William “Bill” Kleinsasser was the professor who most lastingly shaped my beliefs about architecture during my studies at the University of Oregon in the early 1980s.(1) He was a complex man, deeply committed to that which he believed in, and joyous in his teaching. At the same time, he was dismayed by what he regarded as the willful conceptualizing and pretense of much of the architecture that he saw receive critical acclaim. He disagreed vehemently with his colleagues in the Department of Architecture if their beliefs jeopardized the wholeness of the curricula he championed. He was an advocate for architecture that is truly meaningful and evocative.
Throughout his decades-long tenure at Oregon, Bill taught students to understand the essential concerns of architecture; not just to design competent and clever buildings, which may be ingenious or stylish, but richly appropriate surroundings for people that measure up to the best we can imagine and hope for. Architects, he argued, should focus upon making beautiful places that invite people to be beautiful. He emphasized making places that are so clear, so rich, and so right that they genuinely symbolize our most strongly felt concerns about architecture. He urged us to work long and hard to develop ideas to levels that were extraordinary.
A focus of Bill’s teaching, and a touchstone for his vision of designing places for people, was experiencing architecture through the actions of ordinary living. His class Experiential Considerations in Architecture was a revelation for me. Bill spoke of how good places – large or small, public or private, inside or outside – provide settings that are precise, generous, lucid, liberating, and alive. The course’s theory base remains today the foundation of a required class in the UO Department of Architecture.
Bill’s career in architecture followed military service in Korea and graduate studies at Princeton University, where he would cross paths with Charles Moore, Donlyn Lyndon, William Turnbull, and Hugh Hardy. Influential there as a visiting lecturer was Louis Kahn, for whom he would later work briefly. Bill and his wife Ann also spent time in Switzerland where he worked for a firm. They eventually returned stateside and Bill began teaching at Oregon.(2)
Bill’s approach to teaching was personal, reflective, and constantly evolving. A case in point was his writing: his textbook Synthesis was self-published and available for purchase by students at the UO bookstore. He updated Synthesis many times; I believe its final iteration was the ninth edition. With each revision, Bill revealed an ever more comprehensive theory base for architecture. And yet he was never satisfied: Synthesis could always be better, more deliberately concise, more focused. It should come as no surprise that Bill often quoted from The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s seminal little book on written composition. Brevity is a virtue that Bill admired. The Elements of Style conveyed many lessons that he found applicable to the making of memorable places, such as how the vague and general could be transformed into the vivid and particular, or how the approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, and sincerity.
With Synthesis, Bill outlined a methodology that by the book’s fifth edition grew to include eight objectives that can be studied and developed, responded to in our projects, returned to again and again as a theory base, and changed when necessary. The objectives are:
- To support purposes and activities
- To establish longevity
- To respond to place
- To maintain historical continuity
- To integrate construction
- To integrate services and environmental control
- To achieve clarity
- To establish vitality
- Determining an appropriate organizational structure; that is, to determine a basic theme or direction that appropriately orders all parts. If this structure is to be comprehensive, it must be based upon all of the objectives.
- Developing the structure; that is, to actually establish the opportunities and qualities called for by the project.
Another focus of Bill’s career in academia was his study of the idiosyncratic work of Henry Chapman Mercer. During my studies under Bill, I considered Fonthill, the Mercer Museum, and Mercer’s Tileworks to be ugly and unworthy of his extensive attention. Since that time, I have come to understand what Bill appreciated about these curious buildings. He recognized Mercer’s deep, instinctive understanding of and feeling for the place in which the structures are located. The qualities of the cast-in-place concrete buildings seemed just right in the haunting serenity and mystery of the Bucks County, PA countryside. They reinforce, dramatize, and celebrate their joined physical context. Bill’s book on Henry Mercer, A Splendid Torch, is in final preparation for publication. I hope to obtain a copy as soon as it is available.
Fonthill, by Henry Chapman Mercer (photo by KForce from Wikipedia)
(1) In addition to Experiential Considerations in Architecture, I enrolled in two design studios with Bill: one during my third year in architecture, and then my terminal project studio in the B.Arch program.
(2) Bill was an outstanding high school and college football player. He went to Princeton on an academic scholarship but received All-America mention while playing football on a Princeton Tigers team ranked in the nation’s top 10.