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The Oregon Experiment (Center for Environmental Structure Series) Hardcover – 17 Aug 1978
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"The Oregon Experiment is perhaps this decade's best candidate for a permanently important book."--Rory Campbell, The Boston Globe
Details the master architectural design plan currently being implemented at the University of Oregon, illustrating the participation of all members of a small community in the designing of their own environment.See all Product description
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If you are looking for an example of a specific campus plan, however, you will not find it here. Central to Alexander's approach is the notion that communities should not create fixed master plans, but rather should develop a common pattern language, and then apply it organically, in a piecemeal fashion, as needs arise. The book talks as much about this process of planning as it does about individual construction projects. Whenever a need arises (expansion of a building, addition of a door, creation of a green) people consult their pattern language and build something to suit the space and satisfy the need. Because everyone follows the agreed-upon language, the new parts harmonize with those that already exist (or replace earlier, poorly-designed structures).
If you have enjoyed studying Alexander's patterns in A Pattern Language, you will find here a collection of new ones that are specific to a university setting, including "University Population," "University Shape and Diameter," "Departments of 400," "Local Administration," "Classroom Distribution," and about a dozen more. Although he clearly draws on ideas from British universities in many cases, he unaccountably does not include one of the fundamental features of the British model, namely the residential college of 500 (or so) within the larger institution. (Although he does include aspects of this pattern under the heading "Small Student Unions.") As always, Alexander's pattern descriptions are clear, blunt, and thought-provoking.
The question that most readers will want to have answered is, "Does all this really work?" When the volume was written, of course, the process was just getting under way, and so we cannot know from this book alone whether everything described was successful or has been sustained over the long term. From what I've seen of campus master planning in public universities, it often turns out in the end to have less to do with creating good educational environments than it does with kowtowing to the local chamber of commerce and lining the pockets of already-rich trustees. But just because something is difficult doesn't mean it shouldn't be made the goal. If Alexander or someone at the University of Oregon were to produce a sequel, "The Oregon Experiment 25 Years On," I'm sure it would meet with a warm reception.
will find important when they apply patterns either in the field of architecture
or in their own field of design. It provides insight into Alexander's theory
of economics--a stance which caused him to be unfavorably labeled as a
socialist when these ideas were taking form.
Patterns, in this book, are almost a footnote to the broader ideas of
design, of economics, and of socially coordinated construction that
form the core of Alexander's exposition here. The economics form a
compelling argument for a process of piecemeal growth. Alexander gives
practical advice on how to administer the social process, including the
creation of a community pattern board that oversees the introduction of
new patterns into the community language, and the retirement of old
ones. By putting the pattern mantra aside, this book helps the reader
get beyond the point where they are looking for patterns in their own right
to provide the answer to every design question, and pushes the reader
to think at the level of the foundations.
The bad news is that the book takes the reader into a couple of miscues.
Alexander would later bitterly recant the role this book accords to the
architect. Architects should be master builders rather than the font of
design ideas. The architecture role emerged in the Oregon Experiment
to lend the project an air of conventionality and credibility, a compromise
that kept the project from achieving its goals.
Current tidbits of retrospective literature try to make sense of the experiment;
some claim it succeeded (in spite of those aspects Alexander felt were
wrong-headed) and some claim it failed. Grabow's biography of
Alexander (Christopher Alexander: The Search for a New Paradigm in
Architecture) features some choice words about the miscues in this
experiment. Taken with the retrospective Grabow brings us, this book
provides a perspective on patterns that is completely absent from the
other books in this series. Some of these, such as the foundations in
economics, are there for the picking. To reap some of the other insights
requires study that goes beyond casual reading, but such study is
appropriate to the depth of insight it will afford, and you owe it to
yourself to explore it. These insights are crucial for making patterns
work in a practical way in a social setting.
If you want to learn about patterns, and you want to start with an
Alexandrian book, I think this is the one you start with. Get the big
picture first, in the context of the underlying principles, and come
back for the pattern details later in A Pattern Language, and for the
artist's artistic exposition of his art in The Timeless Way of Building.
I had high hopes that The Oregon Experiment would describe a concrete example of whether these ideas worked when they were put into practice. It does nothing of the kind. It describes an interesting thought experiment in participatory design and tries to present this as a vindication of the Pattern Language concepts. But nowhere does it even mention whether the design it describes was ever actually implemented, much less whether it worked from the inhabitants' point of view.
It is very easy for a design team to get carried away with what a great design they have on paper. I've done it loads of times. That enthusiasm tells us nothing about whether a design is actually going to be a success.
I know Alexander later moved from academia and started trying to put his ideas into practice on actual building projects. A book on his real experiences and how well the original ideas stood up to the cold light of reality would be fascinating and important. The Oregon Experiment isn't that book.