Alexander on Planning the University of Oregon

RJO’s Reviews on Amazon.com

These brief book reviews have been posted to Amazon.com, and they may be viewed there in their original form either collectively (on my public reviews page) or individually (by following the link at each title below).

Building an Educational Community

The Oregon Experiment
Christopher Alexander, et al.
Oxford University Press, 1975

The Oregon Experiment is one of a series of influential volumes on architecture and social design published by Christopher Alexander and his colleagues in the 1970s. While the most well-known volume in the series, A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, and Construction, develops general principles for the design of social spaces at all scales, The Oregon Experiment applies those principles to a specific case: the campus of the University of Oregon.

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.

© RJO 1995–2022