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Global design ideas, becoming local: The Alaska Design Forum

Posted: January 26, 2012 - 12:01am

Despite distance and geographical isolation, new ideas manage to make their way over the mountains and up the Inside Passage to Juneau. Sometimes we treat them like tourists with a quick, non-committal but friendly nod. Sometimes we welcome them like friends we hope will love Juneau, taking them to the Shrine, the glacier, and dinner at Zen (to show we’re hip). And some ideas just get stuck here because of the weather. But, however they get here, it’s the adventurous people who bring them.

Among the adventurous are organizers of the Alaska Design Forum lecture series and the intrepid architects, artists, and designers who agree to travel around our state. Since 1992, the Alaska Design Forum has been inviting presenters to Alaska from all over the world. The architects, artists and designers that accept the invitation bring new ideas about seeing, creating, building and interacting with our built and natural environments. The Alaska Design Forum offers these ideas with the hope we’ll find them relevant to our lives and helpful in the continued design of our still-emerging state.

Which is why I looked forward to the Design Forum’s January speaker, Wendell Burnette. Burnette is an architect trained in the Frank Lloyd Wright tradition. He has avoided the tendency to dogmatize the FLW legacy, though, and has instead built a practice based on some fundamental philosophies which he introduced at the Silverbow Backroom on Jan. 18:

• Architecture should be contextually and environmentally place specific, engage the landscape, and create sequences of experience that tie building users to place.

• Architects, like historians, should tap into the spirit of a place.

• Architects should use construction methods and materials of proven quality and appropriateness for a specific place. Whenever possible, those materials should come from local sources.

• Architects should strive to understand client needs at a level deeper than a list of rooms, and respond to those needs in thoughtful and innovative ways.

• Architecture does not need to hit you over the head. It can be subtle, but strong and evocative.

Because of his predominantly desert Southwest practice, if you were to look only at Burnette’s work you’d think his ideas incompatible with architecture in Southeast Alaska. When you instead consider his design philosophies, their journey from the Sonora to the Inside Passage seems as natural as a weather pattern.

As an architect, I have the Alaska Design Forum to thank for numerous “ah-ha!” moments over the years. From finding art in the natural environment and developing a love of public art, to creating thoughtful construction details and productive architect-client relationships, attending ADF lectures has been an important part of my continued education as a designer and an Alaskan. Wendell Burnette’s presentation was no exception. But the ah-ha was an unexpected one. I was inspired by Burnette’s view that, when it comes to material selection, architects need to take a cue from the local food movement and chefs who strive to know the growers and suppliers of their edible materials. So too, believes Burnette, should architects develop an intimate knowledge of the materials they use and the people who craft and supply them.

With an active interest in Juneau’s local food scene, I know the challenges of having abundant natural food sources that no longer match our modern lifestyle, and minimal local suppliers and processors of the foods we eat more regularly. The same is true for architecture. We have raw materials all around us in Alaska: wood, ores, petroleum. But few of these are immediately accessible to designers. All must go through a significant manufacturing process to be usable, and the ability to process these materials locally does not exist in Alaska. 99 percent of the materials used in Alaska’s buildings are shipped in from Outside, even if the raw materials originated here.

But we’ve got a long future in front of us, if we play it right. In time, increased energy and transportation costs may make it feasible for us to quarry our own rock and mill and dry our own wood. And unlike states where natural resources are tapped out, Alaska has the opportunity to do it sustainably.

Bringing inspiration to Juneau and incorporating the best ideas into our designs is what the Alaska Design Forum is all about and their efforts are paying off in the quality of work done by architects in Alaska. This isn’t just because architects go to the ADF lectures, but because community members and potential clients go as well. The goal is for it not to be just adventurous souls requiring higher design quality and the use of local resources, but everyone. That’s how we show we’re neither isolated nor just stuck here because of the weather.

The next Alaska Design Forum lecturer will be award-winning Norwegian architect Reiulf Ramstad. It will be held at 6 p.m. Feb. 15 at the Silverbow Back Room. Visit www.AlaskaDesignForum.org for more information and the schedule of speakers through April.

• Sarah Lewis is a local architect and board member of Slow Food Southeast Alaska. She had the pleasure of showing Wendell Burnette the joy of crossing Mendenhall Lake on foot to see the glacier close up and is ashamed she hadn’t done that since she was a kid. Of course, the walk was a lot shorter back then.

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