Monday, May 31, 2010

Influences: Christopher Alexander & Peter Eisenman

An earlier blog entry of mine, “Genealogy of Influence,” promised a series of posts about the architects and theorists who influenced my architectural world view. This is the third post in the series.

At first glance, there may appear to be no more diametrically opposed approaches to the creation of architecture than those represented by Christopher Alexander and Peter Eisenman. Regardless, both these septuagenarians, long since passed by other theorists as les enfants terrible, exert an inexorable influence upon my current thinking about the making of architecture.

The two famously sparred during a 1982 debate held at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. I originally intended to address the importance of each to me separately; however, having rediscovered the transcript of this event online, I decided to combine two posts into one.

“Complexity is one of the great problems in environmental design.”
Christopher Alexander

The Lost Prophet - Intolerant, dogmatic
Christopher Alexander is well-known to many of us who received our education at the University of Oregon. It was during the early 1980s that I encountered Alexander acolytes and UO faculty members Don Corner, Jenny Young, and Howard Davis. The University of Oregon had also notably been the laboratory a decade earlier for The Oregon Experiment, in which Alexander and his collaborators defined discrete “patterns” that codified a community-based approach to campus planning. Alexander would go on to publish The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language, building upon the lessons documented in The Oregon Experiment.(1)

For me, A Pattern Language is one of the most important texts on architecture ever written. It offers a practical application of Alexander’s ideas, which have pointed him in the direction of what he conceives of as an all-encompassing theory of life, one based upon notions of organic wholeness and scalable, self-sustaining systems. However, the book’s importance has been overshadowed by its accessibility (it’s remarkably easy to read), its spiritual New Age overtones, and the guru-like pronouncements Alexander sprinkles throughout. Since the original publication of A Pattern Language in 1977, the application of pattern language theory has taken root in other fields, most notably in computer software design.

Many architects (and no doubt more than a few of my professors at Oregon who occupied other camps of thought) could never accept the fundamental premise of A Pattern Language. They took exception to seeing their art apparently reduced to a repeatable formula. They valued newness and a critical approach to design, whereas Alexander favored authoritarian rules and disdained intellectualism.

Author Wendy Kohn wrote a brilliant treatise about Alexander for the summer 2002 issue of the Wilson Quarterly entitled The Lost Prophet of Architecture. In it she posed the question why it is that Alexander’s colleagues in the American architectural establishment would have nothing to do with him. She concluded that it is “the simultaneously intimate and all-knowing tone of his writing (that) sounds unbearably condescending to practitioners who take pride in having invented some of their own solutions to the problems of architecture.” Kohn also asserted that Alexander’s commitment to absolute certainty had led critics to dismiss him as “a utopian, a messianic crank, and contrarian who produces words instead of buildings.”

It is true that Alexander has designed little and built even less. The completed buildings designed by Alexander and his associates at the Center for Environmental Structure are mostly small and unremarkable.(2) This hasn’t dampened my enthusiasm for what he has accomplished by prefiguring a new paradigm for the design of our built environment.

"In the absence of a new paradigm, architecture is flailing about for its raison d'être.”
Peter Eisenman

The Provocateur - Arrogant, intellectual
Peter Eisenman came to my attention even earlier than Christopher Alexander, in the course of the first years of my architectural training at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (1977-79). The book Five Architects had recently been published and its underlying thesis – that the work of these architects was shaped in the service of well-developed theoretical bases – was a revelation. The five – Eisenman, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, John Hejduk, and Richard Meier – were friends who shared a superficially Corbusian vocabulary and a common penchant for elitism and treating architecture as high art. Each would eventually pursue individual ideologies, with Eisenman most often associated with the Deconstructivist movement.

Eisenman is famous for wanting to free architectural form from all meaning and establish the autonomy of the discipline. His 1963 Cambridge University PhD dissertation (The Formal Basis of Architecture) argued for the analysis of a fundamental architecture outside the perceptual, metaphorical, and subjective realms. He borrowed liberally from linguistic philosophy, and was influenced by his friend, philosopher Jacques Derrida, and the linguist Noam Chomsky among others to develop a generative grammar for architecture. Eisenman focused on arbitrary structural rules that would govern the formal composition of his designs. Extending the linguistic parallels, it’s important to emphasize that Eisenman’s interests centered on syntactical structure rather than the study of meaning or semantics.

House VI

Ultimately, this would lead Eisenman to a theory of “post-functional” architecture. He would not regard his completed buildings as ends in themselves but rather as records of the process by which they were created. The apotheosis of Eisenman’s nihilism would be House VI (a.k.a. the Frank House, although Eisenman considered the owners of all of his projects superfluous and thus preferred the detachment of numbers to identify his early series of house designs). The design of House VI was the product of a sequence of moves based upon predetermined rules, not unlike the execution of a computer program.

House VI became notorious because its methodical manipulation of the grid resulted in columns suspended in mid-air, doors that are open when closed, and an absent beam dividing the marital bed. The owner, Suzanne Frank, wrote a book – Peter Eisenman’s House VI: The Client’s Response – documenting the trials and tribulations of her family’s life in a structure that was less a home and more a Brobdingnagian Rubik’s Cube.

I lapped this stuff up when I was young. Eisenman’s work appeared so avant-garde, its theoretical underpinnings so radical, that it perversely made architecture make sense to me. Before initiating my formal studies in architecture, I did not understand that it was possible to approach design with intentions beyond the solving of a given problem. I credit Eisenman in part for awakening me to the potential of architecture to communicate ideas.

Convergence and Divergence
The title of the 1982 Harvard debate involving Christopher Alexander and Peter Eisenman was “Contrasting Concepts of Harmony in Architecture,” surely a curious framework for Eisenman in particular, given his indifference at the time toward notions of aesthetics and the fact that his work displayed as much dissonance as it did harmonic consonance. Nevertheless, the exchange between the two was highly entertaining and enlightening, perhaps hinting at an unexpected convergence of ideologies.(3)

Specifically, both Alexander and Eisenman were and are interested in the process of design, although Alexander defined design as “the process of inventing things which display new physical order, organization, form, in response to function“, whereas Eisenman would not initially concern himself with function, aesthetics, or any meaning attendant to the emergent form. The obvious example is that A Pattern Language, with its 253 patterns written as a set of rules, is a generative grammar in the same way that Eisenman’s arbitrary strategies of self-referential rules were.

Where they differ is the end to which they apply their processes. Alexander, educated as a scientist and a mathematician, looks to science-based ways of approaching design in the immodest pursuit of nothing less than uncovering the nature of order and the universe. He opposes abstract or formal design methods, favoring empirically-acquired knowledge based upon observation and experimentation.

Alexander also has a profound belief in the practice of “timeless” ways of building, those grounded in centuries of trial and error that foster comfort, harmony, health, and sensual gratification. By contrast, Eisenman views such a belief as surrendering to complacency and passivity. The perspectives of both architects are revealed during their 1982 debate as complementary opposites within a greater whole:

PE: I am not preaching disharmony. I am suggesting that disharmony might be part of the cosmology that we exist in . . . I do not believe that the way to go, as you suggest, is to put up structures to make people feel comfortable, to preclude that anxiety.

CA: Don't you think there is enough anxiety at present? Do you really think we need to manufacture more anxiety in the form of buildings?

Both sides of the argument are valid. I posit that we need both an architecture that is physically, emotionally, and practically comfortable, as well as an architecture that, in Eisenman’s words, would more closely approximate our innate feelings today. The key is balance, and in this instance, that balance is achieved with a predominance of the former over the latter. The impoverishment of our built environment is in part a consequence of failing to maintain this balance, although both are collectively outweighed by the prevalence of completely thoughtless design.

Alexander’s four-volume magnum opus, The Nature of Order, is his attempt to understand and explain the underlying structure of beauty, wholeness, and spirituality – his own transcendent “theory of everything.” His life’s quest is akin to and has been no less ambitious than the work of theoretical physicists who are seeking a Theory of Everything that would unify all of the fundamental interactions of nature. Like them, Alexander’s work has touched upon the metaphysical and the sublime, with a tip of the hat to complexity science.

In the later phases of his career, Eisenman continues to base his design strategies on techniques appropriated from linguistics, moving from his process-focused and context-less early house designs to newer projects that consider the layers of physical and cultural archaeologies of each site, not just the obvious contexts and programs of a building.(4) In its reach, though, Eisenman’s work remains limited when compared to Alexander’s ambitions. The irony is that Eisenman has now designed more buildings of greater influence and significance than Alexander, including such recent projects as the City of Culture of Galicia and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

One measure of wisdom I acquired early on as a student was to be open to varied points of view. There is plenty to be learned from all of the important architectural theorists, past and present. While I tend to favor the belief that we are best served by buildings that are aspiring and life-affirming, I am wary of the moral absolutism espoused by Christopher Alexander. Architects like Peter Eisenman are necessary to move the art of architecture forward, to comment critically about the subject of architecture and its relationship to society.(5)

Both Alexander and Eisenman have a place in my architectural canon. Regardless, I take everything I have learned from their work, and the work of others, with a grain of salt.

(1) Despite his Oregon connections, I never have encountered Alexander or seen him speak in person. I did see Eisenman lecture in Vancouver many years ago, sometime in the late seventies or early eighties (I can’t remember exactly when, but I do remember his affectation of insouciance, reclining with microphone in hand, on the edge of the auditorium stage).

(2) The 18th & Agate Family Housing project constructed at the southeast edge of the University of Oregon campus right here in Eugene was designed collaboratively by Alexander’s Berkeley-based Center for Environmental Structure and Thallon & Edrington Architects of Eugene. It was not completed without controversy. Alexander applied for a reciprocal license that would allow him to practice in Oregon but refused to take an examination required by the State Board of Architect Examiners. It was the authorship of the drawings for the project that would be questioned by the Board given that Alexander would not secure his Oregon licensure.

(3) The transcript of the entire debate and an accompanying critical analysis was published online in 2004 by KATARXIS, a webzine dedicated to a “New Traditional Architecture and Urbanism.” The editors of KATARXIS – Lucien Steil, Brian Hanson, Michael Mehaffy, and Nikos Salingaros – shared a common interest in the science of complexity as it applies to architecture and urban design.

(4) I discovered an insightful essay written by Andri Gerber that provides a chronology of Eisenman’s theories about architecture. Gerber is an architect and an assistant Chair of Architecture and Urban Design at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) Zurich.

(5) In this regard, Eisenman may not be the most likely candidate for flag-bearer of a critical architecture. Rem Koolhaas may be a better nominee, although his work is now being categorized as “projective” in that it addresses issues such as mass consumerism through an architecture of new forms rather than through critical analysis.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

May AIA-SWO Chapter Meeting Recap

Further extending AIA-SWO President Michael Fifield’s design excellence theme for this year’s monthly chapter meetings, our May 2010 program featured the City of Eugene’s efforts to marry urban form and design excellence.

Pursuant to the “call to arms” raised by the speakers at the Oregon Design Conference, the City’s current initiatives provide AIA-SWO architects with ample opportunities to assume a leadership role by helping to shape the future of Eugene. As COE Metro & Community Planner (and AIA-SWO board member) Patricia (Trish) Thomas pointed out, AIA members can influence the City’s urban planning and design strategies, not only as individuals but also as a collective voice. With the advent of Envision Eugene, as well as the ongoing Infill Compatibility/Opportunity Siting process and Mixed-Use Center planning, this is a propitious time for our design community.

In addition to Trish, the May program featured a series of brief presentations about the City’s in-progress metro planning efforts:
  • The City of Eugene’s Lydia McKinney and AIA-SWO’s John Lawless described the Walnut Station Mixed-Use Plan and the City’s crafting of its accompanying form-based code. John drafted a dedicated group of AIA-SWO and ASLA members to test the form-based code. The group pushed limits of the code in an attempt to gauge its effectiveness. Ultimately, the City hopes Walnut Station will be an exemplar of nodal development and a validation of such urban form strategies as multi-way boulevards, growing up and not out, and the implementation of a district-centric design review panel.
  • Trish provided an update on Opportunity Siting and its focus on “hot spots” (where market demand, feasibility, and compatibility are optimal) within the boundaries of the City of Eugene. She sees potential for collaboration with AIA-SWO and is intent on moving a conversation forward about that potential.
  • Envision Eugene’s principal planner, Carolyn Weiss provided an overview of the City’s effort to develop a plan for how Eugene will grow and develop over the next twenty years. Every community in Oregon has an urban growth boundary (UGB) – a limit to how far the city can physically grow out, which protects farms and forests from unplanned development. The UGB must contain enough land for our projected population needs over the next 20 years. State law requires all cities to update their 20 year population projections, and their UGB to accommodate the new population. In addition to identifying if we have enough land to accommodate 20 years of growth, Eugene will also develop its own UGB as Eugene currently shares a UGB with Springfield.
  • Senior Urban Design Planner Robin Hostick, ASLA, focused his section of the program on the importance of impressing upon our community the value of design excellence as a means toward achieving desirable urban density. In his mind, not all density is created equal. The key to buy-in by Eugeneans will be an enhancement of their appreciation for the benefits of good urban form and compact growth.
Following the presentations by our speakers, AIA-SWO board member Mark Gillem, AIA facilitated a discussion that addressed two questions: 1) How can AIA-SWO and the City of Eugene work together toward design excellence?; and 2) What can AIA-SWO do to ensure design excellence is part of the Envision Eugene discussion?

The results of this discussion further emphasized the obligation we have to influence the community dialogue about how Eugene will look and feel tomorrow. Some of the audience comments included the following:
  • Design professionals must emphasize the underlying principles that foster good urban design; it isn’t enough to simply paint a pretty picture of what could be. Design principles are the building blocks for guidelines and standards.
  • Good design cannot be legislated; the community must want it.
  • The urban growth boundary isn’t a panacea for bad urban form.
  • The surest path toward positive change is for design professionals to directly influence the “market makers.”
  • Architects, landscape architects, and urban designers cannot blame the shortcoming of the Eugene City Code for our failures to demonstrate design leadership. We cannot abrogate our responsibility to protect the public interest if it is clear that it is in jeopardy.
Trish trusts that the place where urban planning and design excellence meet is not at an edge; instead, it is her hope that the overlap is substantial and growing. As architects, we understand that planning alone – conducted in the absence of an understanding of its physical manifestations – is insufficient to foster a beautiful, sustainable, and livable city. Conversely, design professionals cannot fail to appreciate the legal, political, and demographic forces that are impacting Eugene’s future.

Among the opportunities to fulfill a leadership role is the next Envision Eugene open house and workshop. Taking place this Wednesday, May 26 in the Churchill High School cafeteria (1850 Bailey Hill Road; 6 pm open house, 7-9 pm workshop), the goal of the event is to collect further community feedback on approaches to growth. Participants will have the opportunity to learn more about Eugene's expected population growth for the next twenty years and the land and housing needs that may come with that growth. City staff will present research and technical analysis, including seven approaches to growing inside our current urban growth boundary. Attendees will have the opportunity to learn about and discuss each approach, and work in small groups to identify potential benefits and concerns related to quality of life.

For more information, check out the Envision Eugene website at

Thank you, Trish, for organizing the May chapter program.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Our May program sponsor was Opus VII, the new social and artistic platform that will showcase an exceptional array of talents and resources in the areas of art, architecture, and design. Located in the same retail space across Seventh Avenue from the Hult Center previously occupied by Opus 6ix, Opus VII is a realization of owner Kaz Oveissi’s vision of a combined art gallery, architecture and design center, membership organization, and cultural hangout.

Kaz’s hope is to build a powerful network of members to recognize, support, and validate the work of Opus. He wants a community of cultural leaders who are not bystanders. It’s his intent that Opus VII will be an immersive, multi-sensory exploration of projects and ideas, inspiring conversations that benefit the community. Join me in welcoming to downtown Eugene this unprecedented model for a new kind of cultural center!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

An Emerald Vision

The following post is intended for publication in the Summer 2010 edition of the Oregon Architect newsletter. It’s a mash-up of previous blog posts by me, and the writings of members of the 2010 Conference marketing committee and AIA-SWO Executive Director Don Kahle that promote the upcoming AIA Northwest & Pacific Region Conference we’re hosting here in Eugene.

AIA-Southwestern Oregon invites architecture professionals and their guests from Alaska, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Hawaii, Guam/Micronesia, Japan, and Hong Kong to gather October 13-16 in Eugene for the 2010 AIA Northwest and Pacific Region Conference. Dubbed “An Emerald Vision,” the conference will examine the prospects for an architecture that is truly sustainable as we awaken to the realities of climate change, dwindling resources, and the rapid transformation of current professional practice paradigms.

What does the future bode for architecture and society as we move toward the development of a holistic, integrated, and long-term worldview where being green is a given? Through three fundamental tenets – equity, economy, and environment – An Emerald Vision will explore how design excellence, the future, and genius loci coalesce and inform contemporary architectural practice.

Hult Center for the Performing Arts (photo by Cacophany, Wikimedia Commons)

We’ll look at the power of good design in the widest possible context – considering transportation, civic leadership, land-use planning, even the effect of natural disasters on place-making. We’ll be hearing from architects and deep thinkers. It will be a design conference.

As a design-focused conference, AIA Oregon charged An Emerald Vision with extending the Design Excellence/Oregon initiative rolled out at the 2010 Oregon Design Conference (ODC). The Design Excellence/Oregon goals include developing a statewide culture of design excellence, an expansive constituency of community leaders and others who are intent upon improving the quality of the built environment. This October in Eugene, Region Conference participants will take stock of the lessons learned at the ODC and further pursue the formula for excellence, with the potential of its application outside the borders of our state.

The conference will offer different ways to learn: talks, tables, and tours.
TALKS – To address the key themes of An Emerald Vision, AIA-Southwestern Oregon has arranged an outstanding lineup of nationally-prominent design leaders and local luminaries, including:
  • Ralph DiNola – Principal, Green Building Services, Portland, OR; Board Member, International Living Building Institute
  • Alan Durning – Founder and Executive Director, the Sightline Institute, Seattle, WA
  • Julie Eizenberg, AIA – Principal, Koning Eizenberg Architecture, Santa Monica, CA; Advisor, Mayors Institute on City Design
  • David Lake, FAIA – Principal, Lake/Flato Architects, San Antonio, TX
  • Donlyn Lyndon, FAIA – Eva Li Professor Emeritus of Architecture and Urban Design, UC Berkeley; past Editor, Places
  • Clark D. Manus, FAIA – CEO, Heller Manus Architects, San Francisco; 2011 AIA Institute President
  • David Miller, FAIA – Principal, Miller/Hull Partnership, Seattle, WA
  • Shelley Poticha – Senior Adviser for Sustainable Housing and Communities at the Department of Housing and Urban Development
  • William Sullivan – Author, Hiking Oregon’s History, Listening for Coyote, and Oregon’s Greatest Natural Disasters
TABLES – Many of these same speakers will participate in panel discussions on varied topics ranging from architectural education to place-making, sustainable cities, and future trends in construction materials. We also want to be sure we share our message with non-architects who care (or want to learn to care) about good design. Accordingly, we are co-hosting one panel discussion, Place-making and Provincialism, with the City Club of Eugene.

TOURS – A series of optional tours will also be available to conference attendees, with visits to Eugene projects by Morphosis, TVA & Ellerbe Beckett, ZGF, and travel further afield to Frank Lloyd Wright's Gordon House and Alvar Aalto's Mt. Angel Library. We’re also organizing tours of “local gems” and the historic architecture of the University of Oregon campus.

Mt. Angel Abbey Library (photo from Abbey website)

We’ve fashioned the schedule to almost always have a distinguished speaker giving a lecture, an intriguing panel hosting a roundtable discussion, or a respected colleague giving a tour. It will be possible for participants to receive the 18 continuing education units required annually to maintain AIA membership by mixing and matching the three learning modes.

An Emerald Vision will draw heavily upon the contributions of the future generation of design leadership throughout the Region. For example, we plan to highlight the University of Oregon in several ways. We’re arranging alumni get-togethers, and time with professors and students. We’ll be spending almost all of Saturday, October 16 on campus. We timed the conference to fit the academic calendar.

University of Oregon (photo by Erik Bishoff)

We’re meeting in Eugene so we can mix it up with the students, but we’re doing more than that too. We’ve invited ARE and IDP officials and we’re co-hosting the AIA Northwest & Pacific Region Leadership Institute during the same time. DesignSpring, the Eugene-based emerging design professionals group will produce Design Throw-Down, a Pecha Kucha style event that is sure to be a hit.

The 2010 Northwest & Pacific Rim Regional Conference will be centrally based at the Hilton Eugene Hotel and Conference Center. We have reserved a block of rooms to ensure that our out-of-town guests have accommodations. If you haven’t already done so, register for the Conference online at the following URL and secure your space at the Hilton(1):

No other region of the Institute comes close to being as geographically and culturally diverse as the Northwest & Pacific Region. 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. Join us this October in Eugene. We promise gorgeous fall foliage, innovative thinking, and design excellence. We’ve developed a can’t-miss program with balance and depth – An Emerald Vision.

(1) Online conference registration will be available as of June 1.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Fashion is Fierce

Product Runway - May 12, 2010 (photo by Paul Dustrud, AIA)

Just a short post today: I didn't make it over to the University of Oregon AIAS & IIDA's "Product Runway" event and ice cream social this past Wednesday evening but AIA-SWO President-Elect Paul Dustrud did. He reported that there was a good turnout and that everyone enjoyed themselves. Judging by Paul's photo above, there was some real creativity exercised by the budding couturiers of the House of Lawrence (Lawrence Hall, that is). This trend-setting lineup is sure to be a hit in the world of prêt-à-porter fashion. Bravo, designers!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Expanding Oregon Design Excellence

Opening reception - Some of the 140+ Oregon architects who attended the 2010 Oregon Design Conference (all photos mine)

I’ve come to expect nothing less than to be absolutely inspired and my enthusiasm for architecture invigorated each time I attend the biennial Oregon Design Conference (ODC). The 2010 edition was no exception. The difference this year was that the conference organizers conceived the event as a component of a truly visionary, far-reaching project to expand an appreciation for design excellence throughout Oregon.

The goals of the Design Excellence/Oregon initiative are to:
  • Develop a statewide culture of design excellence
  • Create a statewide program to enable design excellence
  • Establish a state-level model of design excellence
The challenge posed to those of us who attended the conference (held at the Salishan Spa & Golf Resort on the Oregon coast this past weekend) was to begin to answer the many questions raised by our pursuit of these goals. Should Design Excellence/Oregon apply to publicly-funded projects of every scale? Should there be Design Excellence guidelines common to all jurisdictions? Or should they be written by the cities or jurisdictions they serve? How can the Design Excellence programs be funded, and how would their funding impact their effectiveness? Who would serve on review committees? Can a Design Excellence program help clarify and improve the overall design review process? Can it lead to a more efficient process as well as better design?

An overflow crowd at Salishan's Attic Lounge enjoys "Short Takes," the Pecha-Kucha style presentations by various architects at the 2010 Oregon Design Conference.

What Do We Need to Create Excellence?
An obvious inspiration for an Oregon design excellence program is the General Service Administration’s Design Excellence Program. Under the leadership of its then Chief Architect, Ed Feiner, FAIA, the GSA instituted the program in 1990 to provide top-quality design talent for federal clients. It includes a multi-step selection process and the use of private-sector peers, while retaining the competitive requirements of federal contracting. The program stresses creativity and streamlines the way GSA hires architects and engineers, substantially cutting the cost of competing for GSA design contracts.

As successful as the GSA program has been (it did significantly raise the design quality bar for new federal construction), it is not likely to be a totally suitable model for Design Excellence/Oregon. For starters, the shapers of the Oregon initiative envision a much broader outcome than that realized by the projects administered under the GSA Design Excellence Program. The GSA program’s renown is also largely founded upon the creation of iconic structures designed by well-established “starchitects” rather than the instilling of a culture of good design throughout the communities in which they are built.

Fostering a culture of good design begs further questions. How do we define design excellence and is our definition aligned with that of the greater public? Is design excellence about image and design integrity, functionality, context and community values, sustainability, or place-making? The genius of the conference was that we asked these questions and the others too. The dialogue was joined. We embarked on a journey toward ensuring that the “Oregon mystique,” our state’s reputation for livability, will be guarded in part by our insistence upon design excellence.

How Do We Get There?
Like its previous incarnations, the 2010 Oregon Design Conference featured an outstanding roster of keynote speakers – provocateurs as conference organizer Bob Hastings, FAIA, prefers to call them. They inspired us, helped to frame our discussions, and revealed potential avenues to follow. Not coincidentally, all of the keynote speakers are card-carrying members of the “Friends of Don” club – Don Stastny, FAIA, FAICP that is. Much of credit for the Design Excellence/Oregon initiative goes to Don, who has been its champion since its genesis. His service as a professional advisor for many of the most significant U.S. design competitions in recent memory (including the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC, and the Wayne Lyman Morse Federal Courthouse here in Eugene) provides him with a unique perspective on the subject of design excellence and the means by which it may best be achieved.

Ed Feiner, FAIA, former Chief Architect of the federal government's General Services Administration, talks about design building blocks.

We were honored to have Ed Feiner with us at Salishan to not only recount the achievements of the GSA Design Excellence Program under his watch but also to open the discourse about the need for a culture shift toward the appreciation of good design. During his tenure with the GSA, Ed encountered plenty of resistance to change. He knows by experience that every community has its resident “Flat Earth Society.” Typically, the naysayers’ mantra is that excellence costs more and is thus untenable, especially during difficult economic times. In response, our goal must be to design a process that results in our communities demanding great architecture.

Ed pointed to the founders’ use of a federal style of architecture to communicate to the citizens that the new nation was strong and established. Design excellence today can likewise convey a shared understanding about community and the ideals we aspire to.

George Miller, FAIA, 2010 American Institute of Architects President.

Like Ed Feiner, 2010 AIA President George Miller, FAIA, also brought a national perspective on design excellence to the Oregon Design Conference. Central to his platform is the declaration that “Design Matters.” He is inspired by the value architects bring to their communities. Accordingly, he praised our commitment to elevate everyone’s understanding of the importance and power of design by undertaking the Design Excellence/Oregon initiative. In his words, design is a tool, a resource, a power for the creation of beautiful, more sustainable, safe, healthy, and livable communities – not for a privileged few, but for everyone.

Stephen Kieran, FAIA - Kieran Timberlake Architects - discusses developing design potential.

Stephen Kieran, FAIA, of the widely-published and award-winning firm Kieran Timberlake Associates, spoke on the topic of developing design potential. He asserted that we pass judgment about design excellence almost solely on the basis of aesthetics or form when it is not just about form anymore. Instead, Stephen believes that what comes before – the questions: pre-form – are of equal importance, as is performance afterwards. Layering this further, inquiry, art, and mandate should also be factors in the design excellence equation.

Recognizing excellence: Kathryn Gustafson, FASLA

Kathryn Gustafson, FASLA, operates two landscape architecture firms: Gustafson Guthrie Nichol in Seattle, and Gustafson Porter in London. Her contribution to the goal of expanding our society’s appreciation of design excellence was to present the audience with a stunning display of the design prowess of her two far-flung offices. This included the serene (Kogod Courtyard for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC), the dynamic (Seattle City Hall and Justice Center plazas), and the extraordinary (Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain). The depth of consideration evident in all of the projects Kathryn showcased was inspiring.

Maurice Cox, former Director of Design for the National Endowment of the Arts, and Don Stastny, FAIA.

I was especially impressed by the conference’s final keynote presenter: Maurice Cox, Associate Professor, University of Virginia School of Architecture, past Director of Design for the National Endowment for the Arts, and former mayor of Charlottesville, VA. During his appointment at the NEA, Maurice oversaw the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, Governors’ Institute on Community Design, and Your Town: The Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design, helping to provide professional leadership in architecture and design at many levels of government for a diverse collection of communities. Underlying his interests is the belief that design excellence is synonymous with quality of life and a basic democratic right as opposed to something that should only be available to those that can afford it.

He senses that something big is about to happen but only if architects lead the discussion. He quoted Thomas Jefferson, who said that “design activity and political thought are indivisible.” Fundamentally, it is Maurice’s belief that exercising leadership is the way to influence a community to confront its adaptive challenges, those gaps between a community’s values and the current reality that cannot be closed by routine behavior. Advocacy and activism can also build a constituency for design excellence. Maurice encourages architects to serve on planning commissions, design review panels, or pursue political office such as he did himself in Charlottesville. He believes it is our responsibility to educate elected officials about the art and design of cities. He sees it as our duty to secure the community’s trust that we place the public interest above our own.

Maurice quoted another famous politician, the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. While Director of the Joint Center for Urban Studies at Harvard during the early 1960s, Moynihan wrote the following:

“If we are to restore to American public life the sense of shared experience, trust, and common purpose that seems to be draining out of it, the quality of public design has got to be made a public issue because it is a political fact. It is the bone and muscle of democracy and it is time those who see this begin insisting on it.”

Maurice used Moynihan’s words to remind us that good design for all people has far-reaching ramifications.

So, asking the question again, how do we get there? How do we achieve the culture of design excellence in Oregon that we seek? In my opinion, Maurice Cox laid before us the surest path toward our goal. We must create more venues for design leadership in our communities and then exploit those opportunities to the fullest extent possible. We must build an expansive constituency for design excellence. We must work to change society’s values structure such that everyone views public design as a public issue.

ex2 = OR+YOU
My previous blog post described the Design Excellence/Oregon effort as “A Trilogy Told in Two Parts.” The first part of our bifurcated trilogy, the Oregon Design Conference, is now in the books as a resounding success. That success is directly attributable to the herculean efforts of the conference’s organizers, led by the inimitable Bob Hastings, Don Statsny, Steve Thomson, AIA, Saundra Stevens, Hon. AIA, and the AIA Oregon staff. All of us who attended the ODC owe these fine people a huge debt of gratitude.

Part II of the trilogy lies before us: The 2010 American Institute of Architects Northwest & Pacific Region Conference.(1) I can only hope that the Region Conference will match the brilliance of the ODC at Salishan. Be sure to join us here in Eugene, October 13-16, where and when we will take stock of the lessons we have learned and further pursue the formula for a state of excellence. We’re on our way toward establishing a real, workable design excellence program here in Oregon that will help preserve our state’s well-earned reputation for livability and serve as a model for improving the quality of the built environment in communities everywhere.

(1) The Mayor’s Symposium on Design Excellence is the third part of the Trilogy, and is itself comprised of two parts. I erroneously stated in my previous post that the Symposium was in the planning stages. In fact, Part I occurred last month and introduced the Design Excellence/Oregon initiative to a Portland audience. Part II is scheduled to take place this coming summer, when initial field testing of the Design Excellence methodologies will take place.

Monday, May 3, 2010

A Trilogy Told in Two Parts

I’ll be attending the 2010 edition of the Oregon Design Conference later this week (May 6-8) at the Salishan Conference Center & Resort near Gleneden Beach. It’s no surprise to me that the conference promises again to be thought provoking and engaging. Thanks to the leadership of Bob Hastings, FAIA and Steve Thomson, AIA, ODC participants will explore the topic of design excellence.

What exactly is the meaning of design excellence and how do we expand upon it to improve Oregon’s built environment and the economic base upon which we all stand? What is the formula for a state of excellence?

The desired outcome is a framework for delivering design excellence in every Oregon community. As proposed by Don Stastny, FAIA, and the fledgling Center for Architecture board, it would be modeled after the design excellence program that Don helped author for the federal General Services Administration.

The ODC will be the forum for initial exploration of this concept, with further steps taken as the year unfolds. Its emphasis will be setting the stage, developing the potential for design excellence, and learning how to recognize it. The ODC will also explore application of a design excellence program at the state scale. The Portland Mayor’s Symposium, which, as of this writing is in the planning stage, will address the initiative at a city scale. The AIA Northwest & Pacific Region Annual Conference that my chapter, AIA-Southwestern Oregon, is hosting in Eugene this October will tackle design excellence at the regional scale and witness the rollout of the design excellence “toolkit.” Bookended by the ODC and our Region conference, the tripartite effort will together comprise, as AIA-SWO Executive Director Don Kahle quipped, a "Trilogy Told in Two Parts."

Leaders from both conferences collaborated early and deeply to form a coherence between the two events. Our state component, AIA Oregon, furnished AIA-SWO with a $10,000 grant as a way to express solidarity between the two conferences and return tangible benefits to its members, many of whom have struggled in this difficult economy. Accordingly, a $100 discount toward Region Conference registration fees is available to the first one hundred ODC attendees who register in advance while at Salishan this week. Any money not disbursed at the Oregon Design Conference will be offered to AIA-Oregon members who are either new to the profession or experiencing special hardships this year or last. Registrants can also choose to forego the $100 discount to which they are entitled. If they do, the money will be reinvested in providing scholarships to students from any of the five schools of architecture in our region, or it will be added to the hardship subsidy for Oregon AIA members.

For those who will be at Salishan this week but have not yet considered joining us at the Region Conference, here is a bunch of additional reasons why Eugene in October looks mighty attractive:

OREGON MYSTIQUE, FRONT & CENTER – We know that Oregon has a reputation and heritage of being forward-thinking. The 2010 AIA Northwest & Pacific Region Conference (October 13-16) will be an opportunity to show that spirit to colleagues from across the region.

UNIVERSITY CONNECTIONS – We plan to highlight the University of Oregon in several ways. We’re arranging alumni get-togethers, tours of signature buildings at the university (including the new Matthew Knight Arena and Jaqua Academic Center for Student Athletes), and time with professors and students. We’ll be spending almost all of Saturday, October 16 on campus. We timed the conference to fit the academic calendar.

18 CEUs, INCLUDING HSW & SD – Our conference planners were charged with making sure that every participant will have opportunity to receive all 18 learning units required for the year.

LEARN HOW YOU WISH – People learn in different ways, so we’ve fashioned our schedule to almost always have a distinguished speaker giving a lecture, an intriguing panel hosting a roundtable discussion, and a respected colleague giving a tour. You could do all tours, or all lectures, or all discussions. Your choice.

NOT JUST WHAT, BUT ALSO WHERE – We’ll be exploring the power of good design in the widest possible context – considering transportation, civic leadership, land-use planning, even the effect of natural disasters on place-making. We’ll be hearing from architects and deep thinkers. It will be a design conference.

ENVIRONMENT, ECONOMY, EQUITY – We’re all just a little bit tired of the “green” bandwagon, because we’ve been thinking about these issues for so much longer than the general population. So we’re pushing beyond that concept, asking “what’s next?” Always with an eye on good design, we’ll be looking at genius loci and the vision of futurists. We’ve developed a program with balance and depth.

ATTRACTING YOUTH – We’re meeting in Eugene so we can mix it up with the students, but we’re doing more than that. We will extend scholarships to students across the region. We’ve invited ARE and IDP officials and we’re co-hosting a young leaders conference during the same time.

PUBLIC EVENTS – We wanted to be sure we share our message with non-architects who care (or want to learn to care) about good design. So we have public events planned for Friday evening and another for young professionals late night Friday.

THERE WILL BE CHANCES TO GET OUT OF TOWN – Friday, October 15 will be an opportunity to see impressive sights across the state. We’ll take buses to see Alvar Aalto’s Mount Angel Abbey Library, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Gordon House, and Independence Station (proclaimed the “world’s greenest building,” and designed by a team led by Ankrom Moisan Associated Architects).

BUT SPACE WILL BE LIMITED – We’re guaranteeing seats on those buses only through July. So tell everyone what we have planned and be sure to have them sign up before summer slips away.

I’m looking forward to seeing many of my colleagues from around the state at Salishan for the Oregon Design Conference. My hope is that they (and many others) will also join us here in Eugene this fall as the arc of our Trilogy Told in Two Parts is closed. Both events are set to attract not only architects, but also landscape architects, planners, legislators, and business representatives at the vanguard of design excellence. As Bob Hastings has noted, bringing people together to establish a common vision of a preferred future can empower whole communities, industries, and neighborhoods. Our role as design professionals is to help them along the path to that preferred future.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Product Runway

(Image source:

The University of Oregon’s chapter of the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) has been more active recently than it has been in years. A case in point was its Architecture Trivia Night this past January. Another is its upcoming “Product Runway” fashion show, which it is producing in partnership with the student chapter of the International Interior Design Association (IIDA).

The Product Runway event will take place Wednesday, May 12, 2010 at Lawrence Hall on the University of Oregon campus. The organizers describe the show as an opportunity for building materials manufacturers and sales representatives to promote their products by furnishing them to participating students for the purpose of creating unique and exciting pieces of clothing. The goal is for the students to explore the intrinsic properties of the materials in a creative and fun way. By crafting couture garments from products found in real-world architecture and interior design projects (such as carpet, acrylic, vinyl flooring, tile, or plastic laminates) the students will prove that these materials can look just as good on the fashion runway as they do in a building.(1)

The students are actively seeking sponsorship and donation of materials in advance of the show. If you’re interested in helping out, contact AIAS Treasurer Kent Wu at or event director Sarah Tiedecken at The AIAS and IIDA student chapters are selling sponsorships at $50 apiece, which includes advertising on fliers and the opportunity to represent your business at the event. The students would also be very appreciative of donated materials. If you wish to donate materials, please call Kent at (971) 506-1227 to arrange materials to be picked up or delivered to the University.

Send your sponsorship check to:

American Institute of Architecture Students
381B Lawrence Hall
1206 University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403

Product Runway sounds like great fun, so see and be seen at Lawrence Hall on May 12th and join your fellow followers of fabulous fashion. I wonder if Heidi Klum will show up . . .

(1) Various Product Runway events have been produced by IIDA chapters in Houston, Seattle, and elsewhere. In contrast to the UO production, these other Product Runway productions typically involve local architecture and interior design professionals rather than students.