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.

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