Sunday, October 19, 2008

Crossroads of Design & Diversity

The Hilton Hawaiian Village, Honolulu

I’ve always returned from AIA conferences and conventions energized, informed, and eager to share what I’ve learned. The 2008 AIA Northwest and Pacific Regional Conference, held at the Hilton Hawaiian Village from October 7 – 10, 2008, was no exception.

The conference title – Crossroads of Design & Diversity – was intended in part to spotlight the increasing need to recognize how varied the backgrounds and cultures from which architectural professionals come from have become. It was also meant to emphasize that the clients and user groups for which we design built environments are likewise increasingly diverse. This diversity was on ample display in Honolulu, as over 400 conference registrants reflected the geographic and cultural expanse of the components of the AIA Northwest and Pacific Region (AIA-NWPR). Representatives were on hand from Alaska, Washington State, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Hawaii, Guam, Japan, and Hong Kong. There is no other region of the American Institute of Architects that comes close to matching the sheer range of constituencies represented by the AIA-NWPR. That the conference took place in Hawaii –a microcosm of sorts for the entire region – simply underscored the fact that the AIA is increasingly representative of a profession that is comprised of people from many backgrounds that mirror the diversity of the society we serve.

As is the norm at virtually any professional conference, there was a wide assortment of talks and educational sessions from which to partake. Of those that I attended, I was most impressed by presentations by Ted Liu, Director of the State of Hawaii’s Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism on the subject of energy independence; Dean Sakamoto, AIA about his firm’s design for the Botanical Research Center at the National Tropical Botanical Garden; and the Conference keynote address shared by the delightful Puanani Burgess and AIA National President Marshall Purnell, FAIA.(1)

Energy Independence for Hawaii
The impacts of global warming, environmental degradation, and energy demand are particularly acute for the isolated island archipelago of Hawaii. In a brief and eye-opening presentation, Ted Liu enumerated the challenges faced by the state. Hawaii is 92% reliant upon fuel oil for generation of its electrical power, and there is at most only a 14-day reserve of petroleum maintained on the islands. The cost of electrical power is by far the nation’s highest at $0.42/kilowatt hour. If the supply of oil is curtailed for any reason, Hawaii would almost literally grind to a halt. Consequently, Mr. Liu described how the state government is taking dramatic steps toward encouraging the broad implementation of sustainable technologies – wind, geothermal, solar, wave & tidal, and biofuel (algae) – with the goal of completely supplanting petroleum as the primary means for generating electricity on the islands. Hawaii has not previously been noted as being in the forefront of sustainability, but global circumstances have conspired to force it to act decisively. It will be interesting to see if Hawaii achieves its goal of energy independence in the near future.

The Juliet Rice Wichman Botanical Research Center
For Dean Sakamoto, AIA(2), the opportunity to design the Juliet Rice Wichman Botanical Research Center at the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) on Kauai must have seemed like a perfect fit. Long an admirer of the work of Vladimir Ossipoff, FAIA, Sakamoto curated and designed an exhibition on the work of the late “tropical modernist” following five years of research into Ossipoff’s life and architectural oeuvre (the exhibit appeared at the Honolulu Academy of Arts earlier this year and is now on display at the Yale Art + Architecture Gallery). It was Ossipoff who coincidentally master-planned the NTBG campus and designed its other buildings in his place-sensitive architectural style.

The Juliet Rice Wichman Botanical Research Center

Sakamoto’s design for the just-completed $12 million, 20,000 SF research center is a contemporary facility very much sympathetic to Ossipoff’s buildings on the campus. It is notably “green” and likely to achieve LEED gold status – the first building on Kauai to meet LEED building certification standards. The sustainable design features include a roof designed to capture rainwater for on-site use and a thirty kilowatt capacity photovoltaic system to provide for the center’s electrical load; recycled hardwoods; mechanical and electrical systems with a back-up generator for short and long-term operation during any emergency; and a reinforced concrete design that is built to withstand Category 5 hurricane winds. Equally noteworthy is the building’s accommodation of a temperature- and humidity-sensitive rare books collection; this library is handled architecturally like a glass jewel-box within the minimalist concrete and wood structure.

The merits of the building’s design aside, it was actually how Sakamoto’s firm procured the project and his decision to not follow Ossipoff’s site master plan that I found most fascinating. The National Tropical Botanical Garden did not issue a solicitation for interested architectural firms via a typical Request for Qualifications process. Even so, Dean Sakamoto Architects, LLC, was not the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s first choice for the firm to design its new research center, nor was it the second. The NTBG apparently did not find the right architect until Sakamoto was referred to the organization by a friend. It was no doubt his empathy for Ossipoff’s design approach and yet his willingness to reevaluate the campus master plan that appealed to the NTBG board. Ossipoff had proposed that the research center be located downhill relative to other campus buildings; however, this arrangement would have resulted in the new construction obstructing what were regarded as cherished views by the NTBG staff from their administrative office building. Sakamoto chose to site the new center above the other buildings, thereby preserving the extant views while at the same time fitting into the site as if Ossifpoff had planned it this way in the first place.

Kauai is my wife’s favorite Hawaiian destination, so we can no doubt look forward to someday visiting the Juliet Rice Wichman Botanical Research Center in person.

Sharing Viewpoints: Puanani Burgess & Marshall Purnell, FAIA
Puanani Burgess is not an architect, but she is a community-building facilitator, trainer, and consultant, as well as a poet, cultural translator, and lecturer at the University of Hawaii School of Regional and Urban Design. As evidenced by the conference-closing keynote session she shared with AIA National President Marshall Purnell, FAIA, Ms. Burgess is also most decidedly a story-teller. She conveyed personal anecdotes that relate to what she regards as the “structure of belonging” and the need to see things how others see things. There is also for her the process of “building the beloved community” and the exercise of “leaving your guts on the table.” Ultimately, she seeks to help communities identify their unique gifts by using these processes as illuminated by her story-telling.

Puanani Burgess & Marshall Purnell, FAIA

Puanani Burgess recounted several examples of learning how to see how others see things and the value of the “gift-based economy.” Perhaps the most poignant was her tale about a “guts on the table” discussion with a group of local 11th and 12th grade students. The process required that each student first tell the story of their names, because that is the way we introduce ourselves. The second request was that each tells a story about their communities, or their relationship with others. The third request was for each student to describe his or her gift, which Burgess regards as usually the most difficult story to tell. One boy grumbled about how he had no gift to offer. “What kind of gift do I have?” he said. “I’m in this special-ed class and you shame me for not being able to answer this kind of question.” Burgess felt badly about putting the boy on the spot in front of his fellow students and left the class worried about what she had done. Two weeks later, she bumped into him while shopping at the town’s grocery store. He happily told her about how he had been thinking about what she’d said, about how he needed to think about what his gift was. “I cannot read good and I can’t do that math stuff, but when I go in the water, I can call the fish and the fish come every time. Every time, I can put food on the table for my family.” So even though this boy could not at first identify his gift, he eventually realized that he indeed did have one once given the occasion to think about it. Puanani Burgess used this story as evidence of the value of questioning what the gift of each particular community might be. It is her asking of such questions that creates the opportunity for more open discussion with her clients.

Marshall Purnell spoke with equal eloquence about the need for our profession to diversify if it is to remain relevant. His assertion is that diversity is not a problem to be solved but rather a reason to celebrate. Diversity should be regarded as the future. He used two analogies to make this point: The first is that, as with the biological world, monocultures are unhealthy; biodiversity is an underpinning of a strong and healthy ecosystem. The second analogy relates to his lifelong passion for music of all types. There is an amazing variety of musical forms, precisely the outcome of the diversity of those who created them. Imagine if there was no jazz, or bluegrass, or rock & roll, or any of the other musical genres that have their origins in this country. Imagine if European classical music (as fine and rich as it is) was the only sanctioned form of music, the only type taught in the academies, performed only by artists of western European descent. The truth is that we cannot imagine such a possibility because we all have been enriched so much by the diversity of music we can enjoy today. Marshall Purnell foresees a golden age of architecture that is the beneficiary of a diversity of talent similar to that which led to the flowering of American musical forms. His personal goal has been to utilize his term as AIA president to ensure that our profession is as representative of our society’s diversity as it can be.

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As a NWPR board member and official representative of the AIA-Southwestern Oregon chapter, I also attended the pre-conference region board meeting and workshop, and the last-day annual NWPR business meeting. The focus of the board workshop was leadership development and the challenge of encouraging the younger members of our profession to become more active in the Institute and its initiatives. Towards this end, the NWPR solicited input from leaders of the region’s architecture schools and proposed the creation of a “Leadership Institute” that would involve students and emerging professionals in AIA activities at region conferences. A primary function of the region business meeting was the election of a new Northwest & Pacific Region Director. I’m pleased to announce that Douglas Benson, AIA of Portland will serve as the NWPR 2009-2011 Director. Doug is current past-president of AIA Portland and will do a wonderful job succeeding outgoing Region Director Jim Suehiro, AIA of Seattle.

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Mahalo(3) to the NWPR Conference Committee Co-Chairs, Joe Ferraro, FAIA and David Bylund, AIA, and their many committee members and volunteers, for orchestrating such an agreeable conference. Thank you too, to AIA-NWPR Directors Jim Suehiro, AIA, and Pat Onishi, AIA; the AIA-Honolulu Board of Directors; and to the generous sponsors who helped make the conference a fabulous experience in a beautiful setting. I’m very much looking forward to next year’s NWPR conference in Anchorage, which I am certain will be an equally enjoyable and educational experience. Of course, after Alaska, AIA-Southwestern Oregon will host the 2010 AIA-Northwest and Pacific Region Conference in Eugene. The bar has been set high by AIA-Honolulu, but I believe that we will successfully meet the challenge of producing the 2010 conference and offer attendees as unique and expanding an experience as was offered by “The Crossroads of Design & Diversity” in Honolulu.

(1) Other noteworthy speakers I had the pleasure of hearing included Ed Mazria, Peter Bohlin, FAIA, Johnpaul Jones, FAIA, Katrina Shum-Miller, Associate AIA, and Hugh Hochberg. I had previously seen Mr. Mazria speak on two occasions about Architecture 2030 and the 2030 Challenge. I was familiar with much of the work of Peter Bohlin and his firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, but was reminded again about how thoughtful and unaffected his firm’s work is. Likewise, I was familiar with the projects designed by Johnpaul Jones that are representative of his Native American perspective: a respect and stewardship of the natural world, animal world, spirit world, and human world. Katrina Shum-Miller is a principal with Green Building Services in Portland. Her expertise lies in bio-climatic building and urban design strategies, ecologically sensitive planning and community design, space planning and project management. Hugh Hochberg described a mathematical algorithm for calculating excellence and identifying problems in architectural practice.

(2) Sakamoto is principal of the eponymously named firm Dean Sakamoto Architects and a 1986 graduate of the University of Oregon with a bachelor of architecture degree (he holds advanced degrees from the Cranbrook Academy of Art and Yale University). He currently practices in New Haven, Connecticut, where he also teaches design at Yale and is the Director of Exhibitions at the School of Art + Architecture.

(3) Hawaiian for “thanks.”

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