Saturday, January 30, 2010

January AIA-SWO Chapter Meeting Recap

Each January, AIA-SWO partners with the Willamette Valley Chapter of the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) to conduct a joint meeting for the benefit of our members about the state of the local economy, specifically the construction sector. Like last year, this January’s joint meeting was very well-attended, with over 150 AIA-SWO, CSI, and National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) members on hand. Everyone was at the Eugene Hilton Conference Center this past Thursday evening to hear from John Mitchell, the acknowledged authority on matters related to the regional economy, about prospects for the construction industry in 2010 and beyond.

John Mitchell received his B.A. degree from Williams College and his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Oregon. He was a professor of economics at Boise State University for 13 years before joining U.S. Bancorp in July of 1983. He was also Chairman of the Oregon Council of Economic Advisors from 1992 to 1998 and a member from 1984 to 1998. John currently writes a column for Oregon Business Magazine and Sterling Bank’s Economic Newsletter, and has been making economic presentations on the nation and the region for more than 38 years. He is a member of the Western Blue Chip Forecast Panel, a Trustee of Aquila Tax Free Trust of Oregon and a board member of Oregon Mutual Insurance Company and Western Capital Corporation.

John began his presentation by describing the current macro-economic landscape and the confluence of circumstances that led to the recent and devastating recession:
  • Rising vacancy rates
  • Falling rents
  • Plummeting values
  • Rising delinquencies
  • Falling construction employment (in all 50 states)
  • Declines in the AIA Billings Index
  • Revised expectations

Recent trends (including the recently released 4th quarter 2009 economic report, which indicated that the gross domestic product expanded at an annualized rate of 5.7% during that period) do suggest that the economy is improving. However, consumer spending, weakened by double-digit unemployment and negligible wage gains, remains weak. And the benefits of government stimulus packages and higher company output to feed depleted stockpiles will likely diminish. So, John believes that the GDP will expand at a rate closer to 2.5 to 3.5 percent through 2010 rather than the higher rate suggested by the 4th quarter data.(1)

John also stated that the Federal Reserve isn’t likely to raise interest rates, considering the current ultra-low rate levels as warranted for an extended period. There is simply a lot of uncertainty still at play. John enumerated the “headwinds” that could forestall the nascent recovery:

  • Deleveraging
  • Wealth declines
  • “Underwater” homeowners (owing more than their property is worth)
  • Uncertainty amidst major policy changes
  • A new credit world
  • State and local retrenchment

The uncertainty associated with these concerns is likely enough to hold back any reduction in the unemployment rate, currently at 11 percent statewide. In fact, some analysts expect the rate to even rise through year's end. Oregon ranks 44th for job growth among all of the states as far as year over year gains (-4.3%) are concerned. Where will new jobs be generated? North Dakota ranks highest but even it reported a net loss of jobs in 2009. There’s been no place to hide from the bleak employment picture. The education and health sectors of the Oregon economy were the only ones that created more jobs than they lost during 2009. The big losers were government services (other than education), leisure & hospitality, professional services, manufacturing, financial services, mining & logging, and construction.

How will the Oregon economy recover? The GDP will expand (slowly) but consumers are cautious. We now operate in a changed regulatory environment, a new credit world with reset expectations. There are limited resources and unlimited wants, including unfunded entitlements. Consequently, the projected recovery will be slow to happen. John predicts that the construction industry in particular is likely to arrive late to the party. For the majority of Oregon architects, the bottom line is that it will be 2011 before things improve appreciably. Eleven will be better than ten.

* * * * * *

Like last year, all of the credit for the success of the January program goes to the Willamette Valley Chapter, CSI. If you’re not familiar with the organization, the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) is a national professional association that provides technical information and products, continuing education, professional conferences, and product shows to enhance communication among all the building design and construction industry's disciplines. Kudos to Willamette Valley Chapter president Matt Keenan and WVC program committee chairs Aaron Olson and Jon Texter for producing not only John Mitchell’s presentation, but also the excellent educational seminars and products show prior to the dinner meeting.

(1) John was quick to point out that when economists use decimal points in projections, it proves they have a sense of humor.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

AIA Salem Design Awards

The Salvation Army, Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center, recipient of a 2009 AIA Salem Honor Award (CB2 Architects with Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture - photo from CB2 website)

I spent this past Thursday evening at the AIA Salem Design Awards banquet, held at the Northwest Viticulture Center on Doaks Ferry Road in Salem. I was at the banquet because I was one of the three jurors who reviewed the projects submitted by AIA Salem member firms. It truly was an honor to be selected to serve as a design juror. I enjoyed the entire experience and the opportunity to evaluate the best recent architecture produced by AIA Salem architects.

The other members of the jury were John Blumthal, AIA, LEED AP, and Alison Kwok, AIA, LEED AP.

John is a principal with Yost Grube Hall Architects of Portland, and the immediate past-president for AIA Oregon. At YGH, John works with both private and public sector clients on a wide assortment of project types. As AIA Oregon president, he led the organization’s efforts through political advocacy to advance thoughtful land-use planning, preservation of historic buildings, urban renewal, and energy efficiency under the “livable communities” banner.

Alison is a professor in the University of Oregon’s Department of Architecture, where she teaches design studios, seminars in climatic design, lighting, and building performance, as well as classes in environmental technology. She is well-known for co-authoring Mechanical and Electrical Equipment for Buildings (a two-time winner of the AIA's Citation for Excellence in International Architecture Book Publishing and the venerated “MEEB” of an infamous YouTube video) and the Green Studio Handbook. Alison also was the recipient of the American Solar Energy Society’s WISE (Women in Solar Energy) Award in 2008.

The three of us convened one day last October to deliberate over the submitted projects at the Blue Pepper Gallery & Internet Café in downtown Salem.

Although the total number of submissions was modest, we were immediately struck by the great diversity of project types and scales represented by the entries. They ranged from small interior renovations to large (by Salem or Eugene standards), complex projects for commercial, healthcare, and public sector clients. Taken as a whole, the quality of the submissions was impressive, so it was a challenge for John, Alison, and me to narrow down the field.

We tried not to bring preconceptions with us to the evaluation process, but our biases soon became evident. Themes common to the best of the projects included:

  • Straightforward and elegant solutions
  • Rational composition
  • Visually cohesive vocabularies
  • Attention to detail
  • Sustainable design principles

We ultimately selected three projects to receive Merit Awards and one to receive an Honor Award. The winning projects are:

Merit Award: Travel Salem’s Travel Café
CB2 Architects
An interior remodel transformed what was once a downtown bridal shop into a dynamic contemporary space. Located within the historic Grand Theater Building, the Travel Café is a unique combination of existing and new. The century old brick walls provide a backdrop for frameless glass walls and specialized electronic displays.

Merit Award: Waterplace
CB2 Architects
Situated on Pringle Creek, Waterplace is an ecologically sensitive project that greatly improves the natural habitat that surrounds it. The 41,000 SF office and retail building is located near Salem’s downtown while featuring dynamic views of the surrounding areas. The second floor is connected to a south-facing roof terrace. The project is seeking LEED Gold certification.

Merit Award: Garmin AT, Inc.
Howard Smith Architect with Anderson Shirley Architects
The Garmin AT project is a renovation and expansion of facilities for the well-known manufacturer of GPS equipment for aviation. The addition doubled the size of the existing building, and accommodates an expanded engineering department, equipment manufacturing floor, conference rooms, and an employee dining/meeting area with a panoramic view of the airport and south Salem hills.

Honor Award: The Salvation Army, Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center
CB2 Architects with Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture
Constructed on an industrial brownfield, the 92,000-square-foot family-oriented Kroc Center includes a competition-sized swimming pool, sports and fitness center, community center space and a 300-seat theater and chapel. The design is dynamic and playful, and an inviting community asset. Sustainability strategies employed by the architects include solar orientation, daylighting, recycled materials, and rainwater recharge on the site.

It’s notable that CB2 Architects had a hand in three of the four projects we recognized. This was a surprise to us because it was not apparent while reviewing the entries that the three were authored by the same office. The jury commends CB2 for the uniformly high quality of its work and looks forward to seeing much more from the firm for years to come.

Overall, none of the winning projects exhibited traits one would associate with avant-garde or cutting-edge architecture; none broke the mold to re-imagine a new approach to designing for the built environment. Instead, like all of the entries in this year’s program, they represent good solutions to the challenges the architects were charged with addressing. It’s our opinion that there is no honor lost in choosing not to pursue the untracked path; instead, there is much to be admired in work that is artfully considered and technically sophisticated, while based upon time-honored design principles.

Our ability to evaluate the relative merits of the submissions was hampered by the limitations of the design awards process. The AIA Salem Design Awards program is by no means unique in this regard. The fundamental question is whether or not it is fair to base our judgment of the projects solely upon narratives and two-dimensional images. While we’d like to believe that the best projects always shine through, we were somewhat at the mercy of the completeness and quality of the photographs, and the persuasiveness of the architects’ written descriptions.

Certainly, a shortcoming of design awards programs is that jurors typically cannot visit all of the projects submitted for review. If John, Alison, and I had the luxury of additional time, we might have seen all of the projects in person since all were a relatively short drive away from our home base at the Blue Pepper. Generally, though, this is not the case, and it would be unjust for jurors to see some entries in person and not others. The irony is that we were left to judge the merits of the Salem projects without the benefit of experiencing them in all of their tectonic, three-dimensional brilliance. We could not walk through the buildings, observe how they are used, or speak with the users. We could not truly engage them as works of architecture.

So, a lesson to take from juried awards programs is that they are inherently flawed. The limitations of the process preclude jurors from fairly appreciating the true merits of each submitted project. Nevertheless, such programs do serve an important function for our profession. Conferring awards provides a vehicle for showcasing to the public what we believe to be exceptional buildings. Design awards help us to celebrate what we do as architects. They are evidence our profession aspires to be the best it can be. They elevate the quality of our work by setting the bar high.

* * * * * *

I’d like to thank Peter Strauhal, AIA Salem President-Elect, for organizing the awards program and inviting me to participate as a juror. Congratulations to CB2 Architects, and to Howard Smith Architect with Anderson Shirley Architects. And thanks to John Blumthal and Alison Kwok – two consummate professionals I greatly admire and respect – for serving on the jury with me.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Architecture Trivia Night

Name the building; bonus points for naming the architect, the city in which it is located, and the date of its completion (photo by Erin Silversmith from Wikimedia Commons)

The University of Oregon’s American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) chapter successfully produced its first ever “Who’s the Expert” event this past Thursday, January 14. Students, faculty, and local AIA-SWO professionals all had a rollicking good time participating in the "Jeopardy!"-style trivia game. It was all for a good cause too: sponsors not only helped to defray the costs of the evening (including the cost of catering services and prizes) but are providing monetary support for UO student attendance at future AIAS conferences and events as well.

Unlike “Jeopardy!” the game was contested by seven teams rather than three individuals; the rules were otherwise pretty much the same as the popular television game show. Every team was comprised of one professional, one faculty member, and three students. Each team rallied under the banner of a well-known architectural luminary:
  • Alvar Aalto
  • Tadao Ando
  • Jane Jacobs
  • Louis Kahn
  • I.M. Pei
  • Le Corbusier
  • Walter Gropius

The initial round of the game involved the following categories:

  • Name That Building
  • Student Life
  • Eugene Architecture
  • LEED

The “Double Jeopardy!” round featured these categories:

  • A.R.E.
  • Who Said It?
  • Going Green
  • Architectural History

Success demanded sharp minds, quick-thinking, rapid reflexes, and teamwork. It certainly helped to know the answers to such questions as “What is the average amount of debt a graduate architecture student incurs for one year of studies?” and “Who designed Rome’s Church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane?”

In the end, it was Team Gropius that proved itself to be of champion caliber.

The winning members of Team “Gropius” (that’s UO faculty member Jenny Young on the left; Gabe Greiner, AIA, of 2fORM Architecture is on the right).

The success of this year’s Architecture Trivia Night will hopefully prompt UO-AIAS to make it an annual occurrence. It truly was fun and a great way to bring the students and faculty of the School of Architecture and Allied Arts and AIA-SWO practitioners together. Kudos to M.Arch candidate Andrea Mohr and the members of her AIAS Events Committee for the time and energy they devoted to promoting and producing this enjoyable event.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

EcoDensity: Vancouver, B.C.

Vancouver’s compact, dense urban core (my photo)

I recently returned from a visit to Vancouver, British Columbia, the city where I was born and raised. Of course, the news in Vancouver these days is dominated by the upcoming 2010 Winter Olympic Games (which Vancouver, along with the nearby Whistler resort community, will host this February). If you’re not yet familiar with Canada’s third largest city, you soon will be courtesy of NBC and the interminable hours of broadcast coverage it has planned for the games.

The prospect of the Olympics has resulted in numerous new facilities; however, the architecture is largely unremarkable. There is nothing to match Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” for Vancouver, nothing that aspires to the stature of a global landmark. In my opinion, this is just as well. The postcard impressions that tourists and the countless viewers worldwide will come away with will instead showcase Vancouver’s unparalleled natural setting and its urban density: downtown’s gleaming towers of glass set against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains and tranquil harbor waters. It is the whole rather than iconic individual parts that will provide the most memorable images.

Beijing’s National Stadium – Herzog & de Meuron, Architects (photo by Ciaro Cortes IV, Reuters)

The new Vancouver Convention Center West Building (to serve as the international media and broadcast center during the games) and the Richmond Oval (speed skating venue) represent the two largest building projects associated with the 2010 Olympics.

The green roof of the Vancouver Convention Center – DA/MCM + LMN Architects (photo from the Vancouver Convention Center website)

Many Vancouverites bemoan the reserve of the new 2010 Olympic architecture. On the other hand, the lack of novel monuments for novelty’s sake is entirely consistent with the Canadian penchant for buildings that defer to the landscape, adapt to the urban morphology, and emphasize measured refinement over bold form-making.

Richmond Oval – Cannon Design, Architect

Vancouver architect Bing Thom(1) has likened the city to an insecure teenager who constantly is seeking affirmation of her worth and beauty. Vancouver fits the description: it is still immature, the youngest major city in North America.(2) Hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics is only its second appearance on the international stage during my lifetime, the first being Expo ’86. The greatest legacy of the world’s fair is that it served as a coming out party for Vancouver. Since then the city has consistently topped or ranked high on the list of the best places to live in the world, a matter of considerable civic pride. Such approbation is not unwarranted: Vancouver receives superior grades for stability, healthcare, culture, environment, and education. City boosters are confident that the investments in physical infrastructure spurred by the Olympics will further position the city as a future paragon of sustainability.

Yaletown, Vancouver’s Pearl District doppelganger (my photo)

EcoDensity and Vancouver 2020
Central to this vision are two city initiatives: the EcoDensity project and Vancouver 2020. The EcoDensity project is a charter that commits the City of Vancouver to address change in the interest of environmental sustainability, affordability, and livability. Vancouver 2020 is an action plan to make Vancouver the world’s greenest city by 2020.

EcoDensity endeavors to increase density and boost environmental city-building. As the City of Vancouver’s EcoDensity project summary states, “higher-density urban development decreases automobile reliance and development pressure on the urban periphery, while increasing the potential for energy efficiency, and providing the critical mass necessary to support complete, diverse, and walkable neighborhoods.” With the approval of the charter by the Vancouver city council, EcoDensity is now official policy. The first fruit of this plan has been the approval of “laneway housing” and mandates that all large-scale projects meet the highest standards for sustainability.(3)

Laneway housing by LaneFab Design-Build Ltd.

With Vancouver 2020, the city will compete with London, Sydney, Copenhagen, New York, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, Toronto, Berlin, Paris, Stockholm, and others who have made similar proclamations for the right to claim the title of the world’s cleanest and greenest metropolis. Becoming the greenest city is more than an environmental imperative: it’s also an economic strategy. The greenest city will offer a competitive advantage in attracting highly mobile investment dollars, businesses, entrepreneurs, and skilled workers.

The Vancouver 2020 target goals include:

  • Securing Vancouver’s international reputation as a mecca of green enterprise – 2020 Target: Create 20,000 new green jobs
  • Eliminating Vancouver’s dependence on fossil fuels – 2020 Target: Reduce greenhouse gas emissions 33 per cent from 2007 levels
  • Leading the world in green building design and construction – 2020 Targets: All new construction carbon neutral; improve efficiency of existing buildings by 20 per cent
  • Establishing walking, cycling, and public transit as the preferred transportation options – 2020 Target: Make the majority of trips (over 50 per cent) on foot, bicycle, and public transit
  • Creating zero waste – 2020 Target: Reduce solid waste per capita going to landfill or incinerator by 40 per cent
  • Providing incomparable access to green spaces, including the world’s most spectacular urban forest – 2020 Targets: Every person lives within a five-minute walk of a park, beach, greenway, or other natural space; plant 150,000 additional trees in the city
  • Achieving a one-planet ecological footprint – 2020 Target: Reduce per capita ecological footprint by 33 per cent
  • Enjoying the best drinking water of any major city in the world – 2020 Target: Always meet or beat the strongest of B.C., Canada, and World Health Organization drinking water standards; reduce per capita water consumption by 33 per cent
  • Breathing the cleanest air of any major city in the world – 2020 Target: Always meet or beat World Health Organization air quality guidelines, which are stronger than Canadian guidelines
  • Becoming a global leader in urban food systems – 2020 Targets: Reduce the carbon footprint of our food by 33 per cent
Vancouver is well on its way toward meeting these goals. The densification of its compact downtown peninsula is a useful blueprint for the creation of vibrant, demographically diverse civic centers that minimize reliance upon the use of cars while preserving access to green spaces and views. The density is an outcome of the city council’s 1991 adoption of the “Living First” policy, which pushed for downtown housing, the building of coherent neighborhoods, and the implementation of selected New Urbanism strategies to make the high densities work. Vancouver’s resultant podium and point tower typology (nicknamed “PoTo” by locals) has proven spectacularly successful: the number of residents living downtown now approaches 100,000, making the peninsula one of the most densely populated neighborhoods on the North American continent.(4)

Vancouver's tallest building: the 61-story Shangri-La Hotel - James Cheng, Architect (my photo)

An alternative neighborhood typology has taken shape on the southeast shore of False Creek, which overlooks downtown. The form of the 2010 Olympic Village does not follow the PoTo pattern; instead, the LEED Gold certified development comprises mid-rise blocks (6-11 stories, whereas the towers downtown are 30+ story high-rises). After the Olympics, the village will become home to 16,000 people. It will include 250 affordable housing units in its first phase, a 45,000 s.f. community center, three childcare centers, an elementary school, public plaza, and opportunities for urban agriculture.

The 2010 Olympic Village (photo courtesy City of Vancouver)

The use of more sustainable travel modes in Vancouver is significant. Vancouver boasts an integrated and growing mass transit network, including the automated Skytrain system, BRT and conventional buses, commuter rail, SeaBus, and soon the first line of what is hoped to be an extensive streetcar system. Recently, one lane on the Burrard Street Bridge (one of the primary conduits to and from the downtown peninsula) was converted to exclusive use by cyclists. Try to imagine one lane of the Ferry Street Bridge in Eugene being similarly reserved solely for bicycle use!(5)

Skytrain, Vancouver’s rapid-transit system (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Parks and green space are considered a birthright by Vancouverites. Including Stanley Park, all downtown residents are but a short walk away from thousands of acres of forested or open park space, welcome relief from the urban hustle and bustle. In addition, most of the downtown peninsula is ringed by a continuous pedestrian/bicycle/roller blading seawall pathway that alternately fronts the working harbor, sandy beaches, and crowded marinas.

All is not well in Paradise
Vancouver is an urban laboratory, an experiment at the scale of a city. At first glance, aspects of this experiment appear to have been successful, particularly in the downtown core. However, the residential density it fostered is not a panacea for urban ills. It’s becoming clear that downtown Vancouver has become a victim of its own success as high-end residential development is crowding out commercial office space and jobs. Canadian architecture critic Trevor Boddy observes that downtown Vancouver is heading toward a fate as a dormitory suburb. Transit ridership projections have more people leaving the core than coming in each morning, while new employment continues to locate along the suburban fringes ill-served by transit. Bing Thom has likewise lamented downtown Vancouver becoming “nothing more than a big tourist destination,” Canada’s version of Honolulu or Miami. To counter this trend, the city has tinkered with its zoning bylaws by legislating a moratorium on further residential and hotel projects in some corners of downtown. The goal is to preserve the potential for commercial office tower development within the urban core rather than driving it to the suburbs.

The city also warrants criticism on the social equity front. Downtown Vancouver should be as complete a community as possible, socially inclusive and sustainable. At the moment, this is not the case despite the city’s token efforts to ensure a mixture of housing for low and moderate-income earners as well as the very wealthy. The amenities extracted from developers via the city’s social bonus zoning policies have not been sufficient to offset the loss of federal subsidies that once facilitated the development of needed below-market rate housing. It’s Vancouver’s shame that Canada’s poorest neighborhood – the drug-ridden Downtown Eastside – exists cheek-by-jowl with some of its richest, an unfortunate consequence of well-intended urban planning (concentrating social housing and service agencies), market forces, and efforts to contain the “problem.”

The high-poverty Downtown Eastside is thus Vancouver’s next urban revitalization frontier. A major redevelopment project just completed there is the Woodward’s project, named after the landmark department store that stood on the site for nearly a century. The project contains one million square feet of building area, including over 500 market and 200 non-market residential units as well as office, retail, community non-profit space, and Simon Fraser University's School for the Contemporary Arts. Extra height on the 397-foot tower was traded to the developer in return for 31,000 square feet of non-profit space. The developers, the City of Vancouver, and the architects (Henriquez Partners Architects) enlisted Downtown Eastside resident activists and stakeholders to participate as members of the Woodward’s Community Advisory Committee. The mutual goal was to revitalize the neighborhood, not to gentrify it. The project’s success, while not assured, is evident by its acceptance in the community and the enthusiasm for the process by which it was realized. That its architecture is of a high quality is an added bonus.

The Woodward’s Redevelopment – Henriquez Partners, Architects (my photo)

Lessons for Eugene
While I always enjoy visiting Vancouver, I’m more than happy to call Eugene my home today. As Eugene continues to mature, it would do well to heed Vancouver’s urban planning lessons, as well as those of Portland and the other cities most often looked to as exemplars of compact urbanism. Fundamentally, this means planning for density strategically, rather than following a makeshift pattern that is determined by happenstance.

On balance, I remain convinced that a vibrant city must have at its center a densely developed downtown that is home to both businesses and a demographically-diverse resident population. Ideally, our downtown would possess sufficient gravitational pull to keep Eugene’s disparate and far-flung neighborhoods within its orbit; this it currently lacks. Ecodensity – density done well – would complement and enhance neighborhood character, minimize environmental impact and energy use, be adaptable over time, and contribute to safe, walkable streets. More effort, not less, should be applied by the City of Eugene to ensure that its historical core reasserts its primacy as the civic, economic, cultural, and governmental center for the metro area.

(1) I worked for Bing Thom Architects from 1983-85 after receiving my B.Arch from the University of Oregon. I subsequently worked for the firm again following completion of my graduate studies at UCLA in 1987 and prior to my 1988 return to Eugene. Bing Thom is one of Canada’s most prominent architects. In 1995, the Governor General of Canada, on behalf of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, bestowed the Order of Canada upon Bing for his contributions to Canadian architecture.

(2) Vancouver was founded in 1886. By comparison, Eugene was established by Eugene Skinner in 1862. Portland was incorporated in 1851.

(3) The Canadian term “laneway” is synonymous with the American usage of the word “alley.” The approval of laneway housing permits the construction of stand-alone accessory dwelling units on back alley driveways within single-family residential zones. With about 70,000 eligible properties, the potential increase in Vancouver’s affordable housing stock is huge.

(4) The total population of the City of Vancouver (within its city limits) is about 600,000 so one in six residents lives in the downtown core. The population of the entire metropolitan area is about 2.3 million, slightly more than Portland’s metro count.

(5) Of course, the Defazio pedestrian/bike bridge, just a stone’s throw away, renders moot the prospect of ever converting traffic lanes on the Ferry Street Bridge to bicycle use only.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Vibrant Eugene

The City of Eugene hosted two open houses this week to share information and gather feedback from the public about potential downtown revitalization projects. My apologies for the belated notice about these events: the first open house occurred on Wednesday, January 6 at the 5th Street Market, while the second took place on Thursday, January 7 at the Downtown Initiative for the Visual Arts (DIVA) at 110 West Broadway. I was unable to attend either meeting (I’m presently visiting family in Vancouver, British Columbia; more on Vancouver in a forthcoming post). Perhaps someone who did go to one of the open houses can comment for the benefit of the readers of this blog.

Downtown Eugene is our civic center and the economic, cultural and governmental focus of the region. It should be where we, as a community, live and learn – work and play. Over the years, the City has solicited input from the community on goals and priorities for downtown redevelopment. The timing appears propitious once again, with a number of downtown projects in the works. Hence the open houses, which the City hoped would jumpstart public discussion about the future of the downtown core.

The potential downtown projects include:
  • Lane Community College’s new downtown center
  • A new Department of Veterans Affairs medical clinic
  • The Beam Development renovation of the Center Court Building
  • Downtown safety improvements
  • Green infrastructure
  • Downtown parking improvements
  • An arts and entertainment district
  • Business assistance and housing

Regarding Vibrant Eugene, the City’s project manager Amanda Nobel Flannery said “We know that no single project will solve the challenges downtown all at once. But together, these projects could work to generate jobs and create an active downtown center that feels safe and welcoming for everyone. We are looking forward to hearing what people think.”

Although the open houses are now history, the City welcomes further public input via its website at The website has project descriptions (including details about potential job creation, costs, and timing) and will soon feature online surveys and a discussion board. All community feedback will be considered by staff and the City Council.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Taste for Makers

Still life by Paul Graham (1999)

I spend way too much time surfing the web, sometimes randomly discovering sites that interest me. One such site is As his online bio states, “Paul Graham is an essayist, programmer, and programming language designer. In 1995 he developed with Robert Morris the first web-based application, Viaweb, which was acquired by Yahoo in 1998. In 2002 he described a simple statistical spam filter that inspired a new generation of filters. He's currently working on a new programming language called Arc, a new book on startups, and is one of the partners in Y Combinator."(1)

According to Inc. Magazine, Graham’s exploits have made him “a folk hero to a generation of ambitious techies, who debate his essays, read his books, and pitch him start-ups by the hundreds.” It is the compilation of essays on his website that most interest me.

Taste for Makers is Graham’s treatise on what constitutes good design. It’s noteworthy that in addition to his background in computer science, Graham boasts credentials in the visual arts (he studied painting at RISD and the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence). Computer programming, like the design of the built environment, is an art based (in part) upon determining the needs of the user of a structure and then designing to meet those needs as effectively as possible. It’s not coincidental that the use of the word “architecture” is prevalent in both the computer science and environmental design universes. The most highly regarded achievements in each field are those that adhere to the same principles of good design as enumerated by Graham:
  • Good design is simple
  • Good design is timeless
  • Good design solves the right problem
  • Good design is suggestive
  • Good design is often slightly funny
  • Good design is hard
  • Good design looks easy
  • Good design uses symmetry
  • Good design resembles nature
  • Good design is redesign
  • Good design can copy
  • Good design is often strange
  • Good design happens in chunks
  • Good design is often daring

Graham conveys his hypothesis with remarkable fluency and economy of means. That’s why I felt compelled to link his essay for the benefit of this blog’s readers. Taste for Makers presents a common-sense prescription for the design of all things, including architecture.

I do take exception to Graham’s use of the word “taste.” I understand taste, as an aesthetic concept, to be a matter of culturally-based choice and preference. As such, it is dependent upon social phenomenon and consensus, and is not necessarily a dependable standard for measuring as multifaceted and fundamental a concern as good design. Definitions of good design typically transcend taste because taste is considered by many to be personal and beyond reasoning. However, I don’t think it is Graham’s intent to suggest that the filter of cultural relativism enmeshes good design. He goes to some length in his essay to argue that taste is not a slave to personal preference and that you know this intrinsically when you start to design things.

I’m sure I will continue to find many more online sites that capture my interest and feature content of relevance to architecture and urban design. I’ll share the best of these with you by providing links to them from this blog.

(1) Y Combinator is new kind of venture firm specializing in funding startups. A “y combinator” is also a mathematical function that makes other functions.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

What Is Architecture?

Campbell Memorial Courtyard, Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art (photo by Erik Bishoff)

What distinguishes architecture from mere shelter? As an architect, I have considered this question many times. The answer can be elusive. Certainly, good architecture works well – that is, it satisfies the functional requirements of its program, and is soundly built. These days it is also likely to be a model of sustainability. However, most of us recognize that a building that simply achieves these ends is not necessarily an example of architecture. Most people have a vague sense that architecture – the kind with a capital “A” – is something more.

So, what is architecture?

Fundamentally, architecture is the art and science of designing buildings and other physical structures. It is the art component – the skill and imagination employed to aesthetic effect – that is most vexing when considering this question.

Must a building be widely acclaimed as beautiful to be considered architecture? Most people consider beauty to be a necessary component of true architecture. I firmly believe that all humans respond to common measures for beauty, such as proportion, balance, and harmony. Certainly, the buildings most widely regarded as beautiful – the Taj Mahal, the Alhambra, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater among them – are excellent examples of architecture. But beauty is also in the eye of the beholder. Some famous buildings are purposefully awkward looking, even ugly. Many people consider Frank Gehry’s Experience Music Project in Seattle ugly (I do), but few would claim that the building is not architecture.

Frank Gehry’s Experience Music Project, Seattle, 2000 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Is architecture by definition designed by architects? Of course not. It would be the height of vanity for me to believe that my profession has a privileged monopoly on the creation of architecture. The artistic, functional, and cultural richness of many vernacular, anonymous structures often outshines the self-conscious efforts of the most-skilled architects. The trulli dwellings of the Apulia region of Italy and the minka folk houses of rural Japan are just two examples of outstanding vernacular architecture.

Trulli, Alberobello, Italy (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Does problem-solving characterize architecture? The design of a building today can be an extraordinarily complex undertaking, requiring the specialized expertise of large teams of architects and engineers – so yes, problem-solving is an aspect of architecture. As I suggested above, buildings should address the needs of those who use them, while not being dangerous to occupy or profligate in their use of limited resources. Buildings should also respect the landscape of which they are a part. But just as literature is more than simple prose, architecture rises above basic problem-solving.

Literature raises questions about the human condition, of what it means to be human and alive. Literature stimulates the imagination and renews the spirit. The best literature speaks of the particular while touching the universal. The same is true for the best architecture. Architecture purposely affects the way people relate to the world they inhabit. This, Sir John Summerson asserted, is what distinguishes architecture from building. In his words, “architecture adds to the experience of living by heightening the actions of ordinary life.”(1)

Similar views about architecture have been shared by many:

  • Bernard Rudofsky, well-known to architects for his essays on vernacular buildings, believed that architecture is not just a matter of technology and aesthetics but also a frame for “an intelligent way of life.”(2)
  • William Kleinsasser wrote that the “essential, defining purpose of architecture is the creation of good places for people: evocative, particular, protean places that contribute significantly to human well-being and awaken profound echoes.”(3)
  • New Zealand architect Claude Megson said that "whatever space and time mean, place and occasion mean more. For space in the image of man is place, and time in the image of man is occasion.” According to his former student Peter Cresswell, architecture to Megson was not about building buildings, but rather about building ritual, building occasion, and building life itself.(4 )
  • The Scottish philosopher and psychologist Kenneth Craik observed that architecture enhances the quality of our experiences and expands our conceptions of reality and life. He said that “the goal of architecture is to design places that help people realize their full potential as thinking, feeling human beings.”
  • In his book The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton asserted that “works of design and architecture talk to us about . . . the kind of life that would most appropriately unfold within and around them. They tell us of certain moods that they seek to encourage and sustain in their inhabitants.” He believes it is the architect's responsibility to design buildings that contribute to happiness by embodying ennobling values.
  • The German phenomenologist Martin Heidegger deduced in his essay Building Dwelling Thinking that architecture is crucial because it supports and reflects a person’s way of being in the world. He wrote that “man's relation to locations, and through locations to spaces, inheres in his dwelling. The relationship between man and space is none other than dwelling, strictly thought and spoken."

These thinkers answer the question with greater eloquence than I could ever hope to. It’s been a pleasure to learn from others who have already sought to define architecture.

The common thread is that it is with intent that architecture shapes our perceptions and interactions with our environment. Architecture is an interpreter of our existence – a medium for narrating and representing space. The best architecture engages all of the senses. It heightens our awareness of being in a particular place at a particular time, helping to explain where, when, and who we are. It meaningfully defines the spaces we inhabit. Like literature, architecture is a vehicle for conveying shared experiences and memories. Just as a good book reveals more with each reading, a profound work of architecture offers rewards upon every visit and at every turn.

Le Corbusier’s (unrealized) Plan Voisin, Paris, 1925

The potential and pitfalls of architecture are vast. Talented architects have forever challenged us to view the world we inhabit through their eyes as much as our own. Think of the early 20th century modernists, whose theories promulgated an architecture attuned to the prevailing zeitgeist, one that eschewed traditions in favor of the new social, political, and economic circumstances. For better or worse, their work possessed an undeniable authenticity and contributed significantly to the modern condition and the belief that progress should be regarded as inevitable. Self-consciously or otherwise, architecture has always been an embodiment of our values and often a catalyst for change. With the conception of architecture comes great responsibility.

If architecture is by definition a means by which our being in the world is framed, it behooves architects to design buildings with the greater good in mind. While I do understand the value of art that serves to critique the contemporary condition, or to shock or perplex, I believe we are best served by buildings that are aspiring and life-affirming.

The Lion Court at the Alhambra (painting by Adolf Seel)

I believe that good architecture springs from optimism and that well-designed buildings can make a difference. If our definition of architecture includes that it is designed with principled intentions, our buildings are more likely to be lasting and significant. In my opinion, these are universal traits of good architecture.

What is architecture? Every serious architect must grapple with this question.

What is your definition of architecture?

(1) Quotation from Summerson’s collection of essays entitled “Heavenly Mansions” (1963).

(2) Bernard Rudofsky’s best-known book is “Architecture without Architects: A Short Introduction to Non-pedigreed Architecture” (1964).

(3) Bill Kleinsasser, a professor of mine at the University of Oregon, greatly influenced my architectural world view. Specifically, he emphasized experiential considerations in architecture, those having to do with how things and places are perceived and felt over time.

(4) Peter Cresswell is the principal of the Auckland architecture firm Organon Architecture.