Saturday, May 31, 2014

AIA Late Night

Remember what it was like to labor into the wee hours of the morning (or pulling an all-nighter) on your final review presentations when you were in architecture school? If you do (I do, quite fondly actually), then you know what it’s like: the stress, overwhelming fatigue, and mounting panic as zero hour approaches. Undoubtedly, you’d have welcomed the moral support, encouragement, and sympathy from those who’d been there themselves. 

Members of AIA-Southwestern Oregon understand. Plan on joining them next Wednesday, June 6 and show your support for University of Oregon architecture students by dropping in on the Lawrence Hall studios for a late-night visit (9-11 pm). They’ll be bringing cookies and coffee to share (donated by local vendors), direct some cheerleading, and generally provide the students with the energizing pick-me-up they need.  

RSVP to Jenna Fribley, AIA if you’re interested in joining the funThe AIA Late Night group will meet at the east entry to Lawrence Hall (the main doors to the parking lot) at 9:00 pm.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Design Excellence 2014

AIA-SWO members and colleagues gathered at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts for the 2014 AIA-SWO Design Awards dinner, Thursday, May 22 (my photo)

Last Thursday evening was a fabulous one on the AIA-Southwestern Oregon calendar. Not only did our chapter celebrate the best work produced by its own, it also further honed its message regarding the importance of design excellence.  It’s hard to put into words, but I distinctly sensed that AIA-SWO is coming of age and poised on the edge of something special. 

AIA-SWO Design Excellence Committee program coordinator Kaarin Knudson, Assoc. AIA said it best: quality matters. By this, Kaarin meant not only the quality of the Design Excellence presentations but also the quality of the best work we produce every day. The quality of our architecture influences the health and vitality of our communities, shaping our lives and those of our families, friends, and neighbors. Although some may be inclined to contend otherwise, it is far from being elitist, naïve, or foolhardy of us to pursue design excellence.

More than ever before, people are realizing design excellence is a necessary investment in the creation of a prosperous, cohesive, and harmonious society. They’re learning the pursuit of excellence need not be an expensive or aimless folly. They’re coming to understand that design excellence is a verb as well as a noun, inasmuch as it is a state of action and a means to an end. Accordingly, our duty as architects is to provide the leadership toward design excellence our families, friends, and neighbors are expecting of us.

By pairing the 2014 Design Awards program with the second installment of the Design Excellence Committee’s Making Great Cities series of presentations, AIA-Southwestern Oregon demonstrated a growing appreciation of its role as a thought leader in our community. As an organization, AIA-SWO does enjoy the imprimatur of professional standing and tradition. It does have the power to influence policy-makers and positively shape future development. AIA-SWO is learning to flex its muscles and is making a difference. This is healthy for everyone and a great thing to see. 

Making Great Cities 
The AIA-SWO Design Excellence committee established the Making Great Cities series with the goal of creating a forum for community discussions about the built environment. The first installment last fall featured architect and former mayor of Charlottesville, VA Maurice Cox, FAIA. His primary message was that architects must act as leaders to ensure design excellence is at the center of any discussion about the future of our cities. Fundamentally, it is his belief that exercising leadership is the way to build a constituency for design excellence and influence a community to confront its adaptive challenges—those gaps between a community’s values and the current reality that cannot be closed by routine behavior. 

The spotlight of last Thursday’s second Making Great Cities presentation in the Soreng Theater at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts shined on Carol Coletta, vice president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and former director of ArtPlace and president of CEOs for Cities. Like Maurice Cox before her, Carol also served as executive director of the Mayor’s Institute on City Design. She has spoken extensively on the future of cities, including how communities develop, attract, and retain talent.

Carol Coletta

Carol entitled her talk “Talent+Opportunity+Place.” One of her goals was to emphasize the importance of making informed decisions about our communities in the face of pervasive misinformation. Additionally, she called attention to how broad, distributed leadership (the kind we as architects can provide) is necessary to get anything done. As she explained, the days of top-down leadership—when a handful of rich, white guys could call the shots—are no more.

Carol sounded a precautionary note. Too much about how we arrive at decisions is based upon contrasting realities and myths. Our challenge is to sort through the media flotsam and determine what’s real and what is not. A case in point: Carol cited the all too common meme today that questions whether higher education and acquiring a college degree is still worth it given the mounting costs of tuition. Of course it is, but an alarming number of pundits point to the example of famous dropouts like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as exceptions that belie the value of matriculation. “College is for suckers” they say. Likewise, we’ve been brainwashed by a constant barrage of fear-inducing news reports regarding crime. The reality is the incidence of crime in cities across the nation is actually on the decline. We shouldn’t allow the fear of myths to dictate very real decisions affecting the future of our communities.

Carol firmly believes an informed and engaged community is essential to a strong democracy. The key is getting the information right to begin with and to the right people. Misinformation keeps communities distracted and confused, but it will be in the disruptive changes that are cultivating the misinformation around us that we will find positive leverage.

The kinds of disruptive changes we are seeing include radical advancements in technology and rapid evolution of media for communications. Consider the fact that a young child today has never known a world without powerful smart phones. Or think a moment about the increasing number of young adults who no longer consider possessing a driver’s license as necessary. These aren’t small changes and they have impacted everyone. They call for innovation, focus, and a re-calibration of what constitutes a successful community. 

A key disruptor within contemporary society is the ease of mobility we enjoy. It’s very easy, particularly for younger people, to seek out the places they find most attractive (they often prioritize selecting a desirable urban core within which to live before looking for available jobs). This is especially true for the best and brightest of this youthful and mobile cohort, so attracting and retaining young talent has become essential to the economic strategies of the most savvy cities and towns. These communities focus on this young talent, not because it’s hip or cool to do so, but for the reason that without young, well-educated professionals their ability to compete effectively is severely compromised. 

Carol pointed out how fortunate we are in Eugene because we are blessed by the presence of a major university and other institutions of higher learning. Our challenge is to continue to develop a community that not only attracts the most promising students from around the country and the world, but also keeps them here after they graduate. Good places attract and retain good talent.

Good places are also accelerators for opportunity. It is in the realm of opportunity that misinformation has frequently prevailed. Well-meaning planners have too often concentrated services for those in need, resulting in de facto socio-economic segregation by geography. Carol believes this is precisely the wrong strategy for improving access to opportunity: access to the best education, employment, and upward mobility. She advocates developing economically integrated neighborhoods because economic segregation has fundamentally proven to be a disaster and the antithesis of a city comprised of vibrant neighborhoods. Zip code alone should not dictate a person’s destiny; if it is allowed to do so, the American dream is dead. 

Carol pointed out that disadvantaged people who live in economically integrated neighborhoods are the ones who attain and exercise upward economic mobility. Integrated neighborhoods typically provide access to better public services, feature stronger political advocates, are home to the best public schools, and foster broader support networks among neighbors. Diversity of educational levels also tends to benefit those with less education. The combination of talent and opportunity is exceedingly powerful, and it is investment in place that nurtures and allows their grouping to flourish. 

Carol concluded her talk with the following three questions, each one a criterion for evaluating each decision we make as a community:
  • Will this decision increase the supply of talent?
  • Will this decision increase economic integration?
  • Will we know we made the right choices for the common good?
The bottom line is investing in place is an economic development strategy because attracting talent needs to be at the heart of the strategy. We need to design for economic integration because providing ample opportunities for upward mobility is likewise a key to economic vitality and resilience. And the key is creating the kinds of places people want to live, work, and play in. This is the opportunity our profession is embracing. Let’s grab the brass ring, demand high standards of ourselves, and become the leaders our communities need. 

*    *    *    *    *    *

I commented previously when discussing the first Making Great Cities presentation (by Maurice Cox) that broadening the discussion about design excellence and its value to Eugeneans is precisely the message we need to hear. Carol Coletta definitely reinforced this point. So far, the high quality of the Making Great Cities series has me confident there will soon be community consensus regarding design excellence as a political imperative. Thanks to the efforts of the AIA-SWO Design Excellence committee, that critical mass is quickly approaching. 

If you were unable to attend Carol Coletta’s lecture, you’re in luck because it was jointly produced by the AIA-SWO Design Excellence committee and City Club of Eugene. As with all of its meetings, City Club records the proceedings for later broadcast on KLCC. City Club is a natural partner for the Design Excellence Committee as both groups seek to provide credible analyses of community issues, foster creative problem solving, honor diverse perspectives, arouse appreciation for the obligations of citizenship, and stimulate informed community decision-making and constructive action.

Here’s the link to the recorded broadcast: 

The Design Excellence Program is a volunteer-led effort by the AIA-SWO Design Excellence committee. The committee thanks the program sponsors and partners—Lane Transit District, the University of Oregon School of Architecture & Allied Arts, and City Club of Eugene—for their assistance in making the Making Great Cities series of presentations a reality. Look for the next event this fall! 

2014 AIA-Southwestern Oregon Design Awards
AIA-SWO’s members and colleagues turned out in fine fashion for the 2014 Design Awards dinner and presentation. The production was first-rate in all respects, from the backdrop of the Hult Center’s soaring lobby to the excellent cuisine provided by Marché. Most importantly, the jury’s commentary and selections were equal to the setting and more than met expectations bred by five long years of anticipation since the last AIA-SWO design awards program.

The jury—consisting of Carol Coletta (fresh off her Making Great Cities appearance), Laura Hafermann, AIA, Dennis McFadden, FAIA, and chair David Tryba, FAIA—selected a total of 13 projects to receive awards. Of these, the jury recognized two student projects (this being the first time for a student design award category). The projects selected for the professional categories included six Citation Awards, three Merit Awards, and two Honor Awards (the AIA’s highest commendation). Rowell Brokaw Architects was the evening’s big winner, taking home an unprecedented seven total awards.

Student Awards:

Annie Chiang
Back On Track: Modular Post Office

Kyle Stuart-Willis & Jiawei Mai
Transporting Miami

Citation Awards:

Rowell Brokaw Architects, PC
EWEB Riverfront Master Plan

Rowell Brokaw Architects, PC
University Of Oregon Zebrafish Core Facility

PIVOT Architecture
Architects’ Office

PIVOT Architecture
Richardson Sports Headquarters

Rowell Brokaw Architects, PC
First On Broadway Adaptive Re-Use

Photo: Christian Columbres
Robertson/Sherwood/Architects, PC
with SRG Partnership & Pyatok Architects

Merit Awards:

Rowell Brokaw Architects, PC: 

Photo: Christian Columbres
Rowell Brokaw Architects, PC

Honor Awards:

Photo: Christian Columbres

You can find complete slide presentations for each of the winning projects at the AIA-Southwestern Oregon website by clicking this link. The entrants furnished all of the photographs I’ve used here in this blog post and in the slide presentations. I’d like to credit all of the photographers but I simply do not have complete information for attribution; I’ll make sure to add photo credits for all the images once I have them.

*    *    *    *    *    *

Some critics deride design awards programs for creating false meritocracies, being superficial beauty contests, and reflecting the biases of specific juries. Having sat on the other side of the table myself,
(1) I know the limitations of the process preclude a complete appreciation for the entirety of each submitted project’s virtues. Nevertheless, conferring awards does showcase to the public what we believe to be exceptional buildings. Design awards help us to celebrate what we do as architects. They are evidence our profession aspires to be the best it can be. They elevate the quality of our work by setting the bar high.

For AIA-Southwestern Oregon, there’s no doubt Rowell Brokaw Architects has raised that bar to its highest level ever. The quality of the firm’s work speaks for itself. RBA is ascendant. We can expect much more of the same in the years to come. This is another reason why design awards programs are a good thing. Healthy competition between firms—vying for recognition as the best of the best—also engenders vigorous and healthy discussions about the nature and definition of design excellence. We’re all winners when this happens.

Five years is far too long between one AIA-SWO design awards program and the next. We can blame the debilitating Great Recession for its protracted absence. Abbreviating the cycle to every three years would be ideal. I know I am not alone in looking forward to the next edition and once again recognizing and celebrating the best work of AIA-Southwestern Oregon member firms.

(1)   I’ve enjoyed the pleasure of serving as a juror for three different awards programs: The 2009 AIA-Salem Design Awards, the 2012 Hammurabi Design Awards, and Architectural Record’s 2012 Excellence in Advertising Awards.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Call for Volunteers: "Test Drive" the South Willamette District Design Code

You’ve heard the debate about South Willamette Street, but you may not know that the community and the city have been working together to create a long term vision for the broader South Willamette District.  

The vision has high aspirations for a gradual redevelopment of the district as an even better “twenty minute neighborhood” where people can live, work, walk to services and enjoy a vibrant community. A draft Design Code is being developed and includes piloting new concepts, such as:

  • Active retail frontage
  • A shopping alley
  • Single family options, a mix of smaller dwelling types
  • Row-house character
  • Building scale transitions and articulation

The City of Eugene and the Southwestern Oregon Chapter of the American Institute of Architects are seeking a few more volunteers to help "test drive" the draft of the new design code. The test will last a week, beginning June 12th and wrapping up on the 19th. Experience working with the land use code will be helpful. Please follow this link to sign up. 

The goal is to test the draft code against existing and potential projects, providing essential input on shaping the future of this unique district. The City is looking forward to learning from this exercise and refining the code with the input of the volunteers. For more information about the project background and Concept Plan, click the following URL: 

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The AIA-SWO Octagon Story

Recent view of work in progress at the Octagon (my photo)

Walk by the Octagon in downtown Eugene these days and you’ll notice a lot of activity going on. Thanks to the efforts of a dedicated group of volunteers (led by Will Dixon, AIA) and the generosity of more than 30 supportive donors, the headquarters for AIA-Southwestern Oregon and Architects Building Community is coming together nicely.(1)   

True to AIA-SWO’s vision of “driving positive change through the power of design,” the Octagon is destined to become a well-used resource for the chapter, ABC, and indeed the entire community. AIA-SWO executive director Don Kahle recently wrote about its future potential as Eugene’s own vibrant center for architecture:

“The eight-sided glass structure just south of Summit Bank has always been a little 'jewel box' but since the local architects made it their permanent home, it glistens the way it should. Its lighting scheme catches the eye after dark, drawing downtowners to view the window displays. Most weekday afternoons, it forms the center of a small food court, with different food carts setting up each day of the week. The expansive covering makes it seem like the covered porch that downtown always wishes it had.

The 14 windows are cleverly lit, showing an ever-changing display of art and architecture, educating and inspiring Eugene and its residents to consider and reconsider the value of good design. Local businesses use the window display to demonstrate how the work they do has the elegance of good design embedded, if only you know where (and how) to look.

Inside the architects have built a space that is both welcoming and versatile. Whether it’s a reception before an Art Walk, a lecture about urban planning, a hands-on tutorial session for a software package, a poetry slam, or a board meeting, the space “just works.” If there are those who want to observe — or even participate — from their home computers or from a second site, the technology is built into the space. Nobody has to be a super-geek to use the screen, projector, Powerpoint, and video remote capabilities.

Although the space is used by dozens of groups (for a modest rental fee), the architects use it for their board and committee meetings, as well as twice-monthly “Luncheon Learns,” where professionals learn the latest news from vendors and suppliers who make their businesses and buildings perform better.

Downtown businesses who want to get out of the office for a half-day retreat or need a conference room only a few hours each week use the Octagon as an extra space. Artists of every sort enjoy having their work displayed in a site where anyone can see it anytime. And the public loves the space for gathering at lunchtime, or wandering past for unexpected inspiration.”

The Octagon build-out is nearing a major milestone, which is completion of the initial renovation. I figure that all of the major new interior building elements (flooring, lighting, ceiling fan, and custom casework) will be in place within the next month to provide a useful meeting and gallery space freed of major construction activity. Will and his project team anticipate completing the entire project (including the display systems, audio-visual equipment, plaza lighting, and donor recognition) by October of this year, at which time there will be a celebratory party.

Will has been providing regular updates on progress at the Octagon as part of AIA-SWO’s Thursday @ Three weekly e-newsletter. Look for those and stay informed about the latest news regarding the project.

*    *    *    *    *    *

Despite the ongoing improvements, you can visit the Octagon and enjoy a current exhibit of amazing final projects by the students who participated in this year’s Architects in Schools program. Architects in Schools is administered by the Architecture Foundation of Oregon and is intended to help 2nd through 6th graders develop an awareness of the built environment through classroom sessions with a local design professional. The Octagon shares the honor of displaying this special youth arts project with the Jacobs Gallery at the Hult Center until June 12.

(1)   The impressive list of companies who have donated services or materials includes:
  • 9wood
  • Big Ass Fans
  • Emser Tile
  • Evolve Design
  • Frontier Builders
  • Gary Pierce Painting
  • Harvey & Price Mechanical Contractors
  • Heartwood Carving
  • Honn Design & Construction
  • Luma Lighting Design
  • Lynn’s Electric
  • May or May Not Construction
  • Neon Latitudes
  • Oslund Design
  • Pioneer Engineering
  • Virco

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Bridges to the Future

The 2014 edition of the CSI Northwest Region Conference is in the books. To say I’m glad I attended would be a big understatement. I was tremendously impressed with the high quality of the educational sessions, the insights of our keynote speakers, and the kind hospitality of our CSI Portland hosts. Most of all, I was thrilled to connect with fellow members who share my enthusiasm for the Construction Specifications Institute and what it can offer every design and construction professional.

The conference’s title—Building Bridges to the Future—couldn’t have provided CSI Portland with a more appropriate theme. Portland is literally a city of bridges(1). Figuratively speaking, CSI is likewise comprised of many bridges, many of which are continually under construction or morphing in response to our rapidly changing world. At the risk of unnecessarily piling metaphor upon metaphor, hunkering down into discrete silos is anathema to CSI; the members of our organization are preternaturally disposed toward networking, breaking barriers, and crossing lines. If you charted the AEC industry as a Venn diagram, CSI would be located precisely where the intersection of all the sets occurs. Better than any other association, CSI fosters engagement and interaction between the disparate constituents of the building industry.

I previously blogged about how CSI membership should be essential for everyone whose work revolves around the management of construction information. CSI is well positioned to occupy a hub of power and influence; will CSI grab this brass ring and run with it? Undoubtedly, the answer lies with the people of the organization.

The conference bolstered my belief that CSI members are hands down the friendliest, most generous, and brightest agents of change when it comes to the goal of improving construction communication. The conference also underscored my certainty in the value of building relationships. The personal connections we establish are perhaps the most potent tools we can leverage in our professional lives. The key is connecting with those who share the common goals, determination, and chutzpah to make things happen. This spirit is perhaps best exemplified by some very special people I’d come to know online but only met in person for the first time this past week at the conference.

Cherise Schacter, CSI, CDT (Twitter username: @CheriseSchacter) is an absolute dynamo and a real up-and-comer. A member of CSI for little more than two years, she has already risen to president-elect for CSI Portland and is the chapter’s education committee chair. In her own words, Cherise is “hopelessly optimistic” and a “loves a good challenge.” She has injected her considerable energy into her chapter’s activities and has contributed prolifically as a key member of CSI’s growing online community.

Professionally, Cherise is the standards coordinator for Interface Engineering. In that capacity, she endeavors to improve the consistency and quality of Interface’s construction communications and documents. She has evangelized on behalf of CSI; as a consequence, an increasing number of Interface employees are taking CSI certification classes and becoming certified. This is critical because virtually no consulting engineers receive training on construction documentation while in college. Through Cherise’s efforts, it may soon be routine for architects in our region to always expect their consultant team rosters are populated throughout with knowledgeable, CSI-certified professionals.

Cherise is also the queen of the CSI Krakens. Don’t know what a CSI Kraken is? You’ll have to read her blog post about becoming one. Let’s just say CSI Krakens are the loudest cheerleaders of a movement that exemplifies the collaborative ethos of successful project teams. The movement is an attitude. It is a desire to aspire. Krakens are always helpful, positive, and supportive. They find solutions. They teach. They are committed, passionate, and dedicated to promoting CSI and its mission. Any and every CSI member who wants to likewise spread the fever can become a CSI Kraken. With Cherise’s endorsement, I’ve achieved official Kraken status, as authenticated by receipt of my CSI Kraken colors.

It's official: I'm a CSI Kraken (photo by Cherise Schacter, CSI, CDT)

Joy Davis, CSI, CCPR (Twitter username: @CSIConstruction) is CSI’s communications/community/Web director and, like Cherise, is an unabashed advocate for everything the institute does to improve construction communications and collaboration. She ensures that CSI’s mission of improving communication in the construction industry is expressed in all of the Institute's communications. 

Joy delivered two presentations at the conference. Her seminar presentation, entitled “Are You an Educational Destination or a Tourist Trap?” addressed the cultivation of leadership and strategies for attracting a new generation of professionals to CSI. She unblinkingly highlighted some of the challenges facing CSI. Membership in CSI has declined over the years, and there is a distinctly gray tinge to the pate of most of us who have hung on. Clearly, we need to attract a young and vital cohort to the organization to ensure its future. 

Millennials don’t care about simply joining another “club.” They’re looking for change. They actively seek the opportunity to learn, to continually expand and hone their skill sets. If CSI does its job well, younger professionals will come for the education, but they’ll stay because they feel positively challenged. In return, their new ideas will further reinvigorate the entire organization. 

Promoting the use of social media by construction professionals is Joy’s crusade. She made the most of her lunchtime plenary session by presenting a terrific primer about social media. She reiterated how construction is built on relationships, and how the various social media platforms (Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook) can organically link various relationships together to form powerful communities. This is why Joy believes social media is important and essential in today’s business world. If you offer something useful, gain the respect of your audience, and become the go-to resource, you’ll be a recognized thought leader. The return on investment can be tremendous. 

Speaking of social media, check out the tweets tagged with #NWRC14 (if you’re a Twitter user) and get a taste of what you missed at the conference. Or check out Cherise’s Storify timeline of the event. In a nutshell, the 2014 CSI Northwest Region Conference (and the CSI Portland Industry Forum that preceded it; more about the Forum in a future blog post) were chock full of education, networking, and good times. 

*    *    *    *    *    *

It had been a while since I attended one of our region’s annual gatherings; I won’t make the mistake again of missing too many more. Next year, the Northwest Region will join forces with CSI Southwest Region and CSI West Region for a joint conference to be held at the Hilton Mission Bay Hotel in San Diego, May 13-16, 2015. Coming up first though is the annual CONSTRUCT show, September 9-12 in Baltimore. The obvious attraction of CONSTRUCT is the prospect of meeting in person so many more of the CSI personalities I have only come to know online.   

The folks of CSI Portland did a fantastic job producing the 2014 Northwest Region Conference. It went off without a hitch and thoroughly energized this CSI Kraken. Big thanks to Erica Bitterman-Ryan for her leadership and energy as CSI Portland’s Region Conference Committee chairperson, as well as to all the committee members who helped make the conference such a success. 

(1)   Sharon Wood Wortman (aka the “Bridge Lady”) and her husband Ed Wortman delivered an engaging lunchtime presentation about Portland’s many bridges. They later led a walking tour of the bridges for an interested group of conference attendees.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Influences: Alvar Aalto

Interior of the Mount Angel Abbey Library, Alvar Aalto, architect (photo source: University of Oregon Libraries)

Last month’s meeting of the Construction Specifications Institute’s Willamette Valley Chapter featured a presentation by University of Oregon associate professor Virginia Cartwright about the development of luminous themes in the work of Alvar Aalto. The relationship between light and form in Aalto’s work has been a long-standing focus of Virginia's research. I personally regard the 20th century Finnish modernist as one of my influences, for many of the reasons Virginia would touch upon, and more.(1)

A central theme of Virginia’s investigations is Aalto’s enduring interest in harvesting and manipulating daylight. His abiding attention to natural lighting as a functional determinant for design was attributable to its scarcity in the northern latitudes of his homeland. His concern for the relationship between light and form would become a discernible thread evident in the majority of his buildings, most notably his library projects. Arguably, it is one of Aalto’s commissions outside of his native Finland—the Mount Angel Abbey Library here in Oregon—that represents the pinnacle of his library achievements.

Virginia detailed how the lessons Aalto learned during his education and early years of practice resonated throughout his career. For example, before moving toward the modernist vocabulary he would become famous for, Aalto absorbed the tenets of Nordic Classicism. Virginia cited Gunnar Asplund’s Stockholm Public Library as a key example of Aalto’s capacity to assimilate and adapt concepts and strategies particularly well-suited to the clime and culture of Scandinavia.(2) In the instance of the Stockholm Library, it was Asplund’s use of an encircling ring of clerestory windows high up on the wall of a central rotunda (among other features) that would lastingly influence Aalto’s library designs. The clerestory windows capture the sunlight entering at the low angle of incidence typical of the northern sky, while the unadorned walls of the rotunda reflects and diffuses the light before it reaches the floor levels below.

Stockholm Public Library, by Gunnar Asplund (photo by Andreas Ribbefjord via Wikimedia Commons)

Asplund’s work directly influenced Aalto in his design for the municipal library in Viipuri (now Vyborg, Russia). Evident at Viipuri are the same reliance upon top-lighting, orchestrated progression of spaces from the exterior through the interior, and the nesting of sunken levels within a tall, primary reading room Asplund used in his much more monumental design for the Stockholm Public Library. The gestation period for the Viipuri project was a lengthy eight years, and it was during this time that Aalto would begin to move from Nordic Classicism toward his own highly personal brand of Modernism.  

Viipuri Library (photo by Maija Kairamo/The Finnish Committee for the Restoration of Viipuri Library)

If you’re familiar with Aalto’ mature portfolio, it’s easy to see why many architects of my generation are so attracted to his work. Much of his architecture’s appeal lies in its sense of tradition (despite its modernity), its reverence for the landscape, its materiality, as well as its idiosyncrasy. Virginia presented images of projects like the Finnish Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Wolfsburg Cultural Center, and Seinajoki Library, which increasingly displayed his use of organic forms, natural materials, and free handling of space. All served as precursors to the Mount Angel Library.

The Library at Mount Angel Abbey, located a couple miles north of Silverton(3) here in Oregon, is the quintessential example of Aalto’s library designs. We’re incredibly fortunate to have one of the only two U.S. buildings Aalto designed (the other being the Baker House dormitory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) so close by and available for visits. If you haven’t already done so, you owe yourself a trip to the Abbey to experience the library firsthand.

In his lavishly illustrated monograph entitled Lasting Aalto Masterwork: The Library at Mount Angel Abbey, the late Donald Canty wrote that if one had to pick a single building to elucidate Aalto’s design approach, it might well be the Mount Angel Abbey Library. The building epitomizes everything about the work of Alvar Aalto that set him apart from the other masters of modern architecture.  

The Mount Angel Library, especially when first approached from the central lawn within the abbey, is remarkably modest and unassuming in appearance. Aalto’s keen attention to the shaping of light and the experience of encountering, entering, and coming to understand the building is immediately evident. The library visitor’s path is alternately compressed and expanded spatially, culminating in a top-lit, atrium-like space that extends vertically both upward to an arcing band of clerestory windows and downward into a multilevel well of reading areas. The expressive sculpting of the building’s section exemplifies Aalto’s philosophy of “optical geometry,” while its mix of rectilinear and free plan forms clearly reflect the library’s internal organization.

Virginia explained how Mount Angel typified Aalto’s obsession with providing optimal natural lighting for reading by. Indeed, it’s possible to sit most everywhere on any level of the curving well and not cast a harsh shadow on the book being read, so effective is the dispersal of the sun’s rays.  

Interestingly, for all of his fascination with light as a form-giver in architecture and the settings in which he placed his buildings, Aalto was seemingly indifferent to the potential of using windows to not only bring light in but provide views out as well. At Mount Angel, he decidedly limited the marvelous views of the valley below and the mountains beyond the hilltop abbey to three small windows. These appear like framed paintings on the walls in which they occur; in this respect, they are more precious and surprising than views through generously arrayed walls of windows would have been.  

Ultimately, it may be best for us to not attempt to closely emulate Aalto’s highly individual and distinctive architecture. The portfolios of several contemporary designers (I’m thinking of Shim-Sutcliffe Architects, among others) do contain impressive projects that sometimes superficially resemble Aalto’s humanist, experiential, and tactile strain of modernism; however, these talented architects undoubtedly have assimilated what they want and choose to use from a panoply of influences, which may include but is not limited to the Finnish master. As Virginia demonstrated, Aalto handed down to us much to learn, but Aalto’s own experience likewise illuminates the value of adapting and building upon precedent as we each develop our personal notions about architecture.

*    *    *    *    *    *

Attendance at the April meeting was, to say the least, modest. If you missed Virginia and her insights about the evolution of Alvar Aalto’s highly personal brand of modernism, you passed up something special. The Willamette Valley Chapter’s programs are uniformly excellent, so reserve the last Thursday evening of each month to attend your WVC/CSI meetings. Besides continuing education, chapter gatherings offer plenty of networking opportunities, collegiality, great food, and the best views in Eugene (from the top floor of the Eugene Hilton). I hope to see you at a meeting soon!

(1)  An earlier blog entry of mine, “Genealogy of Influence,” promised a series of posts about the architects and theorists who influenced my architectural world view. This is the fifth post in the series.

(2)  While still a student, Aalto sought work in Stockholm with Asplund but ended up in the employ of Arvid Bjerke. Nevertheless, Asplund would become a friend and mentor to Aalto. 

(3)  The Oregon Garden in Silverton is home to another modern masterpiece—Frank Lloyd Wright’s Gordon House)