Sunday, September 27, 2009

Going the Extra Mile- "Public" Architecture done right....

Given that my last entry essentially amounts to a statement about the lack of vision and commitment some public entities place on their history or responsibility to the larger community, I’ve been thinking about a time when the situation was reversed and public entities, government, went the extra mile to set a standard.  Much of that relates to the New Deal, when FDR and crew took advantage of the nation’s economic condition to put as many people to work as they could, building infrastructure (like roads, parks and power systems) that we still enjoy.  My BPA work comes to mind,  along with the Oregon Caves Chateau project, as does Ken Burns’ current documentary on the National Parks.  Both BPA and the parks were considered near-socialism a the time, by the way, but it appears that we as a nation have somehow survived.

I think a more recent example of government going the extra mile can be found at the Grand Coulee Dam, operated by the Bureau of Reclamation.  BOR isn’t generally the first Federal agency people think of when it comes to supporting fine design but that’s what they did, when they hired Marcel Breuer to design Coulee’s Third Powerhouse, home of the largest electrical generation units in the world.

Breuer (1902-1981) was one of the Bauhaus boys and gained fame for his design of the Wassilly Chair, the first of those continuous chrome tubular sled-based designs that are still popular.  Like so many European modernists (he was a Hungarian Jew), Breuer left Germany in the 1930s and eventually ended up teaching at the Harvard School of Architecture with Walter Gropius.  As a practicing architect Breuer design scores of buildings, among them the Whitney Museum of Art. 

Breuer's Visitor Center, designed in 1967, is a rather unexpectedly round  building among all the linearity of the huge Grand Coulee Dam that makes it quite striking.  It's well done and interesting on the interior too.  The Third Powerhouse has this amazing textural exterior of folded sculptural triangles of concrete, that form a massive battered stupa (look  it up) below the dam.  It rather looks as if it is covered with origami and comments from Visitors Center display report that the folds have a structural component, stiffening the shell of building.  Form, Function, etc.  Those modernists, huh?  Interior images of the powerhouse reveal decorative terrazzo floors and fine metal work.  Now THAT is public architecture (although the public apparently isn't allowed inside the powerhouse anymore, thanks to security).  I give BOR credit for hiring Breuer to begin with, and for maintaining the integrity of his design since the late-1960s.

Supposedly I will have an opportunity to work on this project in the near future, as there is some proposed modifications to the powerhouse generation in the works that will involve BPA and their substation up the hill.  I’m looking forward to the chance to perhaps see the inside of the powerhouse.  There are at least two other interesting design items at Grand Coulee that intrigue me...first the gold skinned "Public Safety Building" and more directly tied to the project, the fascinating "shoji-arch" like t-lines that lead up the hill.  Wonder if they are by Breuer too, or just took some inspiration from his efforts.  Great public architecture is like has the power to inspire others.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Jackson and Roosevelt, a sad situation in retrospect

A comment on another posts asks "what's up with the photos of Jackson School?" that run in the sidebar. Two years ago I was involved with an unsuccessful effort to save the historic Jackson and Roosevelt school buildings in Medford. These schools, built in 1911 and each a landmark anchor in a neighborhood named after them, were both built of brick with fine entry details. Neglected, and much added onto over the years, they were in need of work but had, as we say, "good bones." And they were both loved by many and were classic examples of that dying breed, "the neighborhood school."

The School District, 549C, and Dr. Phil Long, their superintendent, had secured $189 million in bond funding from the generous voters of Medford, promising to rebuild these structures, along with major improvements to most of the other schools and construction of a new high school to replace South. In the Summer of 2007, the day after school closed, 549C summarily closed both Jackson and Roosevelt, claiming that the brick was faulty and beyond repair, creating a eminent hazard to children. This was, frankly, a lie. They had no testing upon which to base that claim and in my discussions with Dr. Long about the issue he blandly admitted that the District simply didn't want to operate a three-story building. "They just don't work for us, as a school," he told me.

In typical political machination, still without any testing, 549C came up with a silly retrofit cost from an engineer unfamiliar with structural rehab. I have never seen so much concrete and steel inserted into a structure without reason in my career. What a surprise the costs were far more than demolition and new construction. Then they announced that cost over-runs at the new high school would require that neither Jackson or Roosevelt ever be rebuilt. (Funny, but that was their original goal, before election polling showed that the bond wouldn't pass if Jackson and Roosevelt were eliminated. Parents in both those neighborhoods, assured that their schools would be retained, hit the streets and got out the vote. The bond request passed by a mere 300 or so more "yes" votes than "no.")

The group that I was involved with, Save Medford Schools, shifted (wisely) to fight to keep schools on the Jackson and Roosevelt sites as the neighbors were promised. I continued to push for release of the brick study (which I had pushed 549C to commission during the Summer, but which 549C refused to publish...guess why?) and accurate cost justification that showed rehab was more expensive than demo and rebuild. Of course, the day they released the brick study, which of course found the bricks were fine, they also announced a new plan to rebuild Jackson and Roosevelt anyway, with money that came from their over-estimate of the repair of North High School. This effectively split the opposition, with parents who just wanted a neighborhood school on one side afraid to make any more waves and preservationists and fiscally minded community number-crunchers on the other, knowing that the District had cooked the numbers to get what they wanted to begin with.

Both Jackson and Roosevelt are now the site of new, two-story, buildings that will be opened next year. "Flagship High," as the monstrous suburban collector school the District is building at the edge of town has come to be known, is nearly complete. It fails to provide adequate theater and sport facilities, meaning the District will have to retain and maintain South to make it work and that students will have to drive or be bussed back and forth between the campuses (it is too far to walk).

The entire episode, as I testified to the 549C Board in January 2008 was a violation of the public trust, a waste of public funding, and the most egregious example of mismanagement on the part of an elected body I have ever been associated with in more than 25 years of public involvement. Had I been a Medford resident I would have led an effort to recall all of them, but not being so, I was effectively characterized as a "butt-inski" from Ashland.

The photos are of Jackson, in better days and during demolition. This week the Medford Landmark and Historic Preservation Commission announced its intent to nominate Washington School to the National Register. Dr. Long is 'considering' whether to support their effort. I am not holding my breath.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Multiple Property Submittals

When I was at the UO, learning the preservation ropes, a group of us came up with the mnemonic “BDOSS” (pronounced Be-Doss) to get through the HP 101 question of “what types of resources are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places (Buildings, Districts, Objects, Sites, and Structures). It worked. I still remember it.

However, like Roger Maris’ 61 homeruns, BDOSS should really be BDOSS* since the Park Service has added variations to that original group of five including linear districts, non-contiguous districts, Traditional Cultural Properties (TCP’s) and what is the focus of this blogpost (you were wondering, right?) a “Multiple Property Submittals” or MPS. An MPS is a group of resources, of any time, that are related. Some of the classic examples of MPS (back when they were called Thematic nominations) were things like the Covered Bridges of Oregon or the CCC-built structures of the National Forest Service.

I have worked on what amounts to MPS documentation before, mostly for the far flung resources of hydroelectric projects, but I am now in the process of starting to layout the formal submittal on the Bonneville Power Administration Transmission System, which is, um, more far flung than most. This nomination will encompass resources in seven states, ranging from transmission lines to radio towers, control rooms and “untanking houses,” all related to the 70+ year history of public power development in the Pacific Northwest.

The MPS format essentially defines the “BPA Universe,” the realm and extent of the resources that are related to the significant themes by geography and type and, after defining what sorts of resources are out there that MAY be significant, establishes thresholds of integrity for each resource type to determine if they ARE significant. For an entity such as BPA, with literally 1000s of “things” to consider, an MPS submittal should save a lot of time and effort from a regulatory standpoint. Assuming I get it right!

In the meantime, as posted before, I am often finding my time spent staring at pictures of substations, or t-lines or radio towers or any of the other various pieces of the BPA puzzle in an effort to determine the significant patterns. WHAT makes a transmission line significant and how much can you modify it without losing some essential quality that makes it so? Good thing I like T-lines. The following is my current desktop, which probably certifies me as being in the thick of t-line thought .....