The Oregon Experiment after Twenty Years

by Greg Bryant

RAIN, Winter/Spring 1991
Volume XIV, Number 1

People can plan and build their community in a participatory, democratic manner, even if that community is responsible to a much larger system. Twenty years ago, at the largest institution in Eugene, Oregon, a University administration gave up some of its power to test this idea.

In 1970, students at the University of Oregon showed keen interest in the Academic Program: they tried to force the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps off campus. They changed the landscape, blockading and permanently closing a major street running through the campus. They occupied the administration building and called for a General Strike in order to move current events to the top of the curriculum.

The University at first tried to use force to quiet the students. But after the invasion of Cambodia led to the killing of student protesters at Kent State, a shocked administration reversed its policy. The University President shut down regular classes in order to hold campus-wide discussions on the US war against Indochina.

The administrators were changing the way they ran their institution. One clear need was for a change in campus planning, which steered construction. By the end of 1970, they were using the consulting services of the Berkeley Center for Environmental Structure and its chief architect Christopher Alexander, one of an emerging generation of radical and innovative planners.

The University administration worked with Alexander and his colleagues to plan an ideal Institution, where broad democratic participation and interaction would be the key to campus harmony, and campus construction. New buildings would be small, innovative, and carefully designed by their future users. There would be no dominating campus Master Plan. Instead, everyone would help to construct patterns, or collective policies, that would guide changes and check destructive growth. The campus would grow into a wholesome community, and over the years would take on the physical likeness and well-worn appeal of older European Universities. The institution would be healed, turned into a robust and healthy organism.

After testing these ideas in pilot projects, Oregon officials adopted them formally in 1974. Alexander then published "The Oregon Experiment" (1975, Oxford University Press) [see RAIN August/September 1980], which became one of the best selling planning books of all time. Since then, what has happened to The Experiment?

Plans and Profits

One of Alexander’s first targets was the Master Plan. An actual map of the future is frustrating to everyone, even to old-fashioned administrators who try to use them to maintain control. Forceful drawings of a future campus are far removed from the detailed needs of its future residents. General plans are too abstract to interpret consistently, yet project a forceful image of destiny. Alexander wrote that a Master Plan makes people see how "they are merely cogs in someone else’s machine", someone perhaps long gone from the scene, so "how can they feel any sense of identification with the community, or any sense of purpose there?" The use of Master Plans maintains a rift between a campus and its users.

The Master Plan was buried here. The verdant Odd Fellows' cemetery adjacent to campus was for decades on the Campus Master Plan as a site for construction. A broad protest removed the cemetery from the plan, rendering the map meaningless.

So the University dropped them. Now, departments and other groups submit their priorities for construction, which are then weighed by a campus planning committee with diverse membership. Then, when a project finally gets money, it also gets a special team of faculty, students and staff, such as janitors and maintenance workers. The team is not just advisory: it designs the buildings, collaborating with respectful professional architects.

The result is a genuine improvement in building design, partially because the designers will be the future users of the facility. They are motivated to get it right, and to finish quickly.

The buildings are also better because Alexander helped Oregon escape from the Era of the Disposable Building. For many decades, architects and University officials designed and built with little consideration for the future. A lack of accountability to users, along with a post-World War II gush of money, spawned oppressive megastructures. They seemed to be monuments to the Institution, considered perfect and finished -- despite certainty of error and changing user needs.

Above: A heated debate in 1970, over this major addition to the Student Union, made the need for student participation in design more obvious to administrators. Below: A $45 million building project. Despite the size of the pork barrel, these science buildings were well designed [in the sense of program and proximity] by its current inhabitants.

The bigger and flashier a building project, the easier it was to find funding for it. There were few incentives to design or budget with consideration for future maintenance or modification, so ultimately the buildings will decay and be torn down. New construction makes administrators seem visionary and brings fresh profit to designers and contractors. The economic pressures to mass produce interchangeable buildings warps designs into worthlessness.

The Oregon Experiment tries to correct these problems by making each project search for the needs of the users. A house designed for individuals is more valuable than a house designed for mass production. A collaboration of users, even if imperfect, produces a better building for them. Alexander helped revive the much reviled process of design by committee, with an essential difference: the committee must themselves use what they design.

The old throw-away economy caused many campus plans to fracture: land was grabbed by competing departments without the approval of the campus community. Departments collected power, and isolated themselves in huge building complexes.

The Oregon Experiment has given interdisciplinary faculty a bigger voice in design, reflected well in the clustered departments woven together in the new science buildings. The campus planning committee now puts in their place departments that are too pushy, as in a recent case where the athletic department tried to change plans for an outdoor center on territory it considered its own.

So, in addition to putting down domination and encouraging cooperation, The Experiment can claim that the planning office now builds for people, permanence, conservative spending, continuous modification and repair. This system works best when projects are kept small.

Streisinger Hall, above, named after a local developmental geneticist (a fruit fly bust and a school of zebra fish watch over the courtyard), has , unfortunately, no public entrance. Its place was taken late in the design by high-security research animal housing. A campus vote on animal research might have resolved the problem. Below: The crosshatched building and the pit both date from before the Oregon Experiment.

Small, useful growth

When building projects are smaller, mistakes are smaller. Perhaps it is inappropriate to call them mistakes...they are just small modifications that need additional adjustments later, part of dynamic growth and repair. Small projects are easier to design properly -- our intuition works better on them because they are closer to our experience as small creatures. Alexander wanted to stimulate thousands of small, local campus projects through The Oregon Experiment.

Making projects small at a state-run institution is very hard. The State Board of Higher Education is many miles away in the State Capital. It has to approve all construction projects. The board members need to review new projects carefully -- so they tend to spend their time on the most prominent projects. All State Universities then compete to construct larger, more important sounding projects, typically wasteful ones. But since the University of Oregon is experimenting with small projects, it cannot compete with big projects in this game. This motivates University officials to push Alexander’s new ideas into the consciousness of the State Board, since otherwise they would get no money.

This is another success of The Experiment: influence. The State Board is slowly getting used to the idea of conservation -- allocating some funds to keep up and modify existing buildings rather than opting only for the construction of new multiple-story monsters. The board has even instructed the City and County governments to respect and adapt to the scale and participatory nature of The Experiment.

The ideology is making slow, but definite, progress through many channels. In the past these suggestions might have sounded like a call for anarchy to many planners, architects, civic politicians and their staffs, but now some are beginning to see that the University’s small-scale, democratic design is much more responsible than the abusive politics and economics they participate in every day.

Design by committee works if the committee will be among the users. But some problems can be fixed only through continuous repair. Above: A dangerous, isolated spot outside the new science buildings. Below: Handrails or monorails?

The role of planners

The campus planners that have emerged from The Experiment have great patience, negotiating skill and earnest interest in their users. They have little power over some issues, but they share what power they do have with those concerned. In contrast, from 1915 through the second World War the University grounds were ruled by an autocrat, Ellis Lawrence, a skilled architect who designed and built from plans seen only by a few. The impressive distance between Ellis and modern campus planners is partly Alexander’s doing, partly a change in administrative attitudes since the 1960’s, and partly a change in design theory.

Many designers before Alexander’s time combined good intentions with narrow notions about the impact of their work on people’s lives. They tried to change society from the drafting board. Many believed, for example, that poorly designed tenement projects caused urban poverty; skyscrapers were at fault for urban stress; poor mall design meant a poor town economy; a good road created a good neighborhood; students studied if they had just the right kind of desk.

There is no doubt that different structures constrain in different ways. Certainly, good buildings are a part of some very stimulating environments, but only if certain demographic, geographic, political, economic, and cultural conditions are met. Engineering cannot change everything. The assertion that design can solve social problems was wishful ignorance of complex activities: Urban poverty is maintained through economics and politics that favor the wealthy; urban stress is associated with hectic economic activity, lack of job satisfaction, and dangers related to the differences in wealth between people in the city; weak town economies are made when money and resources leave town; neighborhoods are drawn together by social needs, not by roads; student success depends on motivation, which is sparked more by the curriculum than by the furniture. But proposing such a broad analysis would have been threatening to those who funded limited design research.

Alexander and the new environmentalists of the late 1960’s still believed in social engineering, but they rejected the old school’s rough determinism. They found in evolutionary biology the useful notion that Form and Function do not absolutely follow one another.

User needs cannot be turned into a single building design, and buildings cannot completely modify people’s behaviors. For example, people cannot communicate their needs completely to an architect, so the form that follows does not function well. On the other hand, a building cannot entirely mold behavior, so its function only partly follows from its form.

Instead, good design comes from a dialogue between construction and use. If something is not quite right, fix the building a little bit, and allow people’s behavior to adjust a little bit. Social engineering entirely through architecture is not possible; at best designers can only help builders and users to regularly communicate so that needs and structure closely reflect each another. There is no such thing as a perfect fix, but the smaller the change, the more likely it can be guided in the right way. In fits and bits, as in nature, form and function come together.

Architecture today is mostly big fits. Profit drives design, so planners and architects like Alexander are only able to encourage small changes if such encouragement does not threaten business. Because of this, Alexander has rarely been very successful in creating his living architecture.

Fortunately, Universities are less pressured in some areas, so slow, human-scale campus planning has been more successful. And sometimes organic architectural ideas sound pleasant even to hardened politicos, deans and business magnates. After all, Corridors of Power are only hallways. Why not create nice spaces for those who can afford them?

By approaching social engineering from an ecological perspective, Alexander has pushed planners to confront Big Business and Big Government. In support, he offers planners tools he calls "patterns".

Above: The city modifies a street running through campus without notifying the public, foreshadowing research park construction near campus. The park has been placed outside planning office jurisdiction. Below: The park will destroy many natural scenes.

Patterns: Responsible Anarchy

Alexander wrote another book, "A Pattern Language", part of the series that includes "The Oregon Experiment". In it are hundreds of suggestions for designing everything from Doors to Nations. Its strongly worded pronouncements on solutions to problems make it read as though intended to be a planner’s Bible. But the book represents only a model, a suggestion to communities on how to organize what they know of their own traditions.

Alexander knew very well that there can be no single manual to all communities. Each Community must create one for themselves. They must research problems and solutions themselves, write them down, and continue to modify them slowly and openly. A language of these policies or patterns is something like a local constitution, printed in a form easily available to people in the community.

In practice, patterns have been useful not so much for resolving problems as for breaching difficult social obstacles. They allow personal questions to arise without hesitation: "do you need a private office or a place to hold a private conversation?" Or "faculty members move around campus all day to teach, research, collaborate or experiment; so why do they get offices with windows when secretaries have to be in their offices all day in interior spaces without contact with the outside world?" A pattern will also suggest a resolution to the problem: in the latter case, it might recommend creating buildings with more rooms that have windows.

But the University has mostly put aside the idea of pattern research. This is a major practical difficulty with Alexander’s approach. Such introspection takes valuable time needed for more immediate planning problems.

And patterns are, by their nature, either dogmatic, incomplete or partly redundant, so drafting them is an unsatisfying task. The solutions seem to beg questions.

A good example is the very first pattern in "A Pattern Language": Independent Regions. These are the human scale ideals of grassroots democracy. Keep political control local with local budgets, a very old and very good decentralist idea. For Thomas Jefferson, the incarnation of the ideology mentioned by Alexander, the United States needed to be broken into small independent wards to guard its people from steamrolling by the unaccountable, centralized power of the nation state emerging in his time.

Unfortunately, Alexander’s pattern "Independent Regions" does not suggest how to achieve decentralized politics when most of the world is already heavily centralized. "Gaining Independence" is a much tougher problem, and there is no pattern for it in Alexander’s book.

A victim of small-group decisions. Most people had no idea that the Urban Farm project was being halved by building construction.

Independence and Participation

The majority of the student body has no idea that the University is carrying out a planning experiment. The faculty and staff generally understand their rights under The Experiment -- many of the principles of planning are understood by anyone who stays on the campus for very long.

The students, however, do not know that they can initiate projects. Certainly schoolwork and play interfere with participation, and their brief stay in town hinders their interest in long-term planning. But they are apathetic in part because no one asks them anything.

The administration does not generally give to the campus community the political power to make decisions. Recently, despite overwhelming disapproval, the administration banned a rock group, The Grateful Dead, from playing on campus. At a public relations "meet the University President" chat with students, the President responded to criticism with patronizing generalizations and bureaucratic doubletalk: the band was not banned, its

contract simply was not renewed. This was damage control for an administration that did not want to defend the Dead from people who complain about deadheads. If, however, the band was granted permission to play through a campus-wide vote, the administration would have a mandate to allow the performances.

At the University, a small committee will talk about a problem until they are sick of it, while others who would be keenly interested do not even know that it is being discussed. The fault does not lie with those who are supposed to disseminate this news.

Responsibility lies with the very process of making decisions exclusively in small user groups. It is nearly impossible to reach out to everyone who might be interested. If instead the entire campus community was regularly informed and asked to make decisions, planning meetings would run very differently. More evidence would be brought before the public, and committee members could not rely solely on their own opinions.

There are some projects that have been pulled out of The Experiment’s planning process altogether. A small band of patricians has taken it upon themselves to spend millions of dollars from city and University funds to build a high-tech research park. Financially, parks like this are failing all over the country, but these lessons go unheeded, and public hearings on whether or not to build have long since stopped. This kind of arrogance would be much less likely if the whole campus community was regularly informed and asked to vote on policy.

Those responsible for running the University assume, without evidence, that there must be high level, autocratic, administrative decision-makers on a campus of some 20,000 people. Of course, this assumption reflects power structures both inside and outside the campus. The campus community could publicly prioritized problems, and everyone would know that specific user subcommittees were forming. Committees could then justifiably make decisions within their own domain. As it is, the administrators are responsible to the state for their jobs, which means in practice that they are uninterested in encouraging students to make decisions.

The Neighborhoods surrounding campus also need a say in both University and city affairs. The University has been mostly accommodating to neighborhood groups, but issues involving the city are nightmares. Tiny committees working "within the system" on tiny aspects of major problems have no way of coping with the city without political mandates. Their impotence is directly visible in issues of transportation and housing.

In Loco Parentis -- Housing, transport and neighborhoods

Before the 1960’s, the University had a stranglehold on student activity, where the school acted in loco parentis

, in place of parents. With the cultural upheaval of the 1960’s, the University dropped the policy, but the result was not only student freedom. Corporate consumerism was given a free hand. The limitation on bureaucratic interference did not come with limits on corporate interference. The neighborhoods surrounding the University have taken a severe pounding during the penetration of the student market, and the changes in student needs, since the 1970’s.

The University has stopped acting in place of parents, and Corporate America has tried to take the role.

The University is a magnet to traffic in Eugene, being the town’s single biggest business. But the automobile traffic, as distinct from pedestrian and bicycle traffic, stems from the inability of the immediately surrounding neighborhoods to provide housing, jobs, services and other marks of a community. Students often have jobs, and with tight schedules many must drive to school. Their jobs may require a car, and they are in little position to argue from an entry-level job in an economy in recession.

There is a shortage of parking on the campus, which means there are too many cars. There are a spectacular number of bicycle riders on campus, because the campus proper is nearly impossible to get around by car. But when parking is tight, how can the campus community encourage more alternative transport when the surrounding community is built for automobiles? In Eugene, like in most of the US, shopping, child care, jobs and residential neighborhoods are all miles from each other. The Oregon Experiment fights to maintain a small, integrated, pedestrian community in the middle of a high-speed, far-flung suburbia.

The influence of the University community is behind the building of bicycle paths and the maintenance of bus routes throughout Eugene. But these facilities do not offer an alternative to people stuck in the town economy.

Changing this is a political problem: no one can or should force a change in lifestyle on those to whom the car has become a necessity. These people are victims of the economy, and their reaction to parking restrictions is rarely to encourage transportation alternatives. Instead there has to be broad recognition of the problem, and concerted action taken to gradually change the layout of the town. Unfortunately, the city government is calling for more sprawl, not less.

The most promising political units for action against the city are the neighborhood groups. Eugene, a city of about 100,000 people, is officially divided into 19 neighborhoods. The groups most sympathetic to making structural changes are the 3 surrounding the University. But to implement the necessary changes, they need some control over their own districts, and some of their own tax money.

Wresting control and money from city, county, state and federal government is a problem familiar to most advocates of social change. Although Alexander has no pattern for effecting political change, The Experiment has helped to provide a forum for these issues.

The Gap Between Ideology and Reality

Christopher Alexander is not the first person to feel that "people can only have a genuine effect on local government when the units of local government are autonomous, self-governing, self-budgeting communities, which are small..." Politicians, administrators, financiers and big business executives are not threatened by Alexander’s preference for independent and democratic communities. After all, independence is already part of the ideology in this country.

But there is little autonomy or democracy at the University, or in the surrounding political regions for that matter. This is not necessarily an ideological deficiency. National ideologies are so abstract that it is easy to believe that they reflect reality. The bureaucracies of modern nations rule with impunity by keeping a great distance between the people and the Capital, center of decisions and rhetoric. It is easier to fool people at a distance.

In the community of a college campus, however, it is a little harder to fool people. Faculty and their students have some time to examine problems close at hand, and Alexander helped to create regulations to allow their participation. But the regulations have not lead to direct democracy, only a very distant representative democracy.

The transition from an ideology to a working system of full participation, a genuine community and culture of egalitarianism, would be a great leap at any University. Hierarchical and authoritarian relationships are the norm at schools with the authority of accreditation. This limits equitable discussion.

The resulting curricula are irrelevant to most students. Everywhere on campus, near graduation time, students can be overheard expressing disappointment in the direction offered by the University. These students, and not only the star pupils, will be citizens shaping the future. Does The Oregon Experiment do anything for them?

Although there is little opportunity for students to participate in direct democracy, people who on many campuses might not interact are talking more, collaborating to resolve issues. This is certainly something that would be part of Utopia University, so it is probably unnecessarily contentious to claim that the implementation of The Experiment only proceeded as far as needed to keep campus activism cooled to below the revolutionary boiling point.

Protests on campus today are happily plentiful. There are many more issues to be discussed than the ones in the planning office, such as the University’s social role, its elitism, and its increasingly warped, establishment curriculum. The Oregon Experiment has made the work ahead a little easier.


April and May, 1970

Buildings at the University of Oregon took on new political meaning in April of 1970. The Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) headquarters had been bombed, set fire to, and rioted in front of so much that in April the faculty nearly removed it from campus just to keep the peace. Some buildings, named after those who fought against the ROTC in 1915, became symbols: Oswald Garrison Villard and Prince Lucien Campbell were University administrators at the time the ROTC was forced into their academic program, becoming the only department run by an actual employer.

The draft made students study the war. The Student Body President visited Hanoi. The campus paper published endless essays and articles about the war. One of the faculty, John Froines, was on trial as one of the Chicago Eight.

It became clear to many that the US was fighting against the vast majority of the Vietnamese people, and slaughtering them ostensibly for an economic philosophy. But how can students stop an establishment out of control? Academic buildings became territory in the battle against the system.

The massive, ugly science complex, built as part of the huge reaction to Sputnik, became symbols of technological and corporate devastation just as Apollo 13, also born of the cold war, came limping back to the first Earth Day. That April 22 saw a massive sit-in at the Administration Building, Johnson Hall.

The Earth Day sit-in ended with the arrival of the Police, Sheriff and National Guard. Tear gas was used against a gathering, curious crowd. Jack Nicholson, on campus directing 'Drive, He Said' after his 'Easy Rider' success, filmed the 'riot'. He arrived as the protest was being dispersed, so he had one of his actors play at leading the fray, and promised to bail-out students. The action was successful: arrests are an important sign of effectiveness in civil disobedience, and sixty-one students were arrested that night.

Later, the street in front of Johnson Hall was barricaded from traffic by more protesters. Most people thought this was a good idea. Oregon was the only University in the country where a student might be killed by a log truck while walking between classes. After negotiating with the city, the street stayed closed permanently.

At the end of April, when Nixon approved the invasion of Cambodia, another sit-in at Johnson hall, riots, fires, and cancelled concerts were in the news. Then, on May 4, four student protesters were shot by the National Guard at Kent State.

Two days of protest later, the U of O faculty votes against the war, and the University President, Robert Clark, stunned by the deaths at Kent State, suspends classes for two vigorous days of teach-ins.

Classes continue after this, while other universities around the country close for the school year. The following Fall, 18-year-olds get the vote and Christopher Alexander arrives at the University of Oregon.

Decentralized Systems

In order to create small-scale growth at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Christopher Alexander suggested a system of categories for projects. For example, in any given year there should be 1000 small projects, 100 medium-sized projects, and 10 large ones. The idea was to simulate the efficient, innovative piecemeal growth visible in places with few resources. In practice, the University now lumps many small projects together into large programs, or else funds the project from maintenance budget. Alexander was trying to fragment the allocation of funds -- trying to create a fractal by building at different scales (below).

Natural fractals are not mysterious. Similarities at different scales indicate some diminishing influence, say an explosion, traveling throughout a homogeneous system, say ice. The same material will break in the same way, but to an extent depending on the force that reaches it. In nature, this effect disappears as we reach the limits of the force or the material. This is why mathematical fractals such as the Mandelbrot Set, in which the same patterns appear at any scale, are pure fantasy. They do not even exist in the colorful graphics simulations of computers: a real computer cannot enumerate an infinite set. Fractal fantasies are a distraction from the real world, where differences at different scales are most crucial.

Above: Another fractal down. In the 1850’s, Paris prefect Eugène-Georges Haussmann carved these boulevards through dense working-class neighborhoods for the benefit of the upper middle class. The doomed communities had human-scale architecture and a robust culture, but were unprotected from large-scale finance.

Human-level decentralization. Political and economic decentralization, as shown in the space-filling tree above, must include mutual support among like-minded communities. Today, in contrast (below), the world economy and its supporting institutions sap nearly all production and resources for the benefit of a few.