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.

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