Saturday, August 30, 2014

Precise Ambiguity

It’s time for another excerpt from the late Bill Kleinsasser’s self-published textbook SYNTHESIS. In the selection below he acknowledges the richness, complexity, and indeterminateness of truly responsive architecture by defining the timeless virtues of "precisely ambiguous" spaces and places.

Like some of the previous passages I’ve extracted, this excerpt hints at Bill’s restless mind. He had a tendency to cram too much information into a single sentence. His liberal and sometimes grammatically improper deployment of parenthetical remarks, ellipses, quotation marks, and upper case text for the sake of emphasis betrayed a keen interior monologue. Some of his run-on sentences were epic.

I like to think he simply felt he had too much to share with us. I sense his enthusiasm, conviction, and passion whenever I read my various editions of SYNTHESIS (I have three). There was a stream-of-consciousness urgency to Bill’s writing. No one else I know or have known writes or wrote like he did. Read on and you’ll see what I mean.

Any building, or “physical accommodation” (a description which we tend to prefer today because it makes us sound less “object oriented”), will have a shape, be complete, and determine its own extremities. This is so because, in the first place, it must be constructed . . . a process which begins at a point in time, lasts for a period of time, ends at another point in time and results in something relatively solid and permanent (we are not yet able to make the construction process self-correcting, self-adapting, and therefore continuous).

But, since we have already admitted that we don’t like to be classified as “object-oriented,” we try our best to modify these obvious and inevitable characteristics of what we make. This has been expressed in comparisons of the old architecture (with its emphasis on form, shape, objects, arrangement, and composition) and the emerging architecture which does not even want to be called architecture but rather “environmental design” (with its concern for sets, systems, process, frames, and human responsiveness).

Why is this so?

We are in an age of fantastically complex problems. We learn more and more about these problems (whether we like it or not) through the new communication media which also, because of the new speed of message transmission, suggest the interdependence of the problems; how one affects or changes (or eliminates or intensifies) others, and how it seems impossible to deal with one without dealing with all. People have never been so aware of this as they are now. This has given rise to the new sciences of “systems analysis,” “action-feedback recycling,” “sociological accounting,” “simulation testing,” and “human responsiveness and behaviorism.”

Out of this context and response has come a compelling sense of urgency and necessity; a kind of mutually interacting system in itself, which causes the desire to make places that will permit and cause all people individually to realize their potentiality as human beings (insofar as physical environment can contribute to this) . . . and this as a matter of course . . . as a normal part of daily life. Many designers now have some understanding of how to deal with complex, interacting, changing systems. They also have some understanding of non-physical or intangible human needs . . . and their complexity, their variety, and their vulnerability to shifting values. There is an increasing concern for particular situations, for real actions of people, for particular people, individual people and their experiences (or lack of them), and for the differences among people, for varieties of experience, and for change over time.

All this has led some environmental designers to conclude that the shape of what they make is not so important; except insofar as it contributes to the experiential enclosure for people to use, think about, modify, and otherwise make part of life. Attention is focused on the range of activities to be accommodated, the nature of the people who will be engaged in those activities and, most important of all, their capacity for expanded experience and expanding the experience until it is a new and different scene, or scene within a scene (another system), and then perhaps back again to what it was before. It is clear that environment for this kind of activity should evoke, but not dictate; help, but not limit; be powerful, but not over-powering; be exact, but not too particular; particular but not closed; in short, it should be precisely ambiguous . . . an intensifier of the experience of life, ourselves, and others, a developer of our capacities to respond, feel and, as Louis Kahn says, wonder.

This brings us to the realization that what this emerging architecture is trying to be is a genuine art form for our time (and therefore nothing really new after all).

WK / 1968

Friday, August 22, 2014

Architects in Schools 2014-2015

It’s hard to believe but it’s almost time for kids to head back to school. As the 2014-2015 school year approaches, the Architecture Foundation of Oregon (AFO) is once again looking for architects, intern architects, landscape architects, or interior designers willing to offer their time and energy to its longest-running, signature program: Architects in Schools.

The unique program provides elementary schools the opportunity to work with practicing professional architects and designers in curriculum-based activities. Coordinated by the AFO, Architects in Schools forms exciting partnerships between design professionals and Oregon schools. Architects, intern architects, landscape architects, and interior designers are all welcome to participate.

The program pairs design professionals with classroom teachers to deliver arts programming, cultivate environmental understanding, enhance appreciation of cultural links to history, foster career awareness, and develop students’ communication skills—all through the principles and practices of architecture and design. 

Students participating in Architects in Schools also learn about cooperation and planning, connect to required education standards, and gain a better sense of how school relates to the “real world.”

Thousands of students have participated in AiS over the years. The program is just as vital and relevant today as it was when Marjorie Wintermute, FAIA first initiated the program more than thirty years ago.

Architects in Schools is open to grades 3 through 5 and is offered to schools at no charge. The design professional’s commitment to the program usually totals approximately 20 hours between January and April as follows:
  • 12 hours in the classroom (approximately two hours per week over a six-week period that works with the architect’s schedule) 
  • 8 hours of orientation, including pre-planning time with teachers, and 
  • Up to 2 additional hours of “floating time”

There is no charge for participation for design professionals or schools. Architects may receive Continuing Education credits and interns may receive IDP credits for completion of the entire program. Everyone receives a copy of the comprehensive curriculum, Architecture as a Basic Curriculum Builder

This year's program information is here. This year, the AFO is using Survey Monkey for easy online applications. Click the link below to complete your application:

The deadline for 2014-2015 design professional applications is September 12, 2014. Orientation will take place in late October for Southern Oregon and in November for Portland, Eugene, and Bend. The Salem orientation will occur in January. The AFO will announce exact dates and as soon as possible. 

It’s been a while since I participated in the Architects in Schools program (I taught third graders at Coburg Elementary School), but it stands today as one of my most rewarding volunteer experiences. Consider sharing your passion and professional skills with the community through the AiS program. If you do, you'll see what I mean.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

25th Annual People’s Choice Awards

Each year, the American Institute of Architects, Southwestern Oregon Chapter (AIA-SWO) in collaboration with the American Society of Landscape Architects, Willamette Valley Section of the Oregon Chapter (ASLA) sponsors the People’s Choice Awards for Architecture. As the 25th annual edition of the event, this year’s People’s Choice Awards program promises to be bigger and better than ever. 
The intent of the People’s Choice Awards is to educate and inspire our fellow citizens by showcasing architecture, interiors, and landscape architecture projects created within the Southwestern Oregon Chapter area by AIA, ASLA, or AIAS members. The program demonstrates to the public the role of the design professions in enhancing the built environment.  
This year, we’re asking the public to vote for their favorite designs in several categories at the Lane County Home Improvement Show, October 10-12, 2014 at the Lane Events Center.(1) We expect to garner a record number of ballots as folks attending the Home Improvement Show will be eagerly absorbing all they can about design and construction. The show will be an excellent opportunity for AIA-SWO and ASLA members to showcase their best recent projects. 
All the votes will be counted and winners recognized at the October AIA-SWO Chapter Meeting. 
Participation Benefits
You’ll gain valuable public exposure and feedback from the community by entering the People’s Choice Awards. Your professional colleagues will also have the opportunity to vote on your entry as part of the Colleagues’ Choice Awards. Your boards will be displayed at the Lane Events Center throughout the duration of the Home Improvement Show. AIA-SWO will post pictures and written descriptions of all the winners on the chapter website, and also seek to further publicize the awards program through various local media outlets. 
Intent to Enter: Save the Date!
Look for the Intent to Enter form in a few days. We’ll conveniently post it for downloading from the AIA-SWO website. The Intent to Enter deadline will be September 15, so be sure to act quickly once the form available.  

(1)    With no Eugene Celebration this year, the People’s Choice Awards committee looked for another venue. The organizers of the Lane County Home Improvement Show are enthusiastic about hosting the awards display this year, offering a key location within the Events Center at no charge. With the outstanding attendance the Home Improvement Show always attracts, this is a big win for the People’s Choice Awards.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Help me make bail - I'm an MDA Jailbird!

This post isn’t about architecture at all but it is very important. Believe it or not, I'm going to jail (!) and I need your help.

While it's not a real jail, it's even more important as I'm raising bail to help children and adults with muscle disease in my community who are supported by the vital work of the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). I might not be able to rely on good behavior to get out so that's why I need your help. I need you to donate to my bail! Just click on the link below to make a secure donation. It's easy to make your tax deductible donation on MDA's secure site:

The Muscular Dystrophy Association is the world’s leading nonprofit health agency dedicated to finding treatments and cures for muscular dystrophy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and other neuromuscular diseases. The MDA does so by funding worldwide research, by providing comprehensive health care services and support to MDA families nationwide, and by rallying communities to fight back through advocacy, fundraising, and local engagement. It’s special work powered by special people who give generously.

Prior to agreeing to participate as one of 2014 Eugene/Springfield MDA Lock-Up jailbirds, I knew surprisingly little about muscular dystrophy. I didn’t know it is actually a group of muscle diseases that weaken the musculoskeletal system and hamper locomotion. Muscular dystrophies are characterized by progressive skeletal muscle weakness, defects in muscle proteins, and the death of muscle cells and tissue. 

The MDA is pursuing the full spectrum of research approaches toward combating neuromuscular diseases, from fundamental discoveries of the causes of disease to clinical trials of potential treatments. MDA also helps spread this scientific knowledge and train the next generation of scientific leaders by funding national and international research conferences, clinical research training grants and career development grants.

By going "behind bars" at the 2014 Eugene/Springfield Lock-Up on August 28, I’m doing my small part to help in the fight against muscle disease. I'll be joining other community leaders then to raise critical funds for the MDA, and I need your help to reach my bail!

My goal is actually to raise my bail before they throw me in the slammer, so make your secure, online donation today. All funds raised by the MDA Lock-Up assist the MDA in providing lifesaving research, a nationwide network of medical clinics, and accessible summer camp experiences to individuals and families affected by neuromuscular diseases.

Visit my fundraising page. My personal goal is to raise $2,400. Your contribution might be the key that unlocks the next breakthrough in the battle against muscular dystrophy. I know that together we can “make a muscle” and make a difference in the fight against muscle disease. Most importantly, your tax-deductible donation will help the many kids and adults who live with muscular dystrophy right here in Eugene and Springfield.

To all of you who help me help the MDA, thank you! 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Architecture is Awesome #6: Space

Deep space star cluster photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope

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. 

As defined by Wikipedia, space is “the boundless three-dimensional extent in which objects and events have relative position and direction.” The entry describes physical space as “often conceived in three linear dimensions, although modern physicists usually consider it, with time, to be part of a boundless four-dimensional continuum known as spacetime.”

Wikipedia suggests that space is more or less formless without the objects and events that occupy it. It is these that provide otherwise limitless tracts of space definition and shape.

The act of building is an event that fixes relative positions and directions. Just as the galaxies, stars, and planets do, buildings demarcate, delineate, and distort space and time. We don’t normally conceive of architecture from so celestial a perspective but in the grand scheme of things the architect’s goal is precisely to slice off, capture, and shape tiny bits of our vast universe.

Architects form relationships between empty space and objects, and it is our perceptions of these relationships that constitute architecture. We may utilize walls, columns, domes, and other elements in our designs, but space is the primary medium we work with when we plan buildings and places. Our creative use of space is what sets architecture apart from the other arts.

This is a concept that isn’t always easy for students of architecture to grasp. After all, we ask them to begin by drawing the walls, roofs, doors, and windows of a building rather than its volumes—the space—they shape. For many, it takes a while to realize that the form of the spatial volume is as important as the form of the mass containing the space.

It’s perhaps easiest to imagine space as being something tangible, especially when we consider both the elements shaping the portion of space we are engaged with and the form of the spatial volume itself. A jar and the volume it contains comprise a whole. They form a unity of opposites, the jar being the yin to the yang of its contents. We see the jar—its materiality, patterning, and color—but we also appreciate its capacity to hold and protect materials we value. The relationship between form and space is likewise an association of opposed elements, where space may be interpreted as the absence of form, even as space may be given shape.

Sometimes, architects design freestanding objects in space (suburban homes on their large lots are examples). Other times, they bend, warp, buckle, and bow buildings to bound and give shape to outdoor places (such as the courtyards and squares of medieval cities) or envelop distinct volumes (such as the Pantheon does). The figure-ground relationship between objects (figures) and space (ground) considers the importance of both equally.

1784 figure-ground map of Rome by Giambattista Nolli

The composition of space is among the most rewarding tasks architects engage in. Louis Kahn went so far as to define architecture as “the thoughtful making of space.” And yet, space has always been there and always will be; we didn’t make it. Skilled architects simply use proportion, light, and the materials & language of construction to reveal its existence. They create churning eddies, idle pools, and flowing streams of space. They actively engage space by rendering it in terms we can perceive and be moved by. 

Outer space is seemingly infinite, its uncharted frontiers the inspiration for science fiction. Architectural space is part of the same continuum as outer space, just much closer to home. It’s both amazing and humbling to realize we’re empowered to establish dominion over a tiny share of an infinite cosmos. Good architecture particularizes and composes space. It defines order out of disorderliness. Good architecture marks humankind’s moment and place of habitation along the spacetime continuum. 

Simply put, architecture is AWESOME because it’s literally crafted from the same stuff as the universe itself: space.

Next Architecture is Awesome: #7 The Process of Discovery

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

America’s Best Architecture & Design Schools

Frances Bronet, Dean of the School of Architecture and Allied Arts at the University of Oregon issued a call to arms. DesignIntelligence will once again publish its ranking of America’s best architecture and design schools. Frances wants UO alums and others who benefit from the sustained excellence of the School of Architecture and Allied Arts to contribute to its continued high ranking by participating in the DesignIntelligence survey, which it uses to establish the list.

I’ve done my part by completing the survey. If you haven't already done so, make sure you do before the August 22 deadline.
Here’s Frances’ letter: 
Dear Design Professionals, 
Please take a moment to make a difference for higher education in Oregon. Recommendatons for America's Best Architecture & Design Schools rankings are due August 22.
As you know, the UO School of Architecture and Allied Arts in Eugene and Portland has made a major commitment to design excellence that builds on deep engagement with pressing social and environmental issues. We need your help to continue to attract outstanding students and faculty members to the Northwest. The rankings published by DesignIntelligence have been an important tool for us and other universities. 
I am writing to urge you to help the School of Architecture and Allied Arts spread the word about this year's DesignIntelligence survey for the 2015 edition of America's Best Architecture and Design Schools. The Firms' Survey is most important. It is due August 22. This is the only survey that creates the official rankings. 
We have four programs that are included in this national ranking ---- architecture, interior architecture (interior design), product design (industrial design), and landscape architecture. The University of Oregon programs have consistently been included in these national rankings. 
Simply click on the links below to fill out one or more of the surveys as appropriate: 
DesignIntelligence asks hiring professionals and firms in the design world to fill out this quick 25-question survey, asking their opinions as to which schools best prepare students for the profession and what they look for in new grads. They validate every survey using their strict criteria to be sure they get the true opinions of those respondents who meet the qualifications, thus giving the publisher the best, unbiased rankings and responses possible. All results are anonymous. 
With your assistance, we can get the word out about how important this survey is to recruitment. As the costs of higher education continue to rise, we are ever more challenged to recruit the best students. It's become a very competitive market and high rankings with DesignIntelligence are more important than they ever have been. 
I appreciate your involvement in this process. As Dean of the UO School of Architecture and Allied Arts, I would like to see a strong response from knowledgeable professionals in Oregon and throughout the U.S. to bolster the recognition of programs and faculty leaders in our region. Please contact me at if you have any questions. Thank you. 
Best wishes,
Frances Bronet
Dean, School of Architecture and Allied Arts
University of Oregon


Sunday, August 3, 2014

Debate and Discourse: Hallmarks of a Healthy Community

Eugene City Hall (my photo)

As its appointment with the wrecking ball nears, Eugene’s vacated, mid-century modern city hall finds itself at the center of a fervent debate. Its principal protagonists have been members of the local design community, and its primary forum has been the opinion pages of The Register-Guard and Eugene Weekly.

I suspect many who have read the starkly contrasting points of view expressed in the published comments are variously: a) baffled by the affection some of the writers have for a building many citizens consider ugly and uninviting; b) exasperated by detractors who fail to share their appreciation of city hall’s fashionable Mad Men-era design; or c) confounded by the disparate opinions articulated by architects who presumably spring from similar wells of education, experience, and perspective.

The readers may also be puzzled by the eleventh hour appeals to save the building. Didn’t this ship sail months ago? Ask Otto Poticha, FAIA, this question and his answer is a resolute “NO.”

Otto, like a dog with a bone, refuses to let go of the building. His crusade to save it from demolition includes his proposal to locate the new city hall on the city-owned quarter-block immediately to the south, across Eighth Avenue. Doing so would spare the old city hall so that it could be “mothballed” pending identification of an appropriate new use or set of uses. Others—including Chuck Bailey, AIA, Eric Hall, AIA, and Marston Morgan, AIA—have rallied to Otto’s side, penning their own letters favoring retention and resuscitation of the old building.

In the March 6 edition of 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.

What is it about our vacant and forlorn city hall that these seasoned architects believe merits its preservation?

Eugene’s city hall was the widely published winner of a prestigious architectural design competition juried by a group of distinguished regional architects. Completed in 1964, the design by Stafford, Morin, and Longwood Architects is a noteworthy example of the mid-century modern architectural movement and a valuable part of local civic history. Its informal and democratic organization of a plaza surrounding a central council chamber is decidedly anti-monumental, as befits our community.

While Eugene city staff cited the building's abysmal energy performance as one reason to move on, it’s also true that the most sustainable version of city hall may be the one that already exists. Advocates of city hall’s architecture can convincingly enumerate the dollars the city could save by reusing the existing structure, as opposed to building a totally new facility.

They also rightly argue that we are at risk of repeating the past in a bad way by ignoring it. Thanks to well-intended but misguided urban renewal, Eugene now laments the loss of much of its irreplaceable architectural heritage (such as the previous city hall and county courthouse). By condemning city hall to the dustbin of history, are we making the same mistake?

On the opposite side of the ledger, John Reynolds, FAIA, pulled no punches in his July 29 letter to the R-G. For John, city hall is an oppressive one-story box on stilts decorated with heavy wooden slats, a product of a bygone era that set important buildings atop pedestals, aloof from the surrounding sidewalks. He noted how city hall confronts pedestrians with an “oversized fence looming over a vertical moat in the form of a dark view into a sunken parking lot.” He acknowledged the pleasant central courtyard, but correctly observed that it is neither visible nor readily accessible from the street.

The old building is too standoffish for how we think about government today and our "Great Street” aspirations. Some argue the building should go not because we don’t care about our past, but because it impedes our way to another, richer, older part of our history—a return to a time before we abdicated so much of our urban landscape to the automobile.

I could blink my eyes and imagine this same conversation happened around the Skinner Butte cross. It’s a valued (some would say “revered”) part of our community’s history, but what it stands for is not in step with our values and identity today.

I share John’s belief that correcting city hall’s failings may be too great a challenge to realistically overcome. I can’t imagine any way to ameliorate city hall’s shortcomings without fundamentally erasing the very essence of the original design that Otto and the others are so vociferously defending.

Eugene City Hall, High Street facade (my photo)

The absence of unanimity among architects about city hall may be perplexing to some, but the very fact it is so elusive is also why I find the debate and discourse so encouraging. We may not all agree about what should be done with the building, but that’s really beside the point. 

Vigorous debate and discourse about what’s best for the built environment are hallmarks of a healthy community. Cajoled by Otto, the Local Affairs Committee of the American Institute of Architects – Southwestern Oregon Chapter recently convened to tackle the subject of city hall. Otto challenged us to exercise our know-how and take a stand. He wanted us to be participants and not merely spectators.

The committee wrestled with finding a common message about city hall to share publicly. The fact is we’re a diverse group. You can’t paint architects with the same brush. Not all of our views are commonly held, as our divergent opinions about city hall will attest. Speaking out on controversial issues doesn’t always come naturally to us. We struggled to arrive at an accord, ultimately settling upon acknowledging our respect for history and the pain of removing a building that shaped our civic life.

What we could agree upon is that we want city hall to again thrive as Eugene’s civic heart. We want the new building to be an expression of what matters to our community. We hope the design by Rowell Brokaw Architects (with Miller Hull) will become something every Eugenean will point to proudly as “our city hall.” We want it to reflect our aspirations for downtown. We also expect our new seat of civic government to be nothing less than a model of sustainability, “radically accessible,” and welcoming. We want to love our city hall again.

New City Hall rendering by Rowell Brokaw Architects (view from Eighth & Pearl)

This essay is the committee’s contribution to the conversation. We’ve concluded consensus—speaking with one voice—is neither necessary nor always desirable. More important is publicly discussing issues and presenting the considered views of AIA members who have lived and worked for many years here in Eugene and Springfield. Our pledge is to continue to bring our expertise to bear upon contentious topics associated with the built environment. If our ongoing dialogue contributes positively to enlightened policy-making and greater public appreciation for the value of good design, we’ll have done our job well.