vehicle provides a logical platform for this technology.

Joe Morgan (in the Arcimoto T-shirt) describes the company's first generation prototype for its everyday electric vehicle (my photo).
 
Our host for the evening was Joe Morgan, Arcimoto’s lead for prototype production.  Joe ably answered the many questions we threw at him: When will production begin? Will an enclosed version be available? What about heating and AC? How far will it go between charges? What are the safety features of the SRK? How can I preorder one? It was clear to me that my CSI colleagues were very much intrigued, curious, and suitably impressed. Arcimoto’s office manager Sebastiane Power, electrical engineer Carter Marquis, and mechanical engineer Jim Jordan were also on hand to help answer questions and explain the thinking behind the Arcimoto concept. Big thanks to all of them for being both highly informative and generously hospitable.

Joe toured us through Arcimoto’s modest design and fabrication facility, located on Blair Boulevard in Eugene’s Whiteaker neighborhood. He also showed us the company’s “museum,” located across the street. There we watched a video of the two “alpha” SRK 8 models in action and also inspected the earlier iterations of the SRK. The evolution of the concept has been gradual but also dramatic in many ways. The Gen 8 truly appears to be a near-perfect distillation of what a low-cost, high-performance, personal EV should be.

In addition to Joe, Sebastiane, Carter, and Jim, I’m very appreciative for the contributions of two important members of the Arcimoto team who were not present: business development leader Jesse Fittipaldi and Arcimoto founder Mark Frohnmayer. Jesse and Mark made the arrangements for our meeting but could not join us for a very good reason: They were (and still are) in the middle of what has proven to be a wildly successful tour through the west unveiling the Gen 8 SRK. The highlight of this tour so far was probably the giant 2016 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. The fallout from CES has been a tremendous amount of favorable press about the SRK. I’m sure it’s truly satisfying for everyone at Arcimoto to see their toil and sweat finally bearing fruit. Here’s a sampling of some of the buzz:















The Generation 8 SRK (Arcimoto publicity photo). 

Arcimoto’s goal is to begin production of the SRK by the end of 2016. The company already has preorders from about 700 people, and this number is growing daily (in fact, a couple of CSI members were ready to make their fully refundable $100 deposits on the spot during our meeting!). Once enough people commit to purchasing the SRK, Arcimoto will roll out a limited initial public offering of shares to secure funding for the company’s expansion.(2) Joe said primary fabrication and assembly will take place in Eugene but that a suitable facility for doing so has yet to be identified. Ultimately, Arcimoto’s success could be huge for Eugene, providing well-paying manufacturing jobs and further diversifying the local economy.

By the way, the name Arcimoto means “Future I Drive.” As the company’s website states, their aspiration is to devise new technologies and patterns of mobility that together raise the bar for environmental efficiency, footprint, and affordability. I’m more hopeful than ever that Arcimoto’s vision of the future will take hold and we will see what may prove to be the most transformative set of developments in the automotive industry since the advent of mass-produced cars more than a century ago.

(1)  The SRK is fully electric and high-performance (the base model has a range of 70 miles between charges and has a top speed of 85 mph). Arcimoto has pegged the price of the base model at $11,900 (not including possible incentives or tax credits).

(2)  As enthusiastic as I am about the SRK, I haven’t committed to purchasing one for myself yet. I’ve never been an adopter of early technology, and my risk-aversion is paralyzing. Perhaps I'll purchase a future generation of the SRK when it becomes time to put my Civic Hybrid out to pasture.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Pritzker Prize and Neural Nostalgia

Siamese Towers at the Catholic University of Chile, by Alejandro Aravena and ELEMENTAL (file via Wikimedia, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license).

Many of us became aware of the announcement last week: The Hyatt Foundation awarded architecture’s highest honor, the 2016 Pritzker Prize, to Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena. Perhaps I’m in the minority amongst my peers, but my first reaction was “who?” It turns out Alejandro Araveno is not only highly accomplished but also most deserving as the 41st Pritzker laureate. According to a statement from the prize jury, Aravena is an architect who deepens our understanding of what is truly great design. [He] has pioneered a collaborative practice that produces powerful works of architecture and also addresses key challenges of the 21st century. His built work gives economic opportunity to the less privileged, mitigates the effects of natural disasters, reduces energy consumption, and provides welcoming public space. Innovative and inspiring, he shows how architecture at its best can improve people’s lives.”

Since the announcement, I’ve read about and seen photographs of several of the projects designed by Aravena’s firm, ELEMENTAL. The projects indeed appear thoughtful and innovative. So too does a frequent working process of his, which he refers to as “incremental design,” wherein the end users of his buildings are invited to finish the designs after they have been occupied and in use over several years or more. The products of this process are amazingly diverse, from low-income social housing to sophisticated office buildings for multinational corporations. He and his collaborators at ELEMENTAL have worked around the globe, with completed or in-progress commissions in locales as disparate as Shanghai (China), Monterrey and Jalisco (Mexico), Montricher (Switzerland), and Austin (Texas) in addition to an impressive oeuvre of projects in their native Chile.
 
Alejandro Aravena (file vie WikiMedia, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license).

Aravena’s individual achievements include much more: He is an International Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects; a board member of the Cities Program at the London School of Economics; a regional advisory board member of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies as well as board member for the Holcim Foundation; a foundational member of the Chilean Public Policies Society; and a leader of the Helsinki Design Lab for SITRA, the Finnish government’s innovation fund. He has taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the Universitario di Architettura di Venezia, the Architectural Association in London, the London School of Economics, and is the Copec Chair at the Universidad Católica de Chile. Aravena has also authored several books on architecture, which have been published in more than 50 countries. He was a speaker at TEDGlobal in 2014, and is currently the director for the upcoming 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale. Notably, he was a member of the Pritzker Architecture Prize Jury from 2009 to 2015.
 
I’m surprised I was so unfamiliar with Alejandro Aravena and his work. The news was a wakeup call of sorts for me, a sudden awareness that I’m not up on the latest in the architectural world as much as I’ve always wanted to believe I am. The truth may be I’ve failed to both recognize and understand the significance of recent trends in our profession and the emergence of a new generation of influential architects.
 
The fact I’m older than a Pritzker laureate is sobering too. Aravena is 48; I am 56. My ego isn’t so big that it should be cut down to size by the knowledge someone who is my junior has achieved so much more than I ever will; after all, both President Obama (54) and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (44) are also younger than I am. Instead, what is most humbling is the realization I may have been stuck in a rut, until now unappreciative of the fresh thinking a new cohort of architects is bringing to the fore to confront the “key challenges of the 21st century.”
 
I’ve been too quick to casually dismiss the serious talent the most thoughtful younger architects possess. When encountering their work, I’ve too often disregarded it, especially if I could not immediately understand what it was I was looking at. I’d lazily pass over their gauzy renderings or meticulously staged photographs, regardless of the merit of the depicted projects. When you come right down to it, I’ve been guilty of lumping together a majority of the up-and-comers and prejudging them as lightweight, style-driven aesthetes who lack the substance the old-guard architects I admired years ago have or had. 
 
Why did I do this? Did I really think my architectural heroes of yesteryear were/are superior to today’s best and brightest? Maybe I did and perhaps unconsciously I still do.
 
I was inspired in part to write this post after reading a recent entry by my fellow blogger and friend, Mr. Random. He wrote about how an individual’s passion for music is highest during his or her early years and how many people are cynical and exhibit kneejerk, jaded opinions about the current state of music and believe the music of their youth is the best music there can be.” He certainly could have been speaking about my preferences, which most definitely lean toward the “classic rock” genre of my formative years: Led Zeppelin, The Who, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Bad Company, (early) Chicago, Cheap Trick, Rush, and Heart are among those who occupy my musical pantheon. Many others have commented upon and researched this phenomenon, among them Mark Joseph Stern who in an article for Slate.com entitled Neural Nostalgia cites evidence suggesting our brains bind us to the music we heard as teenagers more tightly than anything we’ll hear as adults—a connection that doesn’t weaken as we age, no matter how sophisticated our tastes might otherwise grow to be.

Pink Floyd in concert, 1973.
 
Many of our most vibrant and enduring memories are from our teen years, which coincide with the emergence of a stable and enduring sense of self. Adolescence and early adulthood is the time when our memories assume uncommon importance for the rest of our lives. They become an inextricable part of our self-image, and crucial to shaping our world view. This is why the music we listened to while growing up holds a disproportionate power over our emotions.
 
Could it be the architects whose work I was introduced to early on (effectively before I even left high school) similarly and indelibly imprinted themselves upon my developing mind? The same mechanism that prompts nostalgia for the music of one’s youth may also explain my affinity for the famous architects I first came to know during that same period in my life. In retrospect, this group of architects—which includes Frank Lloyd Wright, Robert Venturi, the New York Five, Arthur Erickson, Louis Kahn, Paolo Soleri, Christopher Alexander, Charles W. Moore, and Le Corbusier—appears incongruently eclectic. Regardless, they collectively remain a touchstone for me. I constantly acknowledge their enduring influence upon the way I think about architecture.
 
Can there be other architects whose work I am not yet familiar with who will likewise impress me so profoundly? Or is it too late for an old dog like me? Do I find that Alejandro Aravena’s work resonates with me as much as Wright’s Fallingwater did when I first discovered it in a book as a child? The answer is no. What about designs by Bjarke Ingels of BIG, or Kazuyo Sejima & Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA, or SHoP Architects? Again the answer must be no. The fact is my early exposure to a particular collection of architects did more than leave a fleeting impression upon me; their varied philosophies, achievements, and aesthetics anchored themselves deep in my psyche during the most vital and momentous years of my life. Their legacies continue to move me in much the same way my neural nostalgia for 1970s music still does.
 
Mr. Random is absolutely correct in believing the exploration of new music takes an investment of time and energy. We do have a surfeit of both when we’re younger, and later in life the opposite is too often true. He’s also on the mark by saying people tend to become set in their ways as they age—this is the “fossilization factor” as he puts it. I like to believe I’m not set in my ways, and as an architect, I cannot afford to be. The challenges all architects confront on every new project are changing, multiplying, and becoming more complex with each passing day. One of the great benefits of my profession is that it compels its practitioners to always grow and learn. In that sense, architects are perpetual adolescents. Maybe we architects possess a special gene that wires us to be open to actively seek new ideas and new ways to do things. Maybe, but my disregard for much of the new generation’s work says otherwise. 
 
So, a belated New Year’s resolution: I need to learn more about the ideas and work of the most gifted young architects among us today. They are worthy of my attention. I need to expend the necessary time and energy. I shouldn’t continue to gloss over or dismiss them so quickly. I should also not expect any of them to necessarily supplant the members of the old guard I found so influential when I was younger. I simply need to be open to the fresh new ideas they’re bringing to architecture. Who knows, perhaps I’ll likewise expand my horizons by listening to some of the “amazing abundance” of good and great music being released right now.  Any suggestions? 
 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Working at Home

 
There are times in everyone’s life when both pleasant and unpleasant surprises can throw you for a loop. An unexpected health issue is an example of the unpleasant sort. My wife was hospitalized this past Christmas Day due to a sudden medical emergency. She spent three nights in the hospital while her condition stabilized. She’s now recovering at home but because of my concern for her welfare, I’ve temporarily reduced my hours at Robertson/Sherwood/Architects so that I can spend as much time with her as possible. 

I’m adjusting to this change in my work schedule. My coworkers have been great, picking up the slack on the projects I’m working on despite how full their own plates are. I’m also doing some work at home, which, because of today’s communication and computer technologies, is an increasingly practical option. 

Telecommuting, remote working—whatever you call it—makes a great deal of sense. I don’t have to be in the same building (or country for that matter) as my colleagues in order for us to work together. Experts say about 20 percent of workers around the world work remotely, with almost 3 in 10 dividing their working week between home and the office. The ability to work from home has especially proven to be a boon for parents of young children. 

Most people understand both the advantages and disadvantages of working remotely from the office:

The advantages include:
  • Flexibility
  • Reduced cost
  • Work at your own pace
  • Fewer sick days
  • Proximity to home and family
  • Reduced stress
  • Increased productivity
  • Better work/life balance
The disadvantages are equally well-known:
  • Lack of routine
  • No workplace social life
  • The challenge of the work/life balance
  • Difficulty separating home from work
  • Need for high self-discipline
  • Distractions
  • Complete dependence upon technology

I do not foresee working remotely becoming a regular part of my routine. I know myself too well: the disadvantages listed above would eventually outweigh the benefits. Additionally, the way my coworkers and I practice architecture is very much reliant upon face-to-face interaction on a daily basis. By its nature, architecture is a collaborative pursuit, demanding efficient teamwork. Despite rapid improvements in the technology, teleconferencing by Skype, GoTo Meeting, WebEx, or other platforms cannot yet fully replace the freewheeling, spontaneous dynamic typical of architectural offices. Real-time, online collaboration and sharing of documents in the “cloud” are certainly a reality today, but virtual interactions are still hindered by the limitations of the technology. In too many instances there remains no substitute for literally being able to sit side-by-side with a close collaborator, pencils in hands, scribbling on the same drawing. 

Thankfully, my wife is doing well and improving daily. I hope to quickly return to a full-time schedule, maybe as soon as a week or two from now. I also hope to resume a more regular pace of blog posts; my blogging has definitely taken a back seat to my concerns about my wife’s health. I’ve needed some time away from both work and my various extracurricular interests (which include blogging but also my taiko drumming) for both her sake and my own. 

The ability to effectively work from my home is definitely a benefit today’s technology affords many of us. I appreciate being able to work remotely when I need to, especially when my life’s circumstances compel me to do so.

Monday, January 4, 2016

2016 CSI Certification Classes

 
The Construction Specifications Institute –Willamette Valley Chapter (CSI-WVC) is once again pleased to offer a series of classes on Construction Contract Documents (CDT) in addition to another set covering Construction Contract Administration (CCCA). The principal purpose of the courses (each consisting of 10 classes, one each per week) is to assist those who are planning to take one or more of the CSI-sponsored Certification Exams. The classes can also be of significant value to architectural interns and to the firms for whom they work, as well as very helpful to those preparing to take the State Architectural Licensing Exams. 
 
The two sets of classes both begin next week but it’s not too late to register. Click on the link below to download information about the classes and registration forms for them: 
 
 
If you believe you or any member of your staff would benefit from taking either the CDT or CCCA classes, don’t hesitate and enroll now. The early bird rate for the registration fees may no longer be available but the classes are truly a bargain at any price. 
 
Incidentally, any profit generated by the registration fees is assigned to CSI-Willamette Valley Chapter education programs.
 
Architects can earn up to 20 Continuing Professional Education (CPE) hours to apply toward maintaining Oregon State Board of Architect Examiners professional licensure; AIA Members can earn up 20 Continuing Education Learning Units (LU) which CSI will report directly to AIA/CES. 
 
FYI, I happen to be one of the instructors for the CDT and CCCA classes and also co-chair of the CSI-Willamette Valley Chapter Certification Committee (Linn West is the other co-chair). In addition to Linn and me, the other instructors include Larry Banks, Jon Texter, Tom Deines, Brian Hamilton, Jerry Boucock, and Jim Chaney (an august group indeed!). 

The venue for both classes is new this year. It will be the main conference room at Eugene Mindworks, located at 5th and Pearl in Eugene. We're excited to see how the classes work out in this new (to us) space.
 
If you have any questions, please call Linn West at 541-342-6511 or e-mail him at
 
Don’t delay, enroll today!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

O Tannenbaum!


This is our Christmas tree. It’s a very modest 6-foot tall Nordmann fir but we’re very happy with it. We purchased it from a local grower who raises trees organically, with no chemical spraying. We like its shape, height, proportions, and the strength and density of its limbs (perfect for our particular selection of lights and ornaments). We like that it is festive and how it makes us feel the holiday season has arrived in our home. 

It is the history of the Christmas tree (which actually traces back to pre-Christian winter rites) and its persistence as a cultural icon that fascinate me. Trees in general have long been symbols of eternal life. Many regard the characteristically triangular shape of Christmas trees (like our Nordmann fir) as signifying the holy Trinity and a pointing skyward toward Heaven. Historians say the custom of hanging shiny ornaments on Christmas trees originated in medieval times when worshipers began decorating trees with apples (to represent the forbidden fruit) and wafers (to represent the Eucharist and redemption). Notwithstanding our personal religious beliefs, we all immediately associate them with the joyous spirit of the Christmas holiday. 

The effectiveness of Christmas trees as symbols is amazing (albeit culturally dependent), but perhaps no more so than many other visual images or signs we are familiar with. The Christian cross, the Jewish Star of David, and the Star & Crescent of Islam are iconic representations of religious beliefs. Likewise recognizable (and burdened by association) are the Nazi swastika, the Daoist yin and yang, flags of many nations, and corporate logos (such as the Nike swoosh and McDonald’s golden arches). 

Of course, humans have always designed buildings with the express goal of creating monuments to represent beliefs, ideas, or principles. The U.S. Capitol building is an example, with its central dome & rotunda signifying the Union flanked by separate wings housing the legislative bodies. The Eiffel Tower is another case in point, a grandiose celebration of technological prowess and Gallic pride constructed for the 1889 Exposition Universelle. We unthinkingly associate the expansive interior light and soaring height of the great Gothic cathedrals with the Divine and the power of institution they represent. Symbolism, whether intended or not, has been an inherent property of architecture throughout history. 

The geometry of many buildings is itself the key to understanding their meaning. For instance, the semi-subterranean, round forms of Chacoan kivas—symbolizing the peoples’ place of origin— distinguished them from the more common square or rectangular forms of pueblo residential architecture. The use of circles and spheres to express notions of perfection, wholeness, and the cycle of life has been widespread across many cultures. The potency of their symbolism is almost universal. Skilled architects are fluent with the grammar of all shapes and use it to achieve additional desired effects: conveying mood and emotion, directing movement, emphasizing points of interest, organizing, connecting and separating, etc. 

All Charlie Brown's Christmas tree needed was a little loving care.
 
Early worshipers favored the simple tapering profile of the decorated Yule tree for its symbolism. Today, the Christmas tree remains iconic (though perhaps too often coopted by the over-commercialization of the holiday). The point of this post is to remind myself once again how simple forms can express complex, layered meanings while also being beautiful and joyful—a timely lesson for any dispirited, world-weary architect.

I hope everyone is enjoying this holiday season. Best wishes to all of you!