Built, But Not Ugly

Eugene has a stormy relationship with its buildings. We all love being outdoors so much, we assume anything indoor won’t compete and shouldn’t try. I believe much of the local anti-growth sentiment is really only anti-ugly.

Architect and curmudgeon Otto Poticha once pointedly titled a City Club speech as a question: “Why Does Eugene Have So Many Ugly Buildings?” He answered his question with a fable about a timber baron. Once the value of the land he held became more valuable than the trees he planted, he started clearing the land and building on it. But this new business required skilled construction laborers, and they might not work as hard for an employer who pulled up in a shiny Mercedes. So he always kept an old pick-up truck around, for those occasions when he had to appear at a job site. The truck kept the owner in touch with the common man.

Poticha himself drove a Porsche to job sites. Maybe he still does. He told me that only in Eugene was his choice of transportation ever an issue when negotiating his architecture fees. A commercial real estate broker once told me the same thing: “I wish I could drive a Mercedes, but clients in this town would be distracted by it.”

Likewise with our buildings. The more modest, the better. An architect who did work with local public agencies decades ago put it most succinctly. “When spending the public’s money, it doesn’t matter how much the project costs, so long as it looks cheap.”

Poticha lately has answered his own question more directly. We have so many ugly buildings because we allow it. Local designers have the skills to build beautiful buildings, but they won’t get built without the permission of the clients. When it comes to publicly financed buildings, that’s you and me.

A restaurant owner near campus remembers her very first impression of Eugene, 35 years ago. “I’d never seen so much T-111 plywood in my life.” It’s as if we learned to make plywood a couple decades before we learned to export it. So it stayed here and became our building stock.

So it was quite a surprise last month when Eugene garnered two regional Design Awards commendations from the American Institute of Architects. No other city in the Pacific Northwest returned home with two awards. Not Portland. Not Seattle.

Not only that, but the two award-winning buildings could not be more different. The Wayne L. Morse Federal Courthouse, designed by “starchitect” Thom Mayne, stood alongside an affordable housing project. The courthouse was not a surprise, but WestTown was. The judges applauded the tiered design on 8th Avenue, pairing 102 affordable housing units in the back with market-rate live-work units on the street. They noted an economy of space without any part of it looming, respecting its timeless neighbor, the W.O.W. Hall, and improving the neighborhood in general.

Quick on the heels of this success, the Southwestern Oregon chapter of American Institute of Architects hosted its own Design Awards two weeks ago. Nationally renowned architects spent a half day judging three dozen projects. They chose a handful that exhibited notable design excellence.

Again, the winners were as varied as they were excellent. The judges commended an artist’s studio and part-time residence measuring less than 300 square feet, and an urban village development (inside and out) with space enough for hundreds. They loved a community theater on Main Street (designed by Poticha) and a prototype elementary school on the edge of town. Lane Transit District funded two winning projects. Its Gateway Station and its EmX transit stops both add character and detail to the streetscape.

Eugene and Springfield can take pride in its built environment, especially because these projects were all designed with local architects for local clients. Half the clients were private, half public. Better clients will bring better projects. The University of Oregon has been training future architects for almost two generations, but the best students often leave the area to reach their full potential. Good projects and lots of them will keep some of those top students here.

We must learn that plywood lesson in reverse when it comes to architecture students. We exported them for decades before we learned to use them here.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) is executive director for the local chapter of American Institute of Architects, but these opinions are his own. A video of the chapter’s 2009 Design Awards banquet can be viewed at www.aiaswo.org/designawards.