Thursday, August 5, 2010

Can Christopher Alexander democratize the arts in Portland?

By Barry Johnson

Inside the Alberta Rose Theatre. Courtesy of Alberta Rose
Ever since the Regional Arts & Culture Council released its new facilities study and survey in June, I've been stumped. I didn't necessarily disagree with the findings of Webb Management Services, which conducted the study. But somehow the conclusions seemed so distant from what I take to be "reality."  I don't think anyone believes that we have a $100 million performing arts center for the ballet and opera in our immediate future. I even doubt we'll have one in my lifetime; maybe you're a lot younger than I am and your time horizon is farther off.

All of the energy for new facilities in the city, since we opened the Portland Center for the Performing Arts in the mid 1980s, has been private, from Reed College's Kaul Auditorium to the Alberta Rose Theatre, which just opened a couple of months ago in Northeast Portland. And no sooner than I proposed a new concert hall for our medium-sized groups, with a price tag of $30 million or so, than Opera Theater Oregon proposed to refurbish the Guild movie theater for $300,000, providing a similar venue at one penny on the dollar. Boy, did that make me feel dumb.

Then I read Christopher Alexander's "The Oregon Experiment," which changed my thinking on a large range of subjects, from the restoration of democracy to the wisdom of cultures. It also made me think about our cultural facilities issues in an entirely new way, a more democratic way, one that engaged a far broader range of Portlanders in cultural issues than ever get a chance to "vote" in real life.

Alexander, who was born in Vienna in 1936, excelled in chemistry, physics and mathematics at Cambridge, before moving to the U.S. to study architecture at Harvard, and computer science (and human cognition) at M.I.T.  One of his key insights, applicable as much to software design as architecture and urban planning, has to do with patterns, a special word in Alexander's design philosophy, which means a set of time-honored solutions to particular design problems, from the detailing of a room to the construction of a cathedral. You don't need to be an architect to employ these patterns -- or at least you didn't before the professionalization of building construction during the past century or so. Some of them have been with us for thousands of years.

Alexander's best known book is his least theoretical. "A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction" catalogs 253 solutions to problems ranging from the use of climbing plants to the organizing of government into small, independent regions with natural geographic boundaries.  Of course, it's easier to train plants to grow up a building wall than it is to re-organize our nation-states, into something resembling city-states. "A Pattern Language" is the second of a trilogy that Alexander wrote in the 1970s; "The Oregon Experiment" is the third, a case study based on applying the principles of "A Pattern Language" and the philosophical and historical foundation of his ideas in "The Timeless Way of Building" to the problem of designing the campus at the University of Oregon.

"The Oregon Experiment" is organized around six basic principles.

1. Organic order -- "Planning and construction will be guided by a process which allows the whole to emerge gradually from local acts."
2. Participation -- "All decisions about what to build, and how to build it, will be in the hands of users."
3. Piecemeal growth -- "The construction undertaken in each budgetary period will be weighed overwhelmingly towards small projects."
4. Patterns -- "All design and construction will be guided by a collection of communally adopted planning principles called patterns."
5. Diagnosis -- "The well being of the whole will be protected by an annual diagnosis which explains, in detail, which spaces are alive and which ones dead, at any given moment in the history of the community."
6. Coordination -- "Finally, the slow emergence of organic order in the whole be assured by a funding process which regulates the stream of individual projects put forward by the user."

Are these applicable to solving Portland's arts facilities issues? I decided to give them a try. You can be the judge.

We'll start with a definition.

What's an "arts facility"?  Any place where the arts (taken broadly) are exhibited, performed and/or taught as its primary function. Alexander's first rule would be to establish a catalog of "patterns" for dealing with the building, modification, siting and integration of arts facilities into their neighborhoods. Although the "Pattern Language" doesn't have a specific pattern devoted to this specific problem, it has several pertinent chapters on local centers, grouping buildings and positioning individual buildings, and designing specific buildings.

If we follow Alexander, arts facilities should be spread throughout the city,
not concentrated downtown and a few neighborhoods. At the University of Oregon, Alexander's process led to a plan that mixed functions throughout the campus -- from student housing to childcare to athletic areas. A city the size of Portland has lots of neighborhoods, some of them far-flung. The idea of the walking neighborhood, in which most people can walk to most central activities (shopping, school, health care, parks, etc.), is a planning principle of the City of Portland, and if we consider the arts to be a central activity, then our neighborhoods should have arts facilities we can walk to. Each one doesn't need to cover all the possibilities -- from concert hall to dance studio to art gallery -- but it would help if the arts center of one neighborhood is easily reached by transit from others, so that I can reach the Wilkes neighborhood's art gallery from my concert hall in Glenfair.

Some neighborhoods already have arts facilities or buildings that could easily be transformed in that direction. When possible, existing buildings (old movie theaters, for example, or school auditoriums) should be adapted to the agreed upon purposes. To Alexander, things that are already working should be preserved, things that are broken should be fixed and only when things are dead is completely new construction justified. New construction is almost always more expensive than remodeling or repairing, so this is the best way to obey the "piecemeal growth" principle anyway.

The users of the facilities should determine their use and design them.
That means representatives of the neighborhood, audiences, and the artists themselves, primarily, though city planning officials, RACC and arts organizations should also sit with the decision-making group. Alexander makes it clear in "The Oregon Experiment" that the users aren't an advisory body -- they call the shots. Because they are operating from an agreed upon catalog of "patterns," their designs should be appropriate almost all of the time. And if they aren't, they won't be funded.

The neighborhoods themselves, working with the arts groups and artists, generate the ideas
for projects they hope to fund. The better their overall plan and the more efficient, the better chance their idea has of funding. Because the most-funded category will be small projects, a lot of the proposals will be small-scale improvements of existing situations/buildings. The groups should also include how they are hoping to fund the project -- financial partnerships with businesses, individual donors, foundation or government grants, the general cultural construction fund, etc. The city would provide maintenance, though other arrangements could be made to keep costs down.

The sites for new facilities should be near neighborhood centers
-- or part of an effort to create neighborhood centers. And, ideally, they should be part of a larger Alexander-like process for the neighborhood as a whole. Ideally, a site should include opportunities to expand the facility and ancillary buildings for arts-related needs -- classrooms, rehearsal space, office space, workshops for costumes and sets, and then such indirect uses as cafes, movie houses and bookstores. We are describing a cultural hub that fits into a business/office/public services center.

Money is going to be a problem, so partnerships
with schools districts in Portland, Portland Community College, libraries and private companies  are likely necessary to proceed. A small theater built next to a school, for example, provides big potential benefits for the schools (space for activities, engagement with artists) and the arts (classroom space, teaching opportunities). Or maybe an existing school auditorium is upgraded for concerts. Existing private arts facilities can become partners, too. It would be better to support Alberta Rose theater -- by building a nearby park, for example, or participating in a development for nearby office or workshop space -- than to build another facility in that neighborhood.

Larger, more capital intensive projects,
such as a new home for the opera and the ballet, have to be developed by the city at large and their immediate communities of desire. Can the Keller be refitted to the task?  Alexander is very dubious about big solutions -- he calls them "lump developments" -- for a multitude of reasons. They tend to wipe out smaller projects; they are harder to adapt to new situations, meaning that when they become "damaged" for some reason, they often have to be replaced; because they are harder to repair, they start to deteriorate (both physically and in usefulness) almost from the start; it's harder to find a representative group of so many users to make design decisions; they tend to distort the districts in which they are sited -- they are almost never good neighbors. That doesn't mean you never build something big; it just means the big project has much bigger hurdles to overcome, in addition to price.

RACC should lead the coordination process
for all of these projects, establishing priorities and making sure the processes are fair and keep to the "patterns" of the neighborhood development and the specific use of the arts facility (puppet theater, concert hall, dance studio, art gallery, for example, or some mix of these). It can also help adjacent neighborhoods make sure they aren't duplicating facilities.  But they aren't in charge of developing a master plan. In fact, Alexander opposes master plans as a matter of principle, arguing that no plan can be both specific enough (to address the near infinitude of local problems and conditions) and general enough (to predict accurately future needs and problems).

This "Alexander Plan" means that Portland's arts facilities would not be confined to an "entertainment district."
If you live along SE Foster Rd., one would be nearby (Linda Austin's dance studio, expanded for more public activities, perhaps) would be accessible to you. Or Kenton. Or Wilkes. Or Raleigh Hills. An arts group might make one of them "home" -- a classical Vietnamese dance troupe (if one exists) for a Halsey St. theater, for example -- and then perform at other arts centers, building its audience and community of supporters in the process. Actually, I expect several artists/groups to attach themselves to each art center, participating in the user groups that program and plan them. A network of neighborhood centers makes it far easier for every arts group to find new audiences -- the art museum could circulate print and drawing shows, say -- and it makes programming for kids more important. I'm imagining an entirely new definition of the old Saturday matinee.

That's my first take of the facilities question as Alexander might solve it. I use "might" advisedly: Clearly, if we brought him up from Berkeley to figure things out, the plan would be far different, not to mention better. But maybe it's different and provocative enough to encourage some better thinking on arts facilities.

I'm interested in whether or not this approach really meets our needs; whether it can really be coordinated fairly and efficiently; how much leverage an arts centers has to generate a livelier, more creative neighborhood that can have some control over its own culture; to what extent it can actually improve or help create neighbor centers; the impediments to the real partnerships that would have to take place for it to be practical; the extent to which it helps solve some of the art world's most intractable problems -- diversity, accessibility, broad public support, charges of elitism. Personally, I like the sound of it, the democracy and civic participation inherent in it, but I'm waiting for you to take a pin to this balloon.


MightyToyCannon said...

Barry, your post contains much to be mulled over, and may send me to my bookshelf to dive back into Alexander's "Pattern Language." When I bought that book years ago, I remember it being a big investment. I suspect that used copies are rare because people hold on to them as if they are family bibles. (Powell's has new copies available for $65).

For now, a few quick thoughts:

A few weeks ago, I was asked to make a fundraising pitch on behalf of Conduit Studio as part of its four-evening benefit performance series. While watching some remarkable dance, I drifted into a little reverie about arts spaces. Conduit is an interesting case study, having been created by artists who collectivized to solve a specific, mutually-felt need. It wasn't the result of a civic master plan or formal "needs assessment study." Over a fifteen year history, Conduit has evolved from collective to nonprofit, yet it continues to play a central role in Portland’s dance ecosystem. I think there's a connection there to your comments about democratization of the arts. So my first question is: How can public policy foster such grassroots endeavors, without having to design, control or mandate them?

The night of the Conduit performance was hot, so the windows of the Pythian Building were open to the sounds of the street, including streetcar bells, barking dogs, and children splashing in the fountain at the new Director Park. While the noise could have been annoying, I thought of it as part of the charming magic of the Conduit space. I also thought about how great it would be if the Guild Theater were to be renovated as imagined by Opera Theatre Oregon. What a great downtown location, smack dab next to a fabulous public plaza. I don’t know how real the $300,000 cost estimate is, or whether there’s a business plan that shows how the operations will be sustained. However, the project does strike me as an incredibly cost-effective way to add a needed and attractive venue to the city’s inventory. So, my second question: Is the City of Portland or PDC considering how they might help out with a project such as this one?

Final thought: I agree with the importance of having arts venues (using your definition) distributed throughout neighborhoods. We should minimize geographic obstacles to arts access, while making the arts part of what enlivens and defines neighborhoods. However, I wouldn’t want planners to overlook the value of having a distinct arts/culture district as a destination. The act of “going out” to see a show is part of the arts experience too. Stepping outside of our neighborhoods to attend a cultural event connects us with people from other neighborhoods, and gives us a broader perspective on the place in which we live. Question: Can we plan arts venues such that we have access to them both as part of our day-to-day living, AND as a “special treat” that requires us to be intentional about our arts experiences?

Barry Johnson said...

Thanks for joining in, MTC.

Conduit is a good example of a private initiative that a "cultural repair and construction fund" might help. Alexander wouldn't want anyone to design, control or mandate Conduit but the users of Conduit itself. I think he would want less government/social control over Conduit's activities, not more.

This month, Opera Theatre Oregon hears from TMT Development about its proposal. At that point, yes, it would be nice if some sort of assistance could be rendered to the project. Alexander would say this should be limited to passing along money if OTO demonstrates that it is following the patterns of that part of the city for that sort of building.

Downtown is always going to be a special "neighborhood," because of its concentration of government, corporate and cultural activities. I think Alexander would argue that spreading out activities is important, but I don't think he'd try to upset existing, special uses. In fact, he'd want to "repair" them, too.

Establishing funds/partnerships to start this process is the key. Our approach these days, via PDC or big lenders, encourages gigantic capital projects rather than generating many smaller repairs. Alexander, I think, would argue that this is the source of many of our most intractable urban design problems, which quickly migrate to the social sphere.

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