Monday, October 22, 2012

October AIA-SWO Chapter Meeting Recap

The charter document of the Southwestern Oregon Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, October 1952
Last Wednesday’s October AIA-SWO chapter meeting marked the sixtieth anniversary of the organization. The occasion's guests included many of the chapter's members emeritus, retired professionals whose contributions have shaped the chapter and local architecture over six momentous decades of existence. 
The meeting’s focus was a panel discussion involving eight AIA-SWO members who have all played an active role within the organization. Four of the members are past leaders (Dan Herbert, Otto Poticha, Grant Seder, and Dick Williams), while the others are currently active members of the boards of directors for AIA-SWO or Architects Building Community (Kurt Albrecht, Will Dixon, John Lawless, and Jenni Rogers). The panelists offered their personal reflections upon architecture, the profession, and the communities served by AIA-SWO members. Together, they painted a vivid picture of the chapter’s history. 
Since its formation in October of 1952, AIA-Southwestern Oregon has grown from a pioneer group of nine charter members (list below) to nearly 200 members, associate members, and affiliates today. 
Charter members of the Southwestern Oregon Chapter of the American Institute of Architects: 
  • Eyler Brown
  • Charles W. Endicott
  • Fred T. Hannaford
  • Cleo H. Jenkins
  • V. Eugene Jeppesen
  • Sidney W. Little
  • Marion D. Ross
  • Herbert R. Sinnard
  • H. Robert Wilmsen
Five of the original members were members of the University of Oregon Department of Architecture faculty; two others were from Corvallis; and the remaining duo was from Eugene. At the time, back in the early ‘50s, there were only perhaps 25 to 30 architects total within the chapter boundaries. Regardless, the few active AIA-SWO members would make an outsized impact, setting a high bar for the generations to follow. 

A master plan for a government center in downtown Eugene, circa 1955.

Ambition and thinking big was not in short supply during the heady early days. For example, one group of chapter members converted the vacant space above the old Hoffman Jewelers store into a shared atelier. There they volunteered a year of their time to fashion a vision for a new government center in downtown Eugene. One fruit the plan would ultimately bear was the two-stage competition to design Eugene’s new city hall. The competition drew 59 entries, of which four were chosen for the second stage. Stafford, Morin & Longwood won the competition but only after reportedly violating the competition rules! 

The quality of the mid-century work created by AIA-SWO firms attracted widespread attention, leading to a feature article in Architectural Record. The progressive, optimistic, and uniquely Pacific Northwest brand of Modernism exercised by local architects would garner high regard nationwide. 

During this same period, the deprecatingly named GDA (“God Damned Architects”) began meeting every Wednesday at the Branding Iron Restaurant on Franklin Boulevard. Over lunch, they would engage in the kind of informal, non-competitive collegiality that bonds like-minded professionals together: exchanging advice, commiserating with one another, and enjoying one another’s company. 

One of the significant actions during AIA-SWO’s early history was the establishment of the Craftsmanship Awards. The overarching purpose of the awards program was and is to ensure that the time-honored ideals of craftsmanship are sustained and passed along. By extolling the virtues of fine craftsmanship by anyone in the building trades—cost estimator, fine cabinet maker, job site superintendent, and all the others—the chapter acknowledged the dedication and skill of these individuals. It’s noteworthy that the launch of the Craftsmanship Awards program predated both the chapter’s Honor Awards for Design and the People’s Choice Awards programs. 

The ‘60s and early ‘70s witnessed the decline of Eugene’s commercial core as retailers fled for the new-fangled Valley River Center, prompting calls for something to be done to ensure downtown’s continued vitality. The widely accepted prescription was the transformation of streets to pedestrian malls in the fashion of many similar projects nationwide, such as an example in Fresno, CA. As Otto Poticha, FAIA recalled, the City of Eugene’s mandate was to “unroll Fresno like a carpet.” History has proven the measure of success (or lack thereof) of Eugene’s own version. 

Throughout the years, some AIA-SWO members believed it was the profession’s civic duty to actively address matters of controversy related to the built environment. At the same time, there were those who believed the chapter’s active engagement in politically charged issues to be at once both less than decorous and presumptuous (as architects do not always speak with a single voice). The result was the formation of the AIA-SWO Local Affairs Committee (LAC). With respect to stances it might take on contentious issues, the LAC would be careful not to represent itself as reflecting the opinions of the general membership or the chapter board. Today, the mantle of the LAC is assumed by the past chapter presidents, who most recently have very publicly advocated in favor of the West Eugene EmX Extension

The Franklin Corridor

On many occasions, the chapter’s civic service would take the form of design charrettes. Typically visionary in scope, these events would often highlight the potential latent in the neglected elements of our urban fabric. Perhaps the most ambitious was the production of the Franklin Corridor design charrette in 2007, AIA-SWO’s highly successful contribution to the Institute’s sesquicentennial celebrations that year. 

An important milestone in the chapter’s history was the publication of Style and Vernacular: A Guide to the Architecture of Lane County, Oregon. Championed by Dick Williams, the comprehensive monograph was a monumental effort on the part of dozens of AIA-SWO volunteers and others interested in documenting the area’s architectural heritage. Upon its first printing in 1983, Style and Vernacular would become the definitive text on the subject and a heavily utilized scholarly resource.(1) 

The volatility of the Oregon economy during the 1970s and 80s took a heavy toll as many talented designers would leave the chapter area or the profession altogether. To their credit and benefit, younger architects and interns became increasingly active participants in AIA-SWO activities. Rather than merely waiting “their turn,” they stepped up, assumed leadership roles, and broke down the walls of the old boys club. 

The institution of mandatory continuing education and the Intern Development Program during the 1990s hastened the chapter’s increased emphasis upon professional development. Recurrent recessions and the emergence of sustainability as a guiding principle underscored the importance of educational programs and the role the AIA could play in fulfilling and maintaining licensure requirements. 

The difficult economic times of a generation ago are being reprised today, to similar effect. Jobs and opportunities have been lost but our younger members, associates, and affiliates are better organized and motivated than ever before. During the panel discussion, Jenni Rogers, Assoc. AIA chronicled the history of DesignSpring, AIA-SWO’s association of interns and young architects. Initially, DesignSpring chose to not hitch its wagon to AIA-SWO, instead opting to open its membership to a broader spectrum of young professionals.(2) Eventually though the DesignSpring leadership recognized the synergistic benefits of a close association with the chapter. 

Today, DesignSpring is a vital component of AIA-SWO. The group has directed invaluable support, energy, and enthusiasm toward a number of chapter programs, including design charrettes, the 2010 Northwest & Pacific Region Conference, and various AIA-SWO social events. The diversity of DesignSpring’s membership is a measure of the strides the profession as a whole has taken to embrace the entire spectrum of contemporary society. 

As AIA-Southwestern Oregon grew over the years, fulfilling its mandate to be the resource its members deserved would increasingly become a challenge. AIA-SWO needed help, and in response the chapter engaged the Lane Arts Council to perform administrative and promotional duties. This role is now assumed by the chapter’s intrepid executive director, Don Kahle, who since 2007 has probably done more to help AIA-SWO reach its full potential than anyone else. Don is our membership’s biggest advocate—truly someone who believes what we do is important, meaningful, and exhilarating. 

Moving forward, AIA-SWO president-elect Will Dixon, AIA staked out a vision for his coming term in 2013. “Rethink, rebuild, and re-inspire” are his watchwords. He repeated the oft-cited quote that “the best way to predict the future is to create it.” The recent unveiling of the Octagon as the new home for AIA-SWO is a case in point. I’m confident that under his leadership the chapter will continue to come into its own. 

The October meeting was a fascinating reflection back upon a celebrated past, sixty years young, but also served to show us who we are today. There is much more for AIA-SWO to look forward to, including writing many more chapters in a story that becomes more enthralling with each passing year. Thanks to all of the panelists for sharing their insights and perspectives. 

(1)  As a side note, Dick will host an hour-long discussion about the book, the lessons learned, and what we might do to update an important resource that is now thirty years old. In a future post I’ll provide more information about this meeting, which will occur at noon on Tuesday, November 6 at the Octagon, 92 East Broadway in Eugene. 

(2)  At the outset, DesignSpring opened its membership to not only emerging architectural professionals, but also engineers-in-training, interior designers, and landscape architecture interns.

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