Monday, March 31, 2014

The Vivid Frame

Henry Mercer’s Fonthill Castle, Doylestown, PA (photo by Jared Kofsky used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license).

I previously mentioned how central the idiosyncratic work of Henry Chapman Mercer was to Bill Kleinsasser’s conception of richly developed buildings and places. During my studies under Bill, I considered Fonthill, the Mercer Museum, and Mercer’s Tileworks to be ugly and unworthy of his extensive attention; however, since then I have come to understand what Bill appreciated about these curious buildings. Bill repeatedly cited Mercer’s eccentric designs to illustrate his lectures about response to place, historical continuity, and—most intriguingly—the construction of mental maps in the process of comprehending the places we experience. 

The following excerpt from the 1981 iteration of Bill’s self-published textbook, Synthesis, speaks to Mercer’s highly personal and unaffected approach to design and construction. There’s little doubt in my mind that a vivid frame is vastly superior to a mute and impoverished one. 

The constructional framework that forms the spaces of buildings and places is a permanent, all-encompassing, pervasive setting. As such, it influences all that takes place there. It may be vivid or it may be dull and confused.

In Mercer’s buildings, construction is revealed by surface marking, irregularity, and evidence of spontaneity. There are many anecdotal expressions of the building process. In colored tile on a ceiling in Fonthill are the names of all the construction workmen and the jobs they did (including “Lucy,” the horse “who uplifted” the concrete). Cast into the concrete of two stairways are the footprints of his dogs, Rollo and Larry, who were with him daily during the work. Still visible in the concrete are traces of experiments, innovations, and mistakes. High on the west wall of the Museum is Mercer’s right hand-print, cast in the concrete (studies of symbolism state that the right hand represents the rational, the conscious, the virile signification of action, husbandry, and manifestation). These silent expressions combine to recall vividly the human involvement in the work: the ideas, the difficulties, the occasions, the joys.

Mercer’s buildings are full of invitations to feel and to imagine. Surfaces are varied and rich, yet subtle, soft in appearance, and quiet. Light is generous and varied, yet controlled. Colors are abundant and of clear hue, but always low in value and warm, and never garish or glaring. Elements are powerful, yet capable of dissolving out of the way. Spaces are clear, yet often ambiguous and always complex.

In Mercer’s buildings each stairway and corridor and entryway is unique. Each window and room embodies and expresses its positional uniqueness and function. Each tile is handmade and tells a different story. Each fireplace is special in shape and proportion.

Mercer’s buildings are full of evidence of his day-to-day development of ideas and responses, and as they make “an occasion of every place,” as the Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck would put it, they tell of an exuberance and caring that is very rare.

WK / 1981

Saturday, March 29, 2014

March AIA-SWO Chapter Meeting Recap

The March AIA-Southwestern Oregon chapter meeting featured Stephanie Jennings, AICP, who is the City of Eugene’s grants manager for the Community Development Division. She was on hand to describe the Lane Livability Consortium and, more specifically, that organization’s Equity & Opportunity Assessment.

The Lane Livability Consortium is an interagency and cross-sector coalition providing a regional forum for sustainable community planning and development. The participating coalition members founded the consortium in 2010 to apply for and strategically manage the implementation of a 3-year, $1.45 million Sustainable Communities Regional Planning (SCRP) grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The work of the consortium primarily involves bringing together coalition leaders in economic development, higher education, transportation, affordable housing, water and energy, and social equity to build upon the Eugene-Springfield metro area's successes and to further integrate livability into its plans and strategies. It provides the participating agencies a regional forum for discussions regarding issues and challenges that are common to the region and are best addressed with a collaborative problem-solving model.

Partner agencies include the cities of Eugene and Springfield, Lane County, Eugene Water & Electric Board, the Housing and Community Services Agency of Lane County, Lane Council of Governments, Central Lane Metropolitan Planning Organization, Lane Transit District, Oregon Department of Transportation, St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County, and the University of Oregon’s Sustainable Cities Initiative.

According to Stephanie, the primary goals of the SCRP grant program include determining how best to target housing, economic and workforce development, and infrastructure investments to create more jobs and regional economic activity. The SCRP program is a key initiative of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, in which HUD works with the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to coordinate programs and investments. To date, HUD has awarded over $165 million to 74 regional grantees in 44 states. HUD organized the program around six fundamental principles:
  • Promote more transportation choices
  • Promote equitable, affordable housing
  • Enhance economic competitiveness
  • Support existing communities
  • Coordinate federal policies and investments
  • Value communities and neighborhoods

The Lane Livability Consortium is translating these principles into action by:
  • Developing tools for enhanced decision-making
  • Considering ways to better align plans
  • Advancing catalytic projects, building capacity, and considering next steps
  • Supporting the efforts of existing agencies and intergovernmental forums
  • Using grant resources to gain an elevated “50,000 foot view” of cross-agency development and implementation of major plans
  • Advancing previously identified priorities and pressing needs
  • Recognizing new opportunities for collective impact among multiple agencies
  • Effectively engaging a diverse set of regional stakeholders

In my opinion, the greatest benefit achieved through the formation of the Lane Livability Consortium is the leveraging of all the coalition members’ efforts to their mutual benefit. Rather than confining themselves to their narrow silos and spheres of influence, the members are working together to make the most of federal funds. Joining forces is far better than acting alone to achieve mutually shared goals. Collaboration minimizes waste and overlapping effort, while identifying gaps in current plans. It’s always maddened me to witness ad hoc and wasteful efforts by parallel agencies on issues affecting our entire metro region, so this integrated undertaking by such a large and diverse coalition is a welcome development. This is systems thinking at its best.

Equity and Opportunity Assessment
The Equity and Opportunity Assessment (EOA) is part of the Livability Toolkit, which is a web-based platform assembled by the Lane Livability Consortium that facilitates sharing tools and resources related to livability. The EOA helps to identify and analyze issues of equity, access, and opportunity within the Eugene-Springfield metropolitan area and consider how these findings can inform agency plans, policies, and major investments. Like other efforts of the consortium, this process was designed to engage multiple agencies and to help address the needs of those agencies.

Stephanie pointed out that most of the partner agencies within the consortium have conducted their own equity analyses; however, differences in the scopes of their plans make it difficult to create a consistent treatment of equity issues. The EOA provides better access to raw data for use by all of the consortium members.

While there are many definitions of opportunity, the focus of the EOA is to identify the condition or situation that places individuals in a position to be more likely to succeed or excel. It does this by analyzing and cross-referencing a broad range of data sources, gathering information in social and demographic topic areas ranging from income and poverty, to transportation, employment, personal safety, health & wellness, housing, and education. The assessment compiles this data onto maps, overlaying datasets in various combinations in order to: 1) compose a broad understanding of where different groups of people live within our community; 2) identify how jobs, schools, and services are distributed through the region; and 3) uncover disparities in access and opportunity.

Some of the datasets displayed in map form include:
  • Social and demographic characteristics
  • Income and poverty 
  • Access to transportation 
  • Access to employment 
  • Safety, health and wellness 
  • Access to affordable housing 
  • Educational opportunity

The maps show geographic differences within the study area, highlighting where the least vulnerable and most vulnerable reside. The data is derived from decennial census information as well as the more frequent American Community Survey, and is organized along census tract lines.

This is undoubtedly useful information to the members of the Lane Livability Coalition. Examples of possible applications include identification of environmental justice issues, targeting of areas to improve community health outcomes, prioritization of alternative transportation improvements, and siting decisions for affordable housing. A significant question is whether the data and analyses may also prove useful to the decision-making processes of architects and our clients.

*    *    *    *    *    *

Ultimately, the goal of the Equity and Opportunity Assessment, as well as the entire forum afforded by the Lane Livability Consortium, is to foster sustainable community planning and development. The more everyone understands the interrelationships between our economic, social, and natural systems, the more likely we will ensure our region’s viability and resilience tomorrow. Thanks to Stephanie Jennings for introducing the work of the consortium to AIA-SWO. And thanks too to HUD and the partner agencies for working together to build a smarter community.

*    *    *    *    *    *

The venue for the March chapter meeting was the Oregon Wine Lab at 488 Lincoln Street in Eugene and the tasty food was courtesy of Cousin Jack’s Pasty Company. The Wine Lab is an “urban winery and tasting lounge.” I’m sure it excels in that role but as a setting for a chapter meeting presentation it didn’t perform well. The acoustics were poor: the mechanical system was noisy and, without a microphone for either Stephanie or those in the audience who asked questions, it was difficult for me to catch all the words. I realize the goal recently has been to mix things up and provide a change of pace for chapter meeting settings, but I’d prefer to stick with a place where we’re all assured the opportunity to hear everything.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Architecture is Awesome #3: Wabi-sabi

Woven wood fence at the Portland Japanese Garden (photo by me)

This is another in my series of posts inspired by 1000 Awesome Things, the Webby Award winning blog written by Neil Pasricha. The series is my meditation on the awesome reasons why I was and continue to be attracted to the art of architecture. 

Most architects have at least a passing familiarity with the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi (侘 寂), which is a world view that embraces the authenticity of the imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It accepts the transience of life, finding beauty in the cycles of growth and the natural progression of time. Wabi-sabi in art and architecture celebrates roughness, irregularity, subtlety, modesty, and integrity. It acknowledges that nothing is forever perfect (if it ever was).   

The irony is so many architects labor in the pursuit of a conventionally perfect and beautiful aesthetic. Seeking perfection belies our human arrogance. We may strive for perfection but we can only sustain its illusion through great effort and at enormous expense. Time and nature have a way of taking a toll upon even the most complete and apparently flawless. The reality is building materials age, corrode, deteriorate, and decay. They’re most certainly designed and assembled by imperfect human beings using imperfect tools.

The beauty of wabi-sabi is found in the markings of existence. We see it in the weathered wood surfaces of old barns. We see it in the cracks and crevices of well-used pavement. We see it in the fleeting uncertainty of cloud patterns and ice crystals that form on windows. It’s why people favor buildings and places that age and accept change gracefully rather than resist it.

Paradoxically, architecture that is wabi-sabi is more timeless than architecture that sets out to achieve an enduring perfection. It works with the intrinsic properties of building products rather than denying them. It favors natural materials like hand-hewn wood, stone, and brick rather than machine-processed plastics, glass, and aluminum. Mastering wabi-sabi entails acquiring an appreciation for small irregularities.

Wabi-sabi also teaches humility. Architects may design great monuments but their greatness is at best fleeting. Welcoming the mutability of existence in our designs is a path toward an architecture that is truly alive and beautiful over time. Ultimately, nothing lasts forever, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.

Wabi-sabi points to a beauty that is inherent in the wholeness of life itself, which is undeniably AWESOME. 

Next Architecture is Awesome: #4 Perfection

Saturday, March 15, 2014

About Architectural Education

I attended architecture school during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The challenges faced by the profession and the schools of architecture seemed less daunting to me then than they appear to me today. This perception may be due in part to my rose-colored glasses and also the wisdom that age now affords me, but I truly believe the knowledge base students must acquire to become effective professionals is greater than ever. There’s so much to learn about ever-expanding fields of expertise and only so much time practically available within which to do so. How do we pack it all in? What aspects of the curriculum must we compromise or sacrifice? How do we best prepare future architects for tomorrow’s new world?

Knowing more about less and less (becoming too specialized or focused on a particular field of interest) isn’t the answer. It’s much more important that students of architecture receive as fully-rounded a university-level education as possible. Fragmenting the curriculum of study into multiple silos of expertise does not lead to broadly educated human beings. Expansive thinking free of blinders is necessary to foster effective collaboration and problem solving. If the public is to regard architects as effective agents of change, students need to become integrative, big-picture, systems-oriented thinkers. We can’t sacrifice general education, which is necessary to cultivate knowledgeable, informed, and literate architects, for the sake of mere technical adeptness. We need future designers who can reason logically, communicate effectively, and are familiar with the outside forces shaping society, its values, and our world. This line of thought imposes a greater burden on technical training during the intern development process but that, in my opinion, is the price to pay for the greater good of the profession and society.

Bill Kleinsasser understood the value of a general education to a career in architecture and concisely expressed his feelings on the subject in his book Synthesis:  

About Architectural Education:
I think that an architectural school should be a place that offers:
  • Rich, well-organized, reiterative input (a fundamental unity)
  • Intensive, well-organized, reiterative input for all students about design development media and process skills 
  • Generous opportunity to practice designing in a way that is truly and consistently integrative and comprehensive
  • Clear description of the nature of the architectural profession, its history and its possible futures, including descriptions of the value base within which we exist and how it might change
  • Generous opportunity to study outside of the architectural field so that students may become more informed and balanced, more confident and mature
  • Detailed, graphic explanation of all of the above, so that students my understand what is going on, why, and what it means to them.

It seems to me that the basic point of general education is to help us understand what we are a part of, where we have been, and where we might go. It gives us a chance to understand more clearly who and what we are. By allowing us to learn what people have felt and cared about, to learn of the heights to which they have often risen (and the reverse), to see the extent to which individual people have brought about new values and change, it gives us experiences that are both humbling and inspiring, that give perspective, patience, and hope.

I think we all need such experiences. They are of course informative but also exciting and evocative. They have the capacity to trigger at any time an expansion or reassessment of basic beliefs and self view. They seem especially important to those who try to create places that offer lastingly significant opportunities to people. 


Sunday, March 9, 2014

Think Big, Start Small, Make It Happen

Conceptual design for the new Eugene City Hall (sketch by Rowell Brokaw Architects)

I attended one of the two open house events last month to learn more about the Eugene City Hall project and ask questions of the design team led by Rowell Brokaw Architects (RBA). I also watched RBA’s February 10 city council work session presentation. My take-away from both events is that the conceptual framework for the city hall block and Phase 1 construction project is a product of a careful weighing of the myriad factors in play. If I know anything about the project, it is nothing if not challenging and fraught with emotion, burdened by history, and constrained by a miserly budget.

Given all of this baggage, I found RBA’s conceptual design eminently logical. In particular, one of the project taglines—Think Big, Start Small, Make it Happen—is a succinct definition of the long-term strategy for developing a new City Hall. Biting off more to begin with than the City can afford is fiscally and politically untenable. Ultimately, an incremental, modest approach will more likely allow for context-sensitive adjustments over a period of several years. The majority of the members of the city council agreed, signaling their support for the direction proposed by the design team. The notable exception was Betty Taylor, who supports retention and rehabilitation of the existing (and now very much threatened) city hall building.

Check out the project website prepared by RBA. There you will find all of the information the team presented at the public open houses and the city council work session. I found the eight project goals statements particularly useful and well-written. The evocative, precise project goal statements read very much like the patterns assembled in A Pattern Language, the highly influential 1977 book on architecture, urban design, and community livability authored by Christopher Alexander and his colleagues at the Center for Environmental Structure.

The RBA team developed the project goals and refined them with input from the community. Each goal includes: 1) a title articulating the goal, 2) an observation a condition, problem or opportunity, and 3) a goal statement written in active, concrete language. The project goals and accompanying project values statements give ordinary citizens, not only design professionals, a way to work together to design a new seat of civic government for Eugene.

Of the eight project goals, the following three appeared to have tipped the scales in favor of razing the existing City Hall (underlined emphases are mine):  

Cities and communities are dynamic. A healthy city changes over time without losing its identity, and can be responsive to new needs, threats, and opportunities. Similarly, a healthy and resilient city block can adapt to change, include a mix of uses, and provide multiple paths to success in the future.

Re-envision City Hall as part of a “living block” with a dynamic and responsive future. Site the building in a way that encourages the efficient use of land, activates all four streets, and points toward better opportunities yet to come.

People feel more engaged with local government when they can see it. City Hall should connect the community with its local government and decision-making process. The existing building turns its back to the street and isolates important civic functions from the public realm. It does not reflect or support the style of local government in Eugene.

Design a City Hall that reaches out. Connect with the public realm at sidewalk level. Engage and improve the quality of the surrounding public realm.

City Hall should be a welcoming and accessible place that engenders a sense of civic pride. Every resident should have direct access to its services and feel they belong.

Design a City Hall that is physically and culturally accessible. Include a gracious and clear entry that supports people of all abilities and backgrounds. Locate important spaces so that they are visible from the street and connected to the public realm. Welcome everyone.

It’s my understanding these goal statements were developed organically rather than pronounced a priori. Regardless, they do betray the long-held sentiment of a majority of Eugene citizens who find it difficult to love the abstract, pedestrian-unfriendly, and parking structure-like aesthetic of the 1964 City Hall. A focus group of community stakeholders, neighbors, and professionals confirmed this prevailing perception when asked by RBA to discuss cultural accessibility and how City Hall can become a more welcoming place that connects with our entire community.

Bird's-eye view of the design concept 

What If? 
Even at this stage of the project where the general design concept appears firmly established, two “what if” questions can still be asked.

One is whether the project’s modest first phase will fulfill the ambitious goal of being a memorable and iconic place of civic life while also being uniquely Eugene. No matter what, the first phase will be the heart and soul of the future City Hall. What if its limited scope and $11 million direct construction budget prove inadequate for the task? My hope is that the final design will surpass expectations and Eugene will be graced with a new City Hall that sets a very high bar for the future build-out of the entire block and the downtown of which it will be a very important part.

The other question is the elephant in the room: the imminent loss of the current, competition-winning, mid-century modern City Hall building. Can it still be saved? Otto Poticha’s crusade to save it from the wrecking ball now includes his proposal to locate the new city hall on the City-owned quarter-block immediately to the south across 8th Avenue. Doing so would spare the older building so that it could be “mothballed” pending identification of an appropriate new use or set of uses.

In the March 6 edition of the Eugene Weekly, Jerry Diethelm offered another intriguing idea: constructing a “new stately City Hall along 7th Avenue on the north end of the North Park Block . . . one that opens to the south on a market square for the Saturday Market and Farmers Market and gives us the two-for-one of a restored park block and a City Hall that is as good as we are.” Jerry’s proposal would likewise spare the existing building, postponing the question of its ultimate fate until a later day.

I previously addressed the question of whether the existing building should be saved, concluding that correcting the current city hall’s failings may be too great a challenge to realistically overcome. There’s no small amount of irony in my arriving at this conclusion given that I also recently championed saving Michael Graves’ seminal Portland Building, a likewise severely flawed project whose future is also very much in question. The way I rationalize my opposing attitudes toward the two buildings is to assess as objectively as possible their respective significance as examples of architecture. I don’t think there’s any question the Portland Building is much more important to Post-Modern architecture than Eugene City Hall is to the legacy of mid-century Modernism. 

What’s next? 
Rowell Brokaw will present the project’s schematic design to the city council next month. If the council green lights the project, RBA’s team will shoot for completing construction documents by the end of 2014. With McKenzie Commercial already on board as the Construction Manager, demolition of the existing city hall and construction of the new building could start even before the CDs are finalized. If all goes to plan, we may be witnessing a ribbon-cutting as early as December 2015. 

If you have questions and comments regarding the project, email the project team at

Saturday, March 1, 2014


The February 2014 issue of ARCHITECT, which is the magazine of the American Institute of Architects, includes a report by contributing editor Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson announcing the AIA’s decision to design an original typeface for its use. Called “Architype” and developed by the renowned design consulting firm Pentagram, the new font family is the institute’s first proprietary typeface in its 156-year history.

The AIA initially commissioned Pentagram with branding of the 2014 AIA national convention in Chicago. As Evitts Dickinson recounts, “the designers had a thought: What about creating a typeface unique to the organization for its signature conference?” Because the AIA also retained Pentagram to work with on its overarching Repositioning initiative, it made sense to apply the new typeface to the AIA’s ongoing communication strategy rather than solely to the branding of the 2014 national convention. The overall goal is to increase awareness of the place of architects in society and the way we present ourselves to the world.

So, it’s all well and good the AIA chose to invest in creating the Architype font family as a key element in its promotion and rebranding efforts. On the other hand, am I alone in questioning the need for a new proprietary typeface? After all, the venerable font Helvetica has served the AIA very well for many, many years. Designing a one-off brand for each year’s national convention (sometimes involving the creation of an event-specific logo but most often relying upon existing typefaces) is one thing. The effort to craft a wholly new typeface is an entirely different matter. Despite the “technological advances” which “have made type design a swifter task,” the creation of a successful and appropriate typeface is no small undertaking. I have no doubt the associated expense corresponds accordingly.

How necessary was this new window dressing? Will the creation of Architype really achieve what the AIA and Pentagram think it will? Will it be worth the price tag and truly improve the way our profession is perceived by those we serve?

Apparently, the cost to develop the new typeface was presented to the AIA Board of Directors as part of the total budget for the Repositioning initiative. I spoke with Bill Seider, FAIA, our Northwest & Pacific Regional Director, about the institute’s current fiscal status and the allocation of funds for the rebranding efforts. According to Bill, the AIA is on relatively sound financial ground having added to its reserves for the first time since the 2008 downturn in the economy. He reminded me that the board elected to not raise members’ dues for 2014 as it had done in previous years. The bottom line is that the AIA did not redirect funds away from programs central to its mission so that it could simply indulge a hankering for something new.    

The Architype font family in use.

As for Architype itself, I suspect its use may be limited to headline type and promotion of the AIA brand rather than for bodies of text; it simply doesn’t look as if it would be easy to read in large doses. I also think Architype manages, paradoxically, to appear both strong and brittle at the same time. It seems awkwardly mannered and affected (particularly the “Doric column” conceit) rather than reassuringly steady and elegant. At first glance, it also fails to adequately distinguish itself from so many of the established (and more refined) san-serif typefaces already available. If solidifying an organization’s identity was the object, I’m not sure Architype will fulfill the promise its designers claim. 

AIA members: What do you think? Do you like the new typeface? Will its consistent use lead to immediate association with the AIA? Was this the right time and the best use of the institute’s limited funds (regardless of whether the AIA is in the black)?