Monday, December 2, 2013

November AIA-SWO Chapter Meeting Recap

Design studio at the Pratt Institute (still image from the movie Archiculture)
Hop Valley Brewing Company's new production brewery and tasting room at 990 West 1st Avenue was the refreshingly different venue for AIA-SWO's November chapter meeting. The new facility has made a splash in the local microbrewery scene, a testament to the quality and craft of the beer the company produces, as well as the skill of architect Jenna Fribley, AIA and her practice envelōp design. It was the perfect setting for heralding a change of the AIA-SWO guard and critically examining the culture of our schools of architecture. 

The AIA-SWO change I speak of is actually routine and welcomed: the annual announcement of candidates and their election to the chapter’s board of directors. Each new board brings its own unique agenda to the governance of AIA-SWO. 2014 president Scott Clarke, AIA set the tone for his coming administration by citing the AIA’s Repositioning initiative and the national organization’s desire to become more agile and effective at addressing important issues affecting members and the profession. For Scott, this means embracing the concept of a chapter board capable of meeting the needs of our increasingly varied membership. Accordingly, he enlisted new board members reflecting diverse backgrounds and avenues of professional endeavor. For example, the new board boasts representation from central Oregon (which falls within AIA-SWO’s geographic footprint) for the first time in our chapter’s history. 

The 2014 AIA-Southwestern Oregon executive board members will be: 
  • Will Dixon, AIA: past-president
  • Scott Clarke, AIA: president
  • Jenna Fribley, AIA: president-elect
  • Dan Abrahamson, Assoc. AIA
  • Seth Anderson, AIA
  • Patrick Hannah, Assoc. AIA
  • Alexandra Rempel, Assoc. AIA
  • John Reynolds, FAIA
  • And board member “X” (from the east coast, to be announced)
I have no doubt this group will exhibit considerable energy and enthusiasm during its tenure. I also fully expect it to demonstrate out-of-the-box thinking toward the achievement of its goals and resolution of the chapter’s ongoing fiscal issues. I truly am looking forward to seeing the new board’s agenda take shape. 

The November meeting also featured an enthusiastic report by a group of students from the University of Oregon’s Department of Architecture who attended the 2013 Solar Decathlon. For the first time since its founding in 2002, the biennial decathlon wasn’t held in Washington, D.C. but rather in Irvine, California. The event is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, which challenges collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive. The winner of the competition (this year designed and built by a team from Austria, of all places) is the team that best blends affordability, consumer appeal, and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency. 

The students presented images of the entrants they found most intriguing. These included the winning scheme from Austria, as well as projects by the Czech Technical University, the University of Nevada Las Vegas, and Team Alberta from the University of Calgary

The University of Oregon has conspicuously been absent from the roster of schools who have contested for the Solar Decathlon since the contest’s inception. The considerable cost associated with participating has no doubt played a part; another reason may be the competition’s focus upon active rather than passive heating and cooling strategies (for which the UO is renowned). An excellent article in the November issue of ARCHITECT magazine raises the question of whether the decathlon remains an effective means to advance the message of sustainability. Certainly, the article is on point by asking whether the freestanding, single-family home should be the focus of future decathlons rather than problems that might emphasize more typically urban issues: multi-unit and multi-generational housing, transportation, and infrastructure. 

The meeting’s marquee presentation was an exclusive screening of the film “Archiculture,” a new documentary by David Krantz and Ian Harris. The movie takes a critical look at the culture of the architecture school studio environment. It follows a group of students at the Pratt Institute in New York during their final semester as they spend their days and nights together toiling to complete their projects. Archiculture highlights the friendships, camaraderie, and peer-to-peer learning that occurs, as well as the insularity of the studio environment. 

The film also features an assortment of professionals, educators, and others commenting on the current state of architectural education and the continued validity of the studio model of learning and the benefits and detriments associated with the juried critique system. Among those contributing their insights are Shigeru Ban, David Byrne, Annie Choi(1), Maurice Cox, Kenneth Frampton, Tom Hanrahan, and Thom Mayne

Archiculture stirred fond memories of my years as a student at the University of Oregon. There isn’t a shared rite of passage quite like that of the architectural design studio. It is a life-changing, exhilarating, and horizon-expanding gantlet. Contrary to its detractors, I firmly believe the studio experience is essential to the development of effective problem-solvers capable of synthesizing a multitude of concerns. It should remain the core of every architectural school curriculum. 

Whether the studio and the culture it engenders should remain the center of an architect’s training was one of the questions posed to the distinguished panel assembled by the AIA-SWO program committee following the film’s screening. The panelists were: 
  • J.F. Alberson, AIA – principal, TBG Architects & Planners
  • Michael Fifield, FAIA – professor, University of Oregon, Fifield Architecture + Urban Design
  • Regan Greenhill – AIAS president
  • Gabe Greiner, AIA, LEED AP – graduate teaching fellow, University of Oregon
  • Dan Hill, AIA – senior principal, Arbor South Architecture
Michael characterized the Pratt Institute’s approach to teaching architecture as “building-centric.” In his mind, this is limiting and fails to acknowledge the full breadth of influence tomorrow’s architects should participate within. After all, the built environment extends well beyond individual buildings to include entire neighborhoods, cities, and infrastructural systems. As Michael noted, “ill-defined problems are what architects deal with,” and it is precisely for this reason today’s education in architecture must be useful to designing much more than buildings alone. 

The dilemma for today’s schools of architecture is the increasing complexity and sheer volume of knowledge students must absorb in order to become effective professionals. Oregon’s strategy is to “teach design everywhere in the curriculum,” and also recognize the reality of collaboration in the workplace. From the audience, professor Don Corner pointed to the University of Oregon’s “shadow curriculum,” student-run ventures (such as CASL and AIAS) that supplement the formal course offerings. What the school must guard against is merely becoming a vocational training ground and abandoning its duty to graduate critical thinkers capable of solving some of the most intractable problems facing humankind today. 

Ultimately, the biggest takeaways from Archiculture may be its warm portrayal of life in the studio, the students’ zeal for architecture, and the quixotic prospect of making a difference. As one of the students at the center of the film remarked, “If you don’t care about this (architecture), what do you care about?” Indeed.  
(1) Annie Choi, a writer, is notorious in architectural circles as the author of a sardonic letter (“Dear Architects, I am Sick of your Shit”) to her friends and acquaintances who attended architecture school.

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