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)

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