Tag Archives: Portland

Contextual [mis]understanding

Context is everything.

Right?

Right.

Okay, I concede, maybe not everything.  But our human way of understanding is often based upon context, making it a relevant factor in many realms—whether we are talking about architecture, linguistics, archaeology, or pretty much any other subject matter.  The very definition of context,

the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed

indicates that in order to fully grasp any concept, idea, or even something more tangible, context is essential.

If I were to ask you, “How do you feel about context?” you’d likely respond with, “Context of what?”  See, you’d need some context from which to understand my question about context…

There are many examples by which we can establish the validity of context’s effect on a general level, one of which is the Ebbinghaus Illusion.  This optical illusion serves as a good visual reminder, demonstrating how our eyes and brains interpret and evaluate what we see and experience, based on context.  Perception is based on context.  Whether we like it or not, this is in fact the truth.

The two orange circles are exactly the same size; however, the one on the left seems smaller.

Context + Architecture:

“Place is to architecture as meaning is to language.” -Simon Unwin

I was recently a participant in an impromptu online discussion about the importance (or lack thereof) of context in architecture, spurred on by a Portland Architecture blog post about the North House, a new contemporary multifamily building on an urban infill lot in North Portland.  The length and depth of the ensuing conversation is, I believe, an indicator of many things.  First of all, anything so controversial is likely an important topic deserving of such discussion; second, the discussion demonstrated a rather contentious set of viewpoints and, I might say, an often one-dimensional understanding of architecture and context.  Many of the points raised during the discussion represented extremely valid and thoughtful questions about whether this particular building was designed with sensitivity to its surroundings, but I was disappointed by many insinuations that contextual sensitivity was either black or white—as simple as “same” or “different.”  Questions about this building’s lack of attention and sensitivity to context were often refuted with the sentiment that those posing the questions simply wanted the building to mirror its surrounding structures.  In reality, an examination of urban and architectural context is a matter that must go much further than skin deep, in order to exhibit any significance.

While the discussion provided a very relevant and interesting example from which to think about architectural context, this post is not intended to be about the North House, nor about that discussion.  It is, however, intended to provoke thought on the subject of architecture and context in general terms.

When it comes to architecture, the term context becomes much more complex and dare I say more important than the perceived size of an orange dot.  One of the fundamental struggles in defining architecture—I think both from within the profession and from others’ perception of it—is in determining whether we see architecture as a service profession or an artistic one.  Or both.  And if both, where do we draw the line?  Musn’t there be a balance that lies somewhere between the two extremes: (1) an autonomous architect creating a giant piece of sculpture, and (2) an entirely yielding architect only replicating what already exists?  Instead, how about a collaborating architect creating a building that both exhibits an artful interpretation of architectural form derived from contextual understanding and a building that truly services those who will inhabit it, those who will look at it, and those whose lives will be affected by it in any number of ways?

Granted, this may be a lot to ask for every building to achieve.  But considering that our cities are nothing more than the canvas upon which we inflict our desires—whether those desires be buildings, roads, freeways, bikeways, landscapes, parks, or ourselves—how can we not consider that what goes into creating our cities is deserving of such careful consideration?

Architect and writer, Simon Unwin, states in his book Analysing Architecture,

“Creating places and spaces that enrich the lives of the people who use them is the foundation of architects’ work.  Every building can and should engage in a dialog with the history, beliefs, and needs of a particular place and time.”

Where I believe this sentiment sometimes goes awry is when we fall back on the over-simplified adage of the concept of new vs. old, same vs. different.  It is with this insular way of thinking that we lose sight of the vast array of possibilities that exist within the gray zone.  Somewhere between new and old, or between same and different, is a new that also pays respect to the old or to the existing.  It is not about mirroring, nor about replicating; but it is about considering that vernacular respect can be recognized, and perhaps even alluded to in a new and contemporary way.

To take this a step further, we must contend that context is not simply a matter of architectural form.  It is not only about the pitch of a roof, the choice of materials, or even the size of a building.  While these can often be important pieces of the context puzzle, they are by no means the entire puzzle.  A work of architecture is not just an abstract hunk of materials; it is not sculpture.  Architecture inherently has social and cultural effects that go far beyond what we often consider.  Again, I must reiterate that designers wield power; they are, by the nature of their work, shaping our existence in this world.

To go briefly back to the North House, one of my personal contentions in this discussion related to the social aspects and consequences of placing a new building—one with vastly different design aesthetics than those of its neighbors—within a somewhat disadvantaged area of Portland.  While my assertion was, in part, about the aesthetics of the building, it was much more about what it stands for.  Again, we need to look beyond the skin of the building to issues like its high rental rates (which will limit and signify who can and will live there), to all issues related to how the building design addresses its surroundings—from its relationship with the street to its relationship with the buildings immediately adjacent to it, as well as its relationship within the general context of the city and neighborhood.

Again, it is not my intention to harp on this particular building.  I believe whole-heartedly in progress, change, and embracing the new and different.  But I also believe in addressing issues of architecture and urbanity on a holistic level.  It is my belief that if an architect does not cognizantly accept the fact that his or her work has lasting social implications, he or she is not practicing architecture.  The work becomes nothing more than sculpture.

In the words of Alvar Aalto,

“The very nature of the art of architecture is to serve humanity.  It is a utilitarian art, even in its most spiritual form.”

It is with that sentiment I believe context must be heavily considered.  A building does not stand alone—particularly in an urban environment.  Buildings are but one element of the collage; however, they are a crucial element to establishing social and cultural mores.  Issues such as economic, and therefore even racial, stratification can easily be affected, altered, and changed—for better or worse—by architecture.

While it would be nice to say we can evaluate architecture based strictly on the standards of form, function, and aesthetics, it is very thoughtless to do so.  Architecture is a deeply complex field with deeply complex consequences.  I may have unrealistically high standards, but they are nonetheless standards I believe should always be at play as we evaluate architecture.

And with that, I’ll say: context is everything.  Well, almost.

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Photo Essay: Portland Graffiti Part Two

Another round of photos taken in Portland–this time on NE Alberta.  While I’m not sure Portland is, in any way, a hotbed for serious quality graffiti or other street art, it has been interesting to notice that once I open my eyes to it, it is indeed everywhere in the city…

Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009

Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009

Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009

Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009

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Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009

What Language Does Design Speak?

Design, in all its contexts, communicates.  Imagery, text, physical location and context, connotations–it all sends a message.  And we all interpret messages differently, depending on our own knowledge, education, preconceived beliefs or ideas, among numerous other factors.

The images below are taken from a currently vacant site on the outskirts of Portland’s Pearl District.  The sign is part of an on-site advertising campaign for what I presume to be a new condominium tower.  The two images represent opposite sides of one sign.

I’d like to know what these images communicate to you (and you, and you, and you!).  Anything and everything–whether it be the actual message, the signage, the location, etc.  I would like to publish some responses as part of the post, so get commenting!

Photo Essay: Portland Graffiti

As a follow-up to my recent post on graffiti and New York City’s High Line, I thought it appropriate to do a little exploration of the state of graffiti in my own city.  These photographs were shot during a few hours of an overcast, drizzly Sunday in Southeast and Northwest Portland.  Some pieces are more significant than others, in the context of their art.  However, I believe it all to be collectively significant in telling the story–even the visibly painted over.  Let the photos speak:

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Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009

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Sour Grapes

And here she goes again…

Another Portland design event brings another set of thoughts and, likely, questions.  I’d like to start by climbing to the highest rooftop I can find, so I can do my shout from the rooftops rant.  But instead, I’ll settle for this metaphorical rooftop I have here.

This story will begin and end with grapes.  That’s right—grapes.

Last night I attended an open house at Portland’s Leftbank Project, a cool revamp of a 1923 building originally designed by architect A.E. Doyle.  In theory, I’m a supporter of the building and its purpose: to connect and support mission-driven businesses in an inspiring environment, and to do so in an ecologically responsible way.  But based on my recent post about The GreenVille Project—one of Leftbank’s tenants—one could say I’m a bit leery of what this “mission-driven” concept sometimes means.

I was hanging out in the office of dc202 design collective, and became privy to a conversation that really threw me for a loop.  One of dc202’s neighbors (a Leftbank tenant) came by and started grilling a dc202 employee about their sustainability practices.  I guess it’s fine to ask the questions, but here’s where it turned strange:

Apparently, there was a question posed about where the grapes dc202 was feeding its guests came from.  As in, the neighborly tenant thought it necessary to remark on the large size of said grapes and therefore, the fact that they probably weren’t from the local farmer’s market.  No, sorry people, the grapes were from Costco.

Oh, how I hate that I have to repeat myself from a previous post, but:

Really?!?!

Again, let’s not get caught up in the details, folks.  Before we start nit-picking about grapes, we’ve got to think about the bigger picture here.  Sorry, but local farmer’s market grapes will do nary a thing to save the world.  Yeah, yeah, I get it that all those little actions add up to a greater whole.  I’m not completely oblivious to this concept.

But for the sake of point-making, how about I call attention to another silly sustainability detail from last night: the PLA “biodegradable” corn cups used to serve wine.  I could go on and on about the fact that the term biodegradable is awfully generous, given the process required for these cups to biodegrade, and the lack of availability of said processes.  I could rant about the fact that most people don’t have access to the required commercial composting system—and that these cups can’t be recycled—so more often than not end up in landfills, or contaminating recycled traditional plastics.  I could go on for hours about the fact that these cups are made from genetically modified corn, and that the epidemic agribusiness of corn growth is extremely harmful to the environment—by using excessive amounts of insecticides and herbicides, and contributing to soil erosion and water pollution.

Yes, I could do all of that.  And for the sake of illustrating my point, I just did.  But the real point I’d like to make here is that if we all can’t get off of our sustainability high-horses and stop this nit-picking about silly details, we’re never going to get anywhere.

News flash: the problem is much bigger and much deeper than grapes or corn cups.

I guess what it comes down to for me is this:

Are grapes and corn cups really worth fighting over?

I’m beginning to feel that sustainability—a word I’m starting to despise—has just become another way for people to express their superiority, their virtuosity, their perceived willingness to do the right thing. It’s another topic to fight about, and most of the arguments are truly futile.

I waver between feeling that there is hope for change, and feeling that we should all just do the best we can, and most importantly—live and let live. Because really, if we aren’t willing to seriously tackle the root of this problem, which in my opinion is over-population, chances of any major turn-around in the state of our environment are slim to none.

So let’s just stop with the sour grapes, please.

Caught Up in Pretty

I’m going to do something a little unconventional here.  I’m going to be conventional, for a moment.  At least that’s what it feels like to me, but chances are, as the words pour forth, my unconventionality will surface.

I attended Portland’s AIA Design Awards Gala last night, planning to be bored to tears, and also planning to be unimpressed.  But actually, I was neither bored nor completely unimpressed.  Shocking, I know.

I was reminded why Portland is on the radar as a successfully designed city, and one that has a long history of sensible thinking about what we can and should do to the earth beneath us.  From the 30+-year-old Urban Growth Boundary to public transportation to a general awareness and respect for environment, Portland is certainly among the “cities of the future,” as Will Bruder, one of the jurors, put it.  But oh, don’t get me wrong—we are not perfect.  And given the content of my last post about climate change, my ultimate belief is that even in Portland, we are not doing enough (or rather, too much?).

I did feel a bit of Portland pride, though, as the jurors remarked on the quality of design in the city, and their impressions of what is happening in Portland.  Even with all my misgivings about the built environment and how we go about building more, I have to say that for a moment, I got caught up in the pretty of it all. It was like I was thrust into a time machine, and transported back to a time when I was ignorantly, naively enamored with design.

I snapped out of it eventually, but I’ll admit, begrudgingly, that I liked it—at least a little bit.

Two firms seemed to sweep the awards: Works Partnership Architecture and PATH Architecture.  In those fleeting moments when I can be considered a fan of architecture, I’d say I’m a fan of both firms’ work.  It all has a quality and a twist on regionalism that intrigues me.  The work is not “typical” but it’s also not out of touch with reality.

During my brief stint of being caught up in the pretty of it all, one of PATH’s projects caught my eye.  And sitting in the audience, watching the winners accept their awards, I realized that earlier in the evening I had been chatting with (who I now think was) Corey Martin of PATH, as we were each trying to find the proper entrance to the Gala.  Only I didn’t know at the time who he was.  And looking back, it was a proper indication of my indifference to the “who’s who” that I didn’t bother to ask, even though he asked me.

For some reason, PATH seems to be crossing my path a lot lately.  After researching the work of Saul Zaik for a project I’d been doing related to an award Zaik was receiving last night, and speaking with Zaik personally, I came to understand that Zaik and Martin have a mutual respect for one another’s work—even though they are separated in age by several decades.  In both cases, I think the mutual respect stems from each architect’s attention to, and respect for, a regional vernacular.  So with the Zaik-Martin connection in mind, and my later realization that I had been speaking with Martin, and after absorbing a little of his work at the awards ceremony, I decided to do a little more research.

And now I’m truly intrigued.

I read this interview on Portland Modern and now I get it.  Martin is a thinker, and it goes without saying that I like thinkers.  His architectural work is aesthetically beautiful, but there has to be something more than that to draw me in.  He talks about human experience in the spaces he makes, on a very intellectual and visceral level.  He also has a relationship with sculpture—a characteristic that seems to be evident in much of the work I’m drawn to.  But what really got me was this digital sketchbook of his.  I find his drawings beautiful, evocative, and I like their abstract relation to architecture.

All in all, there is something about his thought process and design intentions that make me want to know more.  So now I’ll have to work on finding out if it was actually him I spoke with.  And maybe there will be more to come on Corey Martin; time will tell.

But for now I will acknowledge that it is entirely possible that I have, and will continue to, contradict myself.  That is one of the hazards and beauties of being a thinker.  It’s not necessarily about having answers; it’s more about having questions.