Monday, March 31, 2008

Walter Mitty: Architect & Blogger

The demands of everyday professional practice all but preclude engaging in critical architectural discourse. As architects we are trained to look at the big picture, but too often find ourselves immersed in the banality of details, so much so that we lose sight of why we became architects in the first place. My own efforts to craft the next great manifesto on architecture are stillborn, having succumbed repeatedly to the need to work out another handrail detail, certify that application for payment, or prepare a consultant’s agreement. I know what I do is important, but it’s hard to picture that Le Corbusier was similarly distracted by concerns about a project’s front-yard setback requirement when he was writing Vers une Architecture. I like to think I could channel the spirit of the hero architects and find a similar, pompous voice that could provocatively declare “Architecture or Revolution” and pull it off. But of course, my career has been more Walter Mitty than Walter Gropius, more ordinary than fantastic.

Just as the Internet has leveled the playing field between large multinational corporations with offices worldwide and small business that are run out of a basement, blogs have provided equal access for everyone to the bully pulpit. A blog is a terrific platform from which to persuasively advocate an agenda. When I originally decided to write my blog, it was primarily to report news of interest to the AIA-SWO membership. I regarded it somewhat like an obligation, a duty I could perform as a member of the chapter’s board of directors. After one short month of blogging, I’ve already discovered that there are side benefits:

  • Blogging is good exercise: If you don’t take the ole gray matter out for a healthy stroll every now and then, it has a tendency to get soft and flabby.
  • Blogging has rekindled my interest in architectural theory and commentary.
  • Blogging introduces you to a larger community of shared interests.

Blogs on architecture, as reported in the November 2007 issue of ARCHITECT magazine, have largely supplanted the small, erudite print journals that found much of their material and audience amongst architectural scholars during the mid to latter part of the last century. As a student, I remember reading publications such as Perspecta and Oppositions, which struck me at the time as entirely too esoteric and academic but nonetheless impressive because of the way they elevated architectural discussion. Blogs aren’t as a rule subject to peer review, and thus they’re nowhere near as rigorous or discriminating as these publications were. Nevertheless, they have become the forum of choice for many serious (and not-so-serious) observers of architecture, who are attracted to the immediacy and accessibility of the medium.

I was surprised to find so many blogs about architecture—there must be hundreds of them, originating from all over the world. Many are written by architects. Many others are authored by non-architects, online pundits who are simply architectural enthusiasts bringing their unique perspectives to the topic of environmental design and building. Still others are the work of professional journalists for whom writing about architecture is a paying job. I’ve perused only a few of these many blogs, but those I’ve found particularly interesting are ones that I have listed in my “Sites of Interest” (located in the sidebar at right). These include A Daily Dose of Architecture, which also serves as a useful portal to dozens of other blogs about architecture. Portland Architecture is the work of Brian Libby, a freelance journalist who often writes about architecture for The Oregonian. My current favorite is Notes on Becoming a Famous Architect. I’m not quite sure if the authors of this blog are fond of architects or if they find us unbearably vain and pretentious. I’m pretty sure it’s the latter; regardless, the site’s sardonic humor is worth a look and chuckle. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention Architecture Week, which is a widely-read online magazine (and thus not exactly blog-like) with its roots in Eugene: Kevin Matthews is editor-in-chief, and our own Dave Guadagni, AIA, is responsible for the Architecture Puzzler feature in each week’s edition.

I sense that the proliferation of blogs is about to reach critical mass and that we’re on the verge of a renaissance in architectural thinking spurred by the writings of an ardent group of bloggers. Widespread access to the Internet has created a new incentive to publish manifestos about architecture and the built environment, with the knowledge that there is an instant potential worldwide audience. And so it is that SW Oregon Architect has serendipitously armed me with a voice for my arrogant hero-architect alter ego. That great manifesto might yet be heard. Then again, my blog may amount to no more than the not-so-secret ramblings of an ineffectual dreamer.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

March AIA-SWO Chapter Meeting Recap

How many of you are familiar with AIA Oregon’s mission to improve and define the practice of architecture in the State of Oregon? If you’re like me, chances are you have not paid as much attention to the activities of AIA Oregon as you should. In a nutshell, it is AIA Oregon’s role as the umbrella organization for the State’s four chapters to advocate on behalf of the profession on issues of importance to Oregon and its citizens, architects, and the built environment. Last Wednesday’s AIA-SWO chapter meeting was the place to learn even more about our State AIA component as it was our privilege to host presentations by AIA Oregon Executive Vice President Saundra Stevens, Hon. AIA and, and AIA Oregon Lobbyist Cindy Robert.

Saundra happily reported that Oregon architects do value the benefits of AIA membership. While "association experts" may insist that people are no longer joiners, that isn’t the case with architects in Oregon. 85% of all registered architects in the state are members of AIA, a full 35% above the national average. 26% of interns are associate members of AIA, as compared with 19% nationally. Oregon architects recognize that AIA offers a vast pool of resources that helps them compete in today's market. These resources include such AIA Oregon offerings as the biennial Oregon Design Conference, which for 2008 takes place once again at the Salishan Resort under the rubric of THINK OUT/out think (more on this year’s conference in a future blog posting). Saundra also talked about the Portland Center for Architecture, which is a new resource available to all Oregon architects. Since its opening earlier this year, the Center has become a hub of activity for all people interested in architecture and the built environment, and serves as a gathering place for the exchange of ideas about architecture and mentoring of our future architects and clients. The Center occupies a 5,000 square foot, one story building located at the corner of NW 11th and Flanders in the Pearl District. Originally constructed in 1888 as a horse carriage facility, the building truss system is still in place throughout, and oversized windows and skylights (added later) fill the space with natural light. Located in an emerging art enclave, on the Portland streetcar line, the new space provides the visibility appropriate for AIA Oregon's and AIA Portland’s new home. Its size allows for current and planned office needs, as well as creation of a gallery/salon/conference area for continuing education and public outreach. Fully renovated, the Center is a state of the art facility and a sustainable demonstration project, reaching for LEED Platinum and the carbon neutral goals of the 2030 Challenge. Saundra emphasized that the Center is for use by all AIA member architects from around the state.

Cindy provided a most informative summary of the results of the recent supplemental session of the Oregon legislature, conducted over a 19-day period last month in Salem. Of 109 bills introduced, 73 were passed, and the “get-it-done” mind-set during this intense session impressed Cindy immensely. In her opinion, State government would be well-served by limited annual legislative sessions, rather than the current two-year process. Her reasoning is based upon the inability to accurately forecast revenue and agency budgets two years into the future, which leads to the distribution of “kicker” checks or, alternatively, special sessions to cut back funds already committed by the legislature. Several bills that were presented for consideration during this special session were of interest to AIA Oregon. Despite the advocacy of Governor Kulongoski, HB 3610, which would have required that State agencies submit greenhouse gas emissions reductions goals to the Oregon Global Warming Commission, failed. On the other hand, HB 3619, which establishes a tax credit for renewable energy resource equipment manufacturers, did pass. HB 3612 also passed; this bill requires State agencies to reduce the amount of energy used in their buildings by at least 20 percent by June 30, 2015. Two senate bills – SB 1085, which would permit urban renewal plans to include school construction/renovation, and SB 1091, which would have created an environmental investment tax credit – never received a hearing and failed, respectively.

Both Saundra and Cindy are incredibly dynamic ambassadors and advocates for Oregon architects. We’re fortunate to have them working on behalf of our profession and we thank them for visiting with us in Eugene.

Saturday, March 15, 2008


Last September, the AIA jumped on the Web 2.0 bandwagon, a trend in World Wide Web technology that has led to a proliferation of web-based communities such as wikis, blogs, and other social networking sites, which aim to facilitate collaboration and sharing among users. The name of the Institute’s new online community is Soloso. I recently checked Soloso out to see if it has what it takes to become a premiere resource for information about architecture and the profession as the AIA hopes it will or if it is fated to be seen as a misstep along a trail already being blazed successfully by other online ventures.

The prospect of connecting with other AIA members as part of an online community is appealing. Such a community would build upon shared affiliations, interests, experience and education. The expectation is that Soloso will be a highly used research tool and a centralized knowledge and content acquisition experience, hosting content provided by members, AIA staff, and third party providers. The Institute’s vision is that members will clamor to contribute their own content to Soloso in the form of articles, projects, and images as well as reviews, profile pages, and feedback.

I set up my profile in Soloso, and promptly transferred some of my content from this blog to my Soloso page. I listed my interests, affiliations, education, and experience to fill out my profile, which is the means by which it is possible to connect with other members whose profile attributes might overlap with mine. You navigate these connections using a little site "map:"

For example, by clicking on "Education" I can find other members who also attended the University of Oregon:

This is kind of cool, but the “gee whiz” factor of this feature is sure to fade, especially when you realize that if Soloso becomes as widely used as the Institute envisions, the number of your “connections” would render this little tool useless. It’s already difficult for me to single out any one of my fellow members from the Committee on Design Knowledge Community:

The real problem with Soloso is that it is an internal social network (ISN), which is a closed/private online community. MySpace and Facebook are enormously successful external social networks (ESN), which are available to all Web users. You have to be a member of AIA to log into Soloso; you cannot post content, set up a profile, and participate in forums, blog, etc. without logging in. These are the hallmarks of an ISN and, in my opinion, the Achilles heel of Soloso. It is the universality and accessibility of the ESN’s that make them so successful. The same is true of open blogs, such as my own SW Oregon Architect, which is hosted by Blogger. Anyone, anywhere can offer feedback for my posts. Conversely, only AIA members can access the content of my blog in Soloso, and then, of course, only those that seek it out. SW Oregon Architect can be linked directly to other open Web sites, and it permits end-users to make use of my blog in another context by employing web syndication. To the best of my knowledge, Soloso lacks this sort of functionality.

Bottom line, I find Soloso to be a little clunky and inherently flawed because of its exclusivity to AIA members only. It will take a groundswell of support by the AIA rank and file to get a successful online community rolling, and the numbers simply may not be there. A lot of energy is needed to help it along, which doesn’t appear to exist yet. I’m afraid that most AIA members still don’t even know about this online community or recognize the Soloso brand. The Institute’s choice of the inscrutable name it has bestowed upon its Web 2.0 enterprise doesn’t help matters.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Eugene Downtown Zoning Review Project

Photo by Christopher Phan on Flickr

I attended the City of Eugene’s March 5th “info & input” session at the Eugene Public Library to primarily learn about the Downtown Zoning Review Project. The Downtown Zoning Review project was initiated to facilitate the type of development called for in the Downtown Plan, which was adopted in 2004. The City is dividing the project into two phases: The first phase of the project focuses on three topics: 1) how much density is required and how density is calculated, 2) limitations on surface parking, and 3) limitations on new residential structures. The second phase will focus on topics which require more extensive public involvement and code revisions, including: 1) changes to the bicycle parking standards, 2) changes to the planning and zoning boundaries for downtown, 3) the inclusion of green building concepts, and 4) a design review process.

The City of Eugene’s on-going struggle to shape the course of downtown development (and development throughout the city for that matter) has always seemed to me to be in reaction to the constantly changing winds that blow through our burg as opposed to being deliberate and methodical. The reality is that the City has to contend with the innumerable social, economic, and political factors that are constantly in play and simultaneously competing for dominance in matters of planning and development. Eugene has too often lacked popular consensus on the kind of city it should become. The city will never see a concentration of power and influence such as that wielded by Robert Moses of 20th Century New York or Baron Haussmann of Second Empire Paris that could broker or simply ignore conflicted constituencies in the pursuit of a grand vision (and that's a good thing). Consequently, it’s difficult to find fault in the City’s efforts to perpetually adapt and amend the Land Use Code as the state of affairs dictate.

On the other hand, why is it that many other cities can boast of greater success implementing and sustaining development plans? What is Eugene doing wrong that these other cities have avoided?

In a 2007 Register-Guard editorial, Hugh Prichard1 argued that the Eugene Land Use Code is flawed. To him, the Code is like so many things Eugenean: Based on good intentions that fail to deliver the hoped-for benefit. The City hoped for more urban density and less automobile dependence. It tried to create reasonable standards for increasing the height and density of downtown. Instead, Prichard asserted that it created more obstacles to building downtown and further incentives to build in the suburbs. The results are exactly the opposite of the City’s good intentions and adopted city goals.

It appears that the Downtown Zoning Review Project is an attempt to address some of the shortcomings that citizens like Prichard say have discouraged rather than encouraged the very results the City is seeking. The project will evaluate zoning and development code regulations and propose changes to the current Land Use Code. The City’s website declares that the purpose of the Eugene Downtown Plan is to “capitalize on development opportunities, strengthen downtown’s role as a regional center, expand cultural and recreational opportunities, create great streets and special places, and transition downtown into a vibrant city on the river.” Splendid rhetoric; time will tell if the Downtown Zoning Review Project will positively address the Land Use Code’s deficiencies or if it is simply the latest turn taken by a leaf as it blows in the wind. I am hopeful that the project will result in Code refinements that will proactively shape our downtown and provide a reliable Downtown Plan blueprint that we can all follow with confidence.

1. Note that Hugh Prichard and Jean Tate will a make a case for modifying our existing land use code downtown at the March 21, 2008 City Club of Eugene Meeting. The title of the program is "Downtown: Have We Designed Plans for Failure?"

Sunday, March 2, 2008

February Chapter Meeting Recap

One of the useful things I can do with this blog is to report about each of our monthly AIA-SWO chapter meeting programs. For February 2008, the meeting took place at the Downtown Initiative for the Visual Arts (DIVA) Center, which hosted an exhibit of the extra-curricular artistic work of our fellow AIA-SWO members. The theme of “Architects as Artists” also applied to the exhibit of projects by Portland architect Robert Oshatz, AIA. Mr. Oshatz was on hand to present his design philosophy.

Oshatz views each new project as a unique problem to be solved for his client. While he approaches every project in what he regards as a traditional and consistent way, he does not adhere to a particular architectural theory or style. He utilizes basic principles of design composition as a touchstone for his projects as they evolve from program to reality. The development of the plan is paramount for him, while the section brings the plan to life. Regardless, his designs have an obvious affinity with the work of such architectural mavericks as Bruce Goff or Bart Prince in that the work of all three is the byproduct of open-ended discovery and experimentation that is ultimately very personal. Oshatz worked and studied under Lloyd Wright (son of Frank Lloyd Wright), and I suspect that he could not help but be influenced by the Wrightian philosophy of an organic architecture even though he prefers to eschew architectural theory.

I found Robert Oshatz to be modest, unaffected and genial. I find his design work imaginative, refreshing and a reminder that architecture should be a continually creative pursuit. Thanks to Robert for taking the time to visit with us and kudos to Jean Duffett, AIA for organizing the evening’s program for our chapter.

“Architecture is a synthesis of logic and emotion. When carried to its logical conclusion, a traditional design approach produces very imaginative structures. It is only a question of how much of an artist we architects choose to be.” Robert Oshatz, AIA

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Monumental Washington D.C.

I’d never visited Washington D.C. before. The first thing that struck me about the city is its scale: It truly is monumental. Neo-classical architecture on steroids parades along Pennsylvania Avenue and within the Federal Triangle, while the baroque vision of Pierre L'Enfant has been realized in the vast grandeur of the National Mall and the broad diagonal avenues that radiate across the urban grid. One feels lilliputian in such a setting, the bloated scale of the most important buildings clearly signifying the dominion of Federal authority. The persistence with which style, form and materials have been regulated is a testament to the degree to which “we the people”1 have entrusted the stewards of the Capitol to use architecture as a means to represent the idealism and collective values of the Nation.

Of course, there is a certain irony that it is the pompous Classicism of ancient Rome that is the prevalent architectural vocabulary, but that is a subject for another day.

It may reflect my own biases, but the individual buildings that most impressed me by their quality are both of relatively recent vintage and modernist in expression: The National Gallery of Art’s East Wing (1978, I.M. Pei) and the nearby Canadian Embassy (1989, Arthur Erickson).2 Unlike such contemporary designs as the Ronald Reagan Building & International Trade Center (incongruously, also by Pei’s firm of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners), my two favorites were able to transcend the regulatory strictures of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation by utilizing unique modernist vocabularies. These are buildings that are of their time, that do not rely upon the crutch of historic pastiche, and that reinterpret the essence of classical space and architecture in their own ways.

Pei’s wedge-shaped East Building possesses a monumental presence achieved via sculpturally precise means with nary a Corinthian column in sight.

The Canadian Embassy is an abstract classical landscape rendered in Cubist fashion and framed by the building. I would characterize both buildings as noble, a trait that I find lacking in many public buildings today, particularly with those designs that are too clever or idiosyncratic for their own good.

1 “You people” is a more accurate statement. I am, after all, a Canadian with a view of the U.S. distorted through that peculiar lens.

2 Again, betraying my Canadian-ness.

AIA Grassroots 2008

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the AIA annual Grassroots Leadership and Legislative Conference, which was held February 20-23, 2008, in Washington, D.C. The conference was designed to bring together the Institute's component leaders for a unique blend of networking and learning to work across components, knowledge communities, and special member groups. AIA-SWO was represented at Grassroots by Jody Heady, AIA (2008 AIA-SWO President), Don Kahle (AIA-SWO Executive Director), and myself.

As is the case every year, the Grassroots Conference is intended to accomplish several things:

  • Help attendees to align their component's short and long-term goals with AIA National's strategic plans.
  • Enhance skills and knowledge in the art of political influence so that component leaders can advocate the AIA's collective message.
  • Cultivate talents and teaching skills applicable to the profession such as volunteer recruitment, inspiration, and engagement.
  • Develop key leadership skills and techniques that will prepare members for a future leadership role in their component, knowledge community, or special member group.
As a first-timer to Grassroots, I was impressed by the quality of the event and the individuals that comprise the Institute's leadership, most notably 2008 AIA National President Marshall E. Purnell, FAIA and 2009 President-elect Marvin J. Malecha, FAIA, and AIA Executive Vice-President/CEO Chris McEntee. All three are resolutely optimistic for the profession and the AIA. They envision the AIA as a respected knowledge-centered organization, that pulls together and shares knowledge for the benefit of all, keeping AIA members competitive and increasing their value. I believe that the AIA has a real competitive edge thanks to the unique access members have to the network of many inter-related AIA constituencies—components, Knowledge Communities, associates, and College of Fellows, to name a few. Going to Washington to meet and talk with AIA leaders and staff was eye-opening because the range of resources at the National level available to all of us as members is vast. We should all take advantage of these resources to improve our practices and our value as architects to the public.

I was likewise impressed by my counterparts from around the country who attended Grassroots, all of whom positively radiated with energy and enthusiasm (if you didn't know better you'd think you had stumbled into an "Up With People" alumni gathering). The peer group sessions and other opportunities to share ideas and discuss common problems about our respective local chapters were invaluable. Attendees quickly realize that we all have a lot in common and thus have much to offer and learn from one another.

One of the themes of this year's event was "Walk the Walk," which posits that AIA architects should be leaders of the sustainable evolution. Like many other influential organizations, the AIA recognizes a growing body of evidence that demonstrates current planning, design, construction, and real estate practices contribute to patterns of resource consumption that seriously jeopardize the future of the Earth’s population. Architects need to accept responsibility for their role in creating the built environment and, consequently, must alter our profession’s actions and encourage our clients and the entire design and construction industry to join with us to change the course of the planet’s future. In Eugene, we as architects should be prominent in our support of our City's commitment to sustainability principles; indeed as a profession we have a responsibility to alter our current practices of design and construction (if we haven't already done so) to realize significant reductions in the use of natural resources, non-renewable energy sources, and waste production and promote regeneration of natural resources. Talk is cheap; to "walk the walk" takes commitment and action.