Sunday, November 28, 2010

Influences: William Kleinsasser

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 fourth post in the series.

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
Additionally, Bill divided the act of design-synthesis into two parts:
  • 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.
Bill believed it is essential to realize that appropriate organizational structure cannot be determined by acts of personal expression alone. As a synthesis of many factors, it becomes clear slowly and after great effort on the part of the designer. Emerging first as a feeling, it must be tested and developed. Once determined as the correct organizing principle, it may be followed and reinforced. If used well, it will lead to an appropriate, unified, and eloquent real place.

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)

Bill passed away this past September 22 at the age of eighty-one after a battle with esophageal cancer. I was unaware that he had died; I only found out after reading the most recent issue of the School of Architecture and Allied Arts Review. I regret not visiting with him before his illness took him from us. I had sought out his guidance upon my return to Eugene in 1988, but had spoken with him rarely since then. He truly was a great teacher. I will forever be indebted to Bill Kleinsasser for opening my eyes to architecture’s potential to help us understand what we are a part of, where we have been, where we might go, and who and what we are.

(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.


Marilyn said...

I did not realize that Bill had passed either until reading the same A&AA Review just now. Thanks for your posting about Bill and his teachings. I took his class in 1993 and still have the Synthesis book (9th edition).

TechEdTeacher said...

I too have been fortunate to study with William Kleinsausser. About 1972 he was a visiting professor at Carnegie Melon Univ. He was tracking Christopher Alexander's identification of Patterns. We had a draft of pattern language. Kleinsausser also commuted long weekends to his wife's hometown of Doylestown pa. I and others in the seminar made the homage trip to the Mercer Mile buildings. At a time when it seemed the world could be reshaped in our own hands, Mercer, Kleinsausser and Alexander held the torch and trowel, spirituality and literally.

I am very interested to see or get a scan of Synthesis 9.

Randy Nishimura, AIA said...

TechEdTeacher: Thanks for your comment! I'm sure Bill would have been happy to know that he made a difference for so many of his students.

It appears one copy of Synthesis 9 is available on Amazon, but it isn't inexpensive. Here's the link:

I do not personally have a copy of Synthesis 9. I do have Synthesis 5, which dates from 1982.


butuki said...

Just discovered this article. I studied under Bill, including two of his studios, back in 1983 to 1986. He was my favorite architecture professor, in spite of the condescension he received from other professors and many students. More than any other professor there, he expressed what it was that I went into architecture for (I no longer do architecture, though). I grieves me greatly to learn of his death. Thank you for the wonderful tribute to him.

Cal Pearson said...

Randy, Thankyou for your blog. In the spirit of making connections: Bill was also one of my favorite and one of the most influential faculty. Having taken several of his theory courses and my final design studio from him in 1984, his theory base is a part of me, and has added to my architecture practice for the last 20 years or more. He was endearing, kind, thoughtful, committed, energetic, engaging, sympathetic and had much to teach. He was committed to wholeness in teaching his students, and so was never partial or arrogant or narrow minded in his outlook.
I found his ideas to clarify much of my architectural education, and I will always be grateful to him (and many of the other U of O architecture faculty) for the positive influences that he made to my education. I too was deeply saddened when I read of his death, and regretted that I had not made contact with him in years, the antithesis of one aspect of his experiential theory.

Randy Nishimura, AIA, CSI, CCS said...

Cal: Did we know each other? I graduated in 1983 and it seems we would have crossed paths if you finished up in 1984. Please forgive me if we did and I'm guilty of having a terrible memory.

Thanks for your comment regarding Bill. I totally agree with your sentiments.