Saturday, April 22, 2017

#FollowMe

 
I finally made it! As of this week, I have more than one thousand Twitter followers! 
 
Okay, that’s small potatoes by most standards.(1) On the other hand, most of these tweeps are targeted followers, that is people who are interested in my tweets and will read them. A good number of these people will in turn read SW Oregon Architect because many of my updates announce and link the latest posts on my blog. As I wrote back in 2011 when I first signed on, the goal was to use Twitter to broaden the reach of my blog. I think it’s worked well in this regard. 
 
Twitter is a good place for bloggers to find targeted traffic. Do I want people to read SW Oregon Architect? Sure. It’s gratifying to know—through interactions on Twitter, Facebook, comments on any of my blog posts, or otherwise—that people find what I write interesting or newsworthy. I realize my blog will almost always be limited in appeal and audience, if for no other reason than my focus has always been first and foremost to provide a forum for the discussion of items of interest to AIA-Southwestern Oregon and CSI-Willamette Valley Chapter members. Nevertheless, attracting the interest of readers outside this limited sphere is also something I aim for.(2) 
 
I’ve never used any of the popular strategies to secure additional Twitter followers. I’ve gained (and lost) quite a few—most often users associated with accounts involved with Internet marketing or something like that—that are obviously buying or fishing for followers in return. I almost always never follow these people back, and invariably they unfollow me. A high percentage of these are probably not even human; instead, they’re fake Twitter users—auto-following robot accounts. 
 
For my part I restrict who I follow on Twitter to my friends, folks involved with architecture or construction, those who tweet about local news here in Eugene, or personalities involved with Oregon Ducks athletics (my guilty pleasure). These users generate an endless stream of focused, quality tweets, more than I can ever hope to consume. They make Twitter endlessly fun and interesting. 
 
Forgive me for tooting my own horn. If you like reading my blog, you may share my Twitter interests. I retweet the best and most relevant content I come across. I take part in Twitter conversations with some of the most knowledgeable and remarkable people. I do these and other things because I enjoy everything the Twitterverse offers. News of its pending demise notwithstanding, I believe the platform will survive because of its directness, brevity, and ability to forge connections. 
 


(1)   Katy Perry can boast the most of all, with an absolutely incredible 97 million followers. Donald Trump, the Twitterer-in-Chief, has 20 million followers.

(2)   Of course, the quality of content or lack thereof plays the biggest role in determining whether my blog attracts eyeballs. For good reason, Bob Borson’s very popular Life of an Architect blog is literally visited millions of times each year. By contrast, since I first began writing SW Oregon Architect in 2008 the total number of unique pageviews is only now approaching a half-million. Still, that’s thousands of pageviews per month. Even if only a small percentage of these are legitimately interested in what I have to say, that’s amazing to me. FYI, Bob has more than 15,500 followers on Twitter.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Missing Middle

Every seat was taken at The Studio in the Hult Center for Daniel Parolek's presentation on Tuesday, April 11, 2017

A packed house was on hand at the The Hult Center in Eugene last week for the 2017 AIA-SWO Design Excellence Series lecture by Daniel Parolek, AIA. Daniel is a principal of Opticos Design, a firm with a passion for vibrant, sustainable, walkable urban places. The Design Excellence committee invited Daniel to speak here to address the growing need for a diversity of affordable housing types that bridge the gap between single-family residences and large multifamily housing complexes. Daniel coined the term “missing middle housing” in 2010 to advocate for a paradigm shift in the way homes are designed, located, regulated, and developed to help fill this gap. 
 
It’s with good reason the catchphrase “missing middle” is the flavor du jour in urban planning circles. It refers to a range of multi-unit or clustered housing types compatible in scale with single-family homes that help meet a demand for walkable urban living. As Daniel explained, well-designed missing middle buildings greatly diversify the choices available for households of different age, size, and income. This diversity of choices is much needed in cities like Eugene, where our population growth threatens to widen a disparity between the supply of and demand for affordable housing. 
 
Daniel pointed to the mismatch between what the housing market wants and what it provides. Part of this is due to dramatic shifts in household demographics. 30% of households today are single-person. 35% are renters and not property owners. Analysts say by the year 2025, 75% to 85% of households will be childless. Nationwide, 7,000 people turn 65 every day. And yet, the housing industry is geared toward the production of large homes on suburban lots owned and occupied by single families on the one hand, or high-density multifamily housing in large developments on the other. These tendencies ignore the growing segment of our society who are not looking at those ends of the spectrum to fill their housing needs. 
 
Missing Middle housing types (click image to enlarge)
 
Missing middle housing is a response to our changing demographics, population growth, and the lack of diverse housing options. Missing middle housing types—which include side-by-side and stacked duplexes, bungalow courts, carriage houses, fourplexes, townhouses, courtyard apartments, and other types—provide a range of choices, a range that is too often absent in many markets. 
 
The physical appearance of missing middle housing belies the density possible; higher densities do not necessarily translate to bigger buildings. Keeping the individual units small is the secret; 600 to 700 square feet apiece is often enough. Side-by-side duplexes can achieve a density of 12-19 dwelling units per acre; townhouses, up to 29 units per acre. As many as 50 DU/acre are possible with courtyard apartment configurations. Densities of 16 DU/acre or more are sufficient to support a nearby main street with locally-focused businesses and public transportation. 
 
In a nutshell, the characteristics of missing middle housing include the following:
  • Walkable context (people want proximity to services and amenities)
  • Lowered perceived density (missing middle types don’t look like dense buildings)
  • Small footprint buildings (compatible with the scale of neighboring single-family homes
  • Small, efficient units (smaller units keep costs down)
  • Fewer off-street parking spaces (no more than one per unit)
  • Affordability by design (simple construction)
 
As Daniel put it “what millennials want, baby boomers need.” For the younger generation, particularly those who delay having children, a walkable lifestyle, close-in to the amenities of stimulating urban centers, is attractive. Significantly, a smaller percentage of millennials than previous generations own cars; those that do not gravitate to areas offering multimodal transportation options. Baby boomers likewise wish to stay active and engaged, but without the need for the large suburban homes they raised their families in. They’re downsizing and seeking a convenient, easy lifestyle in retirement. Missing middle housing can fit the bill for both groups.
 
Daniel says exclusionary zoning bylaws too often present barriers to the development of appropriate and desirable housing options. In his view, cities need to remove these barriers to give missing middle developments a chance. Some of these barriers include regulations that cater to the automobile (i.e. demanding more parking spaces than practically necessary), unnecessarily segregate uses, or inadvertently foster overly large, overly expensive units. Rather than codes that encourage maximization of developable space by means of uncoordinated parameters, Daniel is a champion for form-based codes that foster predictable results. Form-based codes dictate the urban form, scale, and configuration of buildings to ensure design compatibility and thus the assent of longtime neighbors. 
 
Daniel believes another key to acceptance of missing middle housing is to remove the baggage that comes along with talking about non-single-family housing choices in communities. He avoids using the terms “density” and “multifamily,” choosing instead to explain to skeptical neighbors why a proposed project will make their community a better place and how it will benefit them individually. Often, this discussion will point out how increased density can help a valued commercial node thrive or support expansion of mobility options. 
 
An example of missing middle housing: The Arcadia Community project in Eugene, designed by studio-e architecture and now under construction (rendering by Hopper Illustration) 
 
Some critics, including neighborhood advocate Paul Conte here in Eugene, contend examples of missing middle dwellings are often too small, too expensive, fail to provide adequate off-street parking, or are by economic necessity part of large greenfield developments distant from the urban center (Crescent Village being a case in point). In their view, the introduction of missing middle housing types in healthy, established neighborhoods can only work if it is the outcome of a community-driven process that dives deeply into issues of structural form, market demand, affordability, and traffic impact. Absent such a process, the inevitable results are resistance to change. 
 
Affordability is certainly a huge issue and a deterrent to the construction of missing middle developments. Housing costs in Eugene during just the past five years have increased by 45%. Household incomes have not kept pace, growing only 16% on average over the same period. Clearly, if a city is to remain a sustainable community it must have an inventory of “workforce housing” targeting households ranging between 60% and 100% of the Area Median Income (AMI). The problem may not be so much a matter of missing middle housing types as it is missing middle economics. Do the attractive housing forms Daniel included in his presentation always pencil out? His answer would be there is no reason why they cannot. He contends affordability is really a matter of design, one that shouldn’t have to rely upon subsidies. 
 
A bungalow court (photo from the Missing Middle website)
 
Is truly viable missing middle housing simply a fantasy? I for one don’t want to discount the possibility that such a unicorn is a reality. It isn’t necessary to introduce all the missing middle housing types in and about a given neighborhood. For example, what’s wrong with only inserting alley-way carriage houses in Eugene’s south and west university districts, targeting occupancy by individual college students? I may be na├»ve but I’d prefer to see distributed, small-scale examples of missing middle housing rather than block-busting student housing mega-developments that radically alter the morphology of neighborhoods historically comprised of single-family houses. MMH elsewhere in Eugene would obviously cater to other market segments as well. 
 
Architects (and planners) have a propensity for latching onto the latest fad, cult, or silver bullet. That said, the missing middle concept has legs. This isn’t a fad. The market is waiting. Done right, missing middle housing can help provide a critical mass for supporting complete, diverse, and walkable neighborhoods, while reducing pressure on the urban periphery. I think the recipe for success demands creative, inspired design, but that may also be the reason why it is elusive: the making of good, deferential architecture that respects its context hasn’t always been our profession’s strong suit. Regardless, it’s clear our housing stock needs diversification. In Daniel’s words, “it’s time to rethink and evolve, reinvent and renew.” 
 
*    *    *    *    *    *
 
Daniel Parolek’s lecture to a full house was due to the efforts and support of the following impressive roster of co-presenters and sponsors: 
  • 1000 Friends of Oregon
  • AARP Oregon
  • AIA Southwestern Oregon
  • American Planning Association – Oregon Chapter
  • Architects Building Community
  • Better Eugene-Springfield Transit
  • Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce
  • Eugene Association of Realtors
  • League of Women Voters of Lane County
  • Springfield Chamber of Commerce
  • The University of Oregon Transportation and Livability Student Group (LiveMove)
  • University of Oregon School of Architecture & Allied Arts
  • Walkable Eugene Citizen Advisory Network
AIA-SWO’s Design Excellence Committee certainly deserves singling out for yet another noteworthy installment of its Making Great Cities series of lectures. As with every previous presentation, the committee has contributed to a timely, meaningful, and defining dialogue about how to improve our built environment. Daniel Parolek’s visit to Eugene (and likewise to another sold-out audience in Bend) has undoubtedly spurred a conversation that will continue for years to come. 

Daniel Parolek, AIA

Following up the next day on Daniel’s lecture, AARP Oregon hosted a forum on the future of housing at the Sprout! Market Hall in Springfield. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend but I did hear there was consensus around using missing middle housing in our community to improve housing diversity and affordability. I’m hopeful we’ll soon see an increasing number of exemplary missing middle developments, easing our housing crunch by providing reasonably priced homes of varied types for our rapidly changing population and demographics.  
 

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Architecture is Awesome #14: Harmony

Scroll detail, Santa Maria Novella church, Florence; designed by Leon Battista Alberti. Photo by Amada44 licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

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.

Historians regard Leon Battista Alberti to be one of the principal figures of the early Italian Renaissance. He was the epitome of the Renaissance Man: at once an author, artist, humanist, linguist, mathematician, poet, philosopher, and architect. Perhaps due to his wide-ranging curiosity, he never singled out one field of his studies as prevailing or governing over the others. Instead, Alberti regarded all his interests equally; however, he did consider mathematics to be common ground for both the arts and sciences. It was from the perspective of mathematics that he would formulate his seminal views on art and architecture. More specifically, he believed beauty in painting, sculpture, or architecture to be the pleasing agreement of parts in a composition, very much contingent upon the number, proportion, and arrangement demanded by harmony.

The word harmony derives from ancient Greek, in which it meant “to fit together” or “to join.” Alberti broadly invoked ancient Greek and Roman theorists, who believed as he did that harmony is fundamentally a mathematical construct. In large part due to Alberti’s influence, Renaissance architecture would come to be characterized by mathematical proportion and units of measurement based on human scale as much as it would a borrowed classical vocabulary of columns, pediments, and arches.

For many of us, harmony finds its most accessible expression in music. The basis of musical sound can be described mathematically. Playing multiple notes at the same time can produce aesthetically pleasing harmonies. Discrete pitches correspond to particular frequencies, which can be expressed numerically. A musical scale has an interval of repetition—the octave—that is exactly twice that of a given note. In Western tradition, composers used chords to manipulate harmony. A chord is a harmonic set of pitches consisting of two or more notes. We naturally recognize and enjoy pleasing harmonies when we hear them.

Alberti reasoned that “what is pleasing to the ear should be pleasing to the eye,” so it followed that beauty should be a harmony inherent in a building, a harmony which can be detected through rational means—mathematics. He further asserted in his treatise De Re Aedificatoria that harmony consists of the relation of all parts to each other and to a greater whole, all governed by mathematical laws:

“Beauty is that reasoned harmony of all the parts within a body, so that nothing may be added, taken away, or altered, but for the worse. It is a great and holy matter; all our resources of skill and ingenuity will be taxed in achieving it; and rarely is it granted, even to nature herself, to produce anything that is entirely complete and perfect in every respect."

So defined, harmony is the essence of beauty. Alberti recommended simple proportions—one to one, one to two, one to three, two to three, three to four—which he found to be the elements of musical harmony as well as the basis for the proportioning systems of ancient architecture.

In architecture, the expression of harmony is conveyed through composition, proportion, and scale of parts in balance with one another. We regard certain buildings as harmonious and pleasing because their parts play well together to achieve a whole that likewise is consonant with its surroundings. Harmonious buildings are not dissonant. They are rich in their diversity but in tune with their neighbors and the natural world. Harmonious buildings abide by grammatical rules founded upon mathematical and aesthetic principles. Like nature does, they exhibit a living structure and recurrent patterns.

Fundamentally, everything in our world displays its own level of harmony with its surroundings. If there is artistry at work in the work humans do, greater harmony is achieved. The connectedness, the sameness, the oneness underlying all things—be it music, nature, art, or building—is invariable in the wholeness of a world in harmony.

Like the ancients he admired, Alberti believed harmony could be mathematically deduced and represented in the proportions of architectural elements in a structure. We may not be able to generate harmony mechanistically, but it is achievable through intuition, inspiration, learned experience, and artistry. We’ve long had the means to mathematically measure harmony in design, music, or the natural world. It all implies a cosmological underpinning for everything that is nothing short of AWESOME.
 
Next Architecture is Awesome: #15 Optimism 
 
 

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Poetic Impact

Hasht Behesht Palace, Isfhan, Iran (Photo by Diego Delso, delso.photo, License CC-BY-SA)

It’s time for another installment from the late Bill Kleinsasser’s self-published textbook SYNTHESIS. In the selection below he tackles the challenge of defining what constitutes poetry in architecture, that which elevates mere building to art by heightening the awareness of, and laying open and vulnerable the mind of the observer. For Bill, the realization of poetic impact in architecture must arise naturally, if it comes at all, as it cannot be imposed. 
 
Architects risk living in an aesthetic bubble of irrelevancy. Poetic impact is not a matter of taste, nor should it be the sole province of an initiated elite. Bill believed the poetic potential of architecture derives from a process of studying, developing, and responding to a broad range of very real concerns, only revealing itself after great effort as a synthesis of many factors. 
 
Bill seldom shied from invoking the words of others to reinforce his own points, in this instance quoting Le Corbusier and Harold Taylor directly. Bill’s eclectic and broad list of those who inspired and influenced him comprised a highbrow who’s who. The words of intellects as disparate as Jacob Bronowski, Jerome Bruner, Jean Cocteau, Carl Jung, William Faulkner, John Keats, Jackson Pollock, Wallace Stevens, Aldo Van Eyck, Eudora Welty, and William Strunk and E.B. White served as frequent touchstones. I may write a post someday that compiles many of the quotes Bill drew upon to illustrate the principles he espoused. 
 
Poetic Impact
The ultimate goal of all forms of art is poetic impact, that sudden realization of the extraordinary and the transcendent—the awareness of a profound and noble achievement. Le Corbusier expressed this well when he wrote: 
 
“You employ stone, wood, and concrete, and with these materials you build houses and palaces; that is construction. Ingenuity is at work. But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good, I am happy and I say: This is beautiful. That is architecture. Art enters in. My house is practical. I thank you, as I might thank railway engineers or the telephone service. You have not touched my heart. But suppose the walls rise toward heaven in such a way that I am moved. I perceived your intentions. Your mood has been gentle, brutal, charming or noble. The stones you have erected tell me so. You fix me to the place and my eyes regard it. They behold something that expresses a thought. A thought which reveals itself without word or sound, but solely by means of shapes which stand in a certain relation to one another. These shapes are such that they are clearly revealed in light. The relationships between them are not necessarily any reference to what is practical or descriptive. They are a mathematical creation of your mind. They are the language of architecture. By the use of inert materials and starting from conditions more or less utilitarian, you have established certain relationships which have aroused my emotions. This is architecture.” 
 
Poetic impact, however, is a perplexing subject. Experience in today’s world tells us that it has many more definitions that the one stated above—so many, in fact, that it seems often to lose all meaning. It seems to exist sometimes when we don’t expect it. It seems not to exist for others sometimes when it does for ourselves. Some people seem to be greatly affected by it while others are not. We sometimes hear people say, “this is beautiful,” but when we inspect the object of their enthusiasm we feel that they must have been referring to something else, or to something other than the intrinsic qualities of the object. 
 
Indeed, people seem to have an easy time liking something—a place for example—for reasons that come not from its inner strengths but from causes that are external, even superficial. The place may conform to tenets of their preferred lifestyle. It may fit a momentary mood. It may be comfortably conventional (or fashionable). It may appeal because of the fact they made it (or part of it) themselves. Any or all of these causes seem able to induce the label “poetic,” and this is perplexing because it suggests poetic impact is ephemeral and just a personal matter, that it is achievable by accident as by great effort and serious intent. 
 
The definition of poetic impact stated earlier, however, instructs and ordains that this is not so. If poetic impact is truly about the realization of the extraordinary, the transcendent, the noble, the profound, then it involves experiences that are more than merely momentary and personal. It involves experience that is both real and allegorical, concrete and spiritual. 
 
Dr. Harold Taylor (in Art and the Intellect): “ . . . the experience of art is one that quickens the human consciousness to a greater sensitivity of feeling and a higher level of discrimination among ideas and emotions. The experience of art is a way of enriching the quality of the human experience and reaching a precision in the choice of values. It is not an experience that takes an artist out of the context of his society, but an experience which moves through contemporary reality into new levels of awareness of what human society is. It draws attention to other values in the world than those of material, social, and political power. The experience of art leads each of us into discussions of ultimates, into questions of truth, into serious philosophy, since the responses evoked in each of us becomes part of our way of looking at the world and part of our stated and unstated vocabulary of response.” 
 
And with specific insight regarding the elusiveness of poetic impact, Dr. Taylor goes on to say: 
 
“. . . the experience of art is a particular kind of experience which requires for its fulfillment a discipline freely undertaken, a knowledge firmly grasped, a heightened consciousness and an intensity of interest in the creative and imaginative aspects of human life.” 
 
In other words, the transcending experience of art, the “touching of the heart” as Le Corbusier put it, is dependent upon an awareness in the observer that is established by experience, curiosity, sensitivity, preparation. Poetic impact is then, at least by the definition set forth here, much more than simply a personal matter, and it requires for its full realization that the observer be able to come part way. 
 
(WK/1983)