Sunday, February 26, 2017

Architecture in Film and Video

 Screenshot from American Masters: Eero Saarinen - The Architect Who Saw the Future (2016)
If there’s a bright side to the dreary, damp days of a Willamette Valley winter, it’s that we can allow ourselves the indulgence of cocooning within the warm and cozy confines of our homes. In the past, this may have meant curling up with a good book while sipping a cup of hot tea or cocoa. Today, thanks to always-on wireless Internet connectivity and high-definition video, we also have immediate access to a boundless treasure trove of information, knowledge, and entertainment. While some may lament how insidious and addicting the Internet can be, there’s no doubt its content can engage, educate, and excite us, as well-written books have always done. The Internet is merely the medium; the message is still clearly what counts. 

Architecture is well-suited to the immersive potential of the Internet. Architecture is visual, dynamic, and relatable. Short of experiencing real buildings and places firsthand, film and video are perhaps the most powerful means to convey their unique qualities. The Internet has become a convenient repository for anyone who produces a documentary film or treatise about architecture, so the number of good resources on the topic has grown exponentially. Whereas it once seemed you could only find a handful of quality productions each year, there now exists an overwhelming volume of uploaded films and videos about architecture to sift through. 

Separating the wheat from the chaff is challenging. You do have to be discerning to recognize the best the Internet offers. It’s hard to explain, but I do tend to immediately recognize studiously researched, well-written and directed, and substantive work. I certainly cannot claim to have seen all the best documentary films, videos, or vlogs available online about architecture, but I can immediately suggest a few I enjoyed and found significant. There are also many sites that aggregate the best as vetted by juries or respected critics. 

To start with, here are several links to websites listing many of the best films and videos about architecture and design as judged by others: 
And here are direct links to three movies, a video documentary series, a TED Talk, and a vlog I found particularly noteworthy; consider these my recommendations for the next cold, rainy day when you have an architectural itch you must scratch but would rather not venture outside: 

My Architect (2003):
The 2003 documentary film about architect Louis Kahn (1901-1974) by his son Nathaniel Kahn was an Academy Award nominee for best documentary and is now a classic of its genre. The film details Lou Kahn's extraordinary career and Nathaniel’s accounting of his father’s legacy following his death in 1974.

American Masters – Eero Saarinen (2016):
Like Nathaniel Kahn’s reflection about his father, the PBS documentary about Lou Kahn’s contemporary Eero Saarinen is viewed through the lens of his son, Eric, who likewise produced and directed the film. The production is visually stunning, shot in 6K with the latest in drone technology, showcasing the architect’s body of timeless work. 

Archiculture (2016):
Archiculture offers a unique glimpse into the world of studio-based, design education through the eyes of a group of students finishing their final design projects. The film includes interviews with leading professionals, historians, and educators, who address key issues faced by the unique teaching methodology and the studio environment the students all share. 

Architecture Documentary in 23 Episodes:
I’m not exactly sure how old this series of films is, but it does appear to be a French production (narrated in English) with individual segments directed variously by Stan Neumann, Richard Copans, Frederic Compain, Julien Donada, or Catherine Adda. I’ve included it here because of its breadth and quality, which is quite good. 

TED Talks: Michael Green – Why we should build wooden skyscrapers (2013):
Michael Green calls for rapid systemic change in the way we build. His proposal: Forget steel, straw, concrete, shipping containers, and rammed earth. Use wood to erect urban skyscrapers. In this TED Talk Green explores the plausibility of tall wood buildings—the costs, benefits, and engineering challenges. 

The Next Era of Architecture (The Nerdwriter):
Evan Puschak is the Nerdwriter. He produces a weekly web series that aims to foster a commitment to an intellectual life. He believes life is philosophical, political, moral, psychological, financial, artistic, scientific, and that what is worth knowing is worth entwining into a comprehensive web. 

Evan isn’t an architect (he studied film production at Boston University) but I found his video about the next era of architecture both succinct and spot on. Architecture since post-modernism has largely gone undefined. In its place is a new pluralism that is both tolerant and messy. If anything, there is a void in architecture waiting to be filled. If a non-architect can recognize this, we all should.

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Film and video will never completely supplant the actual experience of being there, nor should they, no matter how sophisticated virtual reality technologies may become. Regardless, they can in a way take us to places we might otherwise never visit, just as a well-written novel might transplant us viscerally to an imagined world. The best films and videos about architecture expand our horizons, a wondrous thing when our immediate prospects are confined by the walls and roof that shelter us from the blustery, wet reality outdoors. 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

CoLA Meetings

City of Eugene photo collage by Uoregon14 licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
AIA-SWO’s Eugene-Springfield Committee on Local Affairs (CoLA) invites all interested chapter members to participate in the committee’s meetings and its advocacy efforts. 

CoLA’s mandate is to promote views, policies, and positions that largely represent the professionally informed opinion of AIA-SWO members on topics of community-wide importance. One of the committee’s goals is to elevate the stature and visibility of architects in general by representing design professionals as active, organized, and concerned public citizens. CoLA assumes an activist posture, engaging design-related issues in the glare of the public eye and perhaps within the political arena. 

CoLA maximizes its effectiveness by taking on a limited number of issues at any moment. The AIA-SWO board does recommend issues for CoLA to consider. The issues the committee chooses to address are of relevance to the profession, of community interest, and come with implications beyond the scope of any single building project. The committee members arrive at consensus agreement on each issue after studying it in detail. They may or may not then decide to formally adopt a public position on the matter. 

Since CoLA’s inception in late 2015, the committee has been active on numerous fronts: 
  • CoLA met with COE staff members regarding the draft Community Design Handbook and provided them with useful feedback.
  • The committee 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).
  • CoLA 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.
  • Members of the committee attended multiple public meetings on a variety of topics of interest to CoLA.
  • CoLA wrote an opinion piece for the Register-Guard endorsing extension of the Eugene downtown urban renewal district.
  • The committee wrote another opinion piece for Eugene Weekly commending the City of Eugene and Lane County for their collaborative efforts to reshape Eugene’s civic center
The roster of current committee members is: 
  • Scott Clarke, AIA – PIVOT Architecture; committee chair 
  • Austin Bailey, AIA – Rowell Brokaw Architects 
  • Eric Gunderson, AIA – PIVOT Architecture 
  • Stan Honn, AIA – AIA-SWO immediate past-president and board representative on CoLA 
  • Randy Nishimura, AIA – Robertson/Sherwood/Architects pc 
  • Travis Sheridan, Assoc. AIA – Willard C. Dixon Architect, LLC 
CoLA wants to hear from all AIA-SWO members to fairly consider and/or represent the full diversity of our architectural community (the committee is admittedly lacking in gender balance at the moment). 

CoLA meets regularly in The Octagon on the fourth Tuesday of each month, at noon. AIA-SWO’s Thursday’s @ 3:00 e-newsletter announces these standing meetings, and they’re also listed on the chapter website’s home page. Additionally, the committee may convene additional meetings or forums as deemed necessary when time-sensitive issues arise. Be sure to weigh in and voice your concerns and opinions at any of CoLA’s meetings!

What:  AIA-SWO Eugene-Springfield Committee on Local Affairs Committee meetings 

When:  From noon to 1:00 PM, on the fourth Tuesday of each month 

Where:  The Octagon, 92 East Broadway, Eugene  


Sunday, February 12, 2017

Common Edge

I always enjoy reading the opinions of thoughtful writers on topics related to planning and design of the built environment. A while back and much to my delight, I came across the website Common Edge, which brings together many of the best of these essayists. As its “About” page states, the goal of Common Edge is to “generate the resources necessary to research, publish and advocate for a community of engaged designers, writers, public servants, and activist citizens who are committed to creating designs that manifest the highest aspirations of a democratic society.” 

As the site further states, Common Edge is a non-profit “dedicated to reconnecting architecture and design with the public that it’s meant to serve.” Fuzzy, perhaps, but certainly high-minded and commendable. We will never suffer from a shortage of good people dedicated to discussing how architecture can better serve everyone’s interests moving forward. 

The writers Common Edge brings together include Martin C. Pedersen, who is listed as executive director of the Common Edge Collaborative. Others include Duo Dickinson, Graham McKay, Ben Willis, Eva Hagberg Fisher, Steven Bingler, Lance Hosey, among many others. The issues and themes they touch upon are far-ranging but invariably of relevance to all of us who work in the design professions. 

Here is a sampling of just some Common Edge opinion pieces and essays, all of which are much more than simply light fare:
In one of my earliest SW Oregon Architect posts (Walter Mitty: Architect & Blogger) I declared the Internet provides anyone so inclined to write about architecture with a perfect vehicle because of its immediacy and accessibility. Today, nine years on, I still believe the critical mass I cited continues to build. Common Edge is a strong contributor to that critical mass, and its roster of insightful writers is indeed spurring a renaissance in architectural thinking.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Key Principles for a Rejuvenated Civic Center

View looking north from the west Park Block toward the "butterfly" parking lot, future site of Eugene City Hall. (my photo)

The following is a piece regarding the future of Eugene City Hall penned by the members of AIA-SWO’s Committee on Local Affairs (of which I am a member) intended for submission to the Eugene Weekly and The Register-Guard newspapers: 

The Committee on Local Affairs (CoLA) of the American Institute of Architects - Southwestern Oregon Chapter commends Eugene City Council for its decision to work with Lane County officials and pursue locating City Hall on the site of the current “butterfly” parking lot at 8th and Oak. We’re confident locating our new City Hall there can contribute significantly to downtown’s continued revitalization by capitalizing upon a synergy of established public open spaces, symbols of civic engagement, and community-defining facilities. This is a propitious moment worth embracing, an occasion that warrants a proactive and considered evaluation of the prospect at hand.

Toward this goal, we strongly encourage our government leaders to approach plans for City Hall with the following in mind:

Hit the Reset Button
The bottom line is the new site is very different from the old one; accordingly, the design for our new City Hall deserves a place-specific solution. Its location at the historic heart of downtown, adjacent to the Park Blocks and the existing County Courthouse, sharing a home with the Lane County Farmers’ Market, and along 8th Avenue—conceptually the city’s “Great Street” for civic uses—presents opportunities and challenges not completely shared by City Hall’s previous location. Simply transplanting the new City Hall design from its old site to the new one unchanged would tragically fail to make the most of a truly unique setting.

Zoom Out
Thinking broadly, the impact of setting City Hall on the “butterfly” lot parcel will extend well beyond its boundaries and immediate neighbors. This is a chance to make a place where City Hall and the pieces it will touch contribute to a much larger and richer whole. We can create a strong civic district but also reinforce 8th Avenue connections to the river and from downtown to the 5th Street Market District (via Oak St). There should be a purposeful effort to update master plans for the whole area. “Zooming out” should also include new occasions for the public to become informed and involved in the planning process. Citizens deserve a forum in which their voices are heard during the early stages of design.

Build Upon the Existing Historical and Physical Context
Much more so than the old City Hall site, the “butterfly” lot is central in both historical and physical terms to downtown Eugene. The new City Hall should acknowledge those contexts, the most important of which may be the Park Blocks. An open and public dialogue to explore their value will be important. The art, stone walls, fish fountain, and other elements of the Park Blocks are noteworthy examples of mid-century modern design and iconic elements of downtown Eugene. We believe an artful balance between improvements and preservation is necessary, adding life to the Park Blocks and sympathetically knitting them together with the future City Hall development.

Reevaluate the Facility Program
Perhaps the change in location warrants a reevaluation of portions of the program. For example, would the prospect of an all-weather shelter for the Farmers’ Market provide a new City Hall with the option of its shared use for civic functions? Does the fact City Hall will be a backdrop for activities on the Park Blocks (including public gatherings larger than would have been imaginable at the formerly proposed site) prompt an architectural solution tailored to that possibility? Do we intend City Hall to be primarily ceremonial and symbolic in nature? Or do we want it to once again be an all-encompassing center for the functions of city government, consolidating presently far-flung departments? If so, now is the time to anticipate future additions to City Hall.

Look to Design as a Crime Prevention Tool
All parts of a vibrant Civic Center can reinforce the safety and security of public spaces using creative Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) principles. Along with its neighbors, a new City Hall can provide “eyes on the street” and discreetly integrate other design strategies supportive of positive behaviors. Simply encouraging active use of the spaces around the new City Hall would go a long way toward making downtown Eugene attractive to citizens of all ages and from all walks of life.

Be Municipally Modest
Being “municipally modest” and cost-conscious is politically desirable, as are mutually beneficial actions on the part of both the City of Eugene and Lane County. Why not propose rehabilitation and repurposing the Lane County Courthouse (after a new courthouse rises on the old City Hall site) for city department offices? Why not evaluate the County’s Public Service Building when considering the city hall program; options may come to light that allow reconfiguration of spaces in a manner favorable to both the City and the County. Taxpayers will want to know their elected officials are looking at every possible means to prudently stretch available funds.

Pursue Design Excellence
Being who we are, we believe architecture is an art that goes beyond pragmatic problem solving to reflect the people, place, and time of its making. We’re intent upon fostering a culture of design excellence in which citizens equate the quality of the built environment with the quality of their lives, and require the standard of environmental design in their community to be commensurate with their best possible self-image. We know the City of Eugene will continue to set a bar high for the design of City Hall on its new site. A high bar is crucial to changing society’s values structure such that everyone views public design and the pursuit of design excellence as imperatives. 

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In addition to CoLA, others in the local design community similarly applaud the collaborative efforts of our local governments and endorse the Eugene City Council’s decision to move City Hall to the site of the “butterfly” lot. Two of the more vocal among their number, Jerry Diethelm and Otto Poticha, have unabashedly lobbied in favor of this option ever since the old city hall building met its end.

We do think Eugeneans will one day regard the protracted and at times controversial course City Hall traveled to arrive at this point as serendipitous. This is a watershed moment for the project and our downtown; let’s not squander it by failing to make the most of a tremendous opportunity.

Austin Bailey, Scott Clarke, Eric Gunderson, Stan Honn, Randy Nishimura, and Travis Sheridan
Members, American Institute of Architects – Southwestern Oregon Chapter Committee on Local Affairs. (The opinions expressed above are solely those of the members of CoLA, though we do believe our perspective is shared by a preponderance of AIA-SWO members).