Sunday, June 29, 2008

Presentation by Dr. Alder Fuller

If you read my TEOTWAWKI post, you’re aware of how impressed I was with the systems science perspective applied to the subject of large-scale climate change by Dr. Alder Fuller at his Euglena Academy. His message is portentous but also a call to arms: we have no choice but to adapt to a hotter state with a radically different climate regime that hasn’t existed on Earth for 55 million years. This coming Wednesday, July 2, 2008, at 7:00 PM, Dr. Fuller will speak at a meeting of the NW EcoBuilding Guild on the subject of large-scale climate change and its implications for human habitation. The venue is the Bring Planet Improvement Center, located at 4446 Franklin Boulevard in Glenwood. For directions to the Center, see The presentation is free.

Track Town USA

Bird's eye perspective of Hayward Field and the Eugene 08 Festival

Eugene is proudly hosting the 2008 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials at historic Hayward Field on the University of Oregon campus, and our city is once again the mecca for track and field enthusiasts. There is no doubt that Eugene derives much of its self-image from its reputation as Track Town, USA – from the legendary athletes who excelled at Hayward Field, the legacy of Bill Bowerman, its history as the birthplace of the jogging craze, and world-class events like the Olympic Trials and the Prefontaine Classic. Eugene’s identification with running in particular has few parallels. Perhaps only Louisville (the Kentucky Derby) and Indianapolis (the Indianapolis 500) are as culturally dominant and as synonymous to the sports with which they are associated as Eugene is with track and field.

Although we have Hayward Field, Pre’s Rock, and our miles and miles of running trails, there isn’t much else about our physical context that nurtures the real sense of place evoked by the moniker of Track Town, USA. So, what are the implications for architects if the sense of place is not so much reliant upon our efforts to shape the landscape and the genius loci as it is a matter of cultural features? Maybe genius loci should be characterized as being specifically adapted to the physical context in which it is located, whereas a sense of place may be more readily defined by social phenomena that occur within that place. A subtle distinction, but one that might explain why sympathetic architecture and urban design have not been essential to Eugene’s strong association with its track and field heritage.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

June AIA-SWO Chapter Meeting Recap

Courtyard Housing Competition winning entry
by Keith Rivera and Kristin Anderson

The housing affordability crisis is clearly a topic that strikes a chord with the AIA-SWO membership. Not unlike our April chapter meeting that featured presentations by three local advocates for low-income and affordable housing, we once again had an outstanding turnout of members and guests to hear an excellent presentation by two of our chapter’s own on the subject of residential infill strategies: Michael Fifield, AIA, AICP, professor of architecture, University of Oregon; and Mark Gillem, Ph.D., AIA, AICP, assistant professor of architecture and landscape architecture, University of Oregon.

As developable land becomes scarce and demographics change, meaningful strategies for providing affordable and appropriate housing for all become increasingly critical. The challenge is to identify appropriate infill strategies for Eugene/Springfield so that new housing may be constructed to meet the demands fueled by population growth and the diversification of our populace, while simultaneously minimizing urban sprawl. This challenge is made more difficult by the pronounced disparity in our community between the median household income and the cost of a typical home. The inequity is further exacerbated by the continuing trend toward larger and larger houses: the average size of a single-family dwelling in the U.S. in 1950 was a modest 983 square feet; the average size of a single-family residence in our metro area in 2006 was 2,867 square feet, or triple the size of the typical home half a century earlier! Paradoxically, the super-sizing of our homes is occurring at a time when the traditional nuclear family is shrinking and is no longer the predominant household demographic. The reality is that homes occupied by singles, couples with no children, families with grown children or aging parents living with them, and persons unrelated by blood or marriage are increasingly common domestic profiles, and yet much of the housing industry continues to build as if this is not the case.

Michael and Mark discussed the issues associated with infill development by looking at three recent case studies:

Common to all of the case studies is the recognition that design excellence can mitigate community opposition to the introduction of infill housing.

The mid-block alley is a ubiquitous and underutilized aspect of Eugene’s urban morphology. Alleys provide access and connections to utilities convenient to the introduction of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU). Imaginatively designed ADUs as small as 300 square feet or less can easily meet the needs of individuals or even couples seeking to own a home that is distinctly their own while assuming a relatively small footprint.

The 2004 Portland competition resulted in the creation of two permit-ready, Council-approved plans called “Living Smart Houses.” In an effort to encourage the use of these plans, Portland’s Bureau of Development Services (BDS) discounted associated plans review and inspection fees by 50%. The two styles of Living Smart Houses are the “Higgins” and the “Vargas,” named after their designers, Bryan Higgins and Trent & Roxana Vargas Greenan, respectively. So far, ten of the Higgins and Vargas houses have been constructed in Portland.

Vargas "Living Smart" narrow lot houses.

The Portland Courtyard Housing competition was significant because Michael and Mark sought from the outset to ensure that tangible lessons would be learned. Accordingly, the competition jury 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. These design principles 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

Refer to my May 7, 2008, post for even more information about this competition.

Michael and Mark pointed out that the success of residential infill strategies is not assured by our skill as architects alone. Cities will need to amend development codes to remove roadblocks to infill development. Onerous systems development charges and other fees should be reduced to reflect the smaller impact upon public infrastructure afforded by ADUs, narrow houses, and courtyard housing when compared to the current paradigm. And the affordability factor, influencing how and where people choose to live, will need to be addressed such that the scales are tipped in favor of building smarter and more compactly.

Former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber once said, "Oregonians really dislike two things: they dislike sprawl; and they dislike density.'' This witty aphorism will seem less and less apt as our metro areas increasingly embrace density. The ADU alley report and the Portland competitions are demonstrating how this density can be achieved in ways that will have broad appeal.

* * * * * *

This month's winner of our chapter meeting raffle prize, which is a $50.00 gift certificate courtesy of Down to Earth Home Garden & Gifts store, was Marston Morgan, AIA, of Architectural Associates. 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!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Utopianism, Cynicism, and Sincerity

Expo '67 promotional poster

As a child, I believed that architects were the shapers of utopian flights of fancy, designers of ideal communities that fostered social progress and the betterment of the world. It was in part that belief that attracted me to the profession. It seemed at the time that architects were ethically and politically relevant, authors of visionary designs. Some of the most spectacular projects (at least to my fresh eyes) would be realized for captivated audiences at the immensely popular world fairs of the mid-20th century, of which Expo ’67 in Montreal was the apotheosis. It was the main celebration during Canada’s centennial year and therefore hugely influential in shaping Canadian architecture and national identity. Even though I was very young at the time, I remember the excitement surrounding Expo ’67 and its theme of Man and His World: the national pride, the wide-eyed wonderment, and the resolute optimism about the potential for architecture to address the challenges of global urbanization and its impact upon patterns of human settlement.

I would later be fascinated by the work of Buckminster Fuller (who designed the iconic geodesic dome for the U.S. pavilion at Expo ’67) and Paolo Soleri, both of whom I had the good fortune to see speak at the 1976 United Nations Habitat Conference in Vancouver. In less than a decade, the buoyant optimism epitomized by Expo ’67 had been eroded by a loss of faith in society’s ability to solve its problems even while such initiatives as UN Habitat sought to globally ensure adequate shelter for all. Fuller and Soleri were concerned with the huge question of whether humanity had a chance to survive successfully as a species on our planet. Eventually, both men would be dismissed by many as hopeless utopians.

It was against the 1970s backdrop of the Vietnam War, Watergate, stagflation, environmental degradation, and post-modernism that the ideologies of several of today’s most influential architectural theorists arose. In the absence of actual work, architects such as Rem Koolhaas, Peter Eisenman, Bernard Tschumi, Daniel Libeskind, and Thom Mayne turned to intellectual debate and graphic experimentation as their critical platforms. Koolhaas in particular explored the interface between cultural identity and the urban condition, ultimately embracing capitalism as theater, in the process garnering a reputation as a cynic who saw self-interest as the primary shaper of the built environment.

In a 1996 interview for Wired magazine, Koolhaas said:

“Architecture can't do anything that the culture doesn't. We all complain that we are confronted by urban environments that are completely similar. We say we want to create beauty, identity, quality, singularity. And yet, maybe in truth these cities that we have are desired. Maybe their very characterlessness provides the best context for living."

Since going on to establish a major international reputation, Koolhaas has continued to accept urban alienation and the fracturing of modern society as the justification for the dystopic visions of his firm, OMA (The Office for Metropolitan Architecture). Today, the work of OMA is intentionally disquieting, disorienting, and alienating, and thusly rationalized as a more representative analogue for contemporary urban experience.(1) Thom Mayne likewise defends the highly personal vocabulary of his own projects by suggesting that they signify the “messiness” and discontinuities of our everyday lives. The architecture of OMA and Morphosis is intended to be representative of the time in which we live, of the conflicts and complications that we cope with.

Flagrant Delit, by Madelon Vriesendorp, 1975
(illustration for Koolhaas' book, Delerious New York)

Like the other arts, architecture can certainly serve as critique or social commentary. In the past, architecture has been used as a medium to communicate and provoke constructive discussion about political, moral, and social issues. Rem Koolhaas has contributed significantly to viewing buildings and cities as narratives (his book Delirious New York is a psychoanalysis of architectural dreams, phobias, ideologies, obsessions, and “the secret life of buildings”), and he has commented upon the destabilizing effects of commercial culture. However, his work has for the most part only served to call attention to the problems with urban environments, offering cynicism and pessimism rather than architectural solutions. I have never met Koolhaas or seen him speak in person; nonetheless, I suspect that critics are on the money when they say that he is too clever, too cool, and too apathetic to really want to make a difference. For Koolhaas, it is enough to be the provocateur, albeit a famous one with a Pritzker Prize to his name.

Wikipedia defines cynics as those who see self-interest as the primary motive of human behavior, and who are disinclined to rely upon sincerity and altruism as motivations. Koolhaas dismisses beauty, identity, quality, and singularity because he claims that our culture no longer places a high value on these virtues. I personally prefer optimism to pessimism, sincerity and altruism to cynicism. Despite the considerable influence of Koolhaas and his contemporaries, schools of architecture are once again seeing momentum towards idealism and the belief that architects can make a difference.(2)

Webster’s defines sincerity as being without deceit, pretense, or hypocrisy; as truthful, straightforward, and honest. As applied in the service of architecture, sincerity would seem the surer path towards effective problem-solving, as opposed to Koolhaas’ cynical pessimism, which serves to further detachment and alienation. An authentic architecture is a corollary to sincerity. The problems that confront architects today call for practical idealism and sincere efforts. The cynic sees only a dystopian future; the idealist can prefigure a radically new and progressive alternative.

Recent history has shown architects’ sensibilities and concerns to have been cyclical and temporal, and yet the current swing of the pendulum toward an earnest and sincere concern for bettering our world seems different this time. It has to be. Having my eyes very recently opened to the immensity of the challenges that confront us, we cannot allow the pendulum to swing back in the other direction anytime soon. We need to revive a buoyant optimism of the kind that energized Expo ’67, and restore the faith in our abilities to solve the most difficult problems that architects have ever tackled. We must become “pragmatic utopians,” tempered by reality yet freed from the cynicism and pessimism that would paralyze us. We must believe that we are capable of great things.

(1) Koolhaas' downtown Seattle Library is notorious for the disorienting navigation problems it presents library patrons.

(2) Read Thomas de Monchaux’ essay “Solving for X: Calculating Idealism Among Young Architects.”

Sunday, June 8, 2008


Shrinkage of the Greenland ice cap, 1992: 2005

In view of the fact that I demonstrated an interest in non-linear dynamical systems and chaos theory in my May 3 blog post, entitled Eugene, Genius Loci and the Butterfly Effect, Don Kahle suggested that I check out the teachings of Alder Fuller at his Euglena Academy. I did so recently by attending his lecture entitled “Beyond the Tipping Point,” a sobering presentation of evidence supporting the hypothesis that we have already crossed a critical threshold towards large-scale climate change as a consequence of global warming. This threshold is the tipping point past which the earth's temperatures will continue to rise regardless of anything we humans do in an attempt to stop it. According to Dr. Fuller, the changes caused by the exponential acceleration of global warming will be so immense and so rapid that they will very quickly dwarf all other concerns of the human race. The upshot is that we are facing the end of the world as we know it (TEOTWAWKI) and that it will occur sooner rather than later – within our lifetimes.

Alder Fuller is a unique educator whose background includes PhD studies in ecology and biological evolution as well as research and instruction on probability theory, mathematical statistics, and biological systematics. Following a career as a college instructor, he founded the Euglena Academy in Eugene in 2001 with the goal of providing his own scientifically rigorous curriculum on the topics of system sciences and climate change. In addition to the personal knowledge base he has constructed over many years, he has also drawn heavily upon the work of others, most notably James Lovelock(1), Spencer Weart(2), and Stephen Wolfram(3). The common thread is an appreciation of the complexity and the interrelatedness of physical and living systems of all scales, from the cosmological to the subatomic.

It is by personal choice that Dr. Fuller teaches independently rather than within the structure of a university setting. While his Euglena Academy may lack the imprimatur of mainstream academia, it has allowed him to pursue his interests and educate others freed from the need to challenge institutional resistance to the relevancy of system science principles. His audience in Eugene is growing, both by word of mouth (as in my case) and through coverage in The Eugene Weekly and other media. Ultimately, Dr. Fuller hopes that his work will lead to the emergence of a culture that can adapt to the large-scale climate change and be prepared to minimize the dangers of its consequences.

It is the magnitude of the global heating problem and the rapidity with which it will impose itself upon our environment that I find overwhelming. Architects may be taking a leadership role on matters of sustainability with such initiatives as the 2030 Challenge, but are we to the point where the goals of programs like this are tantamount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic? James Lovelock has predicted that the human population will plummet from our current 6 billion to as little as 1 billion by the year 2100. Dr. Fuller prefers to picture a less cataclysmic future for our species but one, nonetheless, wherein the current trajectory of planetary climate change cannot be reversed. The bottom line is that our lives and our civilization will be impacted in unimagined ways. A thin application of “green” paint may make us feel better about ourselves but will not make the problem disappear. The challenge goes far beyond simply achieving carbon neutrality in our buildings. Architects must envision a future world in which our lives have been dramatically and irrevocably transformed by the effects of global warming.

Dr. Fuller is offering his “Beyond the Tipping Point” lecture every Friday evening this June. The lecture is a necessary prerequisite to the Euglena Academy’s two climate change workshops: CC1 explains the systems sciences behind Earth’s climate crisis, while CC2 explores the ramifications of global heating upon our ability to meet basic human needs and the attendant political, social, and economic considerations. Each of the intensive workshops takes place over a single weekend. Check out the Euglena Academy’s web site at for more information about schedule and session costs.

(1) James Lovelock is a British scientist best known for proposing the Gaia hypothesis, in which he postulates that the Earth functions as a kind of super organism. His latest book is The Revenge of Gaia.

(2) Spencer R. Weart is the director of the Center for History of Physics of the American Insitute of Physics
. His most recent book is The Discovery of Global Warming.

(3) Stephen Wolfram is a physicist and mathematician
known for his work in theoretical particle physics, cellular automata, and complexity theory. He is the author of the book A New Kind of Science.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Building Oregon

Ed Teague, head of the University of Oregon’s Architecture & Allied Arts Library, brought to my attention a new database on Oregon architecture, for which he serves as project director. Judging from what I’ve seen during a very brief initial visit to the web site, Building Oregon: Architecture of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest” will be a tremendous resource for individuals conducting research on the work of Oregon architects and the buildings they design. Presently, the database has 11,600 image records, soon to be 14,000, with many from the slide archives of Marion Dean Ross as well as the State Historic Preservation Office by special agreement with SHPO. The collection consists of materials regarding architects, regional architecture, and specific buildings, and includes not only photographs but also images of the architects’ original design drawings. The collection may be sorted in various ways, such as by the architect or firm name, building name, or location. Conditions for use of each of the images in the database are listed.

Visit the database at

Contact information for Ed is as follows:

Edward H. Teague
Head, Architecture & Allied Arts Library
205C Lawrence Hall
University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403