Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Oregon Experiment

Image from the University of Oregon's Campus Plan depicting patterns
At time goes by, it becomes easy to forget how revolutionary and transformative many principles we now take for granted seemed when they first appeared. Notwithstanding our tendency to nostalgically mythologize our past, it's a fact the turbulent 1960s and early 70s engendered an increased idealism and faith in the dawning of a better world. The civil rights movement, increased personal freedom and expression, new aesthetic forms, new types of community, and broad democratic participation are among that era's lasting legacies.

Architecture and planning were not immune. User involvement—democratization of the design process—became commonplace. Theories about organic growth gained a foothold, challenging the ascendancy of centralized, top-down strategic planning. There was a flourish of sincerity and earnestness about harnessing the power of people-centered architecture to repair the mistakes of previous generations. 

It was within this context that the University of Oregon administration would in 1970 commission Christopher Alexander and his colleagues at the Center for Environmental Structure (CES) to develop an entirely new approach to architecture, building, and planning on campus. At the time, Alexander was very much in the process of developing his radical ideas about piecemeal growth, pattern language, and participatory design. The administration selected CES precisely because it recognized the university’s established planning philosophy isolated campus decision-making from those it affected most. By embracing a groundbreaking approach to future campus development, the university would forestall criticism from students and faculty by making them integral players in the planning and design of all future developments.(1)

CES’ development of a language of patterns appropriate to the University of Oregon was central to its overhauling of the campus planning processes. CES established patterns as a means of articulating commonly held values that pertain to campus environment and design. In a nutshell, each pattern identified a clear problem that occurs repeatedly in the environment, states the range of contexts in which the problem will occur, and gives the general features required to solve it. Groups of patterns ideally function together as words in a sentence, creating a cohesive whole built on a common design language. 

The process and its constituent components utilized by CES were fully described in its 1975 book The Oregon Experiment. The purpose of developing a pattern language was to provide a non-technical vocabulary of design principles that would allow building users to communicate effectively with the planners and designers of those buildings. The use of patterns helps to achieve this goal. Patterns articulate long-lasting shared traditions and understandings yet adapt well to changing development needs. 

As outlined in the book, the six basic principles of The Oregon Experiment are
  1. Organic Order: Campus design emerges through a process, not from a map. This principle suggests that development of the campus should be guided by explicitly debated and approved basic policies (or "patterns") that articulate shared traditions and understandings of the university community, rather than a definitive master plan. 
  2. Incremental Growth: Development occurs in large and small pieces. This principle acknowledges that development of the campus occurs gradually over time and that although there will be need for large projects from time to time, available funds ought to be distributed in a way that allows for continuous care and improvement of the entire campus. 
  3. Patterns: Patterns are shared design statements that describe and analyze development-related issues and suggest ways in which those issues might be resolved. This principle, which is perhaps the most famous, largely because of Alexander's book A Pattern Language, calls for the establishment of patterns that articulate commonly held values as they pertain to the campus environment. 
  4. Diagnosis: Assessing existing conditions informs ongoing improvements. This principle calls for a periodic analysis of the campus to provide a general context for implementing new projects. Because the University has not been able to provide staff for regular diagnoses, they are performed in conjunction with the early planning stages of new projects. 
  5. Participation: User involvement must prevail throughout the planning process. The virtual cornerstone for the entire planning process is the notion that the people most directly affected by the results of development are best equipped to guide it and should be directly involved in its planning. 
  6. Coordination: Working together benefits the campus as a whole.
Today, the University of Oregon Campus Plan upholds these principles. Additionally, the plan overlays twelve “policies,” which are adopted methods that describe how to apply the Campus Plan to development projects. The policies are expressions of the university’s requirements with respect to the physical development of university properties. Policies apply to all development within the plan’s jurisdiction. 

The twelve policies are: 
  1. Process and Participation: All construction projects and campus planning activities shall follow processes founded on the cornerstone principle of participation. 
  2. Open-Space Framework: As opportunities arise, the fundamental and historic concepts of the university’s open-space framework and its landscape shall be preserved, completed, and extended. 
  3. Densities: To control the look and feel of the campus, no construction project shall result in a density in excess of those established to preserve the historic character of the university campus as a setting conducive to thoughtful and reflective endeavor. 
  4. Space Use and Organization:  All proposed projects and space assignments shall distribute the campus’s available space in ways that are functional, flexible, and compatible. 
  5. Replacement of Displaced Uses: All plans for new construction (buildings or remodeling projects) shall keep existing uses intact by developing and funding plans for their replacement. 
  6. Maintenance and Building Service:  All new buildings and remodels shall be designed with high-quality durable materials and finishes that require a low level of maintenance, and employ construction methods that minimize the need for frequent maintenance by specialized personnel. 
  7. Architectural Style and Historic Preservation: All new buildings and additions shall be compatible and harmonious with the design, orientation, and scale of adjacent buildings. 
  8. Universal Access: All new facilities shall be welcoming and accessible to all users without discriminating on the basis of ability. 
  9. Transportation: All development, redevelopment, and remodeling shall carefully address transportation needs to create a cohesive, functional campus. 
  10. Sustainable Development: All development, redevelopment, and remodeling on the University of Oregon campus shall incorporate sustainable design principles. 
  11. Patterns: All construction projects shall consider patterns articulating commonly held values to achieve effective and meaningful dialog about important campus design issues.
  12. Design Area Special Conditions: Attention shall be paid to the unique details that give each individual Design Areas its own character. 
A fundamental aspect of the University of Oregon Campus Plan (as well as Alexander’s world view) is the belief that a whole emerges gradually from separate actions and that the joining of these actions into a cohesive whole comes not from a predetermined map, but from the application of a process. In other words, there is no dominating fixed image for the campus of the kind that preceded the adoption of The Oregon Experiment. This concept acknowledges the fact that although change will occur, the exact nature and magnitude of that change cannot be predicted with any degree of certainty. Planning at the University of Oregon is a continual process. It is not a static document that is dusted off periodically only to become obsolete soon after it is updated. 

Willamette Hall, a product of the UO Campus Plan and its principles & policies (via Wikipedia)
The university does have special interests that must be accounted for, and coordination of separate development activities is essential if they are to result in a cohesive campus. To the detriment of its Campus Plan, the institution acknowledges it must maintain a “balanced” perspective when it comes to the physical development of the campus. Translation: The University is often compelled to respond quickly and unquestioningly to opportunities for facilities improvements as they emerge. For example, funding approvals from the Oregon State Legislature tend to favor larger building projects even though smaller projects might be more desirable. Small projects are still accomplished, but not to the extent originally envisioned by the principle of incremental, piecemeal growth in The Oregon Experiment

Periodic analysis, or diagnosis, of the present state of the campus is required in order to provide a general context to direct continuous repair and improvement. This also proves difficult when powerful interests with the influence to dictate how campus development proceeds bring their own visions. The John Jaqua Academic Center for Student Athletes is a case in point. 

By any measure, the Jaqua Center fails to support several of the Campus Plan policies. Notably, it was not the product of a participative design process and falls short on the following key patterns: 

Architectural Style: The design of the Jaqua Center is not compatible and harmonious with the design of adjacent buildings. 

Connected Buildings: The Jaqua Center is not physically connected to any existing building; instead, it sits on a raised plinth, isolated from its context by a surrounding moat. 

Future Expansion: The Jaqua Center is a perfectly symmetrical Platonic cube. It was not designed with expansion in mind. 

Positive Outdoor Space: The Jaqua Center is a beautiful pavilion set within space, not a building shaping outdoor rooms. 

Welcoming to All: The Jaqua Center is not welcoming. By virtue of its express purpose, it excludes everyone except an elite minority (student athletes) from most of its spaces; the building functions as a symbol of inequity. 

With time, the UO campus may physically mature to the point where an anomalous structure like the Jaqua Center contributes, rather than detracts, from the wholeness of the environment. Indeed, the guiding principles of The Oregon Experiment encompass the concept of dynamic growth and repair. Through the use of established patterns, development needs can change and be adjusted. After all, the university’s commitment to its patterns and planning principles will ensure that shared traditions and understandings in the design process prevail over thoughtless interventions. 

The Oregon Experiment presents a cautionary tale. It serves as a chronicle and vindication of Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language concepts, as well as a convincing argument in favor of user participation and planning as a continually ongoing process. Conversely, some argue the University bureaucratized much of the life out of The Oregon Experiment and that it is being applied impurely in practice and with less than complete success; this is undoubtedly also true.

What cannot be denied is that the underlying principles, which seemed so radical back in the early 70s, have now become the norm rather than the exception in planning efforts everywhere. Graduates of the University of Oregon’s School of Architecture & Allied Arts don’t always appreciate the significant role their alma mater played in this history. The Oregon Experiment is a noteworthy and monumental legacy the University of Oregon uniquely can claim. I for one am proud of and grateful for the University’s openness to a new paradigm during a time of great change and uncertainty.  

(1)  Greg Bryant penned an excellent account (link here) in 1991 revisiting The Oregon Experiment twenty years on. Bryant is a computer scientist and appropriate-technology activist who co-founded both the Center for Alternative Transport and the now-closed Tango Center. In 1997 he worked with Christopher Alexander in an attempt to develop CAD software capable of helping people design with feeling.

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