Earlier this winter BUILD visited the University of Oregon campus where we spoke with the head of the Department of Architecture and Environment, Michael Zaretsky. We discussed bringing social justice to architectural education, working across borders, and trans-species design.
Tell me a bit about the University and yourself.
Based on my knowledge, the University of Oregon has been accredited for as long as there has been accreditation for architecture schools; I believe we are the longest accredited architecture program west of the Mississippi. Ellis Lawrence was the master planner and architect for the campus, and his important Northwest architectural influence is prevalent.
Before arriving here I had been living in Seattle working as a builder, and shared a living space with the University of Washington design-build professor Steve Badanes (of Jersey Devil design/build), who is a wonderful person and mentor, and he got me excited about the University of Oregon. I left Seattle to do my graduate work here because the focus of the program was on green building and design-build, which I was interested in. My education was phenomenal. Post-graduation I left Oregon to practice in other places, including Europe, and then I got into academia. I taught for a number of programs, and then the opportunity at the U of O came up, and because my wife is also an academician — in fact she’s the current dean here — everything about this place made so much sense for us.
Tell me about the priorities of the architecture department here at the University of Oregon.
The college’s foundation, thanks to Ellis Lawrence, was built on the fundamentals of design; then, in the 1960s environmentalism became the core. John Reynolds, Ed Mazria, and several others who became leaders in the environmental movement had some connection here—either because they were students or professors. We don’t have a “course” in environmental design or sustainability, but rather the principles permeate all of our curricula. Additionally, the university’s connection to place is very deep: the Northwest, the region, the Willamette Valley, the coast. And our relationship to a variety of landscape types is very important to how we think about architecture.
We’re a Carnegie Research 1 university, and as such we have a wealth of research-focused faculty, many of whom are engaged in cutting edge environmental design. For example, we have people like Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg who is leading several institutes, including the Institute for Health in the Built Environment. which as the name implies, is focused on the health of the built environment; and Allison Kwok, who co-authored Mechanical and Electrical Equipment for Buildings (MEEB), which most architecture students use at some point. Passive house design is also prominent. Each year one of our professors, Ihab Elzeyadi, offers a studio in which students compete in the Department of Energy solar decathlon competition, and they place nearly every time. There’s also a deep environmental design focus, which we’re most known for—not surprisingly, the number of our graduates who are teaching in the area of environmental control systems for architecture is significant. We’re also determined to bring a social justice lens to everything we do.
Being in Oregon, we recognized the need to increase the diversity of our faculty perspectives, so Erin Moore, Director of the School of Architecture and Environment, worked to create our Design for Spatial Justice Initiative fellowship program, which identifies and brings faculty, researchers, and practitioners in for a year to provide fresh perspectives; we’re in our third year and our nationally recognized program has been absolutely amazing. Along these lines, our dean, Adrian Parr, is one of the founders of the Deans’ Equity and Inclusion Initiative. We just had our accreditation visit, and we received two commendations: one in ecological design and the other in social justice, which was very rewarding for us because these values are the heart of our program and curriculum.
The Department of Architecture prepares students to become leaders in addressing climate change, social inequity, and rapid technological innovation. It’s kind of refreshing not to see design in the list – how does this speak to the changing nature of the architectural education?
Since I arrived a year ago we’ve been going through a major visioning process to recognize who we are today, and to prepare to be the best architecture program we can be in 20 years. As part of this we’re trying to understand how climate change, social change — everything that’s going on — impacts our discipline, and commensurately how we should prepare our students to become leaders in the field. We need to strike a balance to ensure that our students are competent in the myriad architectural ways they need to be, but are also sensitive to the nuanced world around us.
What are you preparing your students for today that wasn’t present when you were in school?
As I mentioned, the school has really embraced social justice as a critical and primary focus of all that we do. In comparison to many other schools, we’re far ahead of the curve, but most of us feel as though we have so much more to do. Addressing issues of inequity can’t be separate from design, on every level. Another thing we’re really excited about is trans-species design. Our College of Design Dean, Adrian Parr, has a book coming out called Earthlings, which is examining the experiences of different species and how they interact. As a result of her research, Parr is now questioning human-centricity — the ubiquity of human-centered design — in an effort to understand how we can help all species to flourish, not just the human species. We’re really excited about this, and the college will be leveraging this work more prominently.
How much influence did Christopher Alexander have when you were a student here, and today?Alexander was here in the 1980s, and I was a student in 1994; at that time there were several professors who had worked with Alexander, and some of them are still here, though they are phasing out. When I was a student we used A Pattern Language and The Nature of Order as textbooks, both of which played a major role in how we approached design. While these texts are not being used as widely today, similar to the influence of Ellis Lawrence, they’re very much a part of the soul of the University of Oregon.
Note: Christopher Alexander passed away on March 17, 2022. His obituary, written by U of O Professor Howard Davis, was published in The Guardian.
I passed through Portland on the way down to Eugene and it’s like a scene from Mad Max. Is it within the architect’s skillset to solve the crisis of homelessness in our urban areas? If so, how?
I would say that it’s a problem that architects can’t ignore; we certainly can’t solve it alone, but we should be part of the discussion. It’s naïve to think that a major societal issue can be solved by any one discipline, but it’s also dangerous to think that it’s not a design problem. I’m completely shocked and concerned by what’s happening in Portland. It’s a complex problem, but we need to work harder to develop infrastructure to support houseless people. Designers of all walks of life need to be part of the discussion and solution, both of which should be policy-based and mental health-focused. This issue reflects trans-species design: if part of our society is suffering, none of us can thrive. We need to work collectively to support our cities. Our department has a housing specialization, which has been very active in recent years. We’ve been looking at adding houselessness as an area of focus. Our School of Planning Public Policy and Management is also doing thoughtful work in this area.
In addition to Eugene, you’ve taught in California, Cincinnati, and Savanah, among other places in the U.S. What have been the striking differences in design thinking between these locales?
Well, as I noted above I began here, followed by stints in Europe, SF, Savannah, Cincinnati, and Dallas. In the last year, our move from Dallas to Eugene has presented the greatest contrast. Eugene has a fascinating relationship to design, and a beautiful and historic university, but in the last 20 years, thanks to Phil Knight and Nike, we have some amazing new contemporary buildings, which is very exciting. But the city also includes many areas with rough housing that hasn’t been cared for; by contrast, if you venture out to some of our public trails and parks, the paths and wayfinding are lovingly tended to and presented. Dallas couldn’t be more opposite; the trails are often littered with garbage and signage has bullet holes, but the neighborhoods are very well loved and designed with care. In Dallas people have strong pride in their homes, buildings, and design, but there’s not a lot of nature to be proud of.
You’ve also spent time in Denmark. It’s easy to praise Scandinavia for all its thoughtfulness, but what do you consider its downside?
I can speak to my experience when I was there, which is that it was a very homogenous culture. If you’re not Danish, you’re not fully accepted. I’ve heard from others who have had real challenges trying to settle there because of this. I think the Danes are going to have to come to terms with this. Denmark’s economic system is interesting; for example, when I was there I was told that if when one purchased a vehicle, the tax was 200% of the cost of the vehicle. The tax is what the government agreed made transportation equitable for everyone. I believe this thinking is powerful.
You are also the Director of Design for the Roche Health Center in rural Tanzania—what is the mission of this organization?
In 2008 I received a random solicitation from a nonprofit seeking an architect to provide design assistance for a health center in rural Tanzania. I subsequently met with the founder, Doctor Chris Lewis, to learn more. I’m a fairly skeptical person and not a joiner, but I was blown away by Roche’s mission. Lewis initially set out to bring healthcare providers to Tanzania to provide medical care. His organization, Village Life Outreach Project, partnered with a Tanzanian nonprofit (the Shirati Health, Education and Development Foundation) and the mission grew deeper. It’s a partnership between healthcare professionals and the nonprofit, with a shared goal of uniting communities to promote life, health, and education. It’s about building relationships, and we commit to partnering with a given community for as long as they need us. In 2008, the leader of the village of Roche told Chris that while he appreciated his efforts to bring healthcare professionals in to help, what they would really benefit from is a permanent healthcare facility. At that time in Tanzania there was one doctor for every 50,000 people; people had to walk four to seven hours to get to a clinic. So, we developed a plan to create a healthcare center despite the fact that the community had no electrical power, water or sanitation infrastructure. We started researching and collaborating to determine how we could create something viable, and we were determined to use local materials, which was challenging based on access. We worked with Arup Engineers, faculty and students in Cincinnati, and a variety of other volunteers in collaboration with the citizens of Roche, Tanzania.
Have you been able to get back to Tanzania since the pandemic hit?
No, but I’m planning a trip for this June with U of O students, and I’m really looking forward to returning. Roche is rural, and I’ve heard that the Covid hasn’t impacted the community as much as other places, which is encouraging.
So many practitioners want to give back but don’t have the formal means; is there a way to formalize the system so that firms can connect with those in need and speed up the process?
It’s a great question, and one that drives the book I’m currently working on, Design Beyond Borders. I interviewed 40 different entities doing this work to ask about their processes, and how they meaningfully engage with those with whom they partner. This is the most critical piece, as our history of colonialism has taught us that we have to be very thoughtful and cautious when engaging with others—a lot of damage has been done under the auspices of good intentions. Public Architecture’s One Percent program has been instrumental in connecting non-profits in need with design offices, and there are a number of large firms that have created their own initiatives, such as Citizen HKS, and Arup. Firms are acknowledging more and more that social equity work should be a key aspect of their offerings—and as an academic architecture program, I’m certain the University of Oregon will continue moving in this direction, too.
Michael Zaretsky, AIA is an Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Architecture in the School of Architecture and Environment in the College of Design at the University of Oregon. Zaretsky has extensive experience in local and international design/build projects with a focus on interactive community engagement. His research and scholarship addresses how high-resourced groups that are working in lower-resourced communities can do so as a productive partner. He is the Design director for Village Life Outreach Project Inc., a Cincinnati-based non-profit that partners with communities in rural Tanzania to address life, health, and education.