Monday, March 28, 2011

Post-War Architecture in Eugene

Grant Seder and Dick Williams (my photo)

I attended the first of the Building Modern Eugene lecture series last Wednesday at the Shelton McMurphey Johnson House. AIA-SWO emeritus members Grant Seder and Dick Williams delivered an entertaining, first-person account of the evolution of architecture in Eugene since World War II. Their reflections upon the trajectory of local post-war architecture, suitably rendered in Kodachrome, enthralled the small but thoroughly engaged audience.

Grant and Dick know of what they speak. Both practiced in this community for many decades, bestowing upon Eugene a lasting legacy of quality design and mentorship to the generation of architects who followed them. Grant’s career included service at the helm of Balzhiser Seder & Rhodes and then Unthank Seder Poticha Architects, before continuing work as a sole practitioner. Dick literally wrote the book on local architectural history as the primary contributor to Style and Vernacular: A Guide to the Architecture of Lane County, Oregon (1983).

Like many communities of its size across the country, Eugene experienced a burst of home construction after the war.(1) Dick described how these dwellings quickly progressed from extremely modest tract houses to later developments of much grander size and pretension. Along the way, there was genuine invention that signaled changes in American family life and affluence. Developers like the Breeden brothers shaped entire Eugene neighborhoods, filling them with affordable, quality homes.

The firm of Wilmsen & Endicott figured prominently in Grant and Dick’s presentation. Grant worked for Robert Wilmsen and Charles Endicott early in his career in Eugene. Dick was a principal with WEGROUP Architects & Planners, the successor firm to Wilmsen & Endicott. Among the noteworthy projects designed by Wilmsen & Endicott are the Lane County Courthouse and a favorite of mine, the moderne-styled Kennell Ellis Building.

The curving, sidewalk-sheltering canopy of the Kennell Ellis Building was so daring for its time that it spooked the contractor. He was reluctant to remove the formwork after casting the concrete, leaving the task instead to the architect, Bob Wilmsen. The design itself was liberally “borrowed” by Wilmsen from a project he admired in a magazine.

Kennell Ellis Building - Wilmsen & Endicott, Architects (my photo)

The post-war years were characterized by much optimism and economic prosperity. Modernism became the prevailing architectural doctrine. Its veneration for newness and the utopian blank slate, coupled with the imperative for development, emboldened Eugene architects and planners to make big plans. Several came together on their own accord during the late 1950s to invent a master plan for a new civic center in downtown. The growing role of government in citizens’ lives inspired their vision, which ultimately was realized by the construction in rapid succession of the Lane County Courthouse, City Hall, Federal Building, and Lane County Public Services Building.

Lane County Courthouse - Wilmsen & Endicott, Architects (photo from the University of Oregon Libraries)

Wilmsen & Endicott’s design for the County Courthouse lacked overt and traditional symbols of institutional authority or the law. In their place, it offered abstraction and geometry as stand-ins for virtuous character. A concession to symbolism was the planting of three fir trees, one for each seat on the board of county commissioners at the time of the building’s genesis. A half-century later, you can find these now stately conifers in front of the courthouse’s south fa├žade.

The late DeNorval Unthank, FAIA initially served as Wilmsen & Endicott’s construction contract administrator for the Lane County Courthouse. De encountered an unfriendly workplace: he was threatened by contractors who objected to the presence of the young “negro” architect on the construction site. Some workers dropped hot rivets from overhead as he walked below. De asked Bob Wilmsen if he could be assigned to another project so as not to endure continuing harassment.(2)

De would go on to become a partner in the firm, and distinguish himself as a talented designer. Eventually, De joined forces with Grant and Otto Poticha in 1968 to form Unthank Seder Poticha Architects.

Eugene City Hall - Stafford, Morin, and Longwood Architects (photo from the University of Oregon Libraries)

Eugene City Hall, designed in 1960 by Stafford, Morin, and Longwood Architects, was the winning entry of a design competition. Great Buildings Online describes the complex as a “dignified yet purposefully anti-monumental city hall with a beautiful courtyard garden around the central council chamber.” What may be unknown to readers of this blog is that Stafford, Morin, and Longwood designed City Hall to anticipate the construction of a vertical expansion along its 7th Avenue frontage. Of course, this was never realized. Another fact is that a major focus of the courtyard was a majestic walnut tree, lamentably removed after the building’s construction despite landscape architect Lloyd Bond’s heroic efforts to nurse it to health.

After years of deferred maintenance, City Hall is now living on borrowed time. The City cites its structural inadequacies, which loom especially large since Japan’s massive subduction quake earlier this month, as a primary factor in its decision to raze the structure. In truth, the Eugene Water & Electric Board’s pending shutdown of its antiquated steam heating plant and the building’s energy inefficiency are equal factors in its imminent demise. I mentioned Otto Poticha’s efforts to save City Hall in a recent blog post.

Lew Williams/Joe Romania Chevrolet showroom - Balzhiser Seder & Rhodes, architects (photo from the collection of TBG Architects & Planners & Grant Seder)

Another threatened mid-century modern gem is the forlorn former Lew Williams/Joe Romania Chevrolet automobile showroom on Franklin Boulevard. Grant’s firm, Balzhiser Seder & Rhodes, designed the showroom in a vernacular that is akin to the futuristic “Googie” style first popularized by the car-focused culture of southern California during the 1950s. Grant downplays the degree to which the space-age styling of Googie architecture influenced his design, but the shared traits are readily apparent: abstraction; a gravity-defying, upswept roof; and uninterrupted walls of plate glass. The fate of the showroom is in the hands of its current owners, the University of Oregon.

Grant and Dick filled their presentation with one colorful anecdote after another:
  • Bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. suggested a many-storied tower set within a plaza for its Federal Building & Courthouse. WEGROUP ultimately designed the low-rise, precast concrete-clad composition that occupies the block bounded by 6th Avenue, Oak Street, Pearl Street, and 7th Avenue. WEGROUP intended the diagonal axis through the site to be a nod to the other buildings in the cluster of government offices, but the County Public Services Building (designed by Unthank Seder Poticha) didn’t reciprocate the gesture.
  • Otto Poticha objected to the City of Eugene’s plans during the 1970s for a downtown pedestrian mall. His punishment for going public with opposition was to be awarded the commission to design the project. He successfully managed to get Unthank Seder Poticha fired after proposing the pedestrian mall be opened to vehicle traffic during summer evenings to facilitate “dragging the gut”.
  • EWEB was not always the paragon of energy conservation it is today. WEGROUP and G.Z. Brown, FAIA, of the Energy Studies in Buildings Laboratory encountered institutional indifference to their proposed integration of green design measures in EWEB’s riverfront headquarters. WEGROUP (partnered with John Reynolds, FAIA) found a more ready advocate for sustainability in the Emerald People’s Utility District for the design of its contemporaneous facility. EPUD wholeheartedly embraced passive ventilation and daylighting strategies that remain state-of-the-art today.
  • The Eugene city council originally decreed that the spelling of “center” in the name of the Hult Center for the Performing Arts be “centre.” The affectation didn’t stick.
  • Out of its own fees, the design team for the Wayne L. Morse Federal Courthouse (DLR Group with Morphosis) paid for the construction of a full-size courtroom mockup. Judge Michael Hogan and his staff inspected the mockup, which was assembled in a west Eugene warehouse.
  • The Eugene Fire Chief compelled PIVOT Architecture to design Fire Station 1 in a traditional idiom as a tribute to firefighters who lost their lives on 9-11. PIVOT resisted, considering the application of historic pastiche misguided for a 21st century work of architecture. PIVOT went so far as to covertly enlist Otto to unleash a scathing rebuke during a public presentation of the design. Despite Otto’s best effort, the Fire Chief got the facsimile of an old-fashioned firehouse he wanted.
Throughout the lecture, Grant did not shy from voicing his clear preference for abstract modernism and disdain for contemporary projects that bear traces of historic styling. Fire Station 1 served as one case study. Two others were the University of Oregon’s William W. Knight Law Center (Yost Grube Hall Architecture), and the Eugene Public Library by my firm, Robertson/Sherwood/Architects (with Shepley Bulfinch of Boston, MA).

Grant hit a little close to home regarding the Eugene Public Library, but his critique was precise and without malice. He took particular exception to the tower flanking the library’s main entrance. If I understand Grant correctly, he regards the tower as an ill-conceived design contrivance. Admittedly, it is a compositional device, a vertical counterpoint to the mostly horizontal massing, rather than a place for people to be (it does enclose the public elevators and a fire stair). Its swooping profile and finials are decorative flourishes—call them ornamentation if you will, that bane of architects who subscribe to doctrinaire modernism—but can you picture the tower and the library without them?

Not surprisingly, both Grant and Dick admire the Jaqua Center for Student Athletes and Matthew Knight Arena projects on the University of Oregon campus. Perhaps they see in these new buildings vindication of the aesthetic they endorsed and worked within throughout their careers. I likewise appreciate modernism done well. However, I also believe its fundamental shortcoming remains the placelessness of much of the work executed under its banner. I favor architecture that is place-specific and particular, rich rather than impoverished. The Jaqua Center may be icily elegant but its architecture says little about the campus from which it sets itself apart.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Thanks to both Grant and Dick for generously sharing their views on post-war Eugene architecture. Thanks too to Sara Palmer, Executive Director at the Shelton McMurphey Johnson House, for producing the Building Modern Eugene lecture series. On tap next is none other than Otto Poticha, FAIA, who will extend the discussion of where Eugene has been to where it is going next. I hope to see all of you at Otto’s presentation on Wednesday, April 6, 6:30 PM.


(1) It’s interesting how the “war” is synonymous with “World War II,” even though this country has been caught up in many other conflicts before and since. This is a testament to not only how horrific that struggle was, but also how impactful the “Greatest Generation” and its offspring have been upon history since then.

(2) The spring 2011 issue of Oregon Quarterly (the magazine of the University of Oregon) provides a chilling chronicle by De’s widow, Deb Mohr, of the intolerance she and De faced as a young interracial couple. The strides made since the 1950s are heartening. At the same time, it’s unnerving to realize that it wasn’t so long ago that blatant racism went unchallenged. The courage De and Deb displayed in the face of hateful bigotry is inspiring. We’re all richer because De Unthank stayed in Eugene.
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Monday, March 21, 2011

Spring Fling


Rubenstein's is sponsoring a product show on Thursday, March 31 at the Downtown Athletic Club in Eugene for a variety of architectural finishes and products. Representatives for manufacturers who don’t often come to Eugene (or at least don’t take the time to visit with the smaller AIA-SWO firms) will be on hand to show off their latest products. These manufacturers include:
If this lineup of vendors isn’t enough to get you to stop by the DAC between 11:00 AM and 4:00 PM on the 31st, perhaps the promise of free finger food and a chance to win an Apple iPad will.

If you’re interested, register for the event before March 25 by emailing Rubenstein’s Director of Interiors and AIA affiliate member Heidi Peschel at heidi@rubensteins.com.

What: Eugene Product Fair Spring Fling

When: Thursday, March 31, 2011 between 11:00 AM and 4:00 PM

Where: Downtown Athletic Club Conference Center, 999 Willamette Street, Eugene

Registration Deadline: Friday, March 25, 2011
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Saturday, March 19, 2011

March AIA-SWO Chapter Meeting Recap

Richard E. Wildish Community Theater (photo by Discover Downtown Springfield)

Last Wednesday’s March 2011 AIA-Southwestern Oregon chapter meeting offered delights aplenty: a marvelous setting, a traditional St. Patrick’s Day meal (hearty corned beef and cabbage, served up one day early by Cornucopia), newsworthy facts, and an entertaining edition of 10Square. All in all, it was an enjoyable evening.

The Richard E. Wildish Community Theater
A star attraction was definitely our venue: the Richard E. Wildish Community Theater on Main Street in downtown Springfield. AIA-SWO’s own Otto Poticha, FAIA, designed the award-winning transformation of the old McKenzie Theater. In his inimitable way, Otto regaled the gathered members with amusing tales of the project’s protracted genesis, design, and construction. Completed in 2006, the 286-seat Wildish Theater hosts dozens of dance, music, and theater productions each year within an intimate and acoustically superb “shoebox” auditorium.

Wildish Theater - Lobby (my photo)

It’s tough to put a finger on it, but there’s something about the design of the Wildish Theater that is quintessentially Otto. Perhaps it’s the quirky detailing of the entry canopy. Maybe it’s the compact juxtaposition of eclectic materials, exposed structure, and angled planes in the lobby. That something might also be the painterly use of colors throughout. Otto was able to wrest incredible value out of the limited funds available for the extensive renovation. Without a doubt, the Wildish is an inspired work of art.

Otto Poticha, FAIA, leads a tour of the Wildish Theater (my photo)

Despite his signature bluster, Otto knows how to deliver the goods. Jerry Diethelm said the following about Otto at the recent OPSU VII recognition ceremony in his honor:

“As everyone knows (Otto) can be sharply critical and outspoken if he thinks we are aiming too low or are off target. If there is an elephant in the meeting room, he will not merely acknowledge it, but wash it, feed it, and sometimes even ride it around the room. Insight and fresh thinking can feel uncomfortable and challenging especially when it is coming right at you, but that is his way and the way of art.”

The Fate of Eugene’s City Hall
Following our dinner, Otto trotted out that elephant. He reported on the City of Eugene’s plan, endorsed by the City Council, to raze the existing home of municipal government and construct a new City Hall in its place. Otto has long been a proponent for rehabilitating the mid-century modern landmark. He is unwilling to accept that the building’s fate is to meet the wrecking ball. In Otto’s view, we’re too quick to forget our past transgressions, repeating history by destroying it.

Last fall, Otto charged his students at the University of Oregon with exploring ways to mend City Hall’s shortcomings without erasing its essence. He presented images of the resultant designs, which encompass an imaginative range of scenarios for renovating and enlarging the facility. Otto’s desire is to persuade AIA-SWO (or a subset thereof, such as the Past-Presidents Committee) to follow his lead and champion the preservation of the 1960 design by Stafford Morin & Longwood.

Springfield Downtown Plan
Ted Corbin, Associate AIA, presented plans of a different sort. Ted is a member of the City of Springfield’s Downtown Citizen Advisory Committee. After voters approved an urban renewal district for downtown a few years ago, one of the first things the city did was bring in Portland-based urban design consultants Crandall Arambula to draft a downtown plan.
 
Image from the Springfield Downtown Plan (drawing by Crandall Arambula)

The firm’s vision calls for a new public plaza, known as Mill Plaza, near the corner of Main Street and Pioneer Parkway East. The plaza would be a magnet for new retail buildings and act as a downtown “hot spot.” The master plan also proposes restoring two-way traffic to Main Street. There would be protected bikeways, separating bicycles from auto traffic as a way to encourage more people to get out of their cars. A bicycle bridge is also part of the plan, connecting North A Street to a proposed housing development across the Willamette River in Glenwood.

Ted explained how the plan’s success is dependent upon attracting large “catalyst projects” that are strategically located, change the public’s perception of the area, stimulate new private development, and produce revenue to offset the cost of improvements.

The audacity of the Springfield Downtown Plan is astonishing. Ted acknowledged it would take substantial investments by private developers to create the kind of retail and office nexus envisioned by the city, its advisory committee, and Crandall Arambula. He also accepted that the concepts represent very long-term goals; nevertheless, the plan’s ambition and optimism for the future of the city’s historic core are most welcome. I look forward to blogging about downtown Springfield’s transformative renaissance as it becomes a reality.
 
10Square
The evening’s marquee event was 10Square, the fast-paced, Pecha Kucha-style series of slide shows that was such a hit at the 2010 AIA Northwest & Pacific Region Conference. Despite the absence of a few presenters, this sequel proved no slouch.(1) The fast-paced showcase featured ten slides each from six engaging speakers.(2)

10Square emcee Katie Hall of PIVOT Architecture (my photo)

Andika Murandi: Photography
Beauty and symbolic elements are everywhere, but one needs to slow down and look for them to really appreciate it. Andika does exactly that through the art of his photography. He provided the audience with a glimpse of his impressive talent and eye for composition. If you want to see more, check out his work currently on display at the Pearl Street Full City, and during April’s First Friday Art Walk. You can also see his entire oeuvre at www.flickr.com/photos/defragments.

Julie Flattery: Shakespeare YO (When Words Collide)
Julie waxed lyrically about that dude William Shakespeare and his contemporary manifestation in today’s pop culture. It was amazing to hear how many phrases in our everyday vernacular we owe to the Bard of Avon. There was method to Julie’s madness, more matter with less art. Her cadence, her humor—such stuff as dreams are made on. All’s well that ends well. Romeo up!

Copeland Downs: Kinetic Architecture
Copeland is representative of a new generation’s sensibilities. Using images of his studio projects as the vehicle, Copeland expressed his keen interest in kinetic architecture, social equity, and industrial process.

Rex Prater: Balance
With his ten slides, Rex reflected upon the path his career has taken. He started with an exposition of his previous work at Varvitsiotis Architecture. He then presented his current efforts as the principal of Balance Architecture & Design. Rex is moving forward, the process transforming him professionally. He has found that balance in life is the key to his success.

Tyler Polich: PDX Water Towers
Tyler presented images of his entry to an ideas competition that conceives alternative uses and repurposing of Portland’s ubiquitous water towers. Tyler proposes relocating the water towers, alternately burying or grouping them as if a community. He’d expose their “mysterious innards,” tie them together with bridges, and set them askew. He’d transform the water towers to be anything imaginable: libraries, skate parks, chapels, or sex hotels.

David Beardsley: “Oops”
Construction proceeds smoothly when all disciplines collaborate. However, coordination is only assured when people make an effort to work together. David’s slides demonstrated what can happen when this doesn’t occur. It’s a bizarro world where one goes down stairs rather than up to find the roof, where light fixtures are installed in locations they shouldn’t, and where porta-potties are the most dangerous places to be on the construction site.

*   *   *   *   *   *

Performers leave their mark on the wall backstage at the Wildish Theater (my photo)

The diversity of the March meeting’s program, from the tour of the Wildish Theater through each of the 10Square presentations, yielded a bounty of information and entertainment for those in attendance. It was another in a stellar series of AIA-SWO chapter meetings. If you missed it, fret not because you can find many of the highlights on YouTube, courtesy of AIA-SWO videographer Amy Lin. Here’s the URL:

http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=amylin2000&aq=f

(1) So with only six presenters, should the event have been dubbed “Ten by Six” instead?

(2) Thanks to Design|Spring for organizing the 10Square event.

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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Disaster in Japan

Sendai Airport inundated by tsunami (Reuters photo)

My wife and I have been transfixed by the astonishing images broadcast in the aftermath of the massive 8.9 magnitude earthquake and tsunamis that struck northeastern Japan on Friday. The Sendai event was the largest earthquake to hit Japan in modern times. That fact alone is remarkable given the island nation’s long history of frequent and devastating temblors.

As I write this, no one knows for sure how many people lost their lives; the number of deaths directly attributable to the earthquake and tsunamis may eventually be numbered in the thousands. The scope of property and economic damage is more readily evident.

I have friends and family living in Japan. As soon as I heard about the disaster, I confirmed (via Facebook) that our former AIA-SWO colleagues Yasuyuki Yanigisawa, Nicolai Kruger, and their daughter Naomi are fine. I also called my father to learn if he heard from my uncle and cousins; they’re okay too.

It’s actually amazing that the toll in lives and buildings isn’t greater. There is no doubt that the damage could have been considerably worse were it not for the stringency of the Japanese building codes and the constant readiness of the populace. Japanese engineers routinely integrate extensive measures to minimize the risk of building collapse in an earthquake. These include extra bracing, base isolation pads, and embedded hydraulic shock absorbers. Contrast the vast devastation suffered last year during the 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Haiti. Buildings throughout the capital city of Port-au-Prince were significantly damaged or destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of people were killed.

There are marked differences between the United States and Japan when it comes to seismic design standards. In this country, the emphasis is upon preventing collapse, while in Japan—with its greater number of earthquakes—the goal is to prevent any major damage to buildings. If an earthquake equal in force to Sendai was to occur tomorrow off the Oregon coast, the destruction would be unimaginable. Better-designed buildings might not topple but their ongoing serviceability would be in question.

I previously documented a presentation by John Evans of Pillar Consulting Group regarding the threat posed by earthquakes to Oregon. He described how the Cascadia subduction zone—the boundary where the Juan de Fuca plate is sliding beneath the North American plate—can generate a huge quake, as much as magnitude 9.0. The last known Cascadia subduction event occurred in 1700. They’re estimated to occur every 300 to 500 years, so we’re coming due again. Friday’s earthquake in Japan was of the subduction variety.

The Wikipedia article about the Cascadia subduction zone reports that geologists believe the convergent plate boundary is more complex and volatile than previously thought. They predict a 37 percent chance of a M8.2+ event in the next 50 years, and a 10 to 15 percent chance that the entire Cascadia subduction will rupture with a M9+ event within the same time frame. Authorities have also determined the Pacific Northwest is not prepared for such a colossal quake. The tsunami produced could reach heights of 80 to 100 feet (24 to 30 m), much larger than those that devastated the communities along Honshu’s northeast coast.

Structure of the Cascadia Subduction Zone

The potential for seismic activity in our state is greater than most Oregonians grasp. To minimize the risk to life and property, it behooves us to understand the effect of earthquakes and the lateral forces they generate upon the vulnerable, older building stock in our communities, particularly those constructed of unreinforced masonry. If there is a silver lining to the tragedies in Japan and Haiti (and recently too in Chile and Sumatra) it is that the need for improvements to our buildings is heightened.

The watchwords going forward will be preparedness, response, recovery, and rebuilding. It’s not a question of whether a catastrophic earthquake will occur in the Northwest—such a disaster is inevitable. It is only a matter of when. There will be many lessons for architects and engineers to be learned from Japan’s experience. We will undoubtedly translate these lessons by enacting stricter building codes and implementing advanced design strategies for seismic resistance. To do otherwise would be irresponsible. After what has occurred in Japan, we must all surely realize we’re living on borrowed time.

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Help Shape the Future of Eugene

View of Eugene (Oregon)Image via Wikipedia
Is the livability of Eugene important to you? Help shape the future of Eugene.

The City of Eugene is recruiting for motivated volunteers to serve on the Eugene Planning Commission and Historic Review Board.

The Planning Commission makes recommendations and decisions related to planning and land use issues affecting the economic, social, cultural, and environmental character of the community.

To learn more about the Planning Commission, visit the City’s website at www.eugene-or.gov/pc or contact Lisa Gardner, Planning Director, at (541) 682-5208.

The Historic Review Board supports a variety of programs and projects which further the goals of historic preservation in Eugene, including regulatory review, public education, and outreach efforts.

To learn more about the Historic Review Board, visit the City’s website at www.eugene-or.gov/hrb or contact Gabriel Flock, Senior Planner, at (541) 682-5697.

Applications are being accepted through March 31, 2011. Visit www.eugene-or.gov/bcc for application materials.
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Monday, March 7, 2011

Building It Together

US Senator Jeff Merkley, Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy, US Congressman Peter DeFazio, LCC President Mary Spilde, Governor's Office Education Policy Advisor Nancy Golden, and LCC Board of Education chair Tony McCown wield golden shovels at the March 4, 2011 groundbreaking for the Lane Community College Downtown Campus (photo by LCC)

Last Friday’s groundbreaking ceremony for the new Lane Community College Downtown Campus (DTC) may prove to be a defining moment in the revitalization of downtown Eugene. Hundreds gathered for the event, signaling the project’s broad base of support and the shared optimism it has kindled. The DTC will be a landmark development for education, business, and the community. The hopes of a lot of people are pinned to its success.

Because so many have invested faith and capital in bringing the DTC to this point, Lane Community College adopted “Building It Together” as the project’s slogan. In addition to the college, the City of Eugene, the State of Oregon, and the Eugene Water & Electric Board committed funds and other resources to the project. So too has the U.S. Congress with its passage of the Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act. “Building it Together” also reflects our citizens’ emotional investment in the project, much appreciated after the community endured the frustration of serial failed visions for this very same site.(1)

The slogan is an equally apt motto for the design, project management, and construction team charged by the college to make the DTC a reality. As project architect for Robertson/Sherwood/Architects, I’m a proud member of that large and diverse group.

Here’s the complete design team roster (with each company’s home base listed in parentheses):
The overall project team also includes the following companies retained separately by the college:
Our design team prepared the feasibility report and a design concept for the $53 million project, but those efforts did not guarantee a continuing role for us. We were thrilled when the college chose our team to finish what we had started. We regarded our selection as a vote of confidence not only for our design abilities but also for our collaborative methodology and ethos. We’re ready to build the DTC together with the college, the City of Eugene, and the other project partners.

The proposed Lane Community College Downtown Campus (rendering by Richard Hoyen)

The large number of design team members might surprise some laypersons whose understanding about how buildings are designed is influenced by quixotic depictions of hero architects (think Frank Lloyd Wright or the fictional Howard Roark). Such portrayals paint a picture of a solitary genius who alone is responsible for creating architectural masterworks.(2) The reality is that virtually every structure bigger than a bread box is the product of many hands. This is especially true for commercial or institutional projects, as the range of concerns we are expected to address today is exponentially greater than those confronted by previous generations. Technological advancements accelerate at a pace that is outstripping our ability to keep up. Regulatory compliance is increasingly complex, administered from assorted corners, constantly mutating, and sometimes overlapping and contradictory. Time pressures are chronic. It is altogether too overwhelming for an individual designer.

The myth (Gary Cooper as Howard Roark, The Fountainhead, 1949)

The reality (Lane Community College Downtown Campus "eco-slam," January 2010)

Robertson/Sherwood/Architects are veterans of collaboration with other architectural offices. We regularly team up with prominent firms so we can secure the larger, more complex projects we covet. Our collaborators bring to the table expertise and experience complementary to ours, thereby enhancing our prospects for obtaining these prominent commissions.

Some of our most noteworthy projects were the product of associations with highly-regarded firms of regional or national stature. These include the Eugene Public Library (with Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbott of Boston), Thurston and Maple Elementary Schools (with Mahlum Architects ’ Portland office), the Springfield Justice Center (ROSSER International, Atlanta), and the Corvallis Clinic Surgery Center (with Boulder Associates, Boulder, CO). In each instance, we worked collaboratively to design the project. In the process, we learned about how our partner firm goes about its business, gaining valuable insights into its organizational structure, methodology, and culture.(3)

The DTC project has proven no exception. I have thoroughly enjoyed working with both the SRG Partnership and Pyatok Architects. There is no doubt in my mind that our office has benefitted by working with these two remarkable firms, as well as all the other members of our design team.

SRG’s commitment to sustainability and passive design strategies is especially outstanding. It has long partnered with the Energy Studies in Buildings Laboratory (ESBL) at the University of Oregon to execute some of the most energy-efficient projects to be found anywhere.

Two such examples of SRG’s work with ESBL are the Annunciation Academic Center at Mount Angel Abbey near Silverton, OR, and the recently completed Health & Wellness Center on the main campus of Lane Community College. I greatly admire both of these projects, not only as demonstrations of SRG’s technical prowess but also because they’re simply well-designed and executed.

Mount Angel Abbey Annunciation Academic Center (SRG photo)

Classroom in the Mount Angel Abbey Annunciation Academic Center (my photo)

The Annunciation Academic Center couples the values of the 1500 year-old Benedictine Order (emphasizing stewardship of the earth, craftsmanship, beauty, and love of prayer) with a belief that natural light enhances academia. SRG employed a prototypical daylighting strategy in each classroom: a large central skylight with integrated louvers and a custom reflector evenly distributes enough light throughout the day such that no artificial illumination is necessary for 95% of the time the classroom is occupied.

Health & Wellness Center, Lane Community College (SRG photo)

Health & Wellness Center, Lane Community College (my photo)

The Health & Wellness Center is an exemplar of passive ventilation and cooling. SRG nestled a two-story “lung” between the building’s labs and their support spaces, to bring daylight and fresh air into the heart of the facility. The project is an analog for a healthy body: breathing, adaptive, and alive.

We have incorporated many of the same passive design strategies employed in the Annunciation Academic Center and the LCC Health & Wellness Center in our design for the new Downtown Campus. I previously blogged about the DTC project so I won’t spend too much time here further detailing the specifics of the design; suffice it to say that the DTC will become the benchmark for sustainable buildings in our community. In this regard, the DTC’s design is absolutely congruent with the college’s own goals for the project. LCC mandated, and the design team is delivering, a project that will achieve LEED ratings of Platinum for the academic component and Gold for the housing. The DTC will showcase the college’s Energy Management Program, a synergistic coupling of a highly sustainable design strategy with an ambitious and progressive curriculum. The result will be a “building that teaches.” The college’s mission, vision, core values, and strategic directions will be manifest in every aspect of the new facility.

Interior courtyard of the proposed Lane Community College Downtown Campus

After so many years of disappointment and frustration, the DTC is tangible evidence that real progress is underway in the city’s core. It is the bellwether for a whole flock of new downtown projects(4) and a monument to the power of collaboration. The campus will allow Lane to increase training and services at an accessible, convenient location while meeting sustainability goals. It will also help the city achieve much needed downtown revitalization. “Building It Together” is more than just rhetoric. Lane Community College, the City of Eugene, Robertson/Sherwood/Architects and our design partners are working together to make this important project a reality.

(1) The half-block fronting 10th Avenue and bordered by Charnelton Street to the west and Olive Street to the east has been the object of numerous development proposals. In the last few years alone, the property has variously been proposed as the site of the Eugene Public Library (subsequently constructed across the street), as a new home for the Oregon Research Institute (now controversially proposed for a site in the Riverfront Research Park), and as a privately developed student apartment building.

(2) If not alone, then surrounded by worshipful acolytes.

(3) We often discover that our office functions as effectively as our highly successful partners. We find this reassuring because it suggests we are keeping pace with state-of-the-art practices in the architectural profession.

(4) Other downtown projects in the pipeline include the Inn at the Fifth, Beam Development’s rehabilitation of the Center Court Building, and Bennett Management’s new office building on the site of the other “pit” on Willamette Street. Together with the DTC, the total investment of these projects exceeds $83 million.

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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Building Modern Eugene

A Lecture Series at the Shelton McMurphey Johnson House

(photo courtesy of the Shelton McMurphey Johnson House)

Sara Palmer, Executive Director of the historic Shelton McMurphey Johnson House, informed me about an intriguing new lecture series to be hosted by the facility this spring. The series, entitled Building Modern Eugene, is tailor-made for architectural history buffs.

The Shelton-McMurphey-Johnson House has been a landmark in Eugene for more than a century; it’s a fitting venue for a series of talks about Eugene’s historic buildings. Although many changes have been made over the years, the house–with its carved and turned exterior woodwork, polygonal tower, ornate open porches, and large bay windows–remains Eugene’s most elaborate example of late-Victorian Queen Anne Revival style architecture.

I’m grateful to Sara for allowing me to directly quote the following description from the smjhouse.org website. I look forward to attending several of the lectures and hope to see many SW Oregon Architect readers there:

Building Modern Eugene
How did Eugene become the city it is today, and how does that shared history support our dreams – and reinforce our fears – about where our community will go in the future?

Since the state legislature’s 2007 decision requiring Eugene and Springfield to develop separate urban growth plans and boundaries, the subject of how to cope with growth has been a subject of immediate concern in the southern Willamette Valley. Is growth inevitable, and if so, where can it best be accommodated? How do we reconcile projected growth with our region’s famous environmental ideals? Can the historic character of our neighborhoods be preserved – and how can we decide what the character of a neighborhood is? Will longstanding issues around redevelopment be resolved, and should government or private business take the lead?

The City of Eugene has responded to the need to develop its own plan for the future by creating a process called Envision Eugene. Beginning in April 2010, Envision Eugene has brought together community members representing a range of constituencies, working to help the city can get past its troubled and contentious land-use policymaking history to develop a shared vision of how Eugene should look in the coming decades.

The goal of the Building Modern Eugene lecture series is to supply some critical historical context: looking at what motivated the choices that have been made in past years to help move our community toward a better understanding of our future possibilities.

Lectures will be held at the Shelton McMurphey Johnson House, 303 Willamette Street at Third and Pearl, on alternating Wednesday evenings at 6:30 p.m. during March, April, and May 2011. We ask for your contribution of $5 or more per person to support this and our other educational programs.

Participating Experts:

March 23: Richard Williams and Grant Seder
Mr. Williams and Mr. Seder are retired architects. Mr. Williams is the author of Style and Vernacular: A Guide to the Architecture of Lane County, Oregon (1983), which remains the standard reference on local architectural history. Mr. Seder designed a number of buildings in our area, including the 1960 Lew Williams Chevrolet dealership, recently nominated for the National Register of Historic Places, which is at the center of ongoing community discussions about historic preservation and community redevelopment in the Walnut Station area near the University of Oregon campus. Mr. Williams and Mr. Seder will be speaking about building in the Eugene area in the years after WWII.

April 6: Otto Poticha
Mr. Poticha is a noted local architect and member of the University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Arts faculty, and a longtime critic of urban development and redevelopment as practiced in Eugene. Mr. Poticha will speak on “Eugene: Where Have We Been and Where Are We Going?”

April 20: Joe Barthlow
Mr. Barthlow has spent years researching and restoring his Cliff May-designed modern home north of the Willamette River in the Cal Young neighborhood. Mr. Barthlow will be speaking about post-war domestic architecture in Eugene and the hands-on experience of restoring a modern home.

May 4: Brian Obie
Mr. Obie operates the 5th Street Public Market, a downtown Eugene retail institution for over 30 years. The market is a prominent example of the adaptive reuse of a historic building and has been part of the effort to redevelop downtown Eugene. Mr. Obie will be speaking on downtown redevelopment and economic history.

May 18: Karen Seidel and Judi Horstmann
Ms. Seidel has been involved with local demographic and historical projects for many years, including multiple terms on the Eugene Historic Review Board. Ms. Horstmann retired from the University of Oregon. As part of a Fairmount Neighborhood Association group, the two have been working on an archival research and oral history project about Fairmount Neighborhood history, whose goal is to build community by connecting past land use, transportation and cultural heritage to current potential for sustaining character of the neighborhood.

The "Castle on the Hill" (photo courtesy of the Shelton McMurphey Johnson House)