Sunday, September 24, 2023

Architecture and the Human Condition

The Sagrada Familia, Barcelona; Antoni Guadi, architect (photo by Garry Nishimura)

From the moment I first became fascinated with architecture as a child, I have believed the buildings and places we respond to most deeply are founded upon bases that are truly profound. My dilemma was and remains my inability to articulate how we know them. Why is this? Even as a youngster I recognized something distinguishes an inspired work of architecture from designs that merely fulfill a pragmatic need. I still know a great building or place when I see it, but entirely why this is so continues to elude me.
I do think it boils down in part to how effectively a given example tells us something about the people for whom it was designed. Essentially, architecture provided these people with a means to frame their being in the world—a form of art and spatial thinking for exploring and expressing the human condition.
The “human condition” refers to the fundamental aspects of human existence, experience, and the challenges, emotions, and questions that are inherent to being human. It encompasses the complexities of life, society, morality, identity, and the search for meaning in the human experience. These universal themes recur throughout art, literature, music, and architecture, resonating across different cultures, time periods, and backgrounds. Architects have engaged with these themes to create spaces that not only address practical requirements, but also elevate our experiences and help us understand the complexities of our existence.
Buildings shape our perceptions and interactions with the environment, providing a tangible and sensory experience of the world. They possess the power to convey shared experiences and memories. Just as a poem, tale, or religious text may speak of the particular while touching upon the universal, great architecture meaningfully defines the spaces we inhabit while underscoring the relationship between us and our surroundings. Great architecture reminds us of our capacity to shape the world, our societies, and our experiences. In doing so, it helps us explore the complex and universal aspects of the human condition, providing spaces that inspire, connect, and reflect our humanity.
Hannah Arendt

Citing the human condition prompts a discussion about the book bearing that as its title (The Human Condition) by the German American philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). Arendt explored the idea that human existence is deeply intertwined with the realms of labor, work, and action, and that these distinct activities shape our understanding of the human condition and our engagement with the world. She regarded spatial thinking as “political” thinking, as it is concerned about the world and its inhabitants. We certainly can understand spatial thinking here as architectural thinking: the “world” for Arendt meant the ways in which we make the globe habitable for people: how we build houses and cities, infrastructures, and other networks, and furnish spaces with tables, chairs, paintings, and photographs.
Hannah Arendt's insights on spatial thinking as political thinking illuminate the significance of architecture in the human condition. Architecture is not isolated from the world it inhabits; rather, it plays a crucial role in making the world habitable. It shapes our sense of place, connects people, and influences the dynamics of society. The built environment, from houses and cities to infrastructure and furnishings, contributes to the durability of the common world, providing a relative permanence to human affairs.
Architects thus have a responsibility to consider the greater good in their designs, just as artists engage with the human condition to offer life-affirming narratives. While there is value in art that critiques, shocks, or perplexes, architecture's enduring impact on daily life calls for spaces that aspire to be pleasing and meaningful. Buildings should heighten our awareness of our existence in a particular time and place, offering rewards with each visit and turn. As Hannah Arendt indirectly implied, architecture is intrinsically tied to societal, cultural, and environmental factors. Architecture should engage with these external considerations while remaining true to its fundamental duty of helping us understand our place in the world.
Cloud Gate ("The Bean"), by Anish Kapoor (my photo)

Identity and belonging are integral aspects of the human condition. By incorporating cultural elements, materials, and motifs that embrace a specific identity, architecture fosters a sense of connection to one's heritage and community. Community and isolation are themes deeply embedded in architectural choices. Well-designed public buildings, communal spaces, and mixed-use developments encourage social interaction and the formation of bonds between individuals. In contrast, poorly conceived environments lead to isolation and disconnection.
Architecture can also address themes of conflict and harmony. In regions marked by historical strife, buildings can serve as beacons of reconciliation and unity. Conversely, the urban environment itself may reveal tensions and contrasts, echoing the complex interplay of diverse societies coexisting in shared spaces.
Mortality and legacy are constants of the human condition. Enduring structures stand across time as monuments to human achievement and culture. Museums, libraries, and iconic landmarks become tangible representations of our collective history and aspirations. Sacred architecture, found in temples, churches, mosques, and other religious structures evoke feelings of awe, reverence, and a profound connection to the divine.
Architecture often serves as a canvas for the spirit of innovation and progress. New designs embody optimism and the potential for advancement in technology, culture, and society. Through its materials, spatial organization, symbolism, and sustainability features, contemporary architecture increasingly engages with and reflects the multifaceted aspects of today’s human condition, offering us spaces that not only satisfy practical needs but also elevate our experiences.
Architects and designers continually explore these universal themes, adapting them to modern-day contexts and challenges. The built environment has the power to influence and shape human experiences, making architecture a powerful medium for expressing and addressing the complex and universal aspects of the human condition.
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Frank Lloyd Wright, architect (my photo)

By defining architecture in part as an expression of the human condition, am I closer to breaking the code? Is the extent to which architects consciously design buildings as representations of ourselves a key to understanding architecture? Beyond our perceptions of their utility, construction, and beauty (associated with such qualities as proportion, harmony, elegance, and more) is how buildings express the human condition an equal prerequisite for qualification as great or simply good architecture? I think so.   
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One reason I blog is because doing so provides me with a record of some of my more pretentious musings. I get these thoughts in my head and feel compelled to write them down before I lose them. I’ve consequently gone down more rabbit holes than I care to admit in pursuit of architectural truths. Such was the case for me today, a rewarding and satisfying way to spend a lazy, rainy September afternoon. Happy Sunday everyone.  

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Kaarin Knudson for Mayor!

Kaarin Knudson, AIA

As someone who is invested in the future of our city, I am excited to endorse Kaarin Knudson for mayor of Eugene. Kaarin announced her candidacy during a press conference last week in advance of next May’s primary election. As a principal with Larco Knudson Sustainable Urban Design, she brings a fresh perspective to local politics, one that combines her experience as an architect, urban designer, university educator, and community leader. Kaarin’s unique skill set and vision are exactly what our community needs as Eugene faces a host of critical challenges.
What sets Kaarin apart is precisely her background as an architect and urban designer. Architects are trained to see the bigger picture, think analytically in three dimensions, and work toward integration and synthesis. The best architects are creative and collaborative problem-solvers, while possessing an outstanding talent for communication and teamwork. In these and other respects, architects are well suited for political leadership, particularly at the municipal level where their skills can help move communities toward tangible and effective policy changes across a broad front. Alas, too few architects have stepped up to the plate.(1)
A key reason why I wholeheartedly support Kaarin is her unwavering pledge to address the housing crisis in Eugene. Housing is not just a matter of shelter; it is the foundation of health and opportunity for everyone. Presently, many local households struggle to simply meet basic needs, and this struggle is compounded by the high cost of available shelter. That said, the absence of quality housing options that serve diverse needs and lifestyles is not solely an affordability issue; it is additionally tied to matters of policy that have for too long been at odds with the realities of Eugene’s shifting demographics and aspirations toward becoming a sustainable and inclusive community. As a founding director and board member of Better Housing Together, Kaarin has led efforts to see policies enacted that would diversify the available housing stock. As mayor, she would assume a new platform upon which she would be empowered to help move the rhetoric beyond advocacy toward effective policy.
Kaarin’s firsthand expertise as an architect and urban designer further includes her understanding of the importance and complexity of planning goals. Aligning support for the business community, housing choice, mobility, and equity is crucial to ensuring Eugene’s future development is sustainable and benefits all residents. It’s that big picture perspective again: By training, Kaarin would bring a holistic view, contextual understanding, strategic thinking, and the ability to synthesize information from a variety of sources and disciplines to her role as mayor. These are traits I want to see in our leaders, especially when we expect them to navigate a complex and dynamic political environment in pursuit of long-term goals and objectives.
I admire Kaarin’s dedication to Eugene, her desire to make a difference, and her willingness to assume a role of leadership and responsibility. The hard work and the sheer number of hours both the mayor and all council members commit to in the service of our community are far too often underappreciated by the public. I have no doubt Kaarin would extend that outstanding legacy of commitment, while moving Eugene forward in strategic pursuit of her clearly stated objectives. Let’s rally behind Kaarin, support her candidacy, and work together to create the Eugene we all envision.(2)
(1) Maurice Cox, FAIA, the former mayor of Charlottesville, VA is a notable exception. Cox achieved success during his tenure overseeing significant changes in his city’s comprehensive plan to favor dense, mixed-use urban development over mindless sprawl.
(2) As a permanent U.S. resident but not a citizen I am ineligible to cast a vote in any election here. Regardless of this inconvenient fact and while I typically steer clear of expressing my political views or discussing politics in general, I do find Kaarin’s vision worthy of my support and promotion on this blog.  

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Transition Time: CSI Willamette Valley Chapter Certification Classes


After considerable handwringing and stoking of my guilt complex, I have decided to relinquish my role as chair of the Construction Specifications Institute/Willamette Valley Chapter’s Certification Committee, a position I’ve held for the past decade. Unfortunately, because I haven’t been able to find someone to take up the mantle, the chapter will not offer its annual preparatory classes this coming winter for the Institute’s Construction Documents Technologist (CDT) and Certified Construction Contract Administrator (CCCA) certification examinations.
The Willamette Valley Chapter certification classes not only prepared students for the CSI-sponsored certification examinations but also served as a foundational training resource for those seeking to enhance their understanding of construction documents and construction contract administration. The classes proved especially beneficial to emerging professionals from all segments of the AEC industry. Many graduates went on to successfully achieve CSI certification.  
I’m not sure of the exact number of people who participated in one or both courses but after a run of 41 consecutive years the total must be in the hundreds if not thousands. Suspending the classes will impact anyone who looked forward to taking and hoped to likewise benefit from either set of classes in the near future. I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause. In their absence, I can highly recommend the Portland CSI CDT study course, which is offered via virtual (Zoom) sessions. The inimitable Cherise Lakeside, FCSI, CDT, is the instructor. Cherise is a senior specifications writer for RDH Building Science, past president of the Portland chapter, former Director-at-Large on the Institute board, and a CSI fellow.
I am grateful to all of you who have supported and took part in the Willamette Valley Chapter certification classes over the years. I’m especially indebted to my fellow instructors—most recently Linn West, Larry Banks, Jim Chaney, Brian Hamilton, and Jerry Boucock. Your dedication to advancing the AEC industry is truly commendable, and I have been honored to be a part of this journey with you. I am proud that we provided so many with an invaluable conceptual framework they can rely upon for the remainder of their careers, in a convenient format at a price that was hard to beat.
I am hopeful the discontinuation of the annual CSI-Willamette Valley Chapter certification classes will only be temporary. In the meantime, please continue to engage with the WVC, attend chapter events, and make the most of the invaluable networking opportunities offered by the organization.

Sunday, September 3, 2023

A Way Too Early, Premature, and Impulsive Review

The "Heartwood" under construction in the River District development (photos by me).

Those of you who live in Eugene undoubtedly have seen the construction underway for the initial phase of Eugene’s downtown riverfront development. The “Heartwood” is the first residential building to be topped off. Upon completion, it will contain 95 market-rate apartment homes. Enough of its design and probable character are now evident for us to pass some judgment upon what it heralds for the remainder of the development.
At four stories in height and situated immediately east of the Ferry Street Bridge viaduct along the extension of 5th Avenue toward the river, Heartwood looms large. Construction of the second building in the development, the “Portal,” is underway. Located at the southwest corner of 4th Avenue and Mill Street, it will include an additional 130 market-rate apartments and 75 residences that are affordable to households with incomes up to 60% of the area median income.
When the conceptual renderings by SERA Architects for the new riverfront neighborhood appeared in 2018, I commented by saying their character suggested a “trite, generic response absent qualities expressive of its unique setting along the Willamette River.” I characterized the designs they implied as “banal brick boxes” and “underwhelming.” A bit harsh perhaps, though in my defense I did temper my criticism by acknowledging their very preliminary and necessarily generic nature.     
So, as Heartwood is assuming its ultimate shape, what do I think now? Well, hmmm—it appears it will be a banal brick box. Nothing about its form or its proposed cladding (which the onsite, freestanding mockup exhibits) suggests it or the other buildings will be anything more. Is it reasonable for me to have expected something architecturally dynamic and expressive? Maybe, but in the end, I think it will be the sum of the parts that matters the most.  
View from Mill Street (looking west) of the construction site for the Portal.

Fundamentally, the design of the “River District” prioritizes riparian restoration and pedestrian access to the river over full engagement of the urban fabric with the river’s edge. Given the development’s relative dissociation from downtown, the Fifth Street Market District, and the Franklin Boulevard corridor—the Union Pacific Railway tracks effectively preclude fully extending the street grid into the parcel—this is the correct response. The City’s early vision of a highly urbanized connection to the river was always somewhat impracticable. Eugene’s own version of a heavily trafficked and commercialized development akin to the San Antonio River Walk or the Chicago Riverwalk was never in the cards. Instead, I increasingly see what is taking shape as being what I should have always expected for this important site.
The more I study it, the more I like the design of the Eugene Downtown Riverfront Park and its main plaza by landscape architecture firm Walker Macy. When fully complete, the park will not be of Eugene’s “downtown.” Rather, it will be its own, long overdue precinct at a critical bend of the Willamette River, along the Ruth Bascomb Regional Trail, and opposite the river from Alton Baker Park. It will be a welcome and accessible means for everyone to engage with the important waterway that runs through the heart of Eugene.
Rendering by Walker Macy of the Riverfront Park and Plaza when complete.

The bottom line is I don’t mind if the new buildings primarily form a backdrop for the development’s riverfront setting and the public spaces the buildings will help shape. Boring architecture—in a good way—is enough. A huge dose of architectural bravado isn’t called for. The exception may be the proposed restaurant building, which by virtue of its position adjacent to the river overlook and plaza may warrant pavilion-like treatment.
I also don’t mind the fact the developers—Atkins Dame—focused chiefly on building new housing as opposed to integrating a large commercial component (there will be some commercial space, just not as much as one thinks when hearing the term “mixed-use” bandied about). The development will be vibrant, but not in a way that suggests it will usurp the downtown core as Eugene’s center of gravity.
I’ll withhold further appraisal of the River District and its architecture until it is more fully realized. I’m looking forward to seeing what will occupy the area directly under the viaduct and how effectively the future buildings east of High Street along 5th Avenue do extend the commercial character of the Market District toward the Riverfront Park. Overall, I’m hopeful the entire River District will appear “organic,” a natural and logical outcome of its time, place, and importance for Eugene.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Architecture is Awesome: #32 Every Building is a Prototype

Using a scale model, a form of prototyping, to test design concepts (my photo)

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.

While iterative prototyping is a vital tool for design and innovation in many industries, the use of prototypes is severely limited in the production of architecture. Each new building stands alone as a culmination of ideas, adaptation, and continuous improvement at the time of its design. Effectively, every building is its own prototype, a unique example of its kind.
Full-sized, operational prototypes offer a range of benefits that virtual representations alone cannot fully replicate. These benefits are particularly significant for the automotive, aerospace, or consumer electronics industries, where physical prototypes play a crucial role in design and testing. Full-sized, operational prototyping holds immense value when amortized over the entire production run of manufactured products. While the upfront costs of creating these prototypes can be substantial, the long-term benefits they provide throughout the production lifecycle far outweigh the initial investment. Prototyping reduces the likelihood of costly changes once mass production begins, helps validate assumptions regarding the user experience, and can identify inefficiencies in production processes.
Prototypes in flight: The YF-16 and YF-17 aircraft, competitors in the U.S. Air Force’s Lightweight Fighter technology evaluation program of the early 1970s (photo by Air Force Camera Operator: R.L. HOUSE, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons).
On the other hand, full-sized, operational prototypes are impractical for one-off and program-specific architectural projects due to the unique challenges posed by the complexity, scale, and price tag associated with buildings. Buildings vary widely in scope, design, and context. Each project responds to a distinctive set of user requirements and the peculiarities of its site. The customization inherent in architecture makes it challenging to develop a one-size-fits-all prototype that can accommodate diverse project needs. In theory, architects could benefit from creating prototypes to identify flaws, make improvements, and arrive at a final design that is both functional and economical. Prototyping is a fundamental tool for innovation in many industries, but the world of architecture operates under an entirely different paradigm, one in which time, finance, and sustainability are hefty considerations.   
Instead of prototyping, architects rely on alternative methods—including computer-generated simulations, augmented reality, scale models, and other design visualization tools—to test and refine their ideas before construction begins. Stand-alone mockups of building components are likewise valuable tools for focused testing of ideas and assessing performance of specific systems in a far more cost-effective and practical manner than complete building prototypes.
Reviewing a full-sized, stand-alone mockup of the integrated, exterior wall assembly for the Lane Community College Health Professions Building, currently under construction (my photo).
Several well-known architects developed their design theories and visions over the course of multiple projects, using each as a steppingstone or prototype to refine and evolve their ideas. Notable examples include Le Corbusier, who expounded on his “Five Points of Architecture” through a series of projects that effectively served as prototypes for his design philosophy. Likewise, Louis Kahn progressively refined his notions on monumentality and light with projects like the Salk Institute, Kimbell Art Museum, and the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh. Both Corb and Kahn used successive projects as testing grounds for new ideas, materials, and concepts.    
So, every building is a prototype, not for its own sake but rather for that of the projects that follow it. Completed projects provide architects with an AWESOME opportunity for continuous improvement. They serve as valuable sources of knowledge to be drawn upon to help refine design strategies and improve the probability of better outcomes in future projects of similar types. This knowledge is often the result of feedback from users and other project stakeholders. All the lessons learned help architects anticipate and mitigate risks associated with design decisions, construction methods, and unforeseen challenges.

Next Architecture is Awesome: #33 Happy Clients