Saturday, March 31, 2012

March AIA-SWO Chapter Meeting Recap

The ups and downs of the economy have affected three firms differently, bearing out the thesis that size does matter. (Illustration by Arthur Rackham from the Project Gutenberg eBook, English Fairy Tales, by Flora Annie Steel)

small/Medium/LARGE was the catchphrase for the March AIA-Southwestern Oregon chapter meeting. How does a firm’s size affect its work and culture? How have firms of differing sizes adapted to the realities of today’s economy and ever-changing work environment? 

AIA-SWO’s program committee brought together three firm principals to answer these questions and participate in a general panel discussion about how firm size has impacted their practices. Representing the little guy was Will Dixon, AIA of the eponymously named firm Willard C. Dixon,Architect LLC. Holding the middle ground was Toby Barwood, AIA, one of the principals at PIVOT Architecture. And presenting on behalf of the leviathans of the architectural world was Larry Bruton, FAIA of Zimmer Gunsul FrascaArchitects, LLP.

All three architects offered revealing insights about their respective offices. The ups and downs of the economy have affected each differently, bearing out the thesis that size does matter.

Will Dixon, AIA (all photos by me)
Will Dixon, AIA
The takeaway from Will’s presentation was that being proactive is essential to the survival of a small practice. As Will put it, “there’s no place to hide” when you’re a sole proprietor and the buck starts and stops with you. The challenges confronting a small firm are a deterrent to striking out on one’s own. Regardless, Will took the plunge, weathered the recession’s storm, and believes his firm is more nimble, resilient, and capable as a result.

Will drew contrasts between the life of his practice before and after the most recent economic downturn. Life was good before the crash, as Will found lucrative work designing custom homes (including the Rogers residence, which won a 2008 AIA-SWO People’s ChoiceAward). When the recession hit, Will’s fortunes changed dramatically. Suddenly, commissions were scarce. Undaunted, he regarded the slowdown as an opportunity to not only check off items on his professional “to-do” list (getting licensed, becoming active in AIA) but also to rethink his practice.

Will decided to offer his expertise to the people, one nickel at a time. He constructed a booth directly inspired by and modeled after the “Architecture 5¢” stand erected at the Ballard Farmer’s Market by Seattle designer John Morefield. Will contacted John and received John’s endorsement of his own Architecture 5¢ booth.

The booth’s debut was at the 2010 Eugene Celebration. Since then, it has become a weekly fixture at Eugene’s Saturday Market. Work at the booth has actually led to real, paying commissions. More important to Will though has been the opportunity to deliver architecture to the people in a setting where they didn’t expect to find it. No project is too small for big ideas.

Will and his three employees work in a cozy (350 s.f.) office in the Whiteaker neighborhood. His current focus includes co-housing projects and secondary dwellings, themselves a reflection of shifting paradigms as our economy and lifestyles have changed. As a small practitioner, Will has grown professionally and adeptly navigated the economy’s roughest waters.

Toby Barwood, AIA
Toby Barwood, AIA
Toby opened his talk by invoking the Three Bears but pointed out that while falling in the middle between extremes may be “just right” when it comes to porridge it isn’t necessarily so with architectural practice. Mid-sized firms face challenges just as small and large ones do; they’re just different.

Bucking adverse trends, PIVOT Architecture actually found itself busier than most during the depths of the recession. Its biggest project ever, the Eugene Water & Electric Board Operations Center in west Eugene, was in design and subsequently under construction during this period. The sour economy hardly impacted the firm at all. Toby wonkishly proved his point by way of informative graphs that gauged PIVOT’s number of employees and volume of work over this timeframe.

Paradoxically, the firm’s workload is now lessening even as the economy improves. In part, Toby attributed this to PIVOT’s past emphasis upon public sector work for agencies such as EWEB and the Lane Transit District. Public spending remained constant throughout the recession, in part the result of government stimulus programs. Today, public agencies are feeling squeezed whereas the private sector is reawakening. Renovations and remodeling are also increasingly prevalent, as opposed to all-new construction. There are fewer projects to go around and more firms chasing after them.

In response to these circumstances, PIVOT is remaking itself and competing on a larger playing field. Toby said his firm is honing its marketing skills, vying “up-market” against much larger firms (such as ZGF). It is increasingly a chimera, shape-shifting and presenting its capabilities in a broader range of project types. PIVOT’s chic new office is itself a reflection of this evolution, with its open and flexible workspace adaptable to rapidly morphing project demands.

Toby is most satisfied by the staff the firm has assembled, particularly the younger generation who will contribute their skill and energy for years to come. The members of any staff are ultimately the difference makers, whether the firm is small, large, or medium-sized as PIVOT is.

Larry Bruton, FAIA
Larry Bruton, FAIA
As one of the principals of a 440-person mega-firm with offices in Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and New York, Larry knows both the upside and downside of managing a large architectural practice. Though ZGF is huge compared to AIA-SWO member firms, Larry was able to impart lessons to applicable to practices of any size.

ZGF leaned upon its bulwark of size, diverse portfolio, and project management structure to weather the worst of the recession. The firm doesn’t operate as a collection of specialized, independent studios. Specialization limits flexibility, a shortcoming that would prove ruinous for many of ZGF’s peers. Instead, Larry’s staff is able to adapt its skills to the broad range of project types the firm undertakes. ZGF’s multiple offices also share resources, which helps to even out the inevitable highs and lows in the various markets they serve.

Despite its inherent advantages, Larry reported his firm hasn’t been completely immune to the recession’s deleterious effects. In response, ZGF “carefully downsized,” taking care to retain its best staff. ZGF also has adjusted to the evolution of its clients’ expectations, which have seemingly risen in inverse proportion to their number of projects. Larry noted that advances in technology and integrated design strategies have allowed the firm to keep up with the elevated level of expectations.

Like Toby, Larry cited ZGF’s staff as its strongest asset. The upshot is that architectural practices are no less than the sum of the talent and personalities of which they’re comprised. Regardless of a firm’s size, the most valuable resource it possesses is its people.

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Kudos to AIA-SWO’s program committee, and in particular Jenni Rogers, for organizing the successful small/Medium/LARGE panel discussion and presentations by Will, Toby, and Larry. The caliber of forthcoming 2012 programs promises to be equally high, starting with April’s installment: Small Spaces: What's the Big Idea? I hope to see all of you at The Actor’sCabaret on April 18th for the next AIA-SWO chapter meeting.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Revitalization + Reinvention

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin (photo from Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden via Wikimedia Commons)

With her latest post (Please. Stop the Reinvention Talk), fellow blogger and specifications writer Liz O’Sullivan issues a rejoinder to another writer, management consultant James P. Cramer, and his article for DesignIntelligence entitled Competing for the Future. Having considered both perspectives, it’s now my turn to comment.

Jim Cramer takes issue with architects who suffer from a lack of nerve and have given in to a cynical and dark pessimism about the future of professional practice. He questions why some architects dwell as much as they do upon inwardly focused priorities rather than exploring new models and entrepreneurial visions for the design professions and tomorrow’s A/E/C industry. It’s his belief that “the game has changed” and that innovation and change management need to be an integral part of the curricula in schools of architecture. He is an advocate for reinventing the profession.

Liz bristles at the notion that reinvention is necessary. Instead, she believes we must do a better job of meeting the needs that owners have now, that we used to meet, and no longer do. She points out that owners haven’t changed but architects have. We’ve unwittingly surrendered much of the design and construction landscape to others and in the process diminished our influence and relevance. Liz asserts owners will stop looking elsewhere for the services we used to provide if we simply reclaim our territory and prove our value once more. She believes in revitalization rather than reinvention.

This needn’t be an “either/or” dilemma. We should embrace all possibilities. We must address the complexities and yes, the contradictions, of current professional practice. We can revitalize and reinvent ourselves at the same time.

As I stated in my response to Liz’s earlier Take Back the Reins post and as Liz herself acknowledges, a crucial challenge confronting architecture is the exponential growth in its complexity and scope. This development prompts specialization and the balkanization of our profession because it is increasingly difficult for architects to acquire detailed expertise in all areas of focus. The problem is essentially a budgeting exercise: how do we allocate limited resources (time and money) in the development of future architects?

I argued we would be losers if we played a zero-sum game in which sacrificing design acumen is necessary to acquire essential technical know-how. Exercising my privilege as the author of that statement, I’ll now amend it by substituting “critical thinking” for “design acumen.”

We cannot afford to shortchange the teaching of critical thinking, analysis, and integrative problem solving in our schools of architecture. These are the core competencies that form the indispensible foundation of a skill set unique to architects. A classic schooling in architecture ingrains the ability to think broadly and critically. We need to view the world from the widest perspective possible, and apply critical thinking to every aspect of professional practice. To do otherwise is to abandon our duty as stewards of the built environment.

This duty is profound: Architecture is not an autonomous pursuit. Regardless of how much responsibility we have ceded to other entities, we have impactful roles to play when it comes to a wide spectrum of challenges faced by our society. We still exert influence today upon the creation of effective and grounded design solutions. We can expand this influence and revitalize our profession by once again assuming a broad leadership role on every design and construction project.

Critical thinking—a willingness to consider and integrate alternative perspectives, imagine new possibilities, and foster criticality in others—is not the product of an overly focused, parochial education. And yet, that’s where some schools of architecture appear to be headed. Short-term exigency and bottom-line economics have contributed to an obsessive pursuit of lucrative research funding and a focus upon market-driven differentiation at colleges and universities across the country.

A case in point is my alma mater, the University of Oregon. The UO School of Architecture & Allied Arts is widely recognized as a preeminent institution when it comes to sustainable design. However, the school has so wholly embraced this reputation that it may become the proverbial tail wagging the dog. Sustainability is a crucial issue that should be at the forefront of our thinking; however, it should not crowd out other considerations fundamental to the education of future architects. An unintended consequence of Oregon’s emphasis upon sustainability and move away from design theory may ultimately be a generation of graduates who lack the ability to question assumptions and think critically. This would be unfortunate.

The same holds true if we believe enhancing the stature of our profession is simply a matter of restoring a respected measure of technical competence and responsibility. Don’t get me wrong: I definitely agree with Liz when it comes to the need to supplement the practical education of emerging professionals. I am a strong advocate for what the Construction Specifications Institute can do in this regard. Our profession should do more to popularize CSI’s certification programs. Doing so would raise the general fluency of young architects with construction terminology, practices, and documentation standards. My point is that architects are not merely technicians. We need to be as well-rounded as possible to be truly effective, the most so of all the players in the entire design and construction arena.

Restoration of our traditional role in the building design and construction processes is one side of the coin. It is revitalization. The other side is reinvention, but I regard reinvention in conceptually broader terms than Jim Cramer does. Imagination and entrepreneurial spirit are fantastic but they do not define who we are.

Fundamentally, architects are synthesizers, problem-solvers, orchestra conductors, and thinkers of the highest order. We can both reinvent ourselves and revitalize our profession by demonstrating to everyone the value of architects. We can do this by rising up to see the big picture. We can assume the mantle as critical thinkers about the built environment.

Reinvention? Revitalization? Or both? Read what Liz and Jim each say and come to your own conclusion.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Topping Out

Lane Community College Downtown Campus, March 2012 (all photos by me)

Lease Crutcher Lewis, construction manager/general contractor for Lane Community College’s new Downtown Campus, commemorated the topping out of the structure this past week by hosting a well-attended on-site celebration.

Despite a damp chill in the aftermath of Eugene’s record-breaking late-March snowfall, construction workers, design team members, Lane Community College staff, and representatives from the City of Eugene came together to mark this important point in the project’s construction. Lewis treated its guests to a hearty feast of grilled steak sandwiches and baked beans, and invited everyone to sign the ceremonial last beam. As a member of the design team, I added my signature, which joins dozens of others as a testament to the efforts of all who contributed to the creation of this new downtown landmark.

Lane Community College Project Manager Todd Smith signs the ceremonial beam.

Topping out is a custom whose origins are now obscure. According to Wikipedia, the topping out rite is akin to ship launching ceremonies and probably of similar antiquity, done to placate the gods and to shield a building from harm. Whatever its genesis, topping out is a ritual worth preserving, an ages-old tradition that charmingly persists.

Mariko Blessing of Robertson/Sherwood/Architects takes her turn to sign the beam. 

All in all, the ceremony served as an opportunity to pause for just a moment and take measure of what the entire project team has accomplished so far. There's much left to be done but the Downtown Campus remains on budget and on track for completion this fall. Our project is topped out, a notable achievement. Congratulations to Lease Crutcher Lewis and its subcontractors for reaching this important milestone.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The #TopTenBooks Challenge

Top ten lists are a recurring meme on the Internet. I recently came across the #TopTenBooks Challenge on Twitter, orchestrated by writer K.D. Rush ( Rush is urging his followers to list their favorite books and explain why each one is special to them.

While a less-than-literary architect is probably the last person he’d expect to respond, his challenge did get me thinking. Could I identify ten books that I regard as my favorites on the subject of architecture?

The answer is yes. I had a tough time winnowing my list down to just ten books from the substantial library of volumes about architecture I’ve accumulated over the years; nevertheless, the following titles (in no particular order) do stand out: 

By Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein (1977) A Pattern Language is one of the most important texts on architecture ever written. It codifies a community-based approach to design, which points in the direction of what Christopher Alexander conceives of as an all-encompassing theory of life, one based upon notions of organic wholeness and scalable, self-sustaining systems.

By Michael Pollan (1997)
I have yet to discover as thoroughly enjoyable a book on the subject of architecture as Michael Pollan’s engaging account of his quest to build a writing hut for himself in the forest. It isn’t simply a joy to read; his reflections on the power of place and architecture’s “unique power to give our bodies, minds, and dreams a home in the world” are bookmark-worthy for even the most jaded and world-weary among us.

By John Lobell (1979)
Although several members of the University of Oregon faculty under whom I studied were former employees and disciples of Louis Kahn, Between Silence and Light served as my primary introduction to his architecture and teaching. As the back cover notes explain, Kahn regarded architecture as the study of human beings, their highest aspirations and most profound truths. He searched for forms and materials to express the subtlety and grandeur of life. The fundamental awe with which Kahn approached his work is why his buildings and words are so meaningful to me.  

By Robert Venturi (1966)
I purchased Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture during my freshman year in college. Venturi’s scholarly and pluralistic analysis was an essential and (at that time) provocative counterpoint to the prevailing Modernist dogma. In my opinion, his “gentle manifesto” for “non-straightforward” architecture and the “difficult whole” deserves renewed attention. Architectural literacy is too easily stunted by the overwhelming technical and societal demands architects confront today. This is an important book that reminds us of the theory base upon which architecture is founded.

By Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, John Hejduk, and Richard Meier, with Colin Rowe and Kenneth Frampton (1975)
Another one of the earliest books in my collection, Five Architects had an outsized impact upon my development as an architect. What a revelation: Here was a collection of (seemingly) like-minded designers for whom "form follows function" and envisioning a better world were hardly guiding credos. Instead, these five shared an obsessive fixation upon formalism betraying a bourgeois lack of conscience. For better or worse, the book presented me with a glimpse of a vastly broader architectural universe than I'd previously imagined.

By Moshe Safdie (1982)
Form and Purpose is a surpisingly breezy read. Safdie lambasts fad and fashion and the ego of arrogant architects who ignore the more basic and fundamental purposes of architecture. I read the book at a moment when I found myself in the thrall of trendy "starchitects." Form and Purpose was the antidote I needed to rid me of misguided cynicism and self-indulgence. 

By Kenzo Tange and Noboru Kawazoe (1965)
Ise is simultaneously perfect and primitive, at once both ancient and new. The elemental architecture stirs an instinctive response; one need not be of Japanese heritage (as I am) to grasp Ise’s sacredness upon seeing the beautiful black & white images in this book. Ise is re-built at enormous expense every 20 years as part of the Shinto belief of the death and renewal of nature and the impermanence of all things. Ironically, Ise's perpetual regeneration is frozen in time by an immutably perfect book.

By Charles Jencks (1973)
Jencks' analytical biography of Le Corbusier exposes the Swiss master's tragic, Nietzchean view of the human condition, a "dark bitterness just barely balanced by joy and light." Corbu possessed an uncompromising belief in the necessity of struggle to the creative process. Why hasn't someone produced a dramatic motion picture about Le Corbusier? The story of his life and work begs for cinematic treatment.

By Alain de Botton (2006)
Should we be surprised it is a non-architect who most eloquently explains how the built environment influences who we are and conversely why it is a reflection of our values? No, not when that non-architect is the brilliant Alain de Botton. Enlisting philosophy, psychology, and everyday observations to introduce principles of architecture to a wide audience, de Botton has probably done more to honor and elucidate our profession’s aesthetic ideals than any architect has recently.

By Charles W. Moore, Gerald Allen, and Donlyn Lyndon (1974)
The Place of Houses is a book about people’s dreams and visions about home and how they are translated into personally meaningful and place-specific houses. It was an essential text during my undergraduate studies. The book would resonate again when I later had the good fortune to work professionally with Charles Moore as an employee of the Urban Innovations Group in Los Angeles. As accomplished and influential as Moore was as an architect, his lasting legacy may instead prove to be his books about architecture. He was an immensely talented writer.

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At first glance, this seems like a pretty disparate collection. Is there a common thread? I think it may be that in one way or another all address significant themes that underlie what we do as architects. Whether the topic is the history and meaning of human building, or the craft, care, and dreams people invest in the houses they build for themselves, every one of these books deals in profound truths.

What are your ten favorite books about architecture? 

Friday, March 2, 2012

PIVOT Architecture Open House

PIVOT Architecture's office (photo from PIVOT's website)

PIVOT Architecture invites everyone to see a dream realized. They’ve moved into one of their own creations, a sparkling new office for the firm in downtown Eugene's Broadway Commerce Center. PIVOT's open house event takes place on Thursday, March 15 between 5:00 and 8:00 PM. Having already visited their new digs myself, I can attest the results are worth seeing!

As I reported previously after a tour of the space under renovation, PIVOT’s generative parti was the contrast between the building’s old shell and a sculptural new insertion at the core of the 8,500 s.f. plan. Of equal import to the project’s design was PIVOT’s culture: the firm places a high premium upon collaboration, flexibility, and communication. It’s noteworthy that workstation assignments are fluid; teams for significant projects are physically grouped together to optimize group dynamics and later dissolved as staff are reassigned to other projects and corners of the office. The absence in the open plan of enclosed principals’ offices is also revealing: PIVOT gave literal form to its egalitarian organizational structure.

The design’s signature stroke is a core element housing enclosed meeting rooms, copy rooms, and the office’s entry lobby. PIVOT employed CNC milling to emboss a greatly enlarged and rasterized image of a 1982 pen and ink hand sketch by Eric Gunderson onto the core area’s cladding. Eric’s skilful sketch depicted the southern Willamette Valley from the air. PIVOT worked closely with Heartwood Carving of Eugene to drill thousands of holes of varying sizes into the medium density fiberboard (MDF) panels. The panels are powder-coated and backed with acoustic batts.

Up close, the cladding looks like nothing if not a giant chartreuse piece of Swiss cheese. Is the genesis for the holes’ motif apparent at first (or second) glance? No, but I don’t think that matters. What PIVOT’s employees get to enjoy is a stunning abstract backdrop for their daily work, representative at once of traditional media and the latest technology, derived from the handiwork of one of the firm’s founding partners.

PIVOT’s team for the design of its office space included firm principal Toby Barwood, AIA; associate Scott Clarke, AIA; interior designers Theresa Maurer and Liza Lewellen; and intern Scott Bishop. They’ve crafted a bright, open, and sustainable workspace fit for a design firm of the highest order. Join the party and see why the folks at PIVOT are shamelessly proud of their new office.

What:   PIVOT Architecture Open House

When:  Thursday, March 15, 5:00 PM – 8:00 PM

Where: Broadway Commerce Center, corner of Willamette Street and Broadway in downtown Eugene