Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Coming Into Our Own

Tlingit village site, Alaska Native Heritage Center

I’ve just returned to Eugene after five days in Anchorage, Alaska, where I attended the 2009 AIA Northwest & Pacific Region Conference. The hospitality of our northern colleagues was wonderful, the weather was perfect, and the quality of the conference program offerings was uniformly excellent. Kudos to AIA Alaska president Bryce Klug, conference committee chair Mike Mense, and all of the AIA Alaska volunteers and sponsors for producing such a successful event.

Attending the conference in Alaska reminded me that AIA’s Northwest & Pacific Region is a vast territory, inclusive of components in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Hawaii, Guam/Micronesia, Hong Kong, and Japan. No other region of the Institute comes close to being as geographically and culturally diverse. This is why there is great value in convening annually as a region to strategize, exchange ideas, network, and simply enjoy each other’s company. There is so much to learn from the multitude of perspectives represented at each AIA Northwest & Pacific Region conference.

Alaska itself is a fantastically varied mosaic of cultures and landscapes. Perhaps this should not be surprising given how large the State is. A highlight of the conference program was a visit to the Alaska Native Heritage Center, located near Anchorage. There, we learned about the many distinct native Alaskan cultures: the Inupiat, Yupik, Aleut, Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Eyak, and the Northern Athabaskan. Throughout their histories, these groups each developed ways of life exquisitely adapted to the specifics of their environment. Particularly fascinating was the display of indigenous dwellings, arrayed around the scenic grounds of the Center.

Our visit to the Native Heritage Center also emphasized how you can learn about yourself by learning about others. For the many native Alaskan cultures, it is storytelling that tells everyone who you are. Loren Anderson of the Native Heritage Center described stories taught to him by his family elders. Raised on Kodiak Island and of Sugpiaq descent, Loren’s recounting of the stories he was told was both entertaining and enlightening. Loren also reminded us that the culture of each of the Alaskan native groups is multifaceted, inclusive of distinctive art, architecture, fashion, food, language, values, and traditions.

Loren Anderson, Alaska Native Heritage Center

The theme of the 2009 Northwest & Pacific Region Conference was “Coming into Our Own – The Evolution of Architectural Practice on the Last Frontier.” AIA Alaska arranged an impressive array of educational opportunities, including the Native Heritage Center tour. Because of my obligations as a member of the Region board, I wasn’t able to attend as many of the educational sessions as I would have liked.(1) Nevertheless, those that I was able to take in were thought-provoking, with relevance to architecture that extends far beyond the boundaries of the Last Frontier.

I found two sessions on the final day of the conference particularly noteworthy:

Architecture for Human Flourishing
David Greusel, FAIA, is currently a principal with Populous (formerly HOK Sport), a firm best known for designing some of the most successful of the current generation of major league ballparks(2). His entertaining, energetic presentation highlighted the importance of a “metaphysical” perspective applied to design for the built environment, because each architect’s worldview matters. Greusel used the example of Modernism to make his case: Modern architecture was an expression of the spirit of its age and was deeply rooted in the same culture that shaped its contemporary literature, philosophy, music, and art. The tenets of Modernism – empiricism, rationality, abstraction, progressivism, universality, and non-subordination – were derived from a limited worldview shaped by a remarkably direct lineage of influence, ranging from Arthur Schopenhauer to Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Virginia Woolf, Adolf Loos, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius.(3) It was the worldview of a select cadre of gatekeepers that consigned global Modernism to a search for universal solutions.

David Greusel firmly believes that the early 20th-century Modernists’ search for universal solutions represented a flawed ethos. For architecture today, he advocates a more intuitive, generous, particular, and humanistic approach – one that leads to an architecture that is inclusive and accommodating. Such an approach eschews the nihilism of today’s elitist architecture as well as the banality of placeless commercial buildings. Architecture for human flourishing is humble, deeply local, and a reflection of the culture that produced it. Summarizing his thesis, Greusel quoted architecture critic Robert Campbell, who asserted that “every building is a billboard that shouts the values of those who created it, intended or not.” The values championed by Greusel facilitate a worldview that creates architecture supportive of human flourishing.

Toward a Blue-Green Paradigm
Currently residing in Portland, James Bowen, AIA, grew up and previously practiced in the American South. He retains a characteristically Southern expressiveness and rhythm in the recounting of his peripatetic upbringing and its influence upon his approach to architecture. In his youth, he was inspired by the writings of Buckminster Fuller and by his time with the environmentalist Amory Lovins. Bowen became deeply committed to the principles of regenerative design, and now optimistically envisions a mutually enhancing relationship between architecture and nature. He refers to this relationship as the Blue-Green Paradigm.

Bowen’s crusade is to awaken architects to the magnitude of unchecked environmental degradation. Millions of hectares of forests are destroyed and a similar area of arable land is lost to soil erosion each year. Hundreds of thousands of plant and animal species are being driven to extinction. Conversely, the burgeoning human population has already surged in 2009 by over 100 million, consuming an ever-diminishing pool of natural resources. In the face of such data(4), some might choose to be the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand. Instead, it should be clear that a complete paradigm shift is necessary if we are to achieve the architecture/nature balance James Bowen foresees.

Bowen suggested that LEED and the 2030 Challenge have rewarded our profession with a false sense of accomplishment. Participation in these programs applies a voguish gloss of green to a design firm's portfolio; however, chasing points or carbon offsets should only be a means to an end, and not an end in itself. For Bowen, the bottom line is that we must be willing to abandon our comfortable and profligate patterns of existence; a LEED Platinum-certified big box store adrift in a sea of parking isn’t the remedy, no matter how many photovoltaic panels it may boast.

During the question/answer period that followed, architecture critic Trevor Boddy protested that Bowen’s presentation was merely a wistful and melancholic elegy for a planet in decline. What, Boddy asked, is the answer? How are we to arrive at the Blue-Green Paradigm? Bowen’s diffident response was that it was not his intent to offer a solution; rather, he merely sought to alert us to the Earth’s plight so that we might be more receptive to a necessary paradigm shift. In this respect, James Bowen hit the mark.

Yup'ik Dancers at the Region Design Awards Banquet

Our chapter was represented very well in Anchorage: Kurt Albrecht, Chuck and Gwen Bailey, Michael Fifield, Jody Heady, Don Kahle, Paul Dustrud and Toni Pimble(5), John Reynolds, and Jonathan and Molly Stafford, were all on hand. The great benefit of having a large AIA-SWO contingent in Anchorage will be the lessons we have brought back with us about conference organization and execution. These will be invaluable as we move forward with hosting the 2010 AIA Northwest & Pacific Region Conference in Eugene.

(1) Note to self: Do not schedule Region business meetings at the 2010 NW&PR conference concurrent with some of the more attractive educational sessions and tours!

(2) David Greusel was Populous' lead designer for two major league ballparks: Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros, and PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

(3) Greusel humorously used mock Facebook pages as a didactic tool for each of the historic figures he tied to the rise of Modernism.

(4) For an eye-opening look at real-time world statistics, check out

(5) Toni was in Anchorage not only to accompany Paul, but also to coordinate the Eugene Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker in Anchorage this coming November. Anchorage does not have its own ballet company, so the Eugene Ballet is taking The Nutcracker on the road to share this holiday favorite.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

very nice job here, I will happily share this with many of the Alaska volunteers. Look forward to being in Oregon next fall.