Sunday, September 24, 2017

A Better AIA in Oregon?

AIA-SWO chapter meeting at Sam Bond's Brewing Co., September 20, 2017.
 
Delegates from AIA chapters within the state and the staff of AIA Oregon have spent the better part of the past three years working on a proposal to unite the state’s four separate chapters into a single statewide body. That proposal is now nearing the point when each chapter’s membership will vote on how to move ahead. It behooves our state's AIA members, associate members, and affiliates to be as informed as possible before helping render a crucial decision that will set the course of our professional association for years to come.

The principal rationale favoring a single statewide chapter is that it would provide a better return for every membership dollar while strengthening the Oregon architectural community and the voice of our profession. The proposal on the table would dissolve the four present chapters (AIA Portland, AIA Salem, AIA Southwestern Oregon, and AIA Southern Oregon), retaining AIA Oregon as the sole chartered, corporate association in the state. Replacing the regional chapters would be five local “sections”: Portland, Salem, Eugene, Bend, and Rogue Valley. The proposed new structure would free up local leaders to focus on building community and sharing ideas through their local section “council.” Each section would serve as the primary vehicle for producing local events, education opportunities, awards programs, and more, much like each chapter currently does, while also enjoying access to greater resources.

The expected benefits include consolidating the structural functions associated with every AIA chapter, such as the obligations of being individual corporate entities and the onerous reporting and paperwork often associated with them. Consolidation would lessen overhead costs concomitant with paid staff and/or the duties performed by volunteer board members serving each separate chapter, as well as the duties and liabilities associated with maintaining separate corporations. Currently, with four chapters plus the AIA Oregon council, there are five boards of directors including 65 total board members. The proposed arrangement would simplify this structure, reducing it to a single board of directors comprised of five directors (one from each section), two at-large directors, plus five executive officers elected by the directors—12 total board members.

Additional reasons favoring the plan include the probability of a stronger, statewide advocacy effort, enhanced support for local events and educational programs (including significant investments in online presentation technologies facilitating high-quality productions accessible from anywhere in the state), and streamlined communications and decision-making. Each section would receive discretionary funds to be used to meet local needs (such as for programs like the recent Parklet competition or the Register-Guard Design Annual). A Statewide Allied Partnerships plan would benefit our membership through increased levels of sponsorship support while providing the allied partners with access to a larger audience.

Members would pay dues to only two AIA components rather than three as is the case now. The new dues structure would ensure as many members as possible have access to core member services (continuing education, professional development, and advocacy) meeting AIA National standards. The current rates for local chapter dues range between a low of $97 (AIA Salem) to the high of $250 that AIA-SWO members pay. Combined with our state dues, the combined local and state assessments range from $217 to $370. These would be supplanted by a single, across-the-board state dues total of $349. Under the proposed schedule, AIA-SWO members would actually pay less than before. According to the plan, the increase in dues for current AIA Salem and Southern Oregon members would be incrementally offset over a three-year period.

As important as the question of whether we should unite Oregon’s four AIA chapters should be for all AIA-SWO members, the turnout last Wednesday evening for a town hall meeting at Sam Bond’s Brewing was disappointingly small. Nevertheless, the discussion among those there was lively and thought-provoking, prompted by the tag-team presentation of AIA Oregon executive director Robert Hoffman, AIA Oregon president Alene Davis, AIA-SWO president Katie Hall, and AIA-SWO delegate Seth Anderson.

Change is often difficult to accept, and prompts anxiety and resistance, especially if you’re entirely comfortable with the status quo. No doubt underlying the concerns of some AIA-SWO members is a belief that a single AIA Oregon chapter would inevitably become Portland-centric. Portland is the 800-lb gorilla in the room. Would the needs and advocacy objectives of Portland architects eclipse those of members from Oregon’s smaller communities? Would educational programs primarily address the interests of larger firms? Robert admitted AIA Portland’s liabilities, which include the ongoing debt service for the Center for Architecture building, are an issue that must be addressed in a manner equitable for all AIA Oregon members.

The reality is our smaller chapters—AIA Salem and AIA Southern Oregon—have relied too much on the blood, sweat, and tears of too few, and are struggling to be relevant and of adequate service to their members. Both would likely fail to meet AIA National accreditation requirements for individual chapters if they sought charters today. AIA Southwestern Oregon members have enjoyed the benefits that accrue from being a larger chapter (relative to AIA Salem and AIA Southern Oregon), so the argument favoring a single statewide component may not be as compelling to many. On the other hand, what AIA does on behalf of each of us can only be enhanced when all members in Oregon have equal access to the organization’s full suite of support and services. As the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats.

Other states, like Colorado and Wisconsin, are single component chapters (with local sections) and serve as models for us to learn from and emulate here in Oregon. Based on anecdotal comments (including those by Bill Seider, FAIA, and others) AIA Colorado and AIA Wisconsin have acted with efficacy as portals for their members to engage in all levels of AIA. 

I support the proposed move. The advantages associated with consolidation make too much sense to me. I do believe the net result will be a stronger and more responsive organization, one that will attract an increase in AIA membership in Oregon. As a past AIA-SWO board member, chapter president, and AIA Oregon delegate, I also appreciate how the plan attempts to address the demands imposed upon volunteers by AIA service and the burden that commitment imposes on the firms they work for. Note that the proposal includes funding for a full-time AIA Oregon staff person here in Eugene.

Robert, Alene, Katie, and Seth have so far hosted town halls in Medford and Eugene, and will soon take their road show to Salem and Portland. The chapter boards will vote to adopt the plan for merger later this fall. If all the boards concur and ratify the proposed merger, the membership of each chapter will then vote sometime next spring on how to move ahead. If I understand correctly, a majority vote of “no” from any one of the chapters would result in the plan’s defeat. It’s an all or nothing proposition. If all the chapters support the merger, the transition would occur sometime in 2019.

Now’s the time to make sure you’re informed about the proposed change to a single AIA for all Oregon architects. If you have questions, call on Robert, Alene, Katie, or Seth for answers. Once you feel you adequately understand its intricacies, spread the word and encourage your colleagues to likewise educate themselves. Be prepared and vote wisely.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Rome Wasn’t Built In A Day

Rome; painting by Rudolf Wiegmann [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Steven Leuck is one of the owners of Contractors Electric LLC here in Eugene. He’s also a past-president of the Willamette Valley Chapter - Construction Specifications Institute, and like me a member of the Emerald Executive Association. He’s also one of the nicest guys you could ever meet, with a tirelessly curious mind.

Steven recently passed along a link to a CNN article about young architects from Europe who chose to pursue their careers in China immediately upon graduating from architecture school. What the article said did not surprise me. What was most startling (and telling perhaps) is how much misplaced trust was laid at the feet of mere babies (architecturally speaking). Designers right out of school do not know what they don’t know. The Chinese boom-era predilection toward “xenocentric” buildings, as President Xi Jinping called them, exacerbated problems. Those projects betray a certain insecurity toward more traditional or conservative design approaches in favor of shiny new objects as if to proclaim how “modern and progressive” China’s contemporary culture is. As the article says, that trend is now being tempered. I’m no expert, but my sense is China has been through a period of excess, over-speculation, and profligacy that had to end at some point. China is maturing and will increasingly focus on making its new cities more attractive and coherent: cleaner, people-friendly, with vibrant streets and neighborhoods, as opposed to assembling collections of anti-urban, Jetsons-like trophy buildings that clamor for attention.

As the article goes on to say, the end of the Chinese “gold rush” has been accompanied by a lessening reverence toward Westerners and an exodus of the young European architects drawn to China by the promise of creative freedom and the projects to lavish it upon. The legacy of this period includes eerily empty and vast, instant “ghost cities” such as Ordos New City (Kangbashi) devoid of not only people but also of any sense of place or history.

Changfeng footbridge on Fen river and Shanxi theater, Taiyuan, Shanxi, China. Photo by Emdx (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

What lessons, if any, should we here in Oregon take from the Chinese experience? Certainly, the scale of development there dwarfs anything that might ever occur here, so perhaps we needn’t be so concerned. On the other hand, it does not take especially large projects to have an outsized impact in a community like Eugene. The recent wave of large student housing developments is a case in point. For better or worse, projects like The Hub and the Capstone apartments (13th & Olive) have irretrievably transformed downtown Eugene. Even much larger American cities, such as the would-be Amazon suitors, should be wary of the potentially destabilizing impact of massive projects drawn from whole cloth.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. No city aspiring to greatness or simply mere pleasantness can be. I’m not exactly sure what the best mechanisms are to ensure future development occurs in easily digested increments; however, we can avoid repeating the mistakes of others. Wisdom is a byproduct of experience, something most twenty-something architects lack. The Chinese undervalued prudence as well as its own history and culture, paying a heavy price for doing so. Growth may be inevitable but Eugene can achieve the grace and style we hope for, even as it grows. What’s important is to value experience, whether it is our own or comes from others far away.

Thank you Steven for sharing a thought-provoking article!

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Guest Viewpoint: Ujjval Vyas

Ujjval Vyas, Ph.D., J.D.

Ujjval K. Vyas, Ph.D., J.D. is the principal of Alberti Group, a consultancy specializing in matters related to sustainability, risk management, and emerging technologies and new product development in the built environment. Prior to founding Alberti Group, he was an attorney representing contractors, design professionals, and other in the construction process (he remains a licensed attorney in the State of Ilinois). He has also taught architectural history, theory, design, and ethics at the graduate and undergraduate levels in the United States and Canada. He received his J.D. with honors from the Chicago-Kent College of Law, Illinois Institute of Technology, and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago’s interdisciplinary Committee on the History of Culture.

I don’t know if I’ve ever encountered anyone before who has so thoroughly challenged my understanding of the proper role of the architect as a design professional, the necessity of critical thinking, and the objective analysis of facts. Even though Ujjval and I have yet to meet in person, we have frequently engaged in spirited debates via Twitter and email correspondence. His intellect, reasoning, and perspective are unassailable. He is quick to point out when I have failed to overcome biases and when those biases are potentially to the detriment of my professional duties, particularly when it comes to the concept of a client’s informed consent. First and foremost, he believes architects must confront difficult decisions with “as much objective, credible, and transparent information as possible.” In his mind to do otherwise is to fail to act ethically.

What Ujjval believes is necessary of architects is akin to the medical profession’s transition from a field of generalists to a disaggregated world where the general practitioner acts as a useful gatekeeper to more specialized and advanced professionals with relevant knowledge. In his analogy, the architectural profession must experience a similar shift to serve its clients in a manner more consistent with its responsibility to decrease risks. This shift contributes toward ensuring the formation of more robust design teams with the capacity, knowledge, objectivity, and judgment to allow clients to make informed decisions in their best interest.(1)

A licensed member of a learned profession must provide the benefit of his or her objective judgment in the service of the client’s wishes, but can never substitute the professional’s own judgment for that of the client in any material way. As Ujjval attempts to explain in the piece below (which dates to 2009), advocacy-driven activity in architecture is a deep problem, especially when it comes to the subject of sustainability. Our challenge is to avoid capitulating to confirmation biases bred into us by way of our training, those that prejudice us toward inadequately examined and unchallenged beliefs. How do we know what we think we know? If we cannot answer this question, have we merely adopted positions because they are easy, convenient, and self-inflating? Read on:

Hard Sustainability
The era of easy sustainability is over. Until now, easy sustainability has been the norm mostly because of our laziness, and because we have succumbed to the Siren song of simplifications. Green washing, green hype, green marketing machines, and green greed are all tempting us with their songs, but what is at stake is too important to leave to easy solutions. It is time to acknowledge that meaningful sustainability will require hard work, both in thinking and in action. But this is as it should be; ill-defined as it is, sustainability is the current watchword to call ourselves and others to create a more equitable and environmentally responsible future. It is first and foremost a proxy word for ethical action in the current state of the world.

Acting ethically is difficult. Just examining our own day-to-day existence tells us so if we are honest in our reflections. The difficulty of ethics arises not from the lack of recognition of the correct position or even from a lack of willpower. Rather, as the historian of ideas Sir Isaiah Berlin cogently pointed out, the difficulty with ethics is that by its very nature it arises out of a conflict of values, both within cultures and between cultures. When we strive to act ethically in the world, we can’t just follow some easy set of rules or oft-repeated slogans. Instead we must recognize that a choice has to be made under difficult circumstances. Equality may be a worthwhile ideal, but what happens when it meets the problem of merit? Equality before the law may lead to injustice. Freedom is a cherished ideal, but it has its limits as any parent knows. Deciding where to draw the line between equality and reward for the meritorious, or between freedom and necessary control over others puts us into the hard world of ethical choices. Sloganeering about freedom, equality, merit, and paternalism does not provide meaningful guidance when hard choices must be made between competing values.

Examples of values in conflict are easy to conjure. Are the recent wars in the Middle East the result of American addiction to fossil fuels and the resultant geopolitics, or are they the result of a moratorium on pursuing nuclear power that removed a viable option to help break that addiction? A similar argument could be made that nuclear power could significantly decrease CO2 emissions and reduce our need for coal-powered electrical generation plants. On the other hand, the drawbacks of nuclear power must be accounted for in these public policy debates. These are not easy choices and simplistic answers from either the pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear lobbying interests provide little help. When it comes to sustainability, we need open-minded, thoughtful, and intelligent arguments that engage in the difficult task of a risk adjusted cost-benefit analysis which accounts for both the import of human equity and environmental value.

As human beings, we are limited in our capacities. Therefore, when faced with making the difficult choices, it is useful to have before us as much objective, credible, and transparent information as possible. Science is the name given to the aspiration to acquire such information about the empirical world and there is no reason why this same standard shouldn’t apply to ethical choice-making. For example, if we know through sound methodological techniques and full data transparency that solar thermal provides a better return on investment than photovoltaics, this may productively guide public policy. Without this approach, public policy in sustainability remains blind guesswork or, even worse, falls victim to the lobbying efforts of vested interests.

Hard sustainability recognizes that even with the desire to act ethically and to acquire information to properly validate our choices, it is crucial to remember that as individuals and as groups, we may still be very wrong. Our own personal experience shows us this in spades. What we once thought was absolutely beyond doubt at the age of twenty seems thoroughly absurd at fifty. History gives us far too many examples of groups and cultures that caused great harm even as they tried to do the right thing.  Enthusiasms and certitude are the stuff of the Siren song. Hard work and an avowal of human limitations are the context for the difficult voyage ahead. It is best, then, to maintain some level of skepticism to protect against ourselves. As Oliver Wendell Holmes once remarked, one should not confuse certitude for certainty.

Sustainability requires the best in us as human beings and this means wrestling with difficult questions, conflicting values, inadequate understanding of the empirical realm, and accepting the potential for mistakes both grand and small. Sustainability requires that we ask deeper questions and fight against the easy answers—persuasion should be the watchword, not consciousness-raising. It is a call to arms to think more critically and dare to go against the grain of cultural shibboleths and personal sentimentality. To paraphrase the great music critic Charles Rosen, hard sustainability is not for everyone but for anyone. 


(1)  Refer to the chapter Ujjval wrote entitled “Matching Owner and Architect Expectations: Green Advocacy and the Necessity for Informed Consent” in Green Building and the Construction Lawyer: A Practical Guide to Transactional and Litigation Issues, ABA Forum on Construction Law, 2014, p. 126.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Influences: Charles W. Moore

Urban Innovations Group staff, Los Angeles, 1987. Charles Moore is seated in front. That's me standing on the end at the left.

An earlier blog entry of mine, “Genealogy of Influence,” promised a series of posts about the architects and theorists who influenced my architectural world view. This is the latest post in the series.

I find it surprising, shocking even, that many students and younger architects today are unaware of the late Charles W. Moore (1925-1993). During his time, he was an enormously influential architect and teacher most often associated with the Postmodern movement in architecture. Moore truly enjoyed a worldwide reputation. His exuberant designs—including his own houses, Kresge College, the Sea Ranch Condominiums, Santa Barbara Faculty Club, Piazza d’Italia, Beverly Hills Civic Center, and Tegel Harbor in Berlin—are characterized by overt references to historical styles, vibrant color combinations, irony, and pop art. Perhaps more so than anyone excepting a handful of others (Robert Venturi, Michael Graves, AldoRossi, and Charles Jencks immediately come to mind), he was the face of Postmodern architecture. 

It’s no secret many architects have prioritized faddish imagery above the basic tenets of architecture. Postmodernism—a movement now derisively associated with misappropriation of historic motifs, deconstruction, and pastiche—was particularly vulnerable to commoditization as a series of vogueish styles. Predictably, the worst sins of its lesser practitioners quickly doomed “Po-Mo” to the aesthetic dustbin. The shame is the corresponding amnesia about Postmodernism’s importance, lasting influence, and rightful place in architectural history. Whether younger architects today are aware of the fact or not, the real legacy of Postmodernism is how it freed the profession from the cult-like orthodoxy of Modernism. 

Regardless of how most correlate the “style” with its more superficial expressions, Postmodernism fundamentally rebuilt the underpinnings of building and urban design. The movement restored time-honored principles to city planning and user-involvement to the design process. It welcomed variety and inclusiveness. It valued context, history, and the culture of cities. Postmodern architects directly responded to the impoverished polemics and asceticism of Modernism with a rich alternative. If we disavow Postmodernism, we risk forgetting its important lessons. 

In my mind, Charles Moore’s significance to architecture goes far beyond his standing as a leading Postmodernist. His contributions speak fundamentally to frames of reference outside of style alone, including architectural phenomenology, and how important the care, energies, and dreams of people are in contributing to a larger sense of place. His work, while too often overshadowed by its cheeky irreverence, is at once also thoughtful and multifaceted. He welcomed the input and enthusiasm of others, happily sharing the credit with his design partners for many of his most celebrated projects. 

In addition to his prominence as an architect, Charles Moore was a renowned and sought-after educator. He assumed teaching and leadership roles at a series of prestigious universities: Princeton, Cal, Yale, UCLA, and finally at the University of Texas, Austin. His successive academic appointments prompted the formation of numerous professional offices and associations to support his design work, including Moore, Lyndon, Turnbull, Whitaker (MLTW), Centerbrook Architects, Moore Ruble Yudell, Charles W. Moore Incorporated, Moore/Andersson, and the Urban Innovations Group (UIG). 


Piazza d'Italia, New Orleans (photo by Colros (Flickr photo) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

It was through his association with the Urban Innovations Group and during my two-year tenure there during the mid-1980s that I worked with Charles (I’ll refer to him as Charles from here forward). UIG was the practice arm of UCLA’s Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Planning, analogous to a medical school’s teaching hospital. Founded in 1971, UIG operated for 23 years as a clinical training ground for faculty and student interns to work together with clients on real-world, commissioned designs. No doubt its heyday was during the 1970s and 1980s when Charles brought many significant projects to the office, including the Piazza d’Italia, Bunker Hill Redevelopment competition entry, New Orleans World’s Fair Wonderwall, Beverly Hills Civic Center, and Oceanside Civic Center. 

Although I was only in my mid-twenties and pursuing my post-professional graduate degree at the time, I was also recently licensed and, unexpectedly, among the more experienced and technically savvy members of UIG. Accordingly, I was thrust into the role of project manager on several commissions, and served as a project team member on others. In the former role, I had the good fortune to work almost exclusively with Charles on the design of the UC Irvine Extension Services Classrooms Addition.(1)  In the latter, I assisted the talented team who followed Charles’ lead to develop UIG’s competition-winning design for the Oceanside Civic Center.(2) I enjoyed the pleasure of seeing firsthand his methodology. As others have noted before me, he had an uncanny ability to leverage the efforts of his many collaborators in the service of creating recognizably Moore-ish design responses. That this was the case was not always because he insisted things needed to be a certain way, but rather because those around him were all too deferential and reticent to question his ideas. I know he most enjoyed working with those who weren’t afraid to push back and challenge him. 

I recall being surprised the first time I saw Charles. He wasn’t the robust looming presence I imagined he’d be. Instead, he appeared frail, shuffling as he walked, and more soft-spoken than I expected (albeit seldom averse to using colorful language). As I would learn, he didn’t always take the best care of himself. He suffered from diabetes, yet he traveled constantly, ate heartily, worked hard, slept erratically, and exercised little. Before completing his nearby condominium, he maintained an apartment directly above UIG’s office, primarily as a place to drop his bags and crash. He was a lifelong bachelor; I suspect the notion of a settled existence held little appeal for him. Ultimately, he would succumb to a heart attack at the relatively young age of 68. 

Those who worked with Charles learned to adapt to his unpredictable schedule. He was constantly on the go. Time with him was precious, so much so that his two Los Angeles-area offices—UIG and Moore Ruble Yudell—would actively compete for his attention. This competition extended to being the first to snatch him up at the airport after each of his many trips across the country and abroad. On one occasion, this meant bringing him back to UIG literally in the middle of the night for design sessions with our staff; I suspect this wasn’t the first and last time this occurred. The people closest to Charles (in particular UIG’s stalwart office manager, Marilyn Zuber) did what they could to shield him from distractions and simplify his life. 

UC Irvine Extension Services Classrooms Addition (background). Photo by Jane Lidz.

He did place a lot of faith in those assigned to carry his design concepts forward. For the UC Irvine Extension Services Classrooms Addition, Charles left me with little more than conceptual sketches to work from and a 20-minute pep talk. He and UIG previously completed the neighboring Extension Facility & Alumni House in a vaguely Italianate style, so I did have that to refer to; nonetheless, I struggled to carry the design forward. The project was already well into construction documentation before he would sit down with me to look at it again. Not surprisingly, he had a raft of proposed design refinements. The trim framing the main arch needed to be more generously proportioned, the pitch of the pyramidal roof over the tower needed to be steeper, and so on. Of course, every one of his suggestions was perfectly sensible, so I dutifully proceeded to make the necessary 11th hour changes. Despite my efforts, I doubt Charles looked back upon the project as a career high point. 

Oceanside Civic Center: model for competition entry (my photo).

The design process for the Oceanside Civic Center competition entry was an entirely different matter. From the beginning, he devoted considerable effort to the project. He enlisted his most-trusted UIG team members to work with him on the design. My involvement was peripheral, mostly limited to assistance on the final presentation models and renderings. Nevertheless, it was exhilarating to be part of the team and witness the design take shape. As his MLTW partner Don Lyndon once noted, at his best Charles never demurred. He would adopt, one-up, or fight with “whimsical bitterness each design move ventured, in a swirling cloud of proposals and counterproposals that surround the drafting table.” Charles believed the process of design was its most potent when it most resembled play, and you either played with him or you missed out on a lot of fun and discovery together. 

Charles surprised me again during the presentation of the Civic Center design to the competition jury. He seemed an awkward public speaker, which was ironic because he was entirely comfortable holding court among his friends and colleagues, and because he was such an accomplished and prolific writer. He co-authored several books I proudly own and consider especially formative and important. These include The Place of Houses (with Donlyn Lyndon and Gerald Allen), Dimensions (with Gerald Allen), Body, Memory and Architecture (with Kent Bloomer), and Chambers for a Memory Palace (with Donlyn Lyndon). The fact he leaned on longtime collaborators like Lyndon, Allen, and Bloomer is entirely consistent with how he practiced architecture. 

Oceanside Civic Center (Photo by Visitor7 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

I cannot overstate the magnitude of Charles Moore’s impact upon architecture during his lifetime. His surviving “family” extends well beyond the bounds of geography, generations, and style, regardless of his association with Postmodernism. His career had many threads, connecting disparate generations of architects, including his ties while at Princeton with RobertVenturi, Louis Kahn (for whom he taught while a graduate assistant) and Jean Labatut. He would also meet future University of Oregon faculty members Bob Harris, Bill Gilland, and Bill Kleinsasser there. His later teaching assignments expanded his influence and acceptance of his approach to architecture. Many of his students—including Billie Tsien, Brian MacKay-Lyons, Peter Rose, and Turner Brooks—would achieve distinction in their own right. 

Charles left his mark in Oregon too: He worked with Lawrence Halprin on Lovejoy Fountain Park in Portland, and later the University of Oregon Science Complex (with Ratcliff Architects) here in Eugene. 

It’s hard for me to believe so much time has gone by already since Charles died. It’s equally amazing to realize how much he contributed to the shaping of architectural thinking since the 1960s. Today’s aesthetic and philosophical plurality is attributable in no small part to his efforts. He remains today the only American architect to be awarded the AIA Gold Medal, the Topaz Medallion (which recognizes achievement in teaching and scholarship), an AIA 25-Year Award (for the Sea Ranch Condominiums), as well as two AIA Firm of the Year Awards (one with Centerbrook Architects & Planners and a second with Moore Ruble Yudell). It was my distinct privilege to directly work with one of the great architects of the 20th century.  

(1)  The Extension Classroom building was an addition to a group of buildings designed by UIG. Four small classrooms for the instruction of English as a second language occupy a single-story wing of the building, while ESL faculty offices occupy a two-story portion; the two share a covered porch. The offices straddle a heavily used pedestrian path, forming an arch that announces entry to the Extension Facility/Alumni House “village.”

(2)  The Oceanside Civic Center is comprised of city offices, a council chamber, public library, community rooms, and a fire station on a three-block, five acre site in Oceanside’s downtown redevelopment district. The site incorporated two existing buildings designed by Irving Gill, part of his master plan for a much smaller civic center on the site. The design is organized around a series of outdoor courtyards and plazas, each a fiesta of stairs, ramps, flowers, trees, colorful tiles, and water features that contrast with the plain white walls of most of the structure.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Tacoma’s Museum of Glass

Museum of Glass poster (2002). Photo by Russell Johnson. All other photos are mine.

My wife and I traveled north to Canada last week to attend my niece’s wedding, which was joyous and lovely, just as such occasions should be. On our return trek south, we stopped in Tacoma for lunch but, more importantly, we also made a point of visiting the iconic Museum of Glass along the city’s Thea Foss Waterway.

The Museum of Glass is far from new (it opened its doors in 2002) but this was our first visit. As a fan of the work of its principal designer, the late, great Canadian architect Arthur Erickson,(1) I had long been determined to see it firsthand. Poor timing had thwarted our previous attempts, as the museum’s fall/winter/spring operating schedule includes closures on Mondays and Tuesdays, and all too coincidentally our visits with my family in Vancouver involved traveling on those days.

View of the hot shop cone from the east end of the Chihuly Bridge of Glass.

"Fluent Steps" by Martin Blank form islands of glass in one of the Museum's reflecting pools.

The long wait did not disappoint: The Museum of Glass more than lived up to my expectations, architecturally speaking. Despite its relatively modest size, it projects a surprisingly monumental presence, punctuated by the inclined, 75-foot tall cone enclosing the dramatic hot shop amphitheater within. The towering cone alludes to the old wigwam burners that once dotted the landscape at sawmills throughout the Pacific Northwest; alternatively, its profile calls to mind the volcanic peaks of the Cascade Range. It rises above a series of terraces rendered in Erickson’s characteristically refined concrete. The warm tone of the concrete contrasts with the coolness of the stainless steel shingles that clad the exterior of the cone.(2)
 
The Chihuly Bridge of Glass looking toward the west.

Works by Dale Chihuly in the Venetian Wall, Chihuly Bridge of Glass.

The adjoining Chihuly Bridge of Glass(3) links the uppermost terrace of the museum with downtown Tacoma and its cultural corridor (which includes the Washington State History Museum, the Tacoma Art Museum, and the Children’s Museum of Tacoma). Sandwiched between busy Interstate 705 and the rejuvenated waterway, the Museum of Glass skillfully mediates that transition, while alluding to the greater landscape and history of the region at the same time. It does so serenely, an island of calmness amid an otherwise frenzied context.

The Museum is very much one designed for the 21st Century. It is experiential and dynamic, a place that, as the museum’s vision statement proclaims, “pulses with life, light, and fire . . . a place of discovery, surprise, collaboration, and joy that transforms the visitor as profoundly as fire transforms glass.” The Museum celebrates creativity, making it visible for the public to watch, learn, and participate in.
Looking up inside the hot shop.
Glass artists at work in the hot shop as museum visitors watch.
 
The exhibit spaces are predictably unassuming and deferential to the works on display, and the auditorium is likewise modest. The real spectacle occurs inside the hot shop amphitheater. To describe it as dramatic would be an understatement. The soaring space calls to mind the interior of the cylindrical interrogation chamber seen in filmmaker Terry Gilliam’s cult masterpiece Brazil; however, rather than evoking a dystopian future, the hot shop is all about viewing creativity in action, featuring state-of-the-art facilities for advanced glassmaking techniques. Despite its grand scale, it is also intimate. The audience sits close to the artists at work, the radiated heat from the kilns very much felt. The hot shop melds glassmaking with theater.
 
Venetian glass art by James Mongrain.
 
Imaginative glass art designed by kids.
 
In my opinion, the project epitomizes more than most of Erickson’s other late-career designs his salient and defining interests: site, light, cadence, and space. He was well-known for viewing architecture as an analog for the natural landscape. His buildings were a paean to nature, often revealing a poetic awareness of the land. Typically, his best projects also bared the influence of their cultural context in surprising and remarkably insightful but not always obvious ways.

Other themes common to previous Erickson projects include an emphasis upon movement up, over, and through a building via expansive stairs and ramps, and also contrasting the solidity of carefully crafted exposed concrete with the mutability of water, light, and glass. Erickson liked to use architecture to choreograph how people experienced spaces. At the Museum of Glass, he wove these themes into a narrative about the primary elements of fire, water, earth, and sky—the stuff of which glass is made and brought to life by.
 
The upper terrace. Note the empty reflecting pool on the left.
 
If I have any quibbles with the Museum of Glass, they are also characteristic of some of Erickson’s other most well-regarded projects, including the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, and Robson Square in downtown Vancouver. The reflecting pools on the roof of the Museum of Glass were drained at the time of our visit, just as the trademark cascades of water at Robson Square have too often been inoperative over the years. The water elements are essential to these designs, so their absence seriously compromises the original design intent.

I’m happy we finally had our opportunity to see the Museum of Glass. It certainly is worth a stop if you find yourself in the Puget Sound area, to experience its architecture, see glass artists at work, and peruse its galleries.  


(1)   Erickson’s collaborators on the project were Nick Milkovich Architects of Vancouver and Thomas Cook Reed Reinvald Architects (now TCF Architecture) of Tacoma. 

(2)   Despite his affection for concrete (once referring to it as “the marble of our times”), Erickson’s work with the medium was much too elegant to be characterized as “Brutalist.”
(3)   The Bridge of Glass was designed by Austin, TX architect Arthur Andersson and is decorated with artworks by famed glass artist and Tacoma-native Dale Chihuly. I briefly had the opportunity to work alongside Arthur Andersson during my stint with the Urban Innovations Group (UIG) in Los Angeles back in the mid-1980s. Andersson was a partner of the peripatetic Charles W. Moore (1925-1993), a frequent UIG collaborator. 
   

Saturday, August 19, 2017

CSI Distinguished Member: James M. Robertson, FCSI, FAIA, CCS

James M. Robertson, FCSI, FAIA, CCS

Distinguished Membership is the most prestigious honor conferred upon a member of the Construction Specifications Institute. It is bestowed on individuals who have performed distinguished services to the construction industry in fields of activity related to the Institute’s mission. CSI recently named two most worthy individuals to receive this lofty accolade: Paul Betram, Jr., FCSI, Lifetime Member, CDT, and James M. Robertson, FCSI, CCS.

Having worked alongside Jim for nearly thirty years, I know him as well or better than most people. I can think of few others as deserving of the honor. The following excerpt from the Willamette Valley Chapter’s nomination document promoting Jim’s candidacy for Distinguished Membership enumerates his many accomplishments:

James M. Robertson, AIA has been a member of CSI for over 41 years, and has been continuously involved in national and international technical activities for more than 32 years. He has served as a leader at all levels: the local chapter; the Northwest Region; Institute committees and task teams; the Institute Board as a Director and as Vice-President Professional; and as a representative to international organizations.

Through his exemplary leadership in the Construction Specifications Institute, James M. Robertson, FCSI, FAIA, CCS, NCARB has developed and promoted international standards for design documentation and construction contract administration advancing significantly the practice of design and construction.

Robertson is an award-recognized architect who keenly understands and appreciates the value of standardization. Through his many leadership roles in the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) he has committed over 33 continuous years of his professional career to advancing the standardization of construction document organization; improving the practice of contract administration practiced by architects; improving collaboration between architects and others in the construction industry; achieving industry-wide efficiencies; reducing waste; minimizing construction costs; and increasing the quality of construction-related project information. For his service and contributions, he has received some of the highest honors bestowed by CSI, the Northwest Region and AIA.

Robertson has been instrumental since 1984 in the development of international standards used by architects for formatting and organizing contract documents. These standards include: MasterFormat™, SectionFormat™, PageFormat™, and PerSpective®. He also championed a new format for Preliminary Project Descriptions which was released in 2010.

Robertson has made significant writing contributions to three editions of CSI’s Manual of Practice which is recognized as a leading resource for architects on the proper principles, techniques and formats for writing and organizing specifications. He was also involved with developing the current generation of this influential series of manuals.

Robertson chaired the 1990 Ad Hoc CSI MasterFormat™ Committee charged with examining the future of this important classification system. The noteworthy recommendations presented in his report paved the way for important improvements to MasterFormat™ that has aided architectural practice. His leadership fostered open communication between disciplines and agencies within the design and construction industry.

Robertson played a prominent role in the development and writing of the original Construction Contract Administration (CCA) Module of the CSI Manual of Practice. He helped develop the Construction Contract Administration Education Program used by instructors around the country. He helped formulate CSI’s first certification program for CCA. This work has elevated architects and others in the industry, demonstrating the importance of effective contract administration in achieving quality projects.

Robertson has consistently shared his knowledge and expertise in the art and science of building design documentation and the project delivery process. Through his speaking and writing, he has contributed to the knowledge of the construction industry, enhanced the practice of architecture, and promoted the creation and implementation of national and international standards for construction information. He has made more than 60 presentations, promoting the standards he helped develop and conveying the importance of standardization in design and construction documentation. His local CCA seminar program has been so valuable to architects, interns, and others involved in design and construction that it has been repeated annually for 21 years.

Robertson is recognized internationally as a leader in technical construction standards and he represents CSI in international organizations involved with development and promotion of standards for specifications and contract documents. He has represented the interests of the architectural profession in crafting important industry-wide standards, and he has bettered the perception of architects within the construction industry and with international organizations. He is respected as an architect and was appointed by the Governor to the Oregon Board of Architect Examiners. In addition, he contributes to the profession as a member of NCARB’s ARE Committees/task teams.

What’s most remarkable about Jim’s significant contributions is that he made them all while running a successful architectural practice and being the consummate family man. The time commitment demanded by his volunteer efforts on behalf of CSI, NCARB, and OBAE has been considerable. As his colleague, I’ve witnessed firsthand his effectiveness as a leader, architect, and construction specifier. Undeniably, he has accomplished much more during his professional career than many of us can ever hope to in ours. As the Willamette Valley chapter’s only other Distinguished Member Paul Edlund, FCSI wrote in his endorsement of the nomination, Jim has demonstrated “exemplary leadership, tenacious commitment, and donation of time and expertise” in service to CSI, very much deserving of our acknowledgment and appreciation.

Both CSI and the American Institute of Architects previously elevated Jim to Fellow in their respective organizations in recognition of his contributions to the A/E/C industry. As noteworthy as achieving fellowship status with both these estimable organizations is, there’s no doubt being honored as a Distinguished Member is a career pinnacle. The Institute will honor Jim at next month’s CONSTRUCT 2017 and the CSI Annual Convention in Providence, RI. I won’t be at CONSTRUCT this year so, unfortunately, I’ll miss the opportunity to share Jim’s (and Paul Bertram’s) special moment. If you likewise cannot be in Providence, be sure to let Jim know the next time you see him how much you appreciate all he has done on our behalf.

Congratulations Jim!