Cris Moss, White Box Director and Curator

Cris Moss, White Box director and curator.  Photo Richard Wilson for UO AAA
Cris Moss, White Box director and curator. Photo Richard Wilson for UO AAA

When Willamette Week arts critic, Richard Speer wrote his WW swan song and prepared to vacate his long-held position as arts-man-about-town, First and Last Thursday aficionado, and bastion of the Portland art scene to direct his insight towards several book projects, he first published a list of Portland’s top ten art exhibitions, 2002-2015. His taste and preference was readily apparent in this list—visual extravagance and fantasia reign supreme….and a sort of checklist for Portland’s favored exhibitions during a 13 year period was remarkably established as Speer lauded the extravagant or what “used to be better.” Into this list came the Portland2010 exhibition curated by the one-and-only Cris Moss. It was an extraordinary show, by any means, a “jaw-dropping” group collective with the likes of Shelby Davis and Crystal Schenk, Marne Lucas and Bruce Conkle, among others. And in a list that only includes ten exhibitions for an entire city and for an art critic’s career, as Speer gleefully points out, Portland played host to “146 (Speer-attended) First Thursdays and more than 3,120 exhibitions,” being included is no small feat.

Well done, Mr. Moss.

This same week we also read of Cris Moss in an online forum called PORT. Here there are a few words wrangling with the idea of Moss as a wanted entity…and a brilliant curator, or words to that effect.

And, so we come to the story of Cris Moss, highly sought-after curator, lauded gallery director, himself a multi-media artist who with one simple swipe of a google search engine comes up as something of a fantastic individual, (“Moss’ programming is considered to be some of the most notable in the Portland area”). The University of Oregon’s White Box recently brought on Moss as the new gallery director and curator, or in the words of one Portland arts writer, “the UO likely snagged Moss…” Indeed, perhaps we did, and it was a good move, to be sure. Already Moss is connecting, concocting and devising ways to move forward with the White Box with strategies and plans that would, I imagine, make Richard Speer pause. Speer challenged Portland galleries and gallerists to clarify their missions, focus programming and include local as well as international artists as a way to connect with the Portland populace. Calling for a cross-pollination of arts, dance, music, Speer left us with a sage prediction: the only way to save our city’s arts scene is to infuse it with public interest and active participation.

If Moss continues to rely on his pluck and circumstance, things, undoubtedly, will go well. He has much to call upon to help guide his position at the White Box. Hailing from the remoteness of a Billings, Montana upbringing, Moss remembers as a young child his parents constantly traveling and toting their offspring to historical museums, arts experiences and cultural excursions all over the eastern United States. The family always returned to homebase in Montana which only accentuated the remoteness and isolation to a youthful Moss. Surrounding the family with a plethora of “artist friends,” the Moss family saturated their children in a vibrant atmosphere of arts appreciation and comfort.

But despite a vibrant social exposure to arts and culture and a fairly affluent rural-based life (at those formative years committed only to the pursuit of snowboarding), Moss found the beautiful but desolate environment only propelled and heightened his curiosity and intrigue with what he saw on those frequent family vacations to large cities. His youthful exuberance culminated in his leaving home, he says “running away” at the age of 15, relocating to Seattle, Washington where very briefly he became a homeless kid of the streets. It was rough living for the teenager and Moss recalls eagerly returning to a high school situation in order to complete his education. He attended Garfield High School in Seattle’s Central District and experienced, for the first time, a diverse student body where Moss, as a Caucasian raised in the rural climate of Billings, Montana was now in the minority. He left the school dropping out again. But by his late teens, Moss was enrolled at NOVA high school, an alternative learning experience in Seattle. Here, he thrived taking courses in photography, and surviving on his wages earned working at night for various Seattle restaurants in jobs from dishwasher to lead cook; his mode of transportation, simply, a skateboard.

Eventually, Moss ventured back to Montana to attend University of Montana and turned his attention to a focus on the arts. He enrolled as a non-degree student excelling in his courses in ceramics, environmental studies, probability and statistics, and judo. He found himself immersed in his ceramics studies and entered a competition, NCECA, National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts –a competition his entry won.

Ceramics captivated Moss and he studied toward a BFA from the University of Montana in ceramics. Stopping mid-way through to move to Minneapolis where he worked for a snowboard shop and took classes at the local community college, Moss returned to UM, with the intention to finish his studies, however, friends had migrated to Oregon to Mount Hood and the snowboarding scene in the mid-1990s. Moss followed relocating to Mount Hood and living the life of a snowboarder on the mountain daily. A year later he moved to Portland where he got a job as a bike messenger and enrolled at Portland State University studying photography. From PSU, Moss transferred to Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) where he worked with and studied ceramics (mostly sculpture) and pursued his growing interest in video, combing the two. He still had plenty of time on the slopes and worked part-time as a lift operator and snowboard instructor to support season passes at Mt Hood.

A young Cris Moss at Mt Rainier, Washington. Photo provided by C Moss.
A young Cris Moss at Mt Rainier, Washington. Photo provided by C Moss.

Moss’ education in the arts quickly took precedence over his snowboarding lifestyle and he ceased boarding competitively to turn his attention to art school. By 2000, Moss had graduated from PNCA with a BFA in general fine arts. He had begun working closely with Portland gallerists and arts leaders, Elizabeth Leach, and (when he had been at PNCA) with Sally Lawrence (PNCA president), Gerry Snyder (PNCA dean) and the Philip Feldman Gallery. It was while working with the gallery directors that Moss was given the opportunity to work directly with the artists. This experience allowed him to learn the formalities of getting work into a gallery and instigated a broad range of connections. His interest in gallery work and representing artists quickly blossomed into the series of Donut Shops Moss opened –the inaugural shop being at 2nd and Alder in the SE Industrial area of Portland.

Moss used his experience and expertise he had learned from teaming with Feldman Gallery and working with artists in the Donut Shop ventures to combine video with sculpture installation and work in new ways with artists on the cutting edge of these technologies. Moss attributes the success of his Donut Shop exhibitions to “not being afraid, just talking to people.”

As his career grew and the success of his collaborations became evident, Moss was carefully formulating his philosophy on working with artists and creating meaningful exhibitions. The turning point came in the early 2000s when his work was written about in Seattle’s The Stranger,


All right, it’s in Portland. But gallery founder and curator Cris Moss is doing something I’ve heard a lot of artists talk about, but never finally do: starting a gallery that changes location with each show. This not only alleviates the ever-present real-estate problem, but also creates the challenge of a changing space. The first show, which concentrates on alternative media, features the work of Moss, Seungho Cho, Cynthia Pachikara, Nan Curtis, and Ginelle Hustrulid. Opening reception Fri Aug 4, 6-9 pm. The Donut Shop, 630 SE Third. Through Aug 18.–The Stranger

In June of 2001 Moss was invited to bring his Donut Shop #4 to the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, Washington in what Moss describes as “[his] career taking a turn…[he] was getting attention in The Stranger..and now Whatcom was offering [him] a budget.” Being offered financial incentive to launch his Donut Shop was a somewhat revolutionary concept in the career of Moss who thus far had existed on the precipice of funding and accomplished most of his installations sans monetary assistance.

Hand in hand with his burgeoning career, Moss was developing a keen sense of how he wanted to work and the best practices in the field—and he was finding himself devoted to the idea that “each artist must be compensated and when there is funding, each artist must receive a cut of the money, a stipend,” he says. This is the Moss Mantra, so to speak, and is key in the support of visual artists —they are not just to be capitalized upon for their work– people need to make a living,” Moss encourages. The early 2000s were a time of Moss focusing on work of others, helping artists begin and maintain careers, and establishing connections with institutions, as he comments, “I had stopped putting my own work in the shows.” This was about to change.

Moss, now back in Portland, wanted to go to graduate school. Within a year he was heading to New York to study at NYU for studio practices and working as the director of the Steinhart Gallery in NYC.

In his first week of graduate school at NYU, Moss enjoyed a prestigious studio in the East Village where he had a pristine view of New York’s Twin Towers….until the fateful September 11. When the towers fell, Moss’ view changed, metaphorically and literally. He became interested in how this event saturated and effected different markets and sought to explore more the use of space, the absence of tangible objects and the presentation of physical entities and the interrelation of objects placed into spaces. Moss continued working with an internship at the Swiss Institute of Contemporary Art where he was involved in cutting edge exhibitions and helped with the installations and assisted the artists individually by brainstorming and “having fun with” the projects. Moss was delving further into his own work ethos and his philosophy on “inviting artists to go crazy with the spaces” was really taking shape. He encouraged the artists he worked with to “push the bounds of what the work is and to explore what [their] next level is…”

This work allowed Moss to realize that his “larger projects are wonderful to develop smaller projects and to let people see [one’s] talent in a different way.” As his curatorial practice flourished, Moss noticed that his “curating was becoming [his] own art practice.” And that his belief in the artist, first and foremost, as a person to be treated with respect and in a fair and considerate transaction-like process of monentary compensation, was surfacing as tantamount to his work practice.

In 2005 Moss was back in Portland, this time a willing-to-put-down-roots father and soon to be the curator at Linfield College’s gallery. He was offered teaching positions at Linfield as well, to instruct students in art and studio classes for digital photography and graphic design, gallery management and curatorial practices.

Cris Moss at the White Box setting up an exhibition in the Gray Box. Photo Sabina Poole

Ten years passed.  And, this winter a career move back to the metropolis of Portland:  Moss joined the White Box staff in January 2015. He comes to the University of Oregon with a varied work background where he has learned from his experiences to make good use of his education based in the arts. Addressing his education, he asserts, “it is a degree in problem solving, a degree in which you take your own steps and a degree in which you have to keep your head in what’s going on, build networks, and stay involved. You can’t be afraid, you have to look for your own solutions and promote your own ideas…don’t be afraid.”

Along with his new career at the White Box, Moss is delving into videography projects that began while he was still at Linfield. Paradoxically, and yet another curiousity-inspiring aspect of the Moss career path, he has been the executive director of production and videographer for the Ultimate Cage Fighting (Sportfight) events –filming the fighters in the ring, directing the camera crew and creating commercials for sport cage fighting.

I asked Moss to comment further on his goals for the future and for the White Box and, just for fun, on his dream job. He responded with a mindfully delivered statement punctuated by reason, and experience. His reliance on drawing from an adventuresome and fearless life well-lived and an education grounded firmly in the very essence of what he loves and holds dear stands as evidence of Moss’ genuine dedication to his field, his craft, his art. He practices what he preaches.

 The Portland art scene has a long history of supporting contemporary and cutting edge exhibits. With the unique location, non-profit status, and facility (there is nothing that compares to the Gray Box in the region), the White Box stands in a position to build a foundation and reputation that pushes the Portland art scene even farther. By bringing in local, national , and international artists, the WB can promote and challenge some of the preconceived notions of what qualifies as art. The curatorial role of the WB will serve as a platform to make the WB a renowned venue for consistent, quality programming.

Oregon is one of the lowest ranked states for money allocated to the arts. I believe at one time it was the second lowest, it still might be. I am working on building a large enough operating budget that can support artists by not charging them to use the venue and in turn even giving them honorariums. As an institution that promotes and teaches professional art practices we need to treat artists that we work with in a professional manner. It is their profession, we house it, we should support it.

Recent meetings on the main campus in Eugene with the Department of Art and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art have illustrated a desire to forge strong ties between UO Eugene campus and the WB. The individuals that I spoke with share my concept to bridge any gap and are eager to start the process. I would like to initiate a format that brings visiting artists that are exhibiting at the WB to Eugene for artist talks and one-on-one studio visits with both faculty and students, and vice versa, bringing Eugene-planned lectures to Portland. The Schnitzer and WB could collaborate on exhibitions. This format will help in securing funds that allow us to pay traveling expenses and honorariums for the artists. The benefits of quality programming should benefit all of UO.

I’m not sure what my dream job would be. My thoughts change on a regular basis. I think that is good. As the world changes so should our involvement.   Although, it would be nice to be a guide for extreme back-country snowboarding. –Cris Moss


Thank you to Cris Moss, for your time and insight.

Cris Moss, center, prepares with UO staff Chris Cosler (left) and artist Carl Diel (right) to set up a video installation in the Gray Box.  Projected on the wall is "Wrest_01," work by artist Heidi Schwegler exhibiting in the Gray Box.
Cris Moss, center, prepares with UO staff Chris Cosler (left) and artist Carl Diel (right) to set up a video installation in the Gray Box. Projected on the wall is “Wrest_01,” work by artist Heidi Schwegler exhibiting in the Gray Box. Photo Sabina Poole

A Selection of Work by Cris Moss….

Cris Moss. Digital Video and Mixed Media, 1999.
Cris Moss. Digital Video and Mixed Media, 1999.
Cris Moss.  Untitled.  Untitled-2006: Mixed Media sculpture, 1996.
Cris Moss. Untitled. Untitled-2006: Mixed Media sculpture, 1996.
Cris Moss.  Portrait (Untitled).  Digital Photograph, 2010.
Cris Moss. Portrait (Untitled). Digital Photograph, 2010.
Cris Moss. Dark House: Digital Photograph, 2013.
Cris Moss. Dark House: Digital Photograph, 2013.

Professor Howard Davis Launches UO Portland Design Build Collaborative

Professor Howard Davis Launches UO Portland Design Assistance | Design Build Collaborative

A partnership between UO students and faculty in the UO Department of Architecture, and a collaboration with MercyCorps Northwest and the Collaborative for Inclusive Urbanism


Professor Howard Davis, of the University of Oregon Department of Architecture  has collaborated with MercyCorps Northwest under executive director, John Haines, and the Collaborative for Inclusive Urbanism to launch a UO Portland Design Assistance | Design Build, a partnership between UO students and faculty in the UO Department of Architecture.


Called by Professor Davis “a unique collaboration between the UO and MercyCorps Northwest–two Portland neighbors that have not interacted much up until now,” the venture was publicly announced on December 9, 2014 with invitations for collaborators to come on board and a giant Jenga party at Portland’s collaborative maker space, ADX, the venture welcomes all interested design students, mentors and supporters from allied fields to join and engage with the project.


Along with Professor Davis, UO Portland Design Assistance | Design Build is a volunteer group comprised of students and alumni working alongside MercyCorps Northwest to research, design, and build architectural installations that will benefit the community of Portland. Members of the professional community—on a pro-bono basis—professional architects, engineers, and makers will pair with architecture students and recent graduates of the UO Department of Architecture in Portland and the program’s urban architecture focus to provide design and build services for underserved micro-entrepreneurs to help establish their businesses. The group believes in encouraging small industry to create a healthy mix of consumption, production, and vibrant public places to live, work and play in the city of Portland.


Professor Davis notes “The idea [for UO Portland Design Assistance | Design Build] has developed over the last year, through discussions with MercyCorps Northwest and a series of focus groups with their micro-entrepreneurs. The focus groups were run by then-students Annie Ledbury and Drew Shreiner. Through the focus groups we realized that there is a need for this kind of service, dealing with physical space, to supplement the assistance in forming and running a business that MercyCorps NW already makes available to the people who get small loans from them. Through several planning and brainstorming meetings we developed this idea. The symposium on industry and micro-enterprise we had in the fall, and my own design studio on the topic, also were a big boost to the effort.”


UO Department of Architecture in Portland alumni and a volunteer organizer for UO Portland Design Assistance | Design Build, Ledbury comments that the group is “committed to balancing the social, economic, and environmental aspects of their projects.”


Ledbury explains “we’ve been working for the last year on the development of a program where MercyCorps NW micro-entrepreneurs can be helped with issues relating to their workspace—availability of space, location, design, renovation, and beyond.”


Currently, in the getting up-and-running stages, the group has been working towards developing a website through which people who would benefit from help with projects and a system which will match up students with micro-entrepreneurs to provide direct consulting assistance.


Professor Davis said the website will “go online sometime this winter, and will be linked to MercyCorps Northwest’s site.” MercyCorps Northwest executive director, Haines, noted, “We will populate our website with the design elements that helped each business so that many can learn from the examples.”


When asked about current and potential future projects, Professor Davis commented, “A student is ….working with MercyCorps Northwest on a building in east Portland that MercyCorps Northwest has recently acquired–looking at the neighborhood around the building and trying to understand how the building may better act as a catalyst for economic development in the neighborhood. It is still a little early to tell for sure, but one idea is some kind of weekend event combined with a design-build project, all run by students, at the site of the building.”


“Hopefully the collaboration will be of benefit to small-scale micro-entrepreneurs in Portland,” continued Professor Davis, “helping them to find and renovate space (many of them do not have money for or access to professional services); and it will provide UO students with experience working on real projects and the opportunity for community engagement.”


Asked to comment about UO Portland Design Assistance | Design Build and MercyCorps Northwest collaboration, Haines said, “MercyCorps Northwest works with over a thousand entrepreneurs annually.  Many have come to value the design and strategic advisory assistance they get from architecture students on the best use of their often limited space…. The student teams get real world work experience, and our client businesses get advice they need.”


Architecture graduate students talk to a Portland-area micro-entrepreneur about his space. The students are part of the UO Portland Design Assistance | Design Build partnership. Photo courtesy Howard Davis.
Architecture graduate students talk to a Portland-area micro-entrepreneur about his space. The students are part of the UO Portland Design Assistance | Design Build partnership. Photo courtesy Howard Davis.


Howard Davis, UO Portland Design Assistance | Design Build partnership. Photo courtesy UO External Communications.
Howard Davis, UO Portland Design Assistance | Design Build partnership. Photo courtesy UO External Communications.






Grace Aaraj | Studies in Architecture: The Big Living Room and Creating A Discussion Among Friends

Grace Aaraj


My goal for the future is to develop my existing skills and to improve immature talents. I know that only a new experience, an outstanding one is able to push me to the limits in terms of achievement and commitment.  –Grace Aaraj, UO current graduate student in architecture, Fulbright scholar; M. Arch candidate 2014, University of Oregon, Portland; B. Arch 2011, Institut des Beaux Arts II, Beirut


In 2011, when Grace Aaraj, a 21 year old student from Beirut, Lebanon, wrote those words as part of her autobiographical essay included in both her Fulbright scholarship application and her application for graduate studies with the Department of Architecture at the UO, she had little idea just how many new and richly diverse experiences would unfold for her in the United States.  Like many international exchange students, she came to the United States with an empathic idealism enthusiastic to meet new friends, and connect across cultural lines challenging any divides and stereotypes by sharing stories, tastes, conversation and advocating cooperation and collaboration.  Her gregarious nature and generous spirit were met with varying degrees of acceptance—here was a young female of Middle Eastern in descent in an environment traditionally dominated by masculine presence and Western expectations.  Not daunted by possible perceptions of her background and culture, Aaraj’s experience at the University of Oregon has illuminated and enhanced an outlook where she was able to expand her frame of reference and gain invaluable academic and professional-related experience.   As she is quick to point out, coming to the United States to study and immerse herself in graduate studies, she had divergent paths to chose from:  adopt and adapt to the new and unusual or withdraw into a secluded course of study and academia.  One path would give her experience in-the-field of architecture and design and invaluable networking opportunities; the other, a quiet yet dedicated focus on study and research.  In the nurturing and experience-driven environment of the University, she says, she was encouraged her to explore possibility in both the classroom and the community—the paths of solitary academic study brilliantly enhanced by internships with architectural firms and presentations to professional conferences.  Into this atmosphere of connection and opportunity, Aaraj has been able to blend a background rooted in Middle Eastern tradition and embrace the professional opportunity she has been afforded while a student at the UO.  As she so proudly asserts, her parents raised her to respect all people, not only those just like her, and to appreciate and create opportunity. And, Aaraj points out, it has been her egalitarian outlook that has blossomed at the University of Oregon.


Her enthusiasm and desire to seek connections with people while in Portland at the UO White Stag location led her to opportunities where she could explore her cultural background, gain a sense of learning from the experiences of others, and network with established professionals in her field of academic study.  To meet and talk with this young woman is to connect with a truly vibrant and enthusiastic individual eager to interact with opportunity, her community, and to find possibility in a great variety of pursuits.  Perhaps her openness to listen, to learn from and to recognize the potential in cross-cultural interaction has led to a pattern of academic learning blended with an interest in humanitarian objectives. The influence most felt and positively effected her time here has been the academic environment she has immersed herself in with studio courses offered within Portland UO’s urban architecture focus –studios ranging from Professor Hajo Neis’ regenerative architecture to Philip Speranza’s Bridging project. The projects she became engaged in echoed her desire for “human interactions and pride….and [celebrated] common humanities and respected commonalities.”

Grace Aaraj, with the Bridging Project. Photo by Tim Niou

Having received her undergraduate degree in architecture from Institut des Beaux-Arts, Beirut, Aaraj was a volunteer for two years for a campaign to enhance urban public spaces in Beirut with the focus on the health and well-being of children.  Based on her accomplishments in Beirut, she subsequently received the Fulbright fellowship in architecture, funded by the United States Department of State.  Coming to the United States for studies at the UO Department of Architecture—she comments that in addition to the globally-immersed and urban architecture-focused faculty of the UO in Portland Department of Architecture, she selected the UO for her graduate studies because of the “sustainability focus and the community oriented projects.”


Since being a UO student, her work has been represented as part of the University of Oregon Department of Architecture at the Construction Specifications Institute Forum 2013. She has obtained the Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO) scholarship and participated in an international urban design workshop; as well as presented at the Architecture for Humanity national conference in San Francisco. Working with fellow students, Annie Ledbury, Jackie Davis, and Beth Lavelle, Aaraj and her team won a student-organized charrette to design a clinic in Haiti, (REvive Jacmel), and then developed construction drawings with Waterleaf Architecture, along with other student partners. In December, 2013 she was part of a design-build project in Haiti, with Sergio Palleroni and students from the Center for Public Interest Design at Portland State University.  She is currently working on a model of housing and work opportunities for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, with the focus of repurposing the campus to an ecotourism hub, after the end of the crisis.  Her active involvement in the field and her intent to stay focused on humanitarian objectives mirrors her opinion that her “world is a world where global change starts from a local action.”  As the repertoire of experience in the field for Aaraj expanded these past two years, so seemed to be a consistent interest in empathic design and architecture built with a humanitarian focus in mind.

With Grace Aaraj, Winter 2014

Due to her work in humanitarian design and her interest in language viewed not as a barrier but as an opportunity, in the winter of 2014, Aaraj was approached by the Portland Public School system and asked to be a guest presenter at the International Youth Leadership Conference.

[IYLC provides highly engaging, culturally competent workshops appropriate for Emergent Bilinguals (students of English as a Second Language) and addresses leadership and communication, college and career choices, and culture and community issues promoting intercultural communication, community activism, teamwork and self-esteem.  The conference, organized by the English as a Second Language Department of Portland Public Schools, is an opportunity for EB’s to learn and network with fellow students, educators and language minority leaders in the Portland area.]

The UO School of Architecture and Allied Arts had partnered with IYLC program by hosting the IYLC students’ Mercy Corps-led workshops at the UO White Stag location during the winter months.

High School Students With Grace Aaraj's workshop--discovering geographic location

Aaraj comments

“The event [was] tailored to empower high school students who have English as their second language. I was excited and knew immediately this [was] an educational aspect I want[ed] to be part of. [When asked to be a part of the conference], I remember thinking ‘I hope I still qualify to be part of the English as Second Language workshops.’ You see, English is my third language.”


Grace Aaraj with high school students

Aaraj is fluent in Arabic as well as French. She is currently learning Spanish.  Aaraj was pleased to be offered to interact with high school and middle school age students and quickly formulated an idea to work with them focusing on the topic of language.


Aaraj’s IYLC workshops, titled “Languages and Traditions: Bringing Us Closer Together” involved inviting the high school students to approach a large map of the world mounted on the classroom wall—students placed a colored pin on the country of their birth and then had an opportunity to discuss and share stories from their homeland about cultural traditions, language challenges they faced upon coming to the United States and ways of communicating in their new environment.

High School Students With Grace Aaraj's workshop--discovering geographic location and proximity

Aaraj comments that she “wanted everyone to understand that geographical boundaries should not limit what [they] know or what [they] understand.”


More importantly, Aaraj’s participation in the conference was, as she describes,

“an enriching experience, as I get to discover a topic I am interested in outside my comfort zone. As a student in architecture, I am not trained to teach.  Being at the workshop with high school students from different backgrounds and having different languages spoken was beautiful.”


She continues,


“The workshop was like a big living room, a discussion among friends. It started with exchanging names in native languages, writing them and ended with stories and personal participation from everyone.


A lot of good moments followed by laughing were the highlight of the workshop. I never believed you can teach diversity from a book; it just takes few minutes and talking among strangers. It is also important to visualize information, like calligraphy in a certain language or location of different countries on a map. This is how lessons are learnt. The look on these students’ faces when I wrote my name in Arabic from right to left, their surprise, were precious. I myself, like everyone else, learned a lot about them.”


Grace Aaraj is continuing her exploration of language, limits and communication with her submission of an essay for the Many Languages One World United Nations competition where she will present her research and personal reflections on the requirements for the One World essay, “the ideas of global citizenship and understanding and the role that multilingual ability can play in fostering these.”


Aaraj’s openness and acceptance of all those around her, her willingness to listen to and empathize with the personal stories of the people she encounters speaks volumes to what she asks for from all, “tell me your own history, share your personal story and ask for mine.  I keep asking, I keep listening:  you can do the same….for that brief fulfilling moment, we are ‘citizens of the world’.”


If Grace Aaraj continues with her generosity of character and her willingness to try and “understand the world as a way to understand a region’s history and its people’s traditions,” she will certainly surround herself with her goal of establishing (as she describes it) a “a big living room of discussion among friends.”  Aaraj’s story is only one of many of the diverse student body at the UO in Portland Department of Architecture urban architecture studies program.  But, like the rest of her cohorts, she reflects a key aspect of the program:  that of bottom up design, creating for people, and perhaps, most of all, a testimony to the influence of Portland director of the architecture program and professor, Hajo Neis and his research regarding the Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth , recently presented publicly in his collaborative book of the same title.


It is Professor Neis’ contention, along with collaborator and co-author Christopher Alexander, that:


“The purpose of all architecture… is to encourage and support life-giving activity, dreams, and playfulness. But in recent decades, while our buildings are technically better–more sturdy, more waterproof, more energy efficient– they have also became progressively more sterile, rarely providing the kind of environment in which people are emotionally nourished, genuinely happy, and deeply contented.”


Resourceful, observant, up-and-coming students in the UO architecture program, like Aaraj seem to be part of this philosophy encouraged and fostered by the expertise and guidance of professors like Neis:


Namely the creation of environments that “genuinely support the emotional, whole-making side of human life” and architects and designers who have the capability “to build places of human energy and beauty.”


With, as Neis points out, wholeness and in humane ways.


The future of architecture and the built environment in the hands of these sensitive and mindful individuals would appear to offer empathy, understanding and unprecedented levels of responsibility to all people.  And, as Aaraj vividly states, “it is not related to redrawing boundaries, forcing languages into places, nor erasing history or fitting into one category.”  The important part, she says, is the willingness to “communicate, understand and assimilate.”


While the world might be a vast and complicated place tangled in technology and bursting forth with unbridled innovation, those who have the courage to see it as a tightknit collaboration of real people (as opposed to merely pixels) open to cooperation and kind regard, both in relating to one another and in creating for the built environment could prove to be the “big living room” approach that might benefit us all.

See more work by Grace Aaraj on her website, Grace Aaraj.

Grace Aaraj (middle) with UO fellow graduate students, Jackie Davis (left) and Annie Ledbury (right) share a picnic on the Bridging Project in the North Park Blocks. All are in the M. Arch Portland Department of Architecture UO.

(Note:  Socrates said, “I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world. There is no difference between learning and living.”)