Eugene Weekly : Architecture : 2.21.08

Putting It All Together
After the world comes apart
By Suzi Steffen

Architects don’t work in isolation — and, especially after wars and other disasters, they have to be careful to understand the various economic, political and social needs of the space where they’re working. Oh, and they need to learn from the past and from others’ failure of imagination in order to plan for future disasters.

That was the message, or at least part of the complex message, of the seventh and final event in the UO School of Architecture’s Savage lecture series, “Cities in War, Struggle, and Peace: The Architecture of Memory and Life.” This event was a panel and discussion with the audience instead of a lecture like the previous six. The audience of about 45 people was noticeably smaller than the previous weeks, and one architecture student explained that fellow students were occupied at a leadership conference or thought that last week’s lecture was the final event in the series.

Panel members included Frances Bronet, dean of the School of Architecture and Allied Arts (widely known as triple-A or AAA); Christine Theodoropoulos, department chair of the architecture division; Mark Gillem, architecture prof and frequent contributor to the Eugene Weekly; and professor emeritus Gary Moye. Series organizer Howard Davis asked the panel members, who had attended most or all of the previous lectures, to present their thoughts on the series as a whole and to then begin discussion with each other before opening the discussion for questions and comments from the audience.

Theodoropoulos opened by giving her thoughts on what drew the six lectures together. She said there were four key ideas about reconstruction, including the kind of anti-reconstruction that doesn’t want to replicate prewar conditions (as with the Dresden synagogue and certain postwar buildings in both East and West Berlin) ; historicist reconstructions (as with the Frauenkirche in Dresden); critical cultural reconstruction that mixes new and familiar styles to resurrect the community (as in the Iraqi marshes and Bhuj, India); and mitigation or preventative reconstruction, which incorporates a disaster response into the planning (as in some of the redistribution of communities in the Balkans and land readjustment in Tokyo). She added that, post-disaster in war-torn areas where communities lie at various ends of the political spectrum, an architect always “faces a lose-lose situation. There are normally difficulties in building consensus in communities, but they’re so magnified in a postwar conditions that it’s difficult if not impossible for architects.”

Brunet’s presentation focused around the role of the school of architecture in training architects to deal with these “lose-lose propositions.” She spoke about the complexities of a situation where new players and new, unpredicted and perhaps unpredictable alliances, hatreds, needs and desires come into play. “How can we play the part of the resolvers?” she asked, referring to planner Scott Bollens’ Jan. 22 lecture on the Balkans and other war-torn areas. “We’re not, right now,” she said, suggesting that architects must “find a way to insert ourselves as members of much larger, interdisciplinary teams” that respond after wars and other crises.

But U.S. architects and planners do have a massive impact on world land planning, suggested Gillem. Gillem, author of America Town: Building the Outposts of Empire, showed slides of American military bases on Okinawa, in South Korea and in Italy. His main point was that U.S. architects and planners see sprawl and car-based design as normal, and so that’s the kind of building replicated at hundreds of U.S. bases across the world, including more than 300 in Germany alone and a growing number in the Middle East. “The American military takes with it its culture of building, a culture of sprawl that comes with a geopolitical social impact,” Gillem said. “This is important as we think about rebuilding, especially in post-war Iraq.”

Moye focused on the ways U.S. architects could rethink their contributions. “This has been a wrenching set of lectures,” he said at the beginning. “It stimulates our humanity, We want to be helpful and be of service. But how do we do this in a way that’s both appropriate and effective?” he asked. Moye suggested looking at reconstruction as a phased effort, from the earliest days of simply trying to survive after a crisis or war to the later days of creating comprehensive plans. In Bollens’ lecture, he mentioned that architects and planners from opposite sides often meet with each other to try to create some of those long range plans; his example used Israeli and Palestinian planners who meet several times a year in neutral countries to discuss what might happen after peace. Moye warned, “There’s a danger that we leap to meet the need with good intentions, but we’re not necessarily knowing or thoughtful about all of the realities that apply to that particular place.” Using the example of Azzam Alwash’s lecture on the Marsh Arabs of Iraq and their input into the Italian/Canadian designs for new homes and villages, he explained that it’s important to have someone from the place itself involved in the planning for reconstruction.

Gillem echoed that theme in later discussion, saying that architects in a globalized world needed to understand that technical work will be outsourced and that “the real work of architecture will be social building and leadership roles that I think we’re not doing a very good job of preparing architects for in the future.”

But on a liberal arts campus with a wide range of expertise, Bronet said, there are ways to open up the curriculum for architecture students so they can understand more of the complexities of the situations. “People from multiple disciplines could probably help us,” she said.

And that help in thinking about the issues might have to involve ethics and crisis management. Theodoropoulos cautioned that although an architecture graduate student mentioned his desire to “do the right thing” and his admiration of an architect who had turned down what he saw as a tainted commission, the reality of post-war situations isn’t so simple. “If the community, including the builders and the architects and planners, have lost everything and may have just scraped by with their lives — they may not even have their health — it’s difficult to say, ‘Do the right thing,” she said. “For them, doing anything at all that can help them survive is an essential.”

Questions and comments focused on the ethics of rebuilding, leaving ruins as they are, the parallels of rebuilding from war and rebuilding in post-Katrina New Orleans or possibly post-earthquake Portland. Jenny Young, the architecture professor whose suggestion to Davis sparked the series, made the last comment. “It seems clear to me that there’s a basic lesson here. Disasters, we may be able to mitigate, but we can’t prevent them. Wars, we can,” she said. “So why can’t we learn from the past? I’d like to feel more optimistic; how can we feel optimistic about going forward?”

Davis agreed, saying “We don’t seem to be very good at stopping wars from happening. … Why should that be? It should be possible to know things, and for those things that are known not to be forgotten.”

Moye referred to Lawrence Weschler’s book Vermeer in Bosnia, in which the author, interviewing various people from different factions in the Balkan Wars, asked why such horrific acts of violence could have occurred. “Many acts of explanation started with, ‘Well, what happened in 1350 … ‘” Moye said. “When you look to the present and the future, you also have to deal with the past.”