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Organized Complexity

Whether as a planner, designer, or builder, Michael Mehaffy believes traditional buildings are essential to achieving true sustainability.
By Kim A. O'Connell

Michael Mehaffy's most vivid childhood memories have little to do with buildings – at least not the grand buildings that might have impressed some other future designer and builder. Instead, his memories are filled with the color and textures of traditional cultures – the way the buildings conformed to the landscape of a Mexican town his family visited, or the Cajun sounds and smells of his upbringing in Beaumont, TX, near the Louisiana border. Although he didn't know it then, this budding cultural awareness formed the root of a deeply held view of the built environment: that buildings are successful only when they play an integral part in human life, rather than stand apart from it as objects to be admired.

"I see a real relationship between the phenomenon of tradition and the other patterns that exist in nature and sustainable ecosystems," Mehaffy says. "Traditions evolve very similarly to how natural ecosystems work. They have the organized complexity of those systems, in which things get refined and proven and optimized in a balanced systemwide approach. As a result we often find them very beautiful. And that is very different from a technological or theoretical approach, which is what we've done over the last century and which has created all kinds of unintended consequences."

For 25 years, Mehaffy has devoted his career to challenging what he calls the "airplane view" of building, a top-down design approach that has little to do with the complexities of life on the ground. As the principal of a planning and design-build company, Structura Naturalis, Inc., located just outside Portland, OR, Mehaffy has served as a consultant on many projects both in America and abroad that aim not just for superficial sustainable design, but for true sustainability – the rarely achieved marriage of ecological soundness, economic viability, social equity and beauty. For him, sustainability is not about a checklist of "green" products, although he is an admirer of and a participant in the development of the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating systems, but about a profound awareness of how the order of the built environment underpins human life and affects the natural world.

"Most people who like traditional buildings recognize that our built environment has degraded in the last half century or so – that it has gotten very ugly – and that somehow, this actually matters, much more than it might appear," Mehaffy says. "The beauty we experience is an indicator of what matters to our health, to our quality of life, to our quality of the environment, and to the sustainability of that environment. If it's a higher-quality environment, it's more likely to be successful, well loved and more enduring – in short, more sustainable."

Personal Philosophy
In 1980, Mehaffy was studying in the graduate architecture program at the University of California, Berkeley, when he walked into an armed robbery in progress at a local convenience store. He had already earned an undergraduate degree in liberal arts and architecture from Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. and had studied philosophy and business at the Graduate School of the University of Texas at Austin, when he entered Berkeley with the specific desire to study under architect Christopher Alexander (author of A Pattern Language and The Nature of Order), who taught in the program's second year. During the course of his first-year studies, however, Mehaffy felt that the program was, as he says, "brainwashing me and destroying my affection for traditional architecture." When the would-be assailant pointed a gun at him before opting to flee the convenience store, Mehaffy says, "it brought a lot of frustrations to a head, and I decided right then to leave the academic life for good."

Where a non-academic life would have led him is anyone's guess, because Alexander quickly persuaded Mehaffy to continue his studies in Berkeley, beginning an intellectual partnership between the two that continues to this day. After earning his degree, Mehaffy launched his own design-build and planning firm, now known as Structura Naturalis, Inc., in 1982. "I always loved making things and had a natural instinct for building," he says. "Chris really gave me the bug to do design-build as an approach, which I had already been doing anyway. So I built my first house in Texas and never looked back." (That house, by the way, was an early example of sustainable design, back when it was far more difficult to acquire green-building products than it is today.)

Mehaffy views his work as part of the great American tradition of master-builders. As design and construction professions have become more specialized and their tools more refined, he believes, the space between idea and execution has grown too great. "Many of the great cathedrals had just two drawings, one floor plan and one elevation of one bay of the building," Mehaffy says. "Then, as they built the thing, they would do shop drawings and refinements. The modern approach of pre-planning everything ahead of time is really failing us. The process of responding to what exists and having buildings growing and changing over time is much more connected to sustainability than we realize. It's the way nature creates such incredibly beautiful and sustainable structures."

Like the wide-ranging student he once was, Mehaffy takes an approach to architecture that is informed by the sciences and philosophy, disciplines that shed light on human behavior and how it might affect and be affected by architecture. "In the sciences, we really are beginning to understand how complex systems work," he says. "This isn't something messy or irrational, but something that is vital to understand and accommodate in our cities. [Urban advocate] Jane Jacobs talked about this in her work – that things that appear messy and disordered can be incredibly well-ordered."

New Orleans offers a tragic example of this, says Mehaffy, who has participated in post-hurricane planning along the Gulf Coast. Historically, Mehaffy asserts, the city had developed in concert with the surrounding ecosystem, whose wetlands and channels had created natural storm surge barriers. Only when engineers carved razor-straight canals and transported silt into the Gulf of Mexico did they destroy the wetland ecosystem and create the kind of "hurricane highway" that ushered in Katrina nearly three years ago, he says.

"Really good buildings have to be allowed to grow into a place," Mehaffy says. "They have to be built almost like trellises, structures that things can attach to. Traditional practice helps us to do that, to develop good armature, good bones that things can grow up on. We make a royal mess of things when we try to simplify the buildings and strip the ornament off – to isolate and commodify everything. When we do that, we destroy the complexity and connectedness on which our quality of life depends."

Projects and Planning
One way that cities grow organically is when they are built in concert with public transit lines. If one major criticism can be leveled at New Urbanist developments, for instance, it is that they often lack meaningful connections to existing cities. From a sustainability standpoint, some of the most successful New Urbanist projects, therefore, are those that are linked to public transportation. One such project, Orenco Station, is a 200-acre, mixed-use, transit-oriented development outside Portland, OR, on which Mehaffy served as project manager. In 2000, writer Adam Ehrenhalt penned a New York Times editorial that called Orenco "perhaps the most interesting experiment in New Urbanist planning." Although he questioned the planners' decision to site the town center closer to the highway than to the light-rail train station – which Mehaffy says was a nod to the realities of current car-dominated travel – Ehrenhalt concluded that the new village set an important example for future New Urbanist projects. Begun in 1997 and still being built out now, the village is bustling with shops and restaurants, and peppered with ample parks and open areas. "[O]ne fact is undeniable," Ehrenhalt wrote. "People want to live in places like this."

As project manager, Mehaffy coordinated both in-house and consultant teams for the developer, PacTrust. Mehaffy collaborated on the designs and personally executed the design and drafting of several prominent features of the traditional town. "We worked at all the scales of development at Orenco and took a bottom-up approach to the site, which I think is critical," he says. "Orenco has its faults, and it's important to learn from mistakes as well as successes. But I would argue that it does have an unusual degree of life and quality to it, an evolved quality and a complexity, even though it was a fairly conventional master-planned community." Other projects include the Pringle Creek Community, a sustainable mixed-use redevelopment of the Fairview State Hospital in Oregon, and Harbor Peak, a 600-acre development in an area originally master-planned by architect Bernard Maybeck. Mehaffy has also designed numerous gardens, furniture, houses, stores, offices and towns in the United States and Europe.

"So much of the time, what you need to make the project successful is in your backyard if you would only recognize that and respect that," Mehaffy says. "We are in the grips of the notion that growth is all about starting from scratch. The model for a lot of development today is the model of the assembly line and mass production, which has worked for assembling rifles and automobiles and televisions. We've got to move a lot further in the direction of combining efficiencies with great quality and great uniqueness, just as natural processes do. We can learn from them to develop new approaches, new kinds of 'generative codes,' for example. It's an exciting opportunity to reform our current unsustainable technology. But we're still a very short distance down that long road."

Collaborative Efforts
If, as the Greek historian Plutarch once wrote, the truly noble spirit shows itself in times of disaster, this was proven time and again in the Gulf Coast region following the devastating 2005 hurricane season. In all the post-Katrina planning and rebuilding efforts that have taken place, one of the most important was the Mississippi Renewal Forum, which featured architect Andrés Duany's challenge to designers to create an alternative to the trailers being provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The winning design by Marianne Cusato, simply called the Katrina Cottage, was a 308-sq.ft. traditional house that was dignified and permanent – the latter an especially essential characteristic for a place to feel like "home." Mehaffy worked closely with Duany and others on the renewal forum. "It was a real effort to get a handle on the production process for rebuilding organically on a larger scale," Mehaffy says. "We had numerous disciplines assembled together – architects, urban designers, economists, engineers, landscape architects and sociologists who thought very deeply about how people form networks – and we developed a whole series of proposals for the recovery, many of which are still being implemented."

In all, Mehaffy participated in three different planning teams in Louisiana and Mississippi. Among other things, he spearheaded the plan for the so-called Neighborhood Rebuilding Centers, which give citizens bottom-up rebuilding tools and a local forum to have a voice in the planning and rebuilding effort. The centers are now part of the Unified New Orleans Plan, which is still being implemented.

This kind of collaboration is not new to Mehaffy. In 2003, he became the founding director of education for the Prince's Foundation in London, a position he held until 2005. Working closely with the Prince of Wales, Mehaffy created a new sustainability education program in partnership with six universities and several major British agencies and nongovernmental organizations. He arranged collaborations with prominent thinkers such as Alexander, Duany and Léon Krier, as well as sociologists and other scientists.

In a similar vein, Mehaffy now serves as the coordinator of the Environmental Structure Research Group, an international consortium of well-known researchers and practitioners. He is chair of the USA chapter of INTBAU, the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture & Urbanism, and he is also chair of the academic committee for the Council for European Urbanism, which is holding a major conference on climate change and urban design in September. Mehaffy and his colleagues have recently created the non-profit Sustasis Foundation, an umbrella for these and other research and development efforts. "I make a big emphasis in my work to try to connect people doing key work who might be able to help each other and facilitate collaborations between them," he says. "I think this is increasingly the name of the game – how we reach out across specializations and other borders and learn to collaborate effectively on all these challenges we face today."

To Mehaffy, collaboration is closely related to tradition: the way people working together in a society create an evolutionary process that results in a higher-quality outcome than a collection of specialists might achieve, however brilliant. "On the one hand, we are facing some quite grim challenges these days," he says. "Yet so much is being learned about the workings of nature and of the complexities of culture and tradition….Nature is giving us what we need, and in spite of the messiness – there's always messiness – there is remarkable resilience within the system. We need to ally ourselves with that resilience, with those natural processes, and learn from them. I really do believe that if we do, a real renaissance is possible – a flowering of a beautiful new phase of human culture. And a most necessary one. TB

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