Saturday, March 28, 2015

Architecture is Awesome #8: Transitions

A transition space: Entry porch, Ajanta Caves, India

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. 
Life, and the act of being in this world(1), is nothing if not about transitions. In life, we are born, grow up, go to school, graduate, embark upon a career, get married, raise a family, retire, and live out our years. Transitions can be welcome turning points, mileposts, or markers along our life’s path. Sadly, they can also be unpleasant events (health crises, divorce, losing a job or loved one), which provoke acute anxiety and stress. Every transition focuses our attention upon the moment at hand and the possibilities, potential, and opportunities it presents. Each one heightens our awareness of who and where we are in time and space. 
Transitions in architecture—like those in life—can be momentous and ripe with possibilities. Poorly conceived, they can induce apprehension, uncertainty, or withdrawal. Orchestrating how people move through, occupy, and appreciate spaces that connect, separate, and differentiate is something architects do. Mastering the design of transitional spaces is a key to developing vivid and life-affirming architecture. 
Spatial transitions occur everywhere. Entries, thresholds, paths, courtyards, edges, thick walls, and stairs are all examples of architectural transitions. Old-fashioned porches, which provide a comfortable way for people to be both private and sociable at once, are another. People pass through transitions, meander along their sides, or linger within them. They are both places to be and experiences in time. 
Transitions can also be implied (rather than literal), and marked by the absence of structure or exactness. For example, the Japanese concept of Ma (), loosely translated as “interval,” regards transitions as the meaningful and ambiguous gaps between spatial or temporal things rather than those things themselves. 
Transitions frequently occupy spaces that are otherwise residual, leftover, or in-between. They buffer, join, or separate. They define and clarify. Transitions can consist of layers, creating a here, there, and beyond. They often correspond to opposite conditions (inside vs. outside, above vs. below, public vs. private). Their symbolic and aesthetic value is immense; their potential to convey meaning unlimited. 
We can design transitional spaces to be more significant by incorporating opportunities for vicarious experience through detached participation. We can do this by allowing users to preview, slowly reveal themselves, and gradually commit to participation if they choose. We can enhance transitional spaces by making connections to surrounding phenomena so that users do not feel isolated or out of touch. 
All transitions are richer when designers take the time to consider them well. Our duty as architects is to ensure that we do so. Fundamentally, transitions are about possibilities, choices, and turning points. We celebrate life’s milestones through ceremony and ritual. Let’s also celebrate the AWESOME potential of architectural transitions by always making the most of them. 

Next Architecture is Awesome: #9: Windows   

(1)   Precisely in the Heideggerian sense.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Definition of Design

Portland Japanese Garden (my photo)
I’ve remarked before about how timeless so many of the essays on architecture written by Bill Kleinsasser are. The following piece, which Bill wrote in 1968, is no exception. In it, he looks to systems theory as an approach to design and problem-solving. Design is nothing if not an exercise in organizing complexity. Bill recognized this decades before the application of systems and complexity theory to architecture became fashionable in some circles. 
At this juncture in my professional life, I’ve accumulated enough experience and wisdom to increasingly appreciate the breadth and comprehensiveness of the theory base for architecture Bill taught generations of students. It continues to be my honor to share his words with readers of SW Oregon Architect. 
A Definition of Design
Design can be defined as the process used to search for the order of systems. In the design of buildings and places for people, the systems are those environmental elements and frameworks which the designer and others have determined to be necessary and appropriate for the situation. They should not only support use but also evoke human response and involvement. They should provide multiple meaning. 
First, some thoughts about systems: A system is a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole, i.e. a particular unit formed by the special relationships among a group of items or subsystems. If one item is removed or changed, or a new item introduced, the whole is changed. Each item within a system is affected by all the other items; conversely, every new or changed item affects the entire system. And since systems are always parts of larger systems, the structure of any system is affected by the larger system of which it is a part. Therefore, no system can be correctly analyzed or designed without consideration of the larger systems of which it is a part, as well as and at the same time the sub-systems of which it is made up. 
The systems that concern us as architects are those which accommodate the needs of people and embody the ways in which people relate to and depend upon their surroundings. 
Many human characteristics and conditions are related to this. People have predictable size and shape, sensitivity and responsiveness, biological structure, patterns of movement and activity, need for engagement or involvement, need for diversity of experience and self-identity, and the ability to change with changed position and accumulated experience. When people with all of these characteristics and conditions come together with that which exists and that which tends to exist (whether man-made or natural, place or institution), there is an implicit order-pattern which suggests that buildings and places for people should be made in ways that respect this order-pattern, rather than in ways that are casual or arbitrary (no matter how innovative). In this sense, buildings and places for people can be thought of as being generated by forces. 
It is possible to note several things about these forces:  

  • They are both operational (having to do with actions, equipment, and quantities) and experiential (having to do with perception and comprehension)
  • They affect both the inside of what we make and the outside, since both comprise our environment
  • They are based upon specific conditions (differences among people, actions, and needs) and upon general conditions (things people share)
  • They are based both upon things that change and upon things that do not change
  • Sometimes they seem to be inevitable and forced upon us
  • Frequently, they are anything but inevitable and require much hypothesizing, testing, adjusting, and retesting
  • They act simultaneously and with changing strength
  • Being complex and never obvious, they us constantly to judge (an act which can be either informed or naïve)

Given that design is a matter of using our judgment to resolve a myriad of complex forces, we should use both intuitive judgment and intellectual judgment, i.e. we should feel and think. 

Given that we try to resolve forces that are interacting simultaneously, we should avoid linear or additive decision-making processes and strive instead to study complex, multileveled interactions. 

Given that the more we know about systems the more complex they become, we should use processes that cause our comprehensions to grow as the projects grow. 

Given that in the course of design we must rehearse and judge reality through media, we should understand the capabilities and limitations of those media so that we will not be victimized by them or unable to read them. 

Given that the significance of what we do is linked inescapably to human desires and needs, we should have precise understanding of those desires and needs. We need to know how to add to the experience of living, increase man’s psychological stature, heighten the action of ordinary life, and make built homecoming. We need to know the ranges of choices that are necessary in a place, or the right degree of freedom to choose, or the structure that will successfully establish the choices. To gain these understandings, we might have to seek aid from other areas of study, might we not? 



Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Craftsmanship Awards Summer 2015

File:Landauer I 038 v.jpg
Medieval Stonemason
Did you know that the Craftsmanship Awards were the first initiative of our chapter when it was chartered in 1952?  
Chapter volunteers are needed to help with the planning, jurying, and implementation of this year’s AIA-SWO Craftsmanship Awards Program. On hiatus since last held in 2011, this important chapter program recognizes the individual craftsmen and craftswomen that turn our design inspirations into reality. 
If you would like to help make this program a success please contact Bill Seider as soon as possible to join the planning committee. This is a great opportunity for both emerging and seasoned professionals in our Chapter to get involved.
The Craftsmanship Awards Program is scheduled for this June and as in the past, will showcase achievements that exemplify excellence in the construction industry. 
Start thinking about nominations--professionals in the construction industry, from the cost estimator, to the fine cabinet maker, to the job site superintendent worthy of this recognition--especially if they have consistently taken that extra step to ensure a finely crafted building. In order to make this year’s program a success we need all of the AIA-SWO members to consider making nominations for this award. We encourage each of you to think back on your successful projects. Who were the members on the construction team that demonstrated exceptional craftsmanship and should be recognized for their fine work? By our recognition we encourage others to do the same. Look for nomination information to be available in April. Contact Bill Seider with any questions or comments.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Pi Day

Cenotaph for Sir Isaac Newton, by Étienne-Louis Boullée
Today—March 14—is Pi Day, and an extra special one to boot. Waxing lyrically in the Register-Guard, reporter Mark Baker encouraged readers to make the most of the celebration of circles because today’s Pi Day is extra special.

Why? Mark explained how taking pi out to nine decimal places and converting it to a date and time, you come up with March 14, 2015 at 9:26 and 53 seconds. 3.141592653. The next one like it won’t happen again for 100 years. Of course, as an irrational number, pi does not possess a finite decimal representation, (1) so Pi Day is really just a celebration of the constant’s first few significant digits. Heck, some math geeks even celebrate Pi Approximation Day (July 22, since the fraction 22/7 is a common approximation of pi). No matter, Pi Day is a day to celebrate the transcendent, fantastic, and infinitely perfect: the circumference of a circle divided by its diameter, true no matter what size the circle is. 
Temple of Heaven, Beijing
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
As geometric motifs, circles or spheres have long fascinated architects. The circle is a universal symbol, alternately suggesting wholeness, timelessness, the infinite, the sun, and the cycle of life. It has no beginning or end. At the same time, the circle is a symbol of completion, boundary, and enclosure. Its antithesis is the square, which signifies materiality and the earthbound. 
Pantheon, Rome
 This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Humans have employed the powerful symbolism of the circle to great effect for millennia. The builders of circular or spherical buildings chose their shape to emphasize their importance or meaning. This was true whether the structure was modest in size and intent (as with a small home) or an immense and imposing edifice (as exemplified by some of history’s grandest structures). 
Donato Bramante’s Tempietto, Rome
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Because of their complete symmetry, round buildings form powerful centers, coercing other buildings and even the landscape to genuflect toward them. Like the sun, they possess substantial gravity, warping the fabric of spacetime. Circular buildings are special because they represent heavenly perfection. Indeed, architects have consciously used the geometry to connote the cosmos. 
Yurt, Umpqua Lighthouse State Park (my photo)
Being a geeky architect, I’m marking Pi Day by celebrating the round, the globular, the spherical, and the rotund buildings we admire. I’ve gathered here pictures of just a few. They’re all special because their designers made them so. 
Pi Day is also a good excuse to celebrate with something else circular, perhaps a certain fruit-filled round pastry, warm from the oven. Yum. 

(1)  According to Wikipedia, supercomputers have extended the decimal representation of pi to over 13.3 trillion digits.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

A Case Study - Part 7: Denouement

Courtyard view of House B, The Lodge (all photos by Leif Photography Studio)
This is the seventh and final post of a series dedicated to a case study of a single project—the VA Roseburg Healthcare System Community Living Center (CLC) Expansion— designed by Robertson/Sherwood/Architects. Click on “A Case Study” in the Labels list at right for the full series. 
I initiated the Case Study series in January of 2012 but the story actually dates back an additional two years to early 2010 when the VA selected Robertson/ Sherwood/Architects to design a new home for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients at the VA Roseburg (Oregon) Medical Center
Nobody expected the project would take more than five full years to reach completion. After all, it was not particularly large or complex; a challenge, yes, but one everyone fully expected to successfully complete within a couple of years. As I’ve recounted in previous posts, numerous twists and turns in the story are to blame for its protracted genesis. Regardless, the strands of the plot never unraveled and today the Community Living Center Expansion project at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Roseburg, OR is welcoming its first residents.  

Living Room, Unit A
As I wrote in Part 2 of this series, our design marked a paradigm shift away from achieving machine-like efficiency and maximum staff convenience toward a patient-centric care model. We’re hopeful the experienced staff will embrace this cultural transformation and function effectively within their new environment. Some may initially resist the change, but with time we expect all will appreciate the value of providing those in their care with as dignified, de-institutionalized, and life-enhancing a home as possible.
I’ve no doubt the patients will take to their new quarters well. Despite their diminished abilities, they can still find pleasure and experience satisfaction. The effects of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease do not remove the ability to appreciate, respond to, and experience feelings such as anger, fear, joy, love, or sadness. Those afflicted are individuals who deserve to be treated with respect, integrity, compassion, and concern for their privacy and safety. We designed the CLC Expansion with these considerations in mind. 
Typical patient bedroom & bathroom
To enhance their quality of life, people with mild to moderate cognitive impairment require appropriate social and physical support. This remains true as their disease progresses. The latest research regarding Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias highlights the importance of good design as a treatment factor. Good architecture has the power to provide a highly supportive environment, one that is life-enhancing as well as functionally adaptive.  
Kitchen, Unit B
We definitely wanted to help preserve the quality of life for each resident as long as possible. Our design provides a range of opportunities for the occupants, both inside and out. These are appropriate, stimulating, and experientially supportive places full of diversity and choice. They provide options for imprinting and personalization. At the same time, we focused on creating calm, coherent spaces conducive to the patients’ limited cognitive maps. If research on the topic is any indication, we expect our design will also improve their lives when measured in terms of fewer injuries, less medication required, less sleep disturbances, and reduced wandering.
Dining Room, Unit A
Home is a place of dignity and respect, and the setting most favorable to preserving the patients’ sense of self as their disease inevitably worsens. This is especially important for those who may live out their remaining days in the facility. The comfort, happiness, and dignity of the residents are especially important to their families, who may harbor feelings of guilt for no longer being able to care for their loved ones in their own homes.  
View from the southeast

Along with my colleagues Jim Robertson, FAIA, FCSI, and Jenni Rogers, Assoc. AIA, I attended the facility’s ribbon-cutting ceremony this past February 3rd. It was tremendously gratifying to overhear many positive remarks, particularly from the family members. We’re honored to have helped the VA create a home for those who served their country and now require compassionate care in return. Our duty as architects was to provide these men (and a growing number of female veterans in the future) with as supportive, respectful, non-institutional, and rich a setting as possible in which to live their remaining days. Seeing the finished product, I believe we hit the mark.

That being said, none of us will be able to declare the CLC Expansion (christened “The Lodge” by the VA) a success until at least one and perhaps several more years have passed. It will take time before everyone with a stake in the project can fairly assess its true merit. There are many chapters left to be written in this story, and it will be the caregivers and patients who work and live in “The Lodge” who will write them. As it should be for everybody who cares about a good book, we won’t close the cover on this one quite yet.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Best Practices in Livability Policy and Design: Shelley Poticha

Shelley Poticha
The Sustainable Cities Initiative (SCI) at the University of Oregon addresses sustainability issues across all scales, from regional concerns to the individual building. Its fundamental premise is that creating the sustainable city cannot happen through the efforts of a single discipline; accordingly, SCI is grounded in a cross-disciplinary approach to solving community sustainability issues. Its work connects student passion, faculty experience, and community needs to produce innovative, tangible solutions for the creation of a sustainable society. 
SCI’s focus includes sharing the collective expertise of national (and international) authorities on the subject of livability policy and design with outside scholars, policymakers, community leaders, and project partners. Toward this end, SCI attracts and engages Experts in Residence to the University of Oregon. During three commitment-packed days, the experts interact with students and faculty in the classroom, conduct workshops for private and public sector organizations throughout Oregon, and lecture publicly. 
A fixture on the Experts in Residence schedule each year has been an intimate lunch gathering at the office of Rowell Brokaw Architects involving a select group of individuals. This group gathers because of its mutual interest in the work of the Sustainable Cities Initiative and SCI’s relevance to topical developments in the Eugene-Springfield area. Kaarin Knudsen of RBA has invited me to join the past two lunches(1); I’m honored to be counted among a group this past Tuesday that included the following august list:

  • Anne Delaney – Principal, Bergsund Delaney Architecture & Planning
  • Teri Harding – Senior Planner, City of Eugene
  • Robin Hostick – Director, City of Eugene Planning
  • Rob Inerfeld – Transportation Planning Manager, City of Eugene
  • Stephanie Jennings – Grants Manager, Lane Livability Consortium
  • Sarah Medary – Executive Director, City of Eugene Planning and Development
  • Mark Miksis – Managing Partner, DeChase Miksis Development
  • Hugh Prichard – Prichard Partners, Inc.
  • Marc Schlossberg – Co-Director, Sustainable Cities Initiative
  • Rob Zako – Executive Director, Better Eugene-Springfield Transit (BEST)
We spoke with the 2015 SCI Expert in Residence, Shelley Poticha, director of the Urban Solutions Program for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in Washington, DC. At Urban Solutions, Shelley is bringing together the place-based work of NRDC into a coordinated strategy to promote transportation choice, energy efficiency in buildings, green and equitable neighborhoods, sustainable food systems, green infrastructure, and climate preparedness. Urban Solutions is the culmination of NRDC’s thinking and work for sustainable communities since the organization adopted the area as an institutional priority. 

Prior to joining the NRDC, Shelley was a senior advisor and director of the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities at the Department of Housing and UrbanDevelopment. Before joining HUD, she served as President and CEO of Reconnecting America, where she pursued the reform of land use and transportation planning and policy with the goal of creating more sustainable and equitable development.  And prior to that, Shelley served as executive director at the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU). 

Shelley is also no stranger to Eugene; after all, her father is none other than Otto Poticha, FAIA. Shelley knows her home town as well as any of us. She was a featured speaker at the 2010 AIA Northwest & Pacific Region Conference here in Eugene, where she touched upon many of the themes that have been the hallmark of her remarkable career. These themes include her commitment to sustainability and acknowledging the undeniable relationship between the design of cities and the health of our planet. Cities are major contributors to our nation's carbon emissions and are highly vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change, especially for low-income and other disadvantaged residents. Meanwhile, cities are home to the highest rates of income inequality in the country, dragging down our shared economic strength and getting in the way of market-based solutions to climate change. 

Shelley described her four years at HUD under the leadership of former secretary Shaun Donovan as “fantastic” and “exciting.” Secretary Donovan “raised the bar” and was committed to doing the right things while in office.(2) During his tenure, HUD began tackling problems in a more integrated fashion, breaking down silos between agencies, and building coalitions to help effect changes within a culture that had become obdurate and inflexible. But Washington D.C. is also hopelessly dysfunctional. With Secretary Donovan’s departure last year, Shelley left HUD for the NRDC with the promise of being able to more immediately make a difference. 

If nothing else, Shelley is impatient. She wants to get things done. Environmental organizations like the NRDC are extremely effective at mobilizing grassroots activism. They’re savvy campaigners and advocates who know how to connect with people and what they care about. NRDC’s legal and political advocacy is a powerful tool Shelley plans to wield to great effect. Shelley envisions making contextual investments in impactful projects that are in step with the livability principles espoused by her Urban Solutions program. By “infiltrating” a big-time environmental organization, she’s found the perfect platform to sidestep the rhetoric, be a difference maker, and achieve her goal of bettering our planet by helping to make great cities. 

Shelley’s work and leadership at the NRDC is entirely consistent with the goals of the Sustainable Cities Initiative. Fundamentally, the NRDC’s Urban Solutions program is targeting the creation of strong, just, and resilient communities. Shelley believes a means to achieving these goals is to provide a bridge between community-level solutions and full-scale implementation. This includes undertaking small, low-cost, and nimble actions as well as the big, high-profile projects. Ultimately, she hopes what everyone regards as pioneering today will become business-as-usual tomorrow. 

During our lunch, Shelley noted various parts of Eugene are coming into their own at different tempos. Actions like the West Eugene extension of LTD’s EmX bus rapid transit service and the redevelopment of the EWEB riverfront property are examples of big projects poised to launch Eugene along a clear trajectory toward sustainability. Additionally, there are numerous, more incremental improvements throughout the city that are likewise contributing to our metro area’s emergence as an archetype for sustainable, mid-sized communities. 

I can imagine “build it and they will come” may be one of Shelley’s mantras. For example, she regards the recent proliferation of privately owned student apartment complexes as welcome because it is contributing to the densification of our downtown and university neighborhoods. Despite their narrow market focus, these developments will in turn attract the services and amenities characteristic of vibrant, pedestrian-oriented zones. I’m less enamored than Shelley is by what I see as the yield of a student housing “bubble,” but I get where she’s coming from. 

It is precisely the younger generations who will have the greatest say in how our cities evolve in the future. Shelley expects demographic changes will inevitably contribute to Eugene’s continued transformation. Marc Schlossberg pointed out that members of Gen Y aren’t necessarily averse to setting down roots where transformations are still nascent. Living immediately in a picture-perfect setting isn’t a necessity nor is it often possible for them to do so. Instead, they want to make their homes in cities that clearly possess “momentum” toward greater livability. They want to see changes that are values driven, values they are committed to and share in common. 

Not insignificantly, today’s youngsters are less car-dependent than their elders. They’re more apt to use public transit, walk, ride their bikes, carpool, or use car-sharing services. They’re more supportive of earth-friendly initiatives, such as the development of a robust bicycle-riding infrastructure for their communities. More of them prefer the draw of the city as opposed to life in the suburbs. Additionally, more of today’s young adults are willing to live with and consume less, reversing decades-old trends. 

The growing diversity of our population also signals an increasing willingness to consider different ways of thinking. There’s a greater tolerance for a multiplicity of ideas, as well as an openness to change. Shelley cited “tactical urbanism” (wherein plans may be implemented piecemeal or as a test-run prior to becoming permanent installations) as an approach to change that can thrive in such a climate. One present and clear opportunity for testing such a strategy is the City of Eugene’s plans for introducing bicycle-only lanes along South Willamette Street

Unfortunately, the flipside of today’s diversity is pervasive inequity, both financial and social. The disparities are well-documented. The middle class is becoming an endangered species, with housing affordability being a huge issue. A big challenge for any North American city is addressing the needs of their homeless populations. Shelley did cite the city of San Diego’s achievements in this regard, which include a holistic approach to single-room occupancy housing developments with “wrap-around” support services. These include small SROs thoroughly integrated into and dispersed throughout the urban fabric. These projects are the product of community development block grants, formula funding, Housing & Human Services grants, and a breadth of other financial resources. 

I’m cautiously optimistic about the future of our cities and Eugene in particular. I believe the necessary changes we’ve long hoped for are coming to fruition. Many of these have been simmering below the surface for a while but we’re rapidly approaching a tipping point when their widespread acceptance will boil over and be assured. 

As we continue to develop a usable suite of best practices in livability policy and design, the value of the work being done by Shelley and the NRDC’s Urban Solutions Program will become evident. We’re especially fortunate to have the Sustainable Cities Initiative here at the University of Oregon, bringing to Eugene the important voices of Shelley and others like her. 

(1) The 2014 Expert in Residence was Stellan Fryxell. Stellan is a partner at Tengbom Architects in Stockholm, and a leading urban designer and architect. He has worked on various projects in Sweden, most notably Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm.

(2)  He left the position in July of 2014 to assume the role of Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Notably, Secretary Donovan is an architect, with a degree from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.