Saturday, May 31, 2008

Town and Gown

Deady Hall - Photo by Erik Bishoff

“Many university students were foreigners with exotic manners and dress who spoke and wrote Latin, the lingua franca of medieval higher education. Students often couldn't speak the local dialect, and most uneducated townspeople spoke no Latin. The language barrier and the cultural differences did nothing to improve relations between scholars and townspeople. The tenor of town-gown relations became a matter of arrogance on the one hand and resentment on the other.”
Wikipedia on the medieval origin of the term “town and gown”

One of the strange things about having spent the bulk of my professional career in the same community in which I went to college is that even now, a quarter century on, I sometimes imagine that I’ve never actually left school. In certain ways this is true­ – I enjoy being regularly invited to participate in reviews of student work and I am an avid fan of Oregon Ducks sports. In other ways, the distance between my past life at the university and my current one as a professional seems huge. My perception upon returning to Eugene in 1988 was that contacts between the University of Oregon’s School of Architecture & Allied Arts (A&AA) and local practitioners had sometimes been token and perfunctory, weighted with good intentions but short on follow-through. Consequently, the stereotype of a dichotomous “town and gown” relationship seemed an apt way to describe some of the history between the school and the local professional community. Bridging the gap between the university and the profession is a persistent challenge, just as it was when I really was a student back in the early '80s.

To the university’s credit, A&AA faculty and administrators have taken strides to ensure that their work is always relevant to professional practice. They recognize that in order to grow and prosper, the future of the school is inextricably linked with the surrounding community, locally and beyond. A welcome sight is increased participation by architecture faculty at AIA events such as Institute seminars, the National Convention, Region Conferences, the Oregon Design Conference, and local chapter meetings. For our part, the AIA-SWO board of directors has in recent years redoubled its efforts to network and establish relationships with faculty and students.

The American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) is represented by a formally chartered chapter at the University of Oregon. This past Friday, AIA-SWO President Jody Heady, AIA-SWO Associate Director Becky Thomas, and I were invited guests at the AIAS-sponsored 2008 A&AA Ice Cream Social. Megan Taylor (AIAS president at the University of Oregon), Chris Iverson, and Nick Lopez (AIAS co-presidents) were our gracious hosts. The event attracted over a hundred students, who enjoyed constructing cool, creamy, and colorful confections for themselves during a welcome respite from their studio project labors. We were able to speak with many of them, and also distributed free computer “thumb drives” loaded with an invitation from the AIA to each of the prospective future members. Alas, the ice cream ran out before Jody, Becky, and I could partake of it ourselves, but we valued the opportunity to meet with Megan, Chris, and Nick, and extend our invitations to them and others to relay their news and concerns at our monthly AIA-SWO chapter board meetings.

FYI, as a non-commercial, non-profit 501.(c)3 corporation, the AIAS relies on the support of donations to continue its important work. With a tax-deductible gift of $60 or more, you can become an AIAS affiliate member and receive a year’s subscription to Crit: Journal of the AIAS and access to the other member benefits. AIA-SWO professionals can also become involved with the University of Oregon AIAS chapter through AIAS professional development and mentoring programs. For more about the AIAS, check out its web site at

The AIA-SWO board has fostered relationships with key faculty members and administrators as part of the ongoing effort to increase interaction with the university. This has included regular meetings to discuss issues of common interest. One outcome has been the devotion of one of our monthly chapter programs each year to the School of Architecture & Allied Arts. For 2008, our November meeting will feature the groundbreaking research being conducted by several professors. Be sure to attend that meeting to learn about the amazing diversity of studies being conducted at the UO.

Many AIA-SWO architects and associates have held adjunct teaching appointments. These positions are mutually rewarding for both the visiting faculty and the students they are fortunate to teach. The A&AA administration values visiting faculty because they bring real-world insights and experiences to the studio environment. Visiting faculty also temper any tendencies toward insularity that might find traction within the school. Consequently, the University is always seeking to add adjunct instructors from the professional ranks. Contact Architecture Department Head Christine Theodoropoulos at (541) 346-3656 if you are interested in the possibility of an adjunct teaching position.

Frances Bronet. Photo By Todd Cooper.

Recently, a handful of A&AA faculty members have been prominently and positively featured in the local press. The Register-Guard published a piece in its latest Home & Garden insert about a unique residential infill project designed by professor of architecture Michael Fifield for a client who occupies the tiny, yet highly imaginative, home for only part of the year. The Eugene Weekly prints a regular column by landscape professor emeritus Jerry Diethelm on a broad series of urban design-oriented topics. The Weekly has also highlighted assistant professor of architecture Mark Gillem’s efforts to impress upon the powers that be that what Eugene really needs to kick start downtown development is a great downtown park. The cover girl for the latest issue of the Eugene Weekly is Frances Bronet, dean of the School of Architecture & Allied Arts. The wide-ranging interview inside includes her comments regarding the importance of partnering to enhancing the built environment (follow this link to read the article: She asserts that coupling the expertise of local AIA-SWO architects with that of the university’s researchers can result in proposals that are more comprehensive and creative than could have ever been imagined if that dynamic was not in play. She recognizes the mutual benefit for the university and the community of harnessing their collective strengths through innovative partnerships.

This media exposure helps to generally raise the public’s consciousness about the importance of good architecture. It is thus to the benefit of AIA-SWO practitioners as well when the work of A&AA faculty is showcased.1

There has been a paradigm shift underway since I proudly received my bachelor of architecture degree from Oregon in 1983. Synergistic partnerships of the type that Frances Bronet talks about have become more and more common. Both the university and the local professionals gain from the experience of working together on increasingly complex problems of mutual interest and importance to the larger community. These partnerships create a culture of innovation, which will undoubtedly be a prerequisite for resolving the most intractable design challenges we will face in the future. Perhaps a quarter-century from now, we will be able to reflect upon how outdated the “town and gown” notion has become and marvel at the positive accomplishments that have improved our built environment.

1. Of course, Michael Fifield, Mark Gillem, and several other professors are also AIA members.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

May AIA-SWO Chapter Meeting Recap

For our May chapter meeting, members who attended got two excellent presentations for the price of one:

Our first speaker was Ilene Aleshire, Business Editor for the Eugene Register-Guard. Ilene was on hand to present Blue Chip, the new monthly publication for business in Lane County. She discussed her hopes for Blue Chip and the niche it will fill, and why our members might find it important to read. As architects, we are interested in ensuring that the importance of good design is promoted, and a publication that is targeted to all business people can be a medium for conveying that message.

Ilene hopes to hear from AIA-SWO firms about what we’re doing in the future. Blue Chip offers us the opportunity to get the word out about our work to members of the larger business community, who are among our potential clients. She acknowledged that the Register-Guard can do a better job of including architects in its building coverage, particularly for high profile projects that will be visible to the public. All of us look forward to the opportunities that will be available through the Register-Guard and Blue Chip to promote the value of architectural design excellence as our community grows and matures.

If you have ideas, comments or story tips for Blue Chip, contact Ilene by phone, e-mail, or snail mail as follows:

Phone: (541) 338-2377
Mail: Ilene Aleshire, Blue Chip
3500 Chad Drive, Eugene, OR 97408

Our evening’s second speaker was Tod Schneider of the Eugene Police Department, who discussed how Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) principles could be applied in downtown Eugene to reinforce positive behavior and create naturally safe and welcoming built environments. These principles include natural surveillance ("see and be seen"), natural access control, territorial reinforcement, and target hardening, all of which can be achieved via architecturally pleasing and non-threatening ways.
Tod began his talk by presenting examples of how over the years unfortunate design decisions in downtown Eugene have encouraged such problems as vandalism, theft, drug dealing, and physical violence. Broadway between Oak Street and Charnelton Street, which is a nexus for much of the negative behavior, not only has many vacant storefronts but also a surprising number of deeply recessed, dark entrances to the buildings. These “caves” are perceived as possible hiding places for wrong-doers, be they drug-dealers or possible muggers. The absence of tenants in many ground floor spaces, or the inwardly-focused or bunker-like appearance of some of the occupied storefronts means that “eyes on the street” are few. There is also the “broken windows syndrome.” Unless broken windows, graffiti, or other vandalism are dealt with promptly, their appearance begets more and more of the same.

Regardless of architectural strategies, the most effective panacea for downtown is to achieve a critical mass for the downtown population, 24/7. This means more housing, and more retail and other businesses downtown.

Big thanks to both Ilene and Tod for joining us and offering their informative talks.

Once again, we conducted the drawing for our monthly chapter meeting raffle prize, which is a $50.00 gift certificate courtesy of Down to Earth Home Garden & Gifts store. This month’s lucky winner was Lana Sadler, Associate AIA, of Robertson/Sherwood/Architects. Remember, your first raffle ticket is free with your paid dinner and additional tickets are only $2 each. However, you can’t win if you don’t attend, so join us at our next meeting!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Heart of the Valley

AIA-SWO Executive Director Don Kahle and I drove north on Monday for a lunch meeting with about a dozen of our professional colleagues whose offices are in Corvallis. The purpose of our meeting was to discuss ways in which AIA-SWO could better fulfill the objectives of the Institute on their behalf. The discussion was very productive and an important step towards ensuring that the unique interests and concerns of Corvallis architects are regularly brought to the attention of the AIA-SWO board.

The following were some of the concerns expressed by the Corvallis group:
  • The chapter is too Eugene-centric.

  • The distance to Eugene makes it inconvenient to attend regular chapter meetings.

  • Carpooling to Eugene would be great, but organizing the carpool takes time and effort. AIA-SWO could help by setting up a Google Mail group that would provide Corvallis members with a way to conveniently indicate their interest in carpooling to Eugene for a chapter meeting.

  • The City of Corvallis’ new land use code requirements may be overly prescriptive, limiting architectural inventiveness. Can AIA-SWO take a position, lending its weight and authority to the subject?

  • There is a need to motivate greater engagement by Corvallis architects in AIA-SWO activities.

The following is a list of possible activities that the group felt would be of benefit to them:

  • Formally organize the Corvallis AIA members as a section of the chapter. The AIA-SWO bylaws state that the chapter may establish a section with the approval of the Institute Secretary. Members in a geographic area within the chapter territory may petition the Board to form a section.

  • Produce “webinars” that would allow members outside the Eugene/Springfield area to participate in AIA-SWO seminars in real time without having to drive an hour south down I-5 or Highway 99 and back.

  • Organize tours of local projects (Linn, Benton counties) under construction, similar to the intern tours provided in Eugene/Springfield.

The following were suggested ways to raise the profile/stature of Corvallis architects:

  • Organize a design competition that is focused on an issue or project specific to Corvallis.

  • Organize a design charette for the City of Corvallis that the City would sponsor and support financially. The Eugene experience is that a charette is most effective if the final product doesn’t simply end up sitting on a shelf gathering dust. SWO-AIA’s Franklin Corridor AIA150 project has been recognized by AIA National as a case study in creative community planning. It attracted significant community interest and local media attention. Some of the benefits after several charettes are that the City of Eugene now welcomes and seeks the energy and talent of AIA-SWO members in organizing and facilitating these events, offering generous financial support. The biggest benefit may be the increasing public perception that architects are the “voice of collaboration” in the community.

  • Host an AIA-SWO booth at da Vinci Days (July 18-20), which, as the “crossroads of art, science, and technology,” would be an ideal venue to promote what it is that architects do. Sustainable design could be the theme. It would be great to feature technology such as the prototype for the Helix Urban Turbine produced by Oregon Wind Corporation, talk about energy conservation and other green building strategies, all while educating the community about what it is that architects do. Don Kahle has an established relationship with da Vinci Days and will check into whether or not it may be too late to sign up for this year’s festival.

  • Establish an “Architects in Schools” program with the Corvallis School District.

  • Enlist Corvallis architects in the planning and organization of the 2010 Northwest & Pacific Region Conference.

  • Identify “wild ideas” that would catch the local media’s attention while promoting and advancing an appreciation for the importance of architectural design services.

  • Provide a display of the People’s Choice Awards entries at the Corvallis Public Library, where the best work of AIA-SWO member firms can be enjoyed by the public. People’s Choice entries from outside of the Eugene/Springfield area have always been welcome. The program has always been intended to showcase all AIA-SWO members’ work, regardless of location. The projects do not have to be only those that can be visited in person by the public.

  • Encourage Corvallis architects to submit entries to the 2009 AIA-SWO Design Awards program. This is a juried design program. It’s my understanding that only those projects that are selected for honors at the chapter level are eligible for the AIA Northwest & Pacific Region Awards program.

  • Help organize an Oregon entrant for the Solar Decathlon in Washington D.C. involving a combined University of Oregon and Oregon State University team. The teams for the 2009 Solar Decathlon have already been selected, so the next opportunity would occur in 2011.

CH2M Hill hosted our get-together and provided a delicious Chinese buffet meal for our lunch. Special thanks to Michael Schweizer, AIA of CH2M Hill for organizing the meeting and inviting Don and me.

Our annual AIA-SWO chapter meeting in Corvallis is coming up in August. Plans for the meeting topic and venue have yet to be finalized, but I’m certain that the program will be highly interesting and educational. I strongly encourage all of our Eugene/Springfield members to make the drive north on August 20th to enjoy the fellowship of our Corvallis brothers and sisters. We have much to share and learn from each other.

Saturday, May 17, 2008


What does it mean for architecture to be authentic? That authenticity is a virtue and necessary for making good architecture seemed reasonable to me when I first considered the subject. After all, how could being authentic be considered an undesirable trait? Once I got started, however, I quickly realized that the concept is slippery and decided to learn as much as I could about it before coming to a conclusion. In so doing, I learned that notions of authenticity have been examined by a lot of people from widely divergent perspectives.

Authenticity has most frequently been associated with existentialist philosophy, which defines the term as the degree to which a person is true to one's own personality, spirit, or character, despite the pressures of external influences. Existentialist writers (including Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre) believed that authenticity is essential to “the good life” and fundamentally difficult to achieve because of social pressures to live inauthentically. Authenticity has also been commonly cited in the visual and performing arts, where it is associated with the perception of a work of art as a true expression of the artist’s unique values and beliefs, rather than as conforming to external values such as historical tradition or commercial worth. Authenticity has even recently been enlisted as a marketing strategy. Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want, by James Gilmore and Joseph Pine, is a best-selling guidebook for companies seeking to identify themselves with their customers’ self-images and desires.1

The influential art critic Clement Greenberg argued that “high art” is more authentic and authoritative than the low art of kitsch, even though kitsch sometimes produces work that possesses an authentic folk flavor. Greenberg regarded avant-garde art, such as the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock, as more authentic because it was new, whereas he criticized kitsch because it did not aspire to break any new ground and because it was a product of commercial culture. This kind of moral absolutism has obvious parallels in architecture—“cutting-edge” design is exalted whereas derivative work is panned—but is it appropriate to a discussion about what should be considered authentic? In my opinion, creating an architecture that is simply opposed to cultural norms is an imperfect path toward the goal of authenticity.

Jackson Pollock: Number 8, 1949

Authenticity has its paradoxical components. Sartre acknowledged the conflict between seeing the self as unique and different from the world, because the self is embedded in a world that clearly contains other similar beings. Architecture is likewise rooted in that world, where it is impossible not to engage and be influenced by external influences.2 If we logically extend the existentialist ethos, successful architecture is by definition largely inauthentic because it has to come to terms with the material world.

Juhani Pallasmaa is a Finnish architect and writer who has emerged as the leading voice of a loosely affiliated group of architects whose theories are derived from the philosophies of existentialism and phenomenology.3 The group shares an interest in architecture that is highly personal, inward looking, and concerned with one’s physical engagement with the world. Their focus on human constants—the way that our minds and bodies respond to tactile and aural cues, space, light, texture, and color—informs their architecture. In an essay published in The Architectural Review in 1994, Pallasmaa identified authenticity as one of his six themes for architecture in the new millennium.4 He regards architecture as a means to defend the authenticity of human experience:

“As our existential experience loses its coherence through the mosaic of placeless and timeless information, we become detached from traditional sources of identity. It is the task of architecture to provide a horizon of understanding our being in the world and, finally, of ourselves. Authenticity of architectural works supports a confidence in time and human nature; it provides the ground for individual identity.

Architecture is a conservative art. It is conservative in the sense that it materializes and preserves the history of culture. Buildings and cities trace the continuum of culture in which we place ourselves and by which we can recognize our identities. The way I see the essence of architecture's conservatism does not exclude radicality (sic); on the contrary, architecture must reinforce our existential experience in a radical manner against the forces of alienation and detachment. Architecture, as all art, makes us experience our own being with extraordinary weight and intensity. It enables us to dwell with dignity.”

I included this quotation because it is as succinct and eloquent a statement that I have come across about what an authentic architecture should be. It rings true even though I could not personally articulate what I believed authenticity in architecture to be prior to discovering Pallasmaa’s essay. He acknowledges that authenticity is commonly associated with the ideas of artistic autonomy and originality. On the other hand, he also counters Greenberg’s claim that only “new” or autonomous work is truly authentic. Rather than being inauthentic, Pallasmaa asserts that an architecture that is socially and culturally representative is indispensable to the autonomy of the emotional response and is therefore necessary to leading an authentic life. To think otherwise is to suggest that there is no room for an authentic architecture in a social context.

I do think that authentic architecture has the power to alter an individual’s relationship with and perception of the environment. However, a work of architecture is only authentic if it is fully experienced; it cannot be as real or meaningful if only regarded through drawings or photographs. What I haven’t gleaned yet is a ready prescription for achieving architecture that is immediately understood to be authentic. Perhaps I should read Juhani Pallasmaa’s other writings, including The Eyes of the Skin - Architecture and the Senses and Encounters: Architectural Essays. For now, I am convinced that it is a self-evident proposition that good architecture is authentic.

1. Ironically, the authors’ apparent formula for “appealing to the real” is for companies to suppress their innate character in favor of a superficial, rendered veneer of authenticity.

2. Peter Eisenman’s work of the 1960s and 1970s comes closest in my mind to being an architecture that is completely disengaged from external influences. Eisenman sought to liberate his architecture from all meaning, such that it was purely self-referential and autonomous.

3. Steven Holl and Peter Zumthor are two of the better known architects that are counted amongst the members of this group. Another like-minded architectural theorist was Christian Norberg-Schulz, whose writings about genius loci and its corollary, the phenomenology of architecture, prompted my seeking what constitutes an authentic architecture.

4. Pallasmaa’s six themes are: 1) Slowness, 2) Plasticity, 3) Sensuousness, 4) Authenticity, 5) Idealization, and 6) Silence.

5. Juhani Pallasmaa, Six Themes for the Next Millennium - Architecture for Improving Humanity, The Architectural Review: July 1994; retrieved May 17, 2008, from

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Portland Courtyard Housing Design Competition

Design competitions are alive and well: The City of Portland recently sponsored an ideas competition to explore how courtyard housing could provide attractive, flexible, affordable, and quality living environments at relatively high densities. The City retained AIA-SWO’s own Michael Fifield, AIA and Mark Gillem, AIA to serve as competition consultants and administrators. Both were on hand this past Tuesday to present the results of the competition to a gathering of the Willamette Valley Section of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA Oregon); I was pleased to attend the meeting and was astonished by the sheer number of the submissions (257 entries from around the globe), the high quality of the presentations, and the important goals and principles highlighted by the design concepts. I was also very impressed by the focus of the resultant competition catalogue, which was much more than a simple collection of the winning entries: Significantly, the publication distilled the best conceptual ideas to a set of principles that can easily be applied to future courtyard housing projects for a variety of different sites and conditions.

The competition entrants were asked to address several key challenges:
  • How can courtyard housing be designed to serve as an attractive option for families with children?

  • How can courtyards serve as useable outdoor space while also providing environmental sustainability benefits, act as a setting for community interaction while also respecting privacy needs, or serve as a pedestrian-oriented space while also accommodating cars?

  • How can courtyard housing avoid a purely inward focus and contribute to Portland’s tradition of street-oriented urbanism?
The competition entrants had the option to submit a design for two different hypothetical sites:
  • An inner Portland infill site, 100' wide by 100' deep, with 4-10 units oriented to a shared courtyard with one parking space per unit.
  • An eastern Portland infill site, 95'-wide by 180' deep, with 7-17 units, also oriented to a shared courtyard with one parking space per unit.

The courtyards could be pedestrian-only or mixed pedestrian/vehicular courtyards.

Five fundamental general design principles emerged from the competition and were expressed as goals for the design of courtyard housing:

  1. Create versatile courtyards

  2. Build functional homes

  3. Use sustainable solutions

  4. Make interior/exterior connections

  5. Respond to the context

The competition jury (see 1 below) selected winning schemes that successfully addressed the challenge of designing family-friendly, higher density housing, and also clearly achieved the goals listed above. All of the top winners effectively communicated the importance of their ideas, which were surprisingly diverse, imaginative, and innovative.

The City of Portland will next facilitate the construction of real projects that embody the best aspects of the winning designs by conducting a design-build competition that will partner developers with the designers from the ideas competition.

Read more about the Portland Courtyard Housing Design Competition at You can download a PDF version of catalogue of the project and the winning entries from the website and also view all 257 design submissions.

1. The following were the members of the competition jury:

Michael Pyatok, FAIA, Principal, Pyatok Architects; Professor, University of Washington

David Miller, FAIA, Principal, Miller-Hull Partnership; Professor, University of Washington

Nancy Merryman, FAIA, Principal, Robertson Merryman Barnes Architects, Portland, Oregon

Cynthia Girling, ASLA, Professor and Chair, Department of Landscape Architecture, University of British Columbia

Clare Cooper Marcus, Professor Emeritus, Departments of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, University of California, Berkeley

Sam Grawe, Editor, Dwell magazine

Loren Waxman, Developer, Portland, Oregon, Portland Design Commissioner

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Eugene, Genius Loci, and the Butterfly Effect

Our city has a developed “sense of place,” an identity and character that we Eugeneans and many visitors feel. This is imparted by various natural, manmade, and cultural factors: There is the confluence of the Willamette and McKenzie rivers, the landmark buttes and hills that punctuate and frame the valley, and the overlay of the urban grid, inflected by the presence of the natural features and the persistence of historic paths of travel. There is the diverse population of people in pursuit of alternative ideas, aging hippies, outdoor enthusiasts, and expatriate retirees from California and elsewhere. There is also the settlement's history, from its beginnings as a trading post and “Skinner’s Mudhole,” through its halcyon days as a center for timber processing and agri-business, to its role as a hub for the 60s and 70s counterculture and its identity as Track Town USA. Together, these factors form an a priori condition to which we as architects must respond. They comprise our city's genius loci, the spirit of the place, that which is unique, distinctive, and cherished about our city.

It was during the 1970s and 1980s that I learned about several key principles of place-making. Influential at that time was the Norwegian architectural theorist Christian Norberg-Schulz, who explored the phenomenology of place in his book Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture. His book is a tough read—my copy was published by Rizzoli and translated from Italian—but it profoundly impacted my thinking about architecture and urban design, particularly during my graduate studies at UCLA, where ideas about environmental psychology and psychogeography had a foothold among some faculty. For Norberg-Schulz, place-making was a total phenomenon that cannot be reduced to its constituent properties, such as spatial relationships. People are part of this phenomenon, and to belong to a place means to have an “existential foothold,” which “concretizes” the genius loci. The sense of place does not rely upon any one individual's perceptions or experiences, yet is dependent on human engagement for its existence. Norberg-Schulz did not advocate any kind of environmental determinism; instead, he viewed architecture’s basic responsibility as being to understand the genius loci, to protect it and become part of the totality. The fundamental underlying principle was that architecture should always be adapted to the context of which it will become a part.

Another central precept of the genius loci is the human tendency to seek identity and orientation; this is commonly understood by architects. Nature and history have conspired to endow Eugene with a recognizable and navigable structure. For example, Skinner Butte and Spencer Butte are two prominent landmarks. The pioneer citizens formalized the axis between the two buttes as Willamette Street, and like the ancient Roman cardo, it served historically as the center of economic and cultural life for the city. The Willamette River is both path and edge at the same time, as is the Union Pacific rail line. The yearning by today’s visionaries for a return to the river is as much a response to the genius loci, recognition of the river’s historic and structural importance to the city, as it is a desire to enhance a heretofore underdeveloped community amenity.

Manmade environments that exhibit a loss of place have no special relationship to where they are located—they could be anywhere. They lack a distinct identity and are disorienting. When the urban tissue is “loose,” paths, edges, districts, and nodes lose their identity and imageability (see note 1 below). Like many other cities that have grown significantly since World War II, Eugene’s strong sense of place has been diluted by unsympathetic developments. The numerous strip shopping malls, big box stores, fast food outlets, and cloyingly-named walled enclaves of speculatively built homes (with their aimlessly curved streets and cul-de-sacs) are all hallmarks of a placeless and inauthentic urban environment. They are also the product of the interaction between complex variables—economic, social, political, and technological—of a nonlinear dynamical system, to borrow from mathematical terminology.

So, how might Eugene preserve and reinforce its unique character under the pressures of growth and change? How do we sustain the genius loci? Perhaps we can find the answer by borrowing another term from mathematics, more specifically, Chaos Theory.

The butterfly effect (see note 2 below) is a phrase that sums up the notion that tiny variations of an initial condition can produce outsized changes in the behavior of a complex system. What the butterfly effect posits is that predicting the behavior of any large system is virtually impossible unless you could account for all the tiny factors that might have an effect upon it. The city is a model of a large nonlinear dynamical system that is vulnerable to the effects of every decision, action, and event that occurs over its history. Each variation produces cascading effects and largely unintended consequences determined by the unbroken chain of prior occurrences. The inability to reliably implement urban design initiatives is evidence of this effect (see my March 8, 2008, post regarding the Eugene Downtown Zoning Review Project). The outcome is ever changing and never static. Every action either reinforces or detracts from the genius loci.

I’m not trying to make the point that urban planning is futile, rather that urban planning could be more effective if it was based upon a shared appreciation of the genius loci. This might be expressed as agreement about a set of patterns, perhaps similar to those developed by Christopher Alexander and his colleagues at the Center for Environmental Structure in The Oregon Experiment and as later codified in the book A Pattern Language. An appropriate and unique collection of such patterns would be analogous to a record or memory of the genius loci. Conversely, the collection of patterns might be regarded as the emergent product of a complex system (the city itself)—a novel and coherent structure arising out of the multiplicity of interactions. The more coherent and legible the collection of patterns is, the more resilient it will be in the face of constant changes.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if a set of patterns or some other means is used to articulate the genius loci; the objective is to generate intended, rather than unintended, consequences that reinforce the spirit of the place. We should view every one of our projects as an opportunity to build incrementally upon the distinctive and valued qualities that differentiate Eugene from anywhere else. Work from this perspective as you evaluate every one of your design decisions, even the smallest ones, such as the selection of brick pavers of a certain color and texture for use along a pathway. Every decision is important; every choice has far-reaching effects. It is the control we wield over the tiny variations of the “initial condition”—the butterfly effect—that will cumulatively buttress the genius loci and minimize its erosion.

1. Kevin Lynch was another urban theorist that figured prominently during my student years. His most influential book, The Image of the City, documented how people perceive and navigate the urban landscape in predictable ways, forming mental maps that rely upon recognition of five elements: paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks. Lynch’s work did not address the understanding of experience like Norberg-Schulz’s did by co-opting the philosophy of phenomenology, but it did provide a metric for the experience of three-dimensional urban space.

2. “The phrase refers to the idea that a butterfly
's wings might create tiny changes in the atmoshpere that ultimately cause a tornado to appear (or prevent a tornado from appearing). The flapping wing represents a small change in the initial condition of the system, which causes a chain of events leading to large-scale phenomena. Had the butterfly not flapped its wings, the trajectory of the system might have been vastly different.” (Wikipedia)