Living Future unConference 2014 in Portland, Oregon

Published On: 2 December 2014


“Design Creates Culture. Culture Shapes Values. Values Determine the Future.” – Robert Peters

Late May, of this year, saw a small group of our team making their way to the west coast to partake in the momentum of this year’s International Living Future Institute UnConference. A fringe benefit of this trip was the opportunity to immerse ourselves in all that is west coast design and culture.  Arriving in Portland my preconceived visions of a cool and trendy lifestyle where not oversold. Portland is a slow paced place where you can relax and be yourself, a land filled with Baristas and Brew Masters and Beauty.

As expected the tone and energy of the conference was incredibly invigorating and at times almost overwhelming. We found ourselves in the company of a thousand others, all seeking solutions to some of the world’s most pressing design related issues. With a multitude of sessions to choose from, each presenter shared and revealed their unique experience by providing real world applied innovative design strategies, cutting-edge technical information, and ultimately the inspiration needed to maintain and achieve lofty visions for our future.

The theme for this year’s conference encompassed the idea of the inherent beauty within nature and how we might draw inspiration from it in our work. Finding its way into all of the presentations, in one form or another, this central theme was an exploration of what provokes us, what teaches us, how we learn and how we grow in nature and our built environments. One key concept that caught my interest suggested that design should be more than just the result of a process. This is not to say that process is inappropriate, but rather, that designing to achieve specified goals is inherently flawed. Today, much of design is goal oriented, and as a result it often becomes sterile and prescriptive; ignoring the human element of the equation. I found this notion to be quite intriguing as, I believe, it moves us beyond a traditional model of social engineering where we assume that our design forms and systems will invariably change and better the social ecology of a place.

By changing the central motivation for one’s design, this movement proposes that we create spaces that extract and expose fundamental parts of our environment, both urban and rural, for our experience and education. As a result we are immersed and involved in the process of community building, creating environments which are meaningful and useful to us, and allowing us to interact, adapt and coalesce rather than be imposed upon.

On the last portion of our Portland trip we had a day to ourselves, to each head in our own direction and to experience the city on our own. I took off in search of some of the work of my favorite Landscape Architect, Lawrence Halprin.  Nestled in the downtown core of the city, The Portland Open Space Sequence was conceived as a way of enticing residents into the city centre in the mid 1960’s. As a series of three interconnected outdoor rooms, linked by treed promenades, the succession begins with a fountain evoking a stream’s origin, proceeding to Lovejoy Fountain Plaza, then Pettygrove Park, and culminating at the Ira Keller Forecourt Fountain.

Drawing on local ecology, these choreographed spaces invite visitors to experience and immerse themselves in settings reminiscent of the nearby Cascade Range and the Columbia River. Passing through these spaces, it is apparent that Halprin understood and celebrated the beauty of nature by crafting sublime natural scenes into dense urban settings. Following the tone of the conference it seemed fitting that I had the opportunity to experience these works, clearly reflecting a passionate confidence in the power of design to create experiences and a dedication to creative exploration. That being said, I believe they fundamentally reflect a personal commitment to being genuinely alive, aware and engaged.

Leaving Portland and the west coast left me relaxed and invigorated, bringing my core values and motivations to the forefront, reminding me to question notions of, beauty, experience and community, in my work and own life. Ira Keller Fountain, perhaps the most iconic image of Halprins work, invites frequent contemplation and wading.

News 19 Portland