Sunday, November 26, 2017

Synthesis: Related Thoughts

The Little Street (1657-58), by Johannes Vermeer

Bill Kleinsasser never hesitated to use the words of others to illuminate the frames of reference he defined as essential to the creation of truly good architecture. He liberally sprinkled direct quotations throughout every edition of his self-published textbook Synthesis because they not only bolstered his thesis but also because he recognized paraphrasing these extracts would only diminish their authenticity and authority.

His wellspring was extensive and eclectic, ranging from renowned authors (Ernest Hemingway, John Updike, Eudora Welty, Virginia Woolf), to poets (Ford Madox Ford, Wallace Stevens), mathematicians (Blaise Pascal), activists (Dorothy Canfield Fisher), historians and critics of art and architecture (Ada Louise Huxtable, John Ruskin, John Summerson, Harold McCarter Taylor), psychologists and psychiatrists (Jerome Bruner, Kenneth Craik, Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow), and of course architects (including Lou Kahn, Le Corbusier, Donlyn Lyndon, Charles Moore, Gio Ponti, Demetri Porphyrios, Augustus Pugin, Aldo Van Ecyk, and Frank Lloyd Wright). There were many more he also quoted.

Bill clearly was well-read, sharing with his students his appreciation for the wisdom of great thinkers. He impressed upon us the value of seeing the world through the eyes of others, those whose ideas we may have not immediately considered relevant to our work.

The following is a sampling of just a few of the “related thoughts” Bill mined to illustrate his ideas about architecture:

On Organizational Structure
“The first principle of composition is to foresee or determine the shape of what is to come, and pursue that shape. All forms of composition have skeletons to which the composer will bring the flesh and blood. The more clearly he perceives the shape, the better are his chances of success.” (William Strunk Jr.)

“Before beginning to compose something, gauge the nature and extent of the enterprise and work from a suitable design. Design informs even the simplest structure, whether of brick and steel or of prose. You raise a pup tent from one sort of vision, a cathedral from another. Columbus didn’t just sail, he sailed west, and the new world took shape from this simple and, we now think, sensible design.” (E.B. White)

On Supporting Purposes
“Never cease to identify whatever you construct with the people you are constructing it for—for those it will accommodate. Identify a building with that same building entered, and hence with those it shelters, and define space—each space built—simply as the appreciation of it. This circular definition has a purpose. You see, whilst excluding all abstract academic abracadabra, it includes what should never be excluded but paradoxically generally is: I mean those entering it, appreciating it—PEOPLE.

“Architecture can do no more, nor than it should it ever do less, than accommodate people well; assist their homecoming. The rest—those signs and symbols one is worrying about too much—will either take care of themselves or they just don’t matter.” (Aldo Van Eyck)

On Establishing Longevity
“Once the designer has made, at least metaphorically, the box or envelope, he must choose what sorts of clues to place within it. For a box offers little in itself, except perhaps a defined boundary. A box is not a free place in which anyone can set up patterns—at least not easily. It is paralyzing—it is too free. It is possible to do anything, but therefore too little. There are no points of reference, no places to begin. Posts are needed—points of departure. Then there would be things to look around, to be next to. The imagination would be triggered and the act of possessing begun.

“The responsibility of the architect then is to develop a set of posts (metaphorically): suggestions which can be considered or ignored, suggestions which hold many possible interpretations, all sound and promising. But the suggestions must not be a fixed regulation. There has to be a sort of mystery and a sense that there is still something to be found out. If all the answers are immediate, there’s no seeking. Le the user search and discover his own answers and meanings, his own uses, his own patterns. Let the place be tantalizingly incomplete, even somewhat obscure. Give duplicity and multiplicity of meaning.” (Ronald R. Lee)

On Responding to Place
"It seems plain that the art that speaks most clearly, explicitly, directly, and passionately from its place or origin will remain the longest understood. It is through place that we put out roots, wherever birth, chance, fate or our traveling selves set us down; but where these roots reach toward is the deep and running vein, eternal and consistent and everywhere purely itself, that feeds and is fed by the human understanding.

“Whatever is significant and whatever is tragic in a place live as long as the place does, though they are unseen, and the new life will be built upon these things.” (Eudora Welty)

On Maintaining Historical Continuity
“Calling other works to mind allows the present to form links back to past works. Again, we will have conviction about the conventions of architecture, like the conventions of law, only when they are in that chain of esteemed instances. Linking forward and back forges a building and the conventions it displays into that chain.” (William Hubbard)

On Achieving Clarity
“Five lines where three is enough is always stupidity. Nine pounds where there are sufficient is obesity. But to eliminate expressive words in speaking or writing—words that intensify or vivify meaning—is not simplicity. Nor is similar elimination in architecture simplicity. It may be, and usually is, stupidity.

“Do not think that simplicity means something like the side of a barn, but something with graceful sense of beauty in its utility from which discord and all that is meaningless has been eliminated.

"This is, I believe, the single secret of simplicity: that we may truly regard nothing at all as simple in itself. I believe that no one thing is ever so, but must achieve simplicity—as an artist should use the term—as a perfectly realized part of some organic whole.

“In architecture, expressive changes of surface, emphasis of line and especially textures of material and imaginative pattern, may go to make facts more eloquent—forms more significant. Elimination, therefore, may be just as meaningless as elaboration, perhaps more often is so. To know what to leave out and what to put in; jus where and just how, ah, that is to have been educated in knowledge of simplicity-toward ultimate freedom of expression.

“Truly ordered simplicity in the hands of the great artist may flower into a bewildering profusion, exquisitely exuberant, and render all more clear than ever.

“False simplicity—simplicity as an affectation, that is, simplicity constructed as a decorator’s outside upon a complicated, wasteful engineer’s or carpenter’s structure, outside or inside—is not good enough simplicity. It cannot be simple at all.” (Frank Lloyd Wright)

On Establishing Vitality
“Architecture, by virtue of its actual limitations, can exploit our capacity for dramatizing ourselves, for heightening the action of ordinary life; it can increase man’s psychological stature to an angel’s. All this it does through its irrevocable attachment to function. The dramatizing of movements appropriate to architecture (and impossible without architecture), movements like entering through a door, looking out of a window, mounting steps or walking on a terrace, is something with which other forms of art have nothing to do. Here is architecture’s special province which on the one hand constricts its movement and on the other intensifies its meaning.” (John Summerson)

Saturday, November 18, 2017

November AIA-SWO Chapter Meeting Recap

AIA-SWO chapter meeting, 11/15/17 at Sam Bond's Brewing

The AIA-Southwestern Oregon Committee on Local Affairs (CoLA) enjoyed the privilege of sharing the story of its genesis, history, efforts, and aspirations during this past Wednesday’s cozy AIA-SWO chapter meeting at Sam Bond’s Brewing. The presentation and ensuing discussion was an opportunity for CoLA to inform the chapter members in attendance about the committee’s mission, who its members are, how it chooses to do what it does, and enumerate the issues it has engaged since its inception in 2015.

I’ve been a member of CoLA from the start. The other current members are Scott Clarke (chair), Austin Bailey, Eric Gunderson, Stan Honn, and Travis Sheridan. The AIA-SWO Board of Directors appointed each of us for two-year terms that are staggered for the sake of continuity. One CoLA seat is always occupied by the immediate SWO past-president; Stan fills this role, serving as a direct liaison between CoLA and the board). Going forward, the SWO board will strive to nominate members to reflect as much diversity as possible; presently, CoLA conspicuously lacks a female member, but this will be rectified next year when Katie Hall steps into the SWO past-president role and joins the committee.

Historically, our chapter has regularly sought to provide valuable public commentary about matters of local importance related to the built environment. Whether it was the GDA (“God-Damned Architects”), the “Dead Presidents,” or other previous incarnations of a local affairs committee, the goal always has been to raise awareness about what our profession brings to the table by directly and publicly engaging in locally relevant topics.

Today, CoLA’s stated mission is to take positions on issues that affect the practice of architecture and the design and planning of the Eugene-Springfield community.(1) CoLA communicates the substance of these concerns to the AIA-SWO chapter membership and strives to represent its most commonly held views. CoLA promotes policies and positions that inform positive actions on or around the issues it becomes involved with.

Our committee carefully selects topics of interest, only choosing a limited number to maximize our effectiveness. The AIA-SWO board does recommend issues for us to consider; however, all that we do consider must be relevant to our profession, of community-wide importance, and carry implications beyond a single project. We study each and decide whether or not to adopt a public position.

Our mission includes providing a platform for AIA-SWO members to share their views with CoLA. We do this by informing the chapter about our intent to take on a topic and then soliciting input. Ultimately, when we publicly announce a position, we take care to identify ourselves as CoLA, a committee of the American Institute of Architects Southwestern Oregon Chapter. Notably, when the chapter sanctioned CoLA in its present form, the SWO board empowered our committee to take positions without necessarily securing its approval in advance.

Any position statement we do generate is the result of consensus between all CoLA members. Given how varied and divergent the opinions of AIA-SWO’s entire membership can be, this is one reason why the number of CoLA members is deliberately kept to a small number. We purposefully do not endorse political candidates. We do organize and encourage chapter members to advocate on behalf of CoLA’s positions in public settings, such as at city council meetings or by writing letters to the editors of the Register-Guard or Eugene Weekly.

During the chapter meeting, Scott, Eric, Stan, Travis, and I discussed this history, our committee’s mission, and enumerated CoLA’s accomplishments (due to another engagement, Austin wasn’t able to be with us). We’ve been active on numerous fronts, perhaps more so than most SWO members realize. Looking back, the list of what we’ve taken on is impressive:

  • Discussed possible contribution to ASLA visioning forum for a revitalized Kesey Square.
  • Attended South Willamette Special Area Zone neighborhood group meetings.
  • Attended Envision Eugene open house to review progress on the city’s Community Design Handbook.
  • Participated in Project for Public Places stakeholder workshop, fall 2016.
  • Sent two separate letters to the mayor, council, and city manager regarding planning of the stillborn South Willamette Special Area Zone (one regarding how to move forward in the wake of SW-SAZ being halted by the city council, and another regarding the Oregon Consensus Assessment process).
  • Met with COE staff members regarding the draft Community Design Handbook and provided significant feedback.
  • Met with individuals representing a variety of perspective on topics of civic interest; these included representatives from WECAN, new mayor Lucy Vinis, and neighborhood-advocate Paul Conte.
  • Attended multiple public meetings on a variety of topics of interest to CoLA, most notably several related to the South Willamette Special Area Zone.
  • Wrote an opinion piece for the Register-Guard endorsing extension of the Eugene downtown urban renewal district. 
  • Attended Chamber of Commerce meeting, attended by Claire Syrett, in support of continuing the Urban Renewal District.
  • Established standing monthly meetings (noon on the last Thursday of each month) open to all AIA-SWO members.
  • Participated in Project for Public Places stakeholder workshop. 
  • Contributed to a Eugene Weekly article regarding the future of the EWEB Riverfront redevelopment. 
  • Endorsed application by Dave Guadagni, AIA to represent AIA-SWO interests as one of the City of Eugene’s “Riverfront Renewal Guides” (citizens’ advisory committee).
  • Reviewed/discussed ADU workshop developments with David Wade. 
  • Entered letter to the public record in support of the Amazon Corner mixed-use development. 
  • Wrote an opinion piece for Eugene Weekly commending the City of Eugene and Lane County for their collaborative efforts to reshape Eugene’s civic center.
  • Discussed the City of Eugene’s management of its public art.
  • Developed a strong tie with the editorial leadership at the Eugene Weekly (Camilla Mortensen, Bob Keefer). 
  • Attended Missing Middle workshop. 
  • Wrote letter to city council, mayor, and city manager supporting study of River Road and Hwy 99 corridors with the goal of implementing values and objectives established by Envision Eugene. 
  • Continued to track Eugene City Council decision-making on and subsequent abandonment of the SW-SAZ planning effort. 
Our most recent project is the piece we wrote for the upcoming AIA-SWO Design Annual insert in the Register-Guard, to be published on November 30.

One way chapter members can track some of what our committee does is to subscribe to my blog. I’ve tagged all the posts regarding our work under the label “CoLA.” I do try to report regularly about our activities in an effort to keep everyone informed. We also encourage AIA-SWO members to attend our committee meetings, which regularly occur on the fourth Thursday of each month, at noon in The Octagon (92 East Broadway in downtown Eugene). The meetings are definitely an opportunity for anyone to weigh in and voice concerns and express opinions on the topics du jour.

The chapter members who attended Wednesday’s chapter meeting did affirm the general principles and operational structure of CoLA. They offered many thoughtful ideas for leveraging and expanding CoLA’s efforts. Here are some highlights:
  • Consider focusing CoLA efforts on one specific issue, for example housing, and allow that topic to prioritize efforts for the year.
  • Connect with the efforts of chapter members already engaged in important community issues. Track the efforts of those members, including their participation in committees, boards, etc. Allow their efforts to become an extension of CoLA’s work.
  • Continue to work towards establishing credibility. Contact local leaders and let them know about CoLA’s mission and find ways to seek common ground. Partner with groups holding shared values (such as ASLA and APA) but also groups (such as the Home Builders Association) that we may not immediately think of as natural partners. Ideally, the entire community will recognize CoLA as a resource regarding issues concerning the built environment of Eugene/Springfield, and a sounding board for those seeking the perspective of our profession.
Overall, the November chapter meeting was very positive and affirming. That said, I left thinking those who attended our presentation have high expectations for CoLA, and the burdens of those expectations suddenly felt weighty. I hope we can continue to take them on without becoming overwhelmed in the process. The coming year will be one of transition for our committee as we continue to mature from a “start-up” to a sustainable operation. Be sure to let us know your thoughts. We welcome your input and encouragement!

(1)  Unfortunately, for reasons of practicality, CoLA cannot address concerns specific to the other AIA-SWO communities, such as Bend, Corvallis, or Roseburg. Regardless, our hope is that the issues we do tackle provide insights and offer lessons of value for our far-flung chapter members.