Sunday, December 28, 2008

Ecopolis and the American Dream

Victory City

There are a lot of ideas being tossed about these days on the subject of how we might design the sustainable cities of the future. I’m finding these ideas not only in the professional literature, but also in the discourse of popular culture(1) and politics. Some urban visionaries have generated fantastical ideas, recalling the impractically idealistic proposals of previous generations but now fashioned in the service of saving humankind from itself. Typically, these futuristic designs mandate hyperdense development, employing revolutionary technologies to address the impacts of climate change, maximize efficiencies, and minimize the generation of greenhouse gases. The projects are presented as if powerful institutions with unlimited resources would somehow realize and control them, and citizens would willingly adapt to the loss of freedoms inherent in life within these utopian megastructures.

Therein lies the challenge. Resources are limited, and Americans in particular value their autonomy and property rights. As if taken from a post-apocalyptic movie, these enormous projects call to mind a dystopian future, one in which a comfortable life would be available to only a privileged few, cosseted from a world in which climate-induced famine and suffering are rampant. Realistically, a different solution is required, in which the necessary changes in human settlement at a global scale are achieved at far less cost, to the benefit of as many people as possible.

Hyperdensity vs. Complexity
Today’s sprawling, ever-growing metropolises consume resources like food, water, and energy as if they were limitless, while spewing pollution and waste. The reflexive responses by some architects and urbanists are proposals for hyperdense megastructures – highly integrated and compact forms that would be the antithesis of urban sprawl. These proposals are fascinating because of their sheer hubris: the Shimizu TRY 2004 Mega-City Pyramid, planned for construction over Tokyo Bay, would be 12 times higher than the Great Pyramid at Giza, and house 750,000 people. It would be so huge that existing construction materials are incapable of supporting such a colossal mass; futuristic carbon nanofiber technology is viewed as necessary to the creation of a plausible structural frame. Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut’s Lilypad project is equally audacious: an “auto-sufficient amphibious city” that he has proposed as a tenable solution to rising sea levels and the flooding of low-lying cities and countries. Lilypad would be, in Callebaut’s words, an “Ecopolis for Climatic Refugees,” capable of floating about the planet to where ocean resources are most plentiful and escaping the foulest weather.

Shimizu TRY 2004 Mega-City Pyramid

Two Lilypads floating in Monaco's harbor

It’s easy to trace the pedigree of both the Mega-City Pyramid and Lilypad projects to Paolo Soleri’s earlier “arcology” (architecture + ecology) concepts, which similarly proposed the miniaturization of the city to radically conserve land, energy, and resources. To a lesser extent, I also see the 1960s megastructure designs of the Japanese Metabolists and the British Archigram as inspirations, although the latter eschewed social and environmental concerns in favor of ironic, rhetorical, and purely hypothetical expression. There’s also a healthy dose of science fiction speculation in all of the hyperdense projects. The common thread is a faith in human ingenuity and technology to address the huge challenges facing humankind.(5)

Soleri's Hexahedron Arcology

The problem with the majority of the hyperdense city proposals is that they are curiously antiseptic – products of straight-line, reductionist thinking. Their apotheosis may be found in the musings of Orville Simpson II, a Midwestern utopian socialist, would-be urban planner, and designer of Victory City. Not only is Victory City his solution to the environmental degradation caused by traditional cities, it is also his cure for the many ills of conventional urban life. Unfortunately, Simpson’s world view is childlike and narrowly focused, the success of Victory City being predicated upon the implementation of draconian social controls, such as dictating when, what, where, and how people are fed.

Feeding 16,333 people at a time in the Victory City cafeteria

Urban geographer Ian Douglas observed that “the urban eco-system is the most elaborate geographical control-system or integrated resource-management system in human experience.” How we interact with the environment and each other cannot be reduced to narrowly focused engineering solutions; we’re all part of systems that interact in ways that are incomprehensibly complex. A city is not merely the sum of its parts, especially when so many of those parts are capable of exercising free will.

The American Dream
Many Americans equate selfhood with freedom and property ownership, and find it difficult to reconcile rights owed to the individual with duties owed to the collective. In this regard, the hyperdense blueprints for the cities of the future are fundamentally un-American and impractical. I can’t imagine the dramatic paradigm shift that would be necessary in this country, where generations have championed the ideal of the single nuclear-family detached house, set in its private surrounding yard, as a reward for pursuing one’s goals. Such a shift will not happen anytime soon. Nevertheless, unfettered growth cannot figure in the American Dream of the future. American cities and culture will become more locally and regionally focused, as conservation of resources becomes paramount.

The American Dream persists because of the belief that anyone who works hard can succeed and is entitled to the fruits of his or her labors. This has served the country well, but with a more interconnected and complex world than ever before, the American Dream will evolve. Americans do embrace trying new things, and succeeding or failing because of savvy, their level of dedication, and good or bad fortune. These traits will be the key to the development of a more sophisticated network of incremental solutions to the complex problem of transforming U.S. cities into more ecologically sound systems.

Urban Fractals
Paul Downton is an Australian architect and eco-city advocate who believes that adapting to global warming, as well as reducing social inequity and furthering sustainability, are fundamentally local. While he acknowledges that we will need global-scale changes in political structures, economic institutions, and the very foundations of society, he also argues that it is at the local level – in our cities, towns, and neighborhoods – where lasting models of the kind of world we wish to see will arise.

Downton believes that urban fractals(2) – small components of a larger ideal eco-city – are necessary to demonstrate the essential characteristics of a sustainable culture and environment. Each urban fractal would be an example of a cultural pattern that is sufficiently different from the norm to change the deeper pattern of the city. The overarching goal is to design and develop new urban systems with the intent of establishing the framework for an ecological culture. Thus, a typical urban fractal might take the form of a sustainable human ecological development at the scale of a single building or neighborhood. It would be a discrete unit or element of cultural ideas and practices that would serve as an imitable agent for change, like a self-replicating meme. For example, a particular building project might be so optimized that little in the way of resources outside of the development are necessary to sustain it. It could then serve as a model for similar, neighboring projects. Cumulatively, the urban fractals that contain the essential characteristics of the desired ecological culture would achieve the extent and depth of change necessary to shift complete cities toward ecological health and viability.

Fractal geometry: The Mandelbrot Set

The clear advantage of urban fractals is that they can be of a scale that is consistent with how the majority of real estate improvements are presently undertaken. This is a vision of the future that is grounded in reality and “bottom-up” processes, as opposed to the “top-down” utopias and the absolute social upheaval they would augur(3). The urban fractals model describes a path toward major change in a way that can be accepted as normal because it would happen at a relatively slow pace, in unnoticed increments. It does not preclude the right to private property ownership that so many Americans cherish, nor would it discourage individual initiative and creativity. It is a model that would be resilient and adaptive, radically interconnected and inventive, so much so that we may not fully predict its final emergent form. Ultimately, the result would be Ecopolis(4), a city locally adapted to an era of rapid climate change.

I’m guessing that the American Dream will endure as our cities confront the social, economic, and technological challenges posed by global climate change. The freedom to own and develop property will be balanced with a sense of civic responsibility to work together to create healthful, sustainable communities. Americans possess too much determination, ingenuity, and enterprise for me to believe otherwise.

(1) This post was prompted by my viewing the TV series ECOPOLIS, recently broadcast on the Science Channel, a case-in-point when it comes to my belief that the popular media have recognized the general public’s interest in sustainable design.

(2) Fractals are defined as displaying related characteristics at every magnification, are considered to be infinitely complex, and have connective structure at different scales.

(3) There will be plenty of social upheaval attributable to drastic climate change regardless of which path cities follow toward urban sustainability. In fact, independent scientist and futurist James Lovelock believes that the whole notion of sustainable development is wrongheaded and that sustainable retreat (in which patterns of resource used to meet human needs are achieved at dramatically lower levels and where migration of large portions of the human population occurs) is instead necessary.

(4) It’s interesting how the name Ecopolis, which has become synonymous with a sustainable city or eco-city, has been adopted by so many who are involved in the field of urban sustainability. For example, the name of Paul Downton’s architectural firm in Adelaide is Ecopolis.

(5) Another supersized, hyperdense proposal is the Ultima Tower by architect Eugene Tsui.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

December AIA-SWO Chapter Meeting Recap

Despite record-breaking cold weather and snow in the days that proceeded it, our annual holiday party was surprisingly well attended. Thirty AIA-SWO architects, associates, and family members braved the slippery trek to the Mid-Town Arts Center to share the season’s good cheer, a varied buffet menu (Xmas pizza and sushi, anyone?), and a selection of fine wine, beer, and soft drinks.

The poor weather and road conditions between Portland and Eugene did prevent AIA Oregon Executive Vice-President Saundra Stevens, Hon. AIA, from joining us. She had looked forward to reporting about AIA Oregon’s latest activities and how the organization is working to advance our profession at the state level. Saundra now plans to attend one our monthly chapter meetings sometime early in 2009; she’s a tremendous resource for Oregon architects, and our chapter is lucky to have her experience and insight. The adverse weather also kept our evening's entertainment from joining us; the woodwind quintet's presence would have undoubtedly added to the holiday atmosphere. Regardless, those who were at the party definitely enjoyed each others’ company, sharing thoughts about 2008, and looking forward to meeting the challenges of 2009.

With an eye toward next year, we posted sign-up sheets at the party for the various AIA-SWO committees that will be active during 2009. We’re seeking volunteers to staff the following committees:

2010 Northwest & Pacific Region Conference Committee
Our chapter plays host in 2010 to the AIA Northwest & Pacific Region Conference. The conference’s title is “An Emerald Vision,” and its focus will be how architecture and planning support and protect the natural beauty of Oregon. This is a huge undertaking, and will require the efforts of many AIA-SWO members.

Educational Seminars Committee
For 2009, we plan to produce two educational seminars with the goal of providing our members with convenient access to continuing education learning units. One of the seminars is likely to focus on the impacts of accelerating climate change upon settlement patterns and its implications for architects and urban designers. The other seminar may be more practice-oriented, but this is yet to be determined. Join this committee and help us organize these educational opportunities.

Design Awards Committee
Our chapter has not conducted the juried Design Awards program since 2005. We’re hoping to change that in 2009. This is especially important for 2010 when we host the Region Conference, because a prerequisite for receiving an AIA Region Design Award is being previously recognized for a design award at the chapter level. Members of this committee will work together to identify the jury, handle the logistics of the project evaluation process, and produce the Design Awards ceremony.

EWEB Riverfront Charrette Committee
The EWEB Riverfront Charrette Committee is working with the Eugene Water & Electric Board and the City of Eugene to conduct a workshop for the purpose of exploring possible futures for EWEB’s important riverfront property. The goal is to assist EWEB and its urban design consultants with a public process to solicit input from as broad a range of stakeholders as possible.

Willamette Crossing Charrette Committee
The Willamette Crossing Charrette Committee is working with the Oregon Department of Transportation and OBEC Engineers (designers of the bridge) to conduct a workshop for the purpose of advancing the design of a signature bridge at the crossing of I-5 and the Willamette River. It is believed that a collaboration of engineers, architects, landscape architects, and artists informed by public input and multiple focus groups would result in strong ideas and unified theme. The goal is to create a bridge which is memorable - a striking addition to the landscape and our communities. The effort should give physical presence to the theme Whilamut Passage.

AIA Fellowship Nomination Committee
It’s been too long since one of the AIA-SWO members has been recognized for his or her accomplishments by being elevated to AIA Fellowship. The Fellowship Nomination committee will seek to correct this lapse during 2009.

Monthly Programs Committee
Participation in the Programs Committee entails identifying program topics and speakers for each of the monthly AIA-SWO chapter meetings. The committee is also responsible for publicizing the meetings, and soliciting program sponsors.

People’s Choice Committee
The People’s Choice Awards program is one of AIA-SWO’s most successful ventures. If your firm has been a recipient of a People’s Choice award, consider giving back by volunteering for this committee. Help ensure that the program remains strong and continues to be a design showcase for the work of our members.

Register-Guard Insert Committee
The annual Register-Guard Insert is one of our chapter’s best opportunities to communicate to the public the role that architects play in the development of a beautiful, sustainable, and healthful community. The insert is also one our chapter’s primary generators of non-dues revenue, essential to maintaining and improving the value that AIA-SWO delivers to our members.

Residential Architecture Committee
The Congress of Residential Architecture (CORA) is an independent organization that in some AIA chapter jurisdictions operates as a chapter committee. CORA has become a major voice for the residential design community and is often relied upon by local officials and media for perspectives on residential development. One topic of interest to our local CORA committee will be the City of Eugene’s Multi-Unit Property Tax Exemption (MUPTE) program. It is the hope of the committee to assemble its recommendations for the City’s consideration.

If you are interested in participating in one of these committees, please feel free to contact me or any of the 2009 AIA-SWO board members.

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Our December AIA-SWO board meeting was the last presided over by Jody Heady, AIA as 2008 AIA-SWO president. Jody will soon be departing for a half-year sabbatical in Australia, where the weather is certainly balmier and more pleasant than the Willamette Valley has been this past week. The board presented Jody with a Certificate of Appreciation for his contributions during his tenure as president, which include initiating the planning for the 2010 AIA Northwest & Pacific Region Conference.

Enjoy your time “Down Under” Jody! We'll expect a full report when you get back!

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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, is our 2009 AIA-SWO secretary, Kari Turner of PIVOT Architecture. 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 February 2009 meeting for your next opportunity to win!

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Our first chapter meeting of 2009 will be our annual joint event with the Willamette Valley Chapter of the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI). The subject of the meeting is the state of the economy and its ramifications for the design and construction industry in the coming year. Given the turmoil in the financial markets, the sub-prime mortgage meltdown, and the deepening recession, there is no doubt that this is a program that will be well-attended. Join us on Thursday, January 29th at the Eugene Hilton to hear from a panel of local and regional experts about whether we can look forward to a light at the end of the tunnel in 2009.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Vision Thing

The AIA-SWO board of directors at the '08-'09 transition meeting. From left: Don Kahle, AIA-SWO executive director; Mariko Blessing, Associate Director; Kari Turner, 2009 Secretary; Paul Edlund, 2009 director; Jean Duffett, 2008 director; Jody Heady, 2008 president; Eric Gunderson, 2007 president; Kurt Albrecht, 2008 treasurer; Paul Dustrud, 2009 treasurer. Not shown: myself and Michael Fifield, 2009 President-Elect.

The 2008 and 2009 AIA-SWO board officers convened earlier this month to conduct the annual year-end transition meeting. We used the opportunity to reevaluate the mission of the AIA-SWO, and to bring clarity to the ideals, values, and principles that shape our approach to a broad range of issues of relevance to our members. Our hope was to get the “big picture” into focus by establishing a shared vision for AIA-Southwestern Oregon that will be the basis for long-term planning and thinking. For 2009, we envision moving forward on a number of initiatives that will emphasize providing tangible benefits to our membership. We plan to furnish these benefits as effectively and efficiently as possible.

The template for our transition meeting discussion was the 2008-2010 AIA National Component Strategic Plan and its missions, goals, and strategies. The Strategic Plan provided a convenient means to stimulate the generation of ideas, while simultaneously providing a structure within which to categorize them. At the center of the AIA Strategic Plan is the following mission statement:

“The American Institute of Architects is the voice of the architectural profession and the resource to its members in service to society.”

This mission is supported by four separate goals: 1) Increasing Membership Value; 2) Being the Authoritative Source; 3) Optimizing Organizational Performance; and 4) Serving as the Credible Voice.

AIA National’s strategies to realize these goals are laudable, but lack specificity. For example, “creating positive member experiences” is listed as a strategy for increasing member value. This is all fine and good, but what exactly is a positive experience? How do we measure our success in this regard? The results of our transition meeting discussion do begin to point the way.

We utilized a classic brainstorming methodology during the meeting to capitalize on the collective wisdom and creativity of both the outgoing and incoming board members. Any and all ideas were welcomed without judgment, recorded on cards, and organized under the Strategic Plan goals. By the end of the session, certain clear patterns became evident. It was apparent that we should focus our future efforts upon Increasing Membership Value, Optimizing Organizational Performance, and Serving as the Credible Voice. This does not mean that we should consign Being the Authoritative Source to a lesser status; rather, we concluded that the national level of the Institute is better suited with all of the resources it has at hand to achieving this particular goal (that is, being the recognized leader for knowledge about the practice and profession of architecture).

Brainstormed ideas up on the wall.

Some of the ideas we came up with for increasing member value include:
  • Providing greater opportunities to acquire continuing education learning units
  • Taking fuller advantage of the University of Oregon Department of Architecture as a registered provider of learning units

  • Developing programs that would attract greater involvement by associate members, interns, and students

  • Creating online forums on topics of interest to AIA-SWO members

  • Exploring more affordable group health care options, perhaps in concert with AIA Portland

  • Expanding design awards possibilities, including recognition of unbuilt and conceptual projects

  • Attracting “star” speakers for monthly programs and seminars

A few of the thoughts regarding optimizing organization performance include:

  • Establishing objective standards for measuring chapter performance (such as the number of learning units available through chapter programs relative to the previous period)

  • Prioritizing the duties of the AIA-SWO executive director
  • Strengthening the structure of chapter committees

  • Pooling firm/practitioner resources

  • Focusing on issues during board meetings, rather than administrative duties

  • Collaborating with related organizations such as CSI, the Cascadia Green Building Council, the Eco-Building Guild, ASLA, and others

Ways the AIA-SWO could serve as the credible voice for quality design and the built environment involve:

  • Being leaders in our community

  • Commenting on urban design policy

  • Writing a monthly column in The Register-Guard

  • Using the 2010 Region Conference as an impetus for greater community interest in architecture

  • Making design a regular topic of discussion

Our brainstorming session provided the board with a clearer view of the future of AIA-SWO and the enhanced role our member architects can play in the shaping of our communities. We have already identified new programs and the strategies necessary for the AIA-SWO to meet or exceed the needs of our membership, including the formulation of a fiscally-responsible budget. We’re seeing and creating change in our organizational culture and structure that will be conducive to furthering our goals. Above all, we’re dedicated to moving beyond a passive relationship with our membership toward more assertively engaging everyone in an ongoing process of visioning. I’m looking forward as AIA-SWO president in 2009 to uniting the board, committee chairs, and our general membership around a shared vision. The more we focus on our vision of what the AIA-SWO should be, the clearer it will become.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

AIA Dues Waiver

The reality of a worldwide economic recession is indisputably obvious. Reports of its deleterious effects here in the Willamette Valley are distressingly more common, with news of company after company in a variety of industries forced to lay off employees or close their doors. We hear word of large staff reductions at some of the big Portland architectural firms, those whose portfolios were too heavily weighted toward project types dependent upon speculative financing. AIA-Southwestern Oregon architects are also not immune to the downturn in the economy. When it comes to coldly evaluating where limited dollars should be spent, it may be inevitable for some that the value of AIA membership must be questioned.

Personal circumstances may simply dictate that one cannot allocate funds toward membership dues. The financial hardship associated with losing a job is a most obvious case in point and one that will be confronted by more and more of our colleagues as the recession deepens. The AIA has received many requests from members regarding the possibilities of membership dues waivers. Dues waivers are indeed available, and it is through the local AIA components and chapters that such waivers are administered.

The AIA-Southwestern Oregon Chapter, in exceptional circumstances and after consultation with the AIA Institute Secretary, may waive all or any part of the dues owed by a member at any level of membership in the AIA. The Secretary may waive or defer payment of the Institute dues of any member for up to one year upon written presentation of satisfactory evidence of financial hardship, medical disability, sabbatical, family leave, unemployment or partial employment, or such other hardship as may reasonably justify a waiver. A minimum annual payment may be required in all cases to cover the cost of mailings. A waiver may not be granted in two consecutive years, except that medical disability, sabbatical, and family leave waivers are annual and renewable upon request for up to a total of three consecutive years.

If you are a member of AIA-SWO and would like to request a dues waiver for 2009, the five-step request process is as follows:

  1. The applicant completes the 2009 waiver form for submission to AIA-SWO. This form will soon be available electronically for downloading from the AIA-SWO web site. Note that the membership contact names, phone numbers, and email addresses of the local (AIA-SWO) and state (AIA Oregon) components required to fill in the waiver form are printed in the upper left hand corner of the 2009 AIA renewal invoice. Members will receive their 2009 membership invoices in the mail during the month of December.

  2. The AIA-SWO board reviews the request and either approves or denies it. If it is approved, the Institute bylaws require that AIA-SWO forward the request to AIA Oregon for review.

  3. AIA Oregon reviews the request and either approves or denies it. If AIA Oregon recommends approval of the request, it is forwarded to the AIA National Membership Strategy & Services Department.

  4. The National Membership Strategy & Services Department forwards the request to the Secretary of the Institute for final approval or denial.

  5. The applicant receives a letter from the Institute informing him/her of the outcome of the request.

The dues waiver program is offered to ensure that we retain as many members as possible during this difficult economic period. Do not underestimate the value of being a member of the leading professional membership association for architects. The AIA is the voice of the architectural profession and the resource for our members in service to society. If you are an individual member confronted with the difficult choice of whether you can justify the cost of AIA membership dues because of financial hardship, do consider the option of pursuing a dues waiver. Your continued membership in the organization strengthens our profession and offers you access to valuable resources and the support and encouragement of your fellow architects and associates when you might need it most.