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A Place To Live, Or A Miracle?

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Background

Not long after the story on Christopher Alexander’s lack of a license ran, the University fired Alexander from the Amazon Housing project. As luck would have it, I was in class at the time it happened, but had been preparing an extended profile on Alexander’s background and his relationship with the University. I gathered together all of my reporting, rewrote parts of it, and it ran as an analysis piece that complemented the news story of the firing.

A place to live, or a miracle?

By Arik Hesseldahl
Oregon Daily Emerald
04 November 1993, Page 2

Several questions were answered Wednesday as the University administration announced an end to its relationship with Christopher Alexander, the embattled architect of the Agate and Amazon family housing facilities.

Administration officials said there was a “lack of understanding” between Alexander and his firm CES/T&E Venture, and that it will proceed on schedule with plans to demolish and rebuild the Amazon facility in time for the 1995-96 school year.

Just who is Christopher Alexander anyway?

This is not an easy question to answer. When contacted on Oct. 28 for comments on another story, Alexander informed The Oregon Daily Emerald that he would no longer speak with representatives of this newspaper.

Alexander lives in Berkeley, Calif. where he runs an organization called The Center for Environmental Structure, which formed a partnership with the Eugene architectural firm of Thallon and Edrington for the sole purpose of designing and rebuilding the family housing facilities at the corner of 18th Ave. and Agate St. and the Amazon facility at 24th Ave. and Patterson St.

Alexander has a history with the architectural environment of the University dating back to the early 1970s, when he wrote a book entitled The Oregon Experiment. The processes described in that book have become standard University policy when planning construction projects and are required reading for architecture students. The Science Complex, additions to the Education Dept. building and additions to the School of Music all were designed using Alexander’s Oregon Experiment processes, but by other firms.

Architects around the country see Alexander as either a genius or a self-appointed guru. Critics sometimes accuse him of trying to create a “cult” because his ideas often run counter to the conventional wisdom of architecture. In the architectural sense, what he does is “not done.”

But there are a growing number of people who believe his ideas have revolutionized the way buildings are now built and how they will be built in the future. County Jerry Finrow, Dean of the University of Oregon School of Architecture among them.

“Christopher Alexander is one of the most important theorists in 20th Century architecture because when he was a practising theorist, he proposed views and approaches that no one else had thought of before in the history of the field,” Finrow said.

The saga of Alexander’s mark on the architecture world began at Cambridge University, where he completed his first academic degree in mathematics. He the completed Cambridge’s three-year preliminary program in architecture in two years.

From what one trade journal writer has said, Alexander believed Cambridge’s architecture program missed the point.

“He wanted to know how to make a beautiful building,” wrote Jerry Shipsky in the journal Architecture. “He’s been obsessed with that question ever since.”

Alexander then moved across the Atlantic to Harvard University, where he was possibly the first student to ever complete a Doctorate in architecture.

Put simply, Alexander applied his background in mathematics toward solving problems of architecture, Finrow said. Shipsky compared Alexander’s work to “inventing calculus simply in order to solve a particular equation or creating the laws of motion simply in order to ride in a car.”

Finrow said this led Alexander to the idea that architecture, as it has been commonly practiced, is too simplistic and formulaic to create beautiful buildings. Applying traditional rules do not necessarily result in a beautiful building.

Alexander believes that the environment is made up of patterns, rather than things. The distinction between a good and bad pattern can be decided up on objectively by groups of people who have a stake in the design of the building. That means forming committees, known as “user groups” which combine their thoughts on how the building should look into a practical, workable building plan. This process is fundamentally different from anything tried before, and has been hailed by some as the wave of the future for architectural design.

Between 1977 and 1980, Alexander published a series of books that culminated in The Oregon Experiment, which Finrow considers to be the second phase of Alexander’s philosophical development.

“I think it was the most productive set of ideas he ever had,” Finrow said. “The process expressed there is very structured and organized and allows the architect to get into the same place that the users are in. It uses their insights to create a basis to work from.”

“Our own environment has been ruined by the current architectural separation between client, architect and contractor,” Alexander told Progressive Architecture in 1991.

In that article, Alexander tells an anecdote about a housing project he worked on in Mexicali, Mexico, during the 1970s.

“A bank official came to the Mexicali project as we were building it and said that clearly the people didn’t know how to design housing since, in one, the bedrooms were too big and the living room too small.

“I asked the woman whose house it was to come over and explain, and she told him that it was very simple. The bedrooms were big to give each of her children a place to study, since education was so vital to their betterment. …The living room was small because ‘our family all sits together on the same sofa anyway. We love each other. Why do we need more space?’ Poor people because of their distressed circumstances, tend to be more direct.”

Finrow called Alexander’s approach a “very effective methodology.”

“I have practiced from that perspective myself, and I think it’s very successful,” he said.

But if Alexander’s methods have worked so well in the past, what, if anything, has gone wrong with the Agate and Amazon projects?

Nancy Forrest, a member of the Amazon Community Tenants Council, agrees that Alexander may be a genius, but that something has gone wrong with the Agate and Amazon users group process — something that may or may not be Alexander’s fault.

Forrest said the University placed too many administrators, staff members and faculty members in the users group, and not enough of the low-income students who will live in the buildings. Forrest further blames University officials for setting the cost boundaries of the project, which have become just one of the major sticking points of the entire controversy, without allowing user groups to discuss them.

Alexander is well-known for his design of the Eishan University campus on the outskirts of Tokyo, Japan. Finrow said it had its own set of controversies.

“It’s no surprise that there has been controversy on this project. But once it got through all the unfortunate circumstances of its birth, Eishan became a marvelous environment that is probably really appreciated and loved by those who live there,” Finrow said.

But under current financial conditions, can the University really afford a “marvelous environment?”

“I would argue that the University can’t afford not to have a quality environment,” Finrow said. “Part of what makes our place meaningful is the environment in which we live. You have to ask if the environment is of good quality and if it’s enriching. I think the cost argument is a tough one, but I don’t think we can afford to have that attitude.”

In 1992, Alexander designed a house for Ann Meadlock and John Graham on Whidbey Island, near Seattle, Wash. A glowing pictorial and written review in the April 1992 issue of House and Garden highlights the “Alexander experience,” with heartfelt, yet revealing quotations from people involved with the project, including the homeowners.

“I have a lot of soul in that building,” said one carpenter who worked on the house. “You feel the way it’s made,” said Gary Black, one of Alexander’s associates.

But the final paragraph of that article hints at what could be a trade-off to working with Alexander.

It says: “Medlock and Graham freely admit that the Alexander experience was no picnic — it took forever and cost more money than they had. Nevertheless, they’d do it again. ‘If you just want a place to live, don’t do this,’ counsels Graham. ‘But if you want a miracle, do it.'”

Was the University simply looking for “a place to live” when Alexander and his firm were selected to design the Agate and Amazon projects? Wednesday’s developments seem say yes to that question. But there are other questions.

How will the design-build process referred to University officials work? How much input will students affected have on the project’s outcome and costs?

Though Christopher Alexander is now gone from the picture, this story is far from over.

Written by ahess247

June 28th, 2009 at 11:37 am

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