Bing Sheldon: Architect as Change Agent

by | February 1, 2013 0 Architecture

If you’re at all familiar with the design and building industry in Portland, Oregon, chances are you’ve encountered Bing Sheldon – whether in person or by reputation. And if you have found yourself admiring Portland’s historic character and focus on sustainability, Bing is one of the city’s key influencers we have to thank for the the forward-thinking efforts of decades past.

Wrapping up his 44 year tenure at SERA after founding the company in 1968, Bing officially retired from the daily operations at the end of 2012.

And yet, with his pragmatic worldview and trademark candor still in fine form, many of us here continue to derive inspiration and guidance from our former leader. With his undergraduate degree in economics, Bing’s path was not the typical architect’s journey. As the task of building communities becomes increasingly complex, current and future generations have much to learn from Bing’s experience as we strive to improve the course of American cities.

We recently sat down with Bing to capture a few of his career reflections:

As you think back on your career, what advice do you have for current and future designers:1974

My advice would be, “Climb out of your shell.” You have to market your ideas. Even though drawings and computer-aided design helps facilitate discussions with clients, the bottom-line is you need to build a trusting relationship with the client. It can’t be over-estimated how important it is to establish a communication line with your client. Ultimately the goal is to build and maintain a relationship that allows the design to both influence the client’s decision and hopefully move them in a direction they couldn’t achieve themselves. It’s an awesome responsibility that architects have when they’re dealing with other people’s money and other people’s time. So, I would just emphasize the interpersonal communication aspect of this business.

You have been incredibly active in civic issues over the years including the creation of Portland’s Downtown Plan and the revitalization of Old Town. Can you reflect on the relationship between your professional endeavors and your civic contributions?

Architects have a unique ability to understand holistically how design impacts people’s lives. Building communities is ultimately what architects should be all about, and I think that is increasingly important as we move into a world where, frankly, people are less engaged personally and more engaged through media.

Portland is a unique place because it is receptive and open to a certain type of citizen engagement and involvement. In this context, it’s even more important that architects weigh-in on these civic issues. I see it as a professional obligation to try to influence the larger community values, and I think it’s very rewarding for people who do it well. Obviously, there’s a bit of an art to it – it cannot be approached from an egocentric, know-it-all point of view, and this translates to your client  relationships, as well.

What are your thoughts regarding the future of cities?

It’s clear that the world population is moving into cities. We’re over the suburban move and back into an urbanization, and I think that will continue. That’s both an opportunity and a challenge because cities can get too big. They can become so difficult to comprehend that they become hostile, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be the outcome. To me, New York is a pretty good example of a city that has conquered the problem of scale. Citizens who live there at a neighborhood scale love and appreciate the city.

Cities aren’t going anywhere except up, and hopefully not as out as they have traditionally. This is all the more reason for designers to engage themselves in trying to make those cities as human and as understandable, and, frankly, as well-designed as possible. With urbanization comes higher operating expenses, and it’s easy to have commercial interests trump the interests that architects usually [or perhaps, hopefully] represent. But it’s a wonderful challenge, and I think designers are well suited to go forth and conquer!

What gets you up in the morning and gives you a positive outlook on life?

What’s always gotten me going is the chance to influence, in small ways, how people treat each other – the opportunity to make the lives of the people around me more interesting and more fulfilling, and at the same time look for ways to make myself more useful – even though I’m retired !


Bing’s 2012 retirement celebration
[complete with custom made Bing Doll [.png],
designed by Allison Wildman based on the amazing CubeeCraft].

Stay tuned for future highlights of Bing’s legacy and our recent celebration of his career.

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