Vol. 6, No. 2 (January 2002)
Ordinary Form Language:
Projects in Breuberg, Germany, and Eugene, Oregon, USA

Eugene, Oregon


In the description for the Form Languages in Architecture Symposium (Dresden, Germany, June 22-23, 2001), the term “form language” is defined as “the elements, characteristics and principles of architecture which repeatedly appear in the forms of buildings, the designs of individual architects, the forms of a particular building culture, and more recently, the forms of particular global schools of design architecture.”  This definition implies that form languages exist in multiple manifestations, and at all levels of scale. In its most general definition, a form language can be understood as a combinatory system, made up of common identifiable physical elements in a built environment. Examples of easily identifiable form languages include the elements that make up such traditional environments as walled medieval towns, or the medina in an Islamic city, or various historical styles, such as the International Style, with its emphasis on minimalism and steel and glass construction, or the work of a single architect, such as Frank Gehry with his use of swooping curves, and juxtaposing forms.

It should be noted that a form language is quite distinct from a pattern language. Patterns, as defined by Christopher Alexander and his colleagues in the book A Pattern Language, are solutions to functional or social problems in the environment: “The elements of this language are entities called patterns. Each pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice.”  (Alexander, et al., A Pattern Language, Oxford University Press, 1977.) Thus, pattern languages, unlike form languages, do not address the particular form or physical appearance of a building or a place, but rather address the underlying functional or social problem. In contrast, form languages are made up of forms – physical parts and entities that when combined together create a building or place with a distinct form and structure.

This paper explores one type of form language, one which can be termed “ordinary form language”, and may be defined as the form language of ordinary buildings that when taken together help to define the unique character of a particular place. This ordinary form language is comprised of the physical characteristics of fabric or ground buildings rather than object or figure buildings. There is much emphasis today on object or figure buildings (extra-ordinary buildings), and their requisite superstar architects. Many cities in the world aspire to attract a superstar architect to design a signature building in their city in order to gain international recognition (Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim museum is a well-known example of this, as the city of Bilbao, Spain, is now internationally known as a result of the existence of a single building). Ordinary form language does not include these special object buildings; rather it is about buildings that make up the fabric of a city or town and give a place its particular character and identity. The term “ordinary” also can be understood as a form of resistance against the current trend towards the object or signature buildings previously mentioned. The designation “ordinary form language” imparts importance and legitimacy to those buildings and structures that form the fabric of a place and are essential in defining the character or essence of a city block, a neighborhood, a town, a city, or a region.

Ordinary Form Language

We all know examples of ordinary form languages from our own experiences. The following images illustrate ordinary form languages as they exist at different scales and in different cultural contexts.

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Figure 1: An ordinary form language comprised of tall narrow buildings that help give Portovenere, Italy its particular character.  

image02.jpg (149321 Byte) Figure 2: The more unusual condition of skyscrapers creating an ordinary form language in the particular context of Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan.  

From these images, it is clear that it is the elements of ordinary form languages that often make up the essential physical features of a particular place, and that these form languages are an integral part in creating the unique identity of a built environment. Thus, it would seem necessary for architects and other builders of the environment to be aware of the ordinary form language in which they are building, to work with and contribute to it, thus strengthening the identity of the larger cityscape. Yet there are several challenges for architects today who are interested in designing buildings that help to enhance and create an ordinary form language. One challenge is the issue of imitation versus innovation. In many traditional contexts ordinary form languages consist of buildings that were made of traditional materials using traditional methods that evolved over long periods of time. With today’s technology and high labor costs, it is often impractical to build this way, and imitation of form alone has proven to be unsatisfactory, as has been shown most recently in the 1980s with the Post-Modernism movement. A bigger challenge for architects today is the problem of professional recognition and notoriety. In today’s world of superstar architects who manage global practices and create signature buildings, there is little emphasis given to subtlety and humbleness, and thus little interest in making “ordinary” buildings. Creating ordinary buildings is often perceived as too pedestrian and uninteresting in today’s fast-paced and high-tech world; one has only to flip through any current architecture magazine to see that good ordinary buildings rarely get published. As a result, architects who do try and work within the context of an ordinary form language seldom receive much professional recognition.

Given these challenges, how then is it possible to successfully work within the context of an ordinary form language?  How can architects try and create buildings and places which intensify the existing form language and not just imitate it?  Are there some processes and techniques that can be learned and applied?  There are a few well-known architects who have worked or are currently working mainly with ordinary form languages: Hassan Fathy’s work in Egypt, Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk’s work in the US, and Christopher Alexander and his colleagues’ work at the Center for Environmental Structure, based in the US, are a few of the best known. Many other less well-known architects are beginning to address some of these challenges as well, contributing to the work of these predecessors, and resisting the current zeitgeist of the glorified superstar architect hired to design his or her signature building. The following projects are two attempts to design and build structures that work with an ordinary form language. Each project addresses some of these issues, and certain common principles and processes were used in the projects’ design and creation.

Wertheimer Tor Mixed-Use Housing Project
Breuberg, Germany
Architect:  Hajo Neis & Associates

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Figure 3: The town of Breuberg, Germany, showing the main street, the two market squares, the castle, the river, the Ochsen and the project site (dashed lines).

Located in the old castle town of Breuberg (Hessen), Germany, the Wertheimer Tor Mixed-Use Housing Project is a phased project that includes the renovation of an old inn building (the Ochsen), a cafe and a new square along the main street, the addition of new housing units (including facilities for a small co-housing community), and a new pedestrian bridge over a river. Breuberg is a very traditional town; it is structured along a main street, and bounded by a castle on a hill on one side and a small river on the other. There are two existing market squares along the length of the main street, with a church located in the larger of the two squares. Most of the buildings in the town are at least 100 years old, and are concentrated along the length of the main street. The forms of the buildings are basic rectangular blocks, one or two stories high, with additional stories within the steep roof structure. The construction system most commonly used in Breuberg is traditional heavy timber post and beam, with thick plaster walls and half-timbering, steeply pitched roofs, and small dormer windows. The buildings are typically sited with their gable ends facing the street. In the 1960s during an urban renewal period, several of the buildings along the main street were torn down, creating a wound in the town fabric. The Wertheimer Tor project is an attempt to heal this wound, first by renovating the old inn building, and then constructing new buildings that would then knit the town fabric back together again.

Given the traditional environment of the Wertheimer Tor project and the existing strong ordinary form language, we as architects were faced with the challenge of how to design and build modern structures within this very particular ordinary form language and traditional context. We used three principles and processes that were particularly helpful for us at various stages of the project: creating a Project Language with users and townspeople, performing full-scale stake-outs directly on the site, and implementing a new construction system. Each of these principles and processes will be discussed, particularly as they relate to enhancing the existing ordinary form language of the town.

1. Creating a Project Language

A Project Language distills and describes the essence and character that a specific building project will have, and defines its connection to the town as a whole. The particular character of the project is presented in a carefully structured sequence of statements and sketches compiled from observations and interviews with users, town residents, and other interested parties. The key aspect of a Project Language is that it describes the exact nature, essential components, and relationships a project and all of its elements will have, yet at the same time it also maintains an ambiguity as to the specific form of the project.

In the case of the Wertheimer Tor, we developed a Project Language for three primary reasons: 1. to better understand the importance of the site and the wound in the town fabric, 2. to define and illustrate the qualitative aspects of the project, and 3. to document the visions that the townspeople and users had for this special place. The Project Language became a written document that described the qualities and visions that were hoped for for this area. One vision that became very clear was the desire to create a third square for the town, strengthening the main street:

“The old buildings of the town spring from and shape a single beautiful main street running along the base of the castle mountain. Two ‘jewels’, the old market at one end and the new market roughly in the middle, widen the street and form two essential nuclei of the town. At the other end of the main street of the town, in the area of the Wertheimer Tor, is an open wound in the fabric of the street and the life of the town. In this area the project creates and helps to recreate the third jewel and third essential nucleus of the town and forms a new square along the street as the center of this nucleus.”

The following are two more excerpts from the completed Project Language, based on the thoughts and visions of the people of the town:

“A fountain on the new square – somewhere on the new square there is a fountain, from which one can look through an open gateway to the inner precinct of housing and the realm of the meadows and river beyond.”

“A wooden bridge over the river – the bridge is a beautiful covered heavy timber structure. It marks the southern point of entry into the project and the path to the square and the main street.”

While the Project Language does not address the exact forms or placement of the new structures, it does provide a qualitative framework to support the evolution of the project’s design. This relationship is similar to that of Breuberg’s existing ordinary form language, and Breuberg’s history of builders. The ordinary form language that was created and developed by centuries of builders, also provided the qualitative framework to continue the growth of the town. As a result, every building in Breuberg is unique, yet they all have a particular family resemblance to one another that helps to create Breuberg’s particular character and identity.

2. Performing Full-Scale Stake-Outs

After completing the Project Language, we began to study the site itself; visualizing where the new buildings should be placed in order to try and knit the town back together. We did this by conducting full-scale stake-outs at the site, using poles and string, to get a more real sense of the actual size and impact of the new structures. We started to get a sense of where the new square along the main street would be located, and the new buildings that would help to define it, and we also determined that a new building could be connected to the Ochsen building and form a kind of gate that would then lead into the courtyard of the small co-housing community and continue through the rest of the project to the pedestrian bridge. The co-housing component of the project, coupled with the rehabilitation and renovation of the Ochsen building, would comprise the first building phase, so we developed this area first, including the pedestrian bridge.

While doing the stake-outs, it immediately became clear what kinds of shapes, volumes, and positions are best for the new buildings, especially given the close proximity of the existing historical context. Small changes in size, shape, or position often had a large effect on the feeling and character of the emerging spaces. It was also during this process that we began to start working directly with the idea of continuing the ordinary form language of the town, particularly in terms of massing and volumetric shape. Thus, in taking our cues from the existing context, we continued the existing form language of long rectangular shaped buildings, two or three stories in height, with steeply pitched roofs. Once the stake-out was completed, we recorded the results, first in drawing form and then as a model. This then became the larger structure, or framework, from which the actual lay-out of the particular spaces and apartments would spring. One of the most satisfying aspects of this process is the feeling of confidence that we as designers felt as we proceeded with the details of lay-out and program requirements. In performing the stake-outs, we knew with a great deal of certainty the exact location and massing of the various building volumes; this knowledge was very important to keep in mind as the demands of program became increasingly important. Our building priorities and limitations were set as part of a larger structure, within which the various program requirements would then be incorporated. Through this process, we were able to incorporate the program into the larger structure of the site, rather than have the program dictate the overall structure of the project. This emphasis on first defining the larger structure of a site based on form and mass rather than on program requirements, is an unusual process, but it is one that has been valuable to us in connecting a building to its site and its context, and thus strengthening the ordinary form language of the particular environment.

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Figure 4: Model of the Wertheimer Tor project showing the new buildings with red roofs, and the Ochsen buildings to be renovated with grey roofs. The positions and massing of the buildings was determined by stake-outs done directly on the site. The co-housing courtyard is on the left side of the Ochsen (the first phase), and the new square for the main street is on the right side. The pedestrian bridge over the river is just visible at lower right.

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Figure 5: Model of the Wertheimer Tor project showing the main street and the new square for the town (upper left). To the right side of the Ochsen building is the gate building that leads into the co-housing courtyard.


3. Implementing a New Construction System

While it was fairly easy to work within the existing form language in terms of the size, shape, and placement of the buildings, working with the traditional heavy timber and thick plaster construction system was not possible or desirable. Our challenge was to select a construction system that would work within the existing form language of thick walls, while at the same time utilizing modern technology. We chose an integrated concrete tile and wood system that the principal of the firm, Hajo Neis, helped to develop in Japan. The concrete tiles form the exterior of the building, and are tied into place with a 2x6 wood frame. A couple of inches of concrete are poured into a cavity which then locks the system together. The advantages of this system are that it forms an integrated structural system as a thick solid wall, and it allows for unique tile patterns to develop as part of the exterior surface. For the Wertheimer Tor project, we plan to use different patterns of tiles for different buildings and different parts of the project.

One noteworthy aspect of this construction system is that it works within the existing ordinary form language of the particular place, yet at the same time uses modern technology to create something new. Often in traditional contexts, an architect’s response is to design something very light and very different in style and form to the traditional structure, so that one is acutely aware of what is old and what is new. In this case, it is clear that these buildings are new, but they still attempt to work within the context of a traditional form language. The physical result is more of an effect of integration rather than separation, continuing the structure of the existing form language, rather than reacting against it.


Agate Street Student Housing and Amazon Student Housing Village, University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon, USA
Architect:  Christopher Alexander and the Center for Environmental Structure, and Thallon & Edrington Architects

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Figure 6: Agate Street Student Housing, Eugene, Oregon

The second project that I will discuss is comprised of two parts, one built and the other unbuilt. Both projects are student housing projects at the University of Oregon in Eugene, and both were designed as a joint venture with Christopher Alexander’s Center for Environmental Structure and Thallon & Edrington Architects. The first part, the Agate Street Housing project, consists of twenty student apartments, and served as a prototype for the second part, the 300 unit Amazon Student Housing Village. The existing conditions around both sites were quite diverse, with no consistent or strong form language present, so the challenge for both of these projects was to try and create an ordinary form language within the projects themselves. Future building projects could then continue this form language, in order to help strengthen the larger identity of place in these areas as well as in the city of Eugene as a whole.

Trying to create our own form language within both of these projects was quite difficult. Most environments that have strong form languages have been created over centuries of building, with many different architects and builders taking part. How is it possible for one group of architects over a short period of time to try and make a collection of buildings that attempts to have some of the rich characteristics of these kinds of environments?  Again, we looked to certain principles and processes that could help us as we tried to create a strong form language for these projects. These principles and processes are: the creation and use of a Pattern Language that could be applied to both sites, the use of a prototype building and the process of variation, the creation of positive space, and the construction of mock-ups to test particular spaces and materials. Again, I will discuss each of these principles and processes, particularly as they relate to enhancing the existing ordinary form language:  

1. Creating a Pattern Language

As in the Wertheimer Tor project, we started work by creating a pattern language for both the Agate and Amazon projects, using students and university representatives as our user group. Because the language would be used for two different sites, the more general form of language “pattern language” was created rather than the more specific “project language” used for the Wertheimer Tor. However, the purpose and use of the language is similar: to create a document that specifically describes the qualitative aspects of the project, the hopes and dreams of the user group, so that everyone can understand it as a clear vision. Examples from the Agate/Amazon pattern language include:

“New student housing should be seen as an opportunity to strengthen the identity and character of the existing neighborhood”
This pattern is directly related to the creation of a form language for the two particular sites.

“Clustered Buildings, Common Greens and Outdoor Spaces”
Buildings provide some shape to the outdoor space that surrounds them. These spaces need to acknowledge the need for a hierarchy of open spaces that range from those intended to benefit one or at most two units to those which serve the whole village.

“Parking at least 200’ from the Average Apartment”
Although people often want to be near their own car, when asked how far they want to be from a parking lot, the distance gets much bigger. The users see a parking lot close to their home as being unpleasant, potentially dangerous for children, and detrimental to a peaceful life.

“Warm, Solid, Low-Maintenance, Safe Materials”

“Pedestrian Spine with Quiet and Graceful Character, Where All Pedestrians Meet”

“Inhabitants Feeling of Being a Person, not a Soldier in a Barracks”

“A Tiny Forest”

From this written document, the beginnings of a form language start to appear, within the framework of this larger vision.

2. Developing a Prototype Building that Allows for Variation to be Generated

Since the budget for these projects was extremely small (about $65 per square foot), it was necessary to think about Agate and Amazon as incorporating very simple and uniform building shapes, with standardized details. Yet it was also crucial to allow for some variation so that the projects would not feel too stamped out, or too much like mass housing or barracks. The challenge for us was to create a simple prototype building form that when clustered together could allow for some variation in the emergence of a coherent whole. After much experimentation, an L-shaped building evolved, with a thinner one and a half story volume attached to a larger two and a half story structure. This L-shaped form became the basic unit, but would have the flexibility to change as required by the site or placement of the buildings and secondary elements.

In the case of the Agate Street project, four of these buildings were needed, each consisting of five separate apartments. The basic lay-out for the buildings was at first quite symmetrical around a central courtyard; subtle variation was then allowed to occur based on site conditions, the pattern of stairs and entrances to each unit, and the lay-out of the apartments themselves. The result of this is that each unit is different from the others as it responds to these particular conditions. In the plan below (Figure 7), we can see some of the variation that has occurred. While at first the buildings seem the same, in reality they are not. For example, the wing of one of the buildings is offset in order to keep an existing tree on the site. Other variations include the position of stairs and entrances to each apartment. One pattern that evolved in the project was that each living room must face south. In order to achieve this, variation had to occur with the placement of the stairs and entrances. This resulted in the lay-out of each apartment becoming slightly different, which then affected the window and door patterns for the exterior. These internal and external building variations also influenced the shapes of the more minor exterior spaces and pathways. When combined with the existing trees, these minor exterior spaces became quite differentiated, strengthening the existing form language. In the case of the Amazon Village, the basic L-shaped building is broken down even further, due to special site considerations, and will be discussed in the next section on positive space.

In observing the general physical characteristics of many environments with strong form languages, there is a distinct common feature of variation among them. The variation is noticeable, but at the same time is very subtle; the buildings possess a family relationship to one another, yet each one is unique. In her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs describes the structure of cities as “the emphasis on bits and pieces is of the essence; this is what a city is, bits and pieces that supplement each other and support each other.” (Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961, p.390). It is this type of variation that helps to create these strong form languages and rich environments; the challenge for today’s architects is to know and understand how much variation is necessary and how much variation is too disparate.

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Figure 7: Plan of Agate Street Housing showing variation in apartment lay-outs. Note that all living rooms (LR) face south, which then generates variation in the entrances and stair locations. Also note the inset of the wing section on the building in the upper right, due to the location of an existing tree (see Figure 8).

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Figure 8: Variation in building form due to location of an existing tree (Agate Street Housing).

3. The Creation of Positive Space

One of the issues that developed while we were working with these L-shaped prototype buildings was the issue of connection to the outdoor spaces and the integration of the buildings with the site. We worked with cardboard models and continually moved the building volumes around in different positions to try and find the best locations for these volumes. Yet with every combination, the buildings felt like they were just set down on the site, with no real sense of a rooted connection to the land. Because of their size, they also felt quite dominant on the site as well. In the case of the Agate Street project, it was only when the main courtyard was shaped as a positive space, and actually cut out of cardboard, that the buildings around it started to feel more in balance with the space, rather than being too dominant and disconnected. When we began to carefully design and shape the outdoor spaces as positive spaces, and emphasize these places as much as the buildings themselves, the projects started to evolve as more coherent wholes.

The larger 300 unit Amazon Village incorporated many larger and smaller open spaces, including courtyards, play areas, a tiny forest, and a long pedestrian street (a requirement based on the work with the users). In order to determine the correct shapes and sizes for many of the courtyards and outdoor spaces that we were planning for Amazon, we went out into the city and started measuring and recording spaces that worked and felt in harmony with the buildings that bordered them. We then applied that information to the actual site, working with our L-shaped prototype, and the spaces that we had measured. In manipulating these spaces on the model, we again shaped and cut out the actual positive space in cardboard, and placed them on the site first, then placed the L-shaped prototype buildings around it. In certain parts of the village, we also worked on full-scale stake-outs to test the placement of buildings and the shape of the positive space.

Because of the much larger scale of the Amazon Village project, it soon became clear that the basic L-shaped building, repeated so many times, was too monotonous to create a viable form language and a hierarchy for the site. We decided then to focus on the overall structure of the site, in particular the sequence of outdoor spaces. The buildings were then shaped as a response to these outdoor rooms. The first space that we determined was the spine of the project, the long arcaded pedestrian street. This street bisected about two-thirds of the site, and then curved towards the university, connecting up to the existing city grid. Once the form and size of this street was determined, we placed buildings along it to strengthen its positive shape. Smaller courtyards were placed behind this first layer of buildings, and then the larger open spaces were placed behind the layer of courtyards. This new structure changed the L-shaped prototype to a series of long, thin building volumes, departing from our prototype quite significantly. Yet once this larger structure was established, we again used the basic L-shaped buildings and open space dimensions to fill out the site.

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Figure 9: Axonometric drawing of the Amazon Student Housing Village showing the inner layer of the arcaded pedestrian street, the smaller courtyard layer behind, and then the larger open spaces towards the periphery. Note the positive space created using very simple building shapes.

The creation of positive space as we were placing the building volumes on the site proved to be an important element in trying to give these projects a sense of rootedness and connection to their sites. Environments which have positive space tend to also have characteristics of a strong ordinary form language; the city of Rome is an excellent historical example of both positive space and a strong ordinary form language.

4. The Use of Mock-Ups and Tests in the Field

Although both of the sites for the Agate and Amazon projects were quite limited in terms of context, the city of Eugene as a whole does possess a particular character and sense of place. Eugene, Oregon is a college town, situated along the Willamette River in the west-central region of Oregon. As in most of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, lumber is plentiful in Eugene, and most buildings are made of wood. Fir and cedar are the most common building materials, and many houses and other small structures have wood frames (usually Douglas Fir) and are sided with board and batten cedar siding and roofed with cedar shingles or shakes. It rains a lot in the Pacific Northwest, so many buildings have steeply pitched roofs, with wide overhangs to shed the rain. This form language, while not uniform throughout the city, does exist and can be easily identified.

For the Agate and Amazon projects, we incorporated some of these local materials into the projects, and attempted to connect the projects with the form language of the larger city. We conducted various mock-ups of materials to test both the materials themselves and the proportion and placement of the materials. After testing several alternatives, the combination of a concrete block base with cedar board and batten siding seemed to be the best choice, given other constraints such as cost and durability. The simple building forms would also have pitched roofs, made of dark green asphalt shingles and a metal band at roof ridge and eave to enhance water protection. Thus, we attempted to work within the larger form language of Eugene, using some common materials and building shapes, while also responding to the particular needs of the project. Other mock-ups and tests that we made included testing at full-scale the size and shape of rooms inside the apartments to better understand the volume of space, and making mock-ups of roof and bracket ornaments.

The use of mock-ups and other tests in the field were beneficial as a way to visualize the built projects in terms of materials, size, and color. In using similar materials that were local to the area, we were able to better connect the project to its wider city context, as well as the larger Pacific Northwest region, and at the same time strengthen the emerging ordinary form language of the city of Eugene.

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Figure 10: Mock-up testing building materials, patterns and proportions.


For all of these projects, the Wertheimer Tor, Agate Street, and Amazon Village, there are several principles and processes that were used and that may have the potential to be applied in a more general sense in the creation of buildings within the context of ordinary form languages. These principles and processes include:

These principles and processes are just a few that may be used to try and make successful projects that work within the context of an ordinary form language. Other principles and processes, such as the formation and use of design guidelines have also been used with some success. Yet all of these attempts are only a small step towards the recognition and importance that these environments should have. While it is true that the majority of buildings being built today are quite ordinary, the attitude of most architects today is to focus attention on the flashy “object” buildings that continually receive awards and recognition. It takes time and effort, and an attitude of humbleness, to first try and really understand an environment with an ordinary form language, and then try to work within this context in an additive and supportive way. But this is in fact critically important, so that ordinary form languages can continue to survive and evolve as an essential element of our built environment. What more important role can an architect play than that of improving and caring for the existing environment and identity of a place?  I conclude with a quotation by N. John Habraken, from his book The Structure of the Ordinary:

“(The) Built environment develops and extends in fields: urban, suburban, rural. Built fields retain their identity for centuries, continually transforming while remaining faithful to the relations of their constituent parts. They are sustained by local and incidental acts of architecture and urban design: variations on environmental themes that rejuvenate extant fabric. The idea that a living environment can be invented is outmoded: environment must be cultivated. After all, it is by the quality of the common that environments prosper and by which, ultimately, our passage will one day be measured.”