Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Solutions always come from people

Dr. Jerome Groopman, in an interview about his new book How Doctors Think, made a fundamental point about doctors and patients, that resonates with the fight for human rights in the sphere of architecture, construction, and urban planning.

I should point out that "first, do no harm" is, essentially, a non-existent sentiment among urban planners, and a rare sentiment among architects -- but it's a majority sentiment among doctors.

But the sentiment is not effective if you don't fully respect the patient, says Groopman. "Every solution to a medical problem ultmately comes from listening to the patient", he says. Of course you don't want to kill the patient. But if you really want to resolve the problem, you need to treat the patient as a partner.

Most urban planners on a city's staff do not want to destroy the lives of residents in a neighborhood. But, neither do they fully respect their lives. The lack of respect comes partly from the availability of usable force, and the demands of capital -- also, if you're a staffer, and you believe you have a good idea, say "density" or "maximized property tax" or "anchor projects", why would you listen to anyone else's ideas -- the ideas of the "ignorant natives" -- if you didn't need to?

But the lack of respect also comes from something else. We can all sympathize with it: insecurity. City officials have done a terrible job in the last century of growth. In this situation, if professionals now switched strategies, and admitted that solutions should come from normal people, from non-professionals, how could they continue to justify their status? How could they remain elite? Deep down, they know they're only human, buffeted by forces unrelated to quality-of-life, and this makes them insecure about their power. So they use all their means to defend and inflate their own superiority. They dismiss the detailed knowledge of the mass of people they are supposed to be serving. Thus a common human failing has transformed into a completely accepted system of elite power projection, from the intimate to the international. It's corrupt, but it's the law.

This is, of course, rarely recognized by professionals. But the majority recognizes this massive failure in our building culture. Our remedy is to organize.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Stop architecture. Stop urban planning. Stop development. Start giving people control.

I just finished watching a lecture by Christopher Alexander from 1994, before The Nature of Order was published. In it, he posed a personal problem to his fellow architects: he seemed unable to consistently make places which had a quality of "belonging". That is, in which people felt that the place was truly theirs.

He pointed out that in places that are heavily "designed", people have almost no control over their environment, and consequently, there is no sense of belonging. In places where people have a great deal of control, say, in an indigenous village, people do most of the desiging and building themselves, and so in those places the sense of belonging is very high.

But then, he said that this isn't simply "user-participation" -- although this is obviously a far-too-rare thing in architecture and urban planning. He said that, after all, a beach is a lovely place for people, and no one designed it, not even the users.

He was trying to make a point about the geometry of things with life. But, in later discussions, we clarified this a bit. People discovered that the beach was right for them, so belonging, in that case, is a kind of natural selection of places with life, using human ability to perceive such places. Other natural places, even those replete with life, are quite unsuitable for a picnic: say, the peak of Mt. Everest. This discovery by people, is actually the quality of true freedom, of an individual, a family or a community, to become comfortable. There was a human process in populating the beach, and arranging the people -- but it was an easy one, involving mostly unspoken communication. No bureaucracy. No money. Just people enjoying nature, which they had both selected as human-suitable and as a place with a soaring living geometry.

There is an identifiable physical quality to human-made places that were built with this same freedom. Alexander has spent his whole life trying to elucidate the geometry, morphology and ontogeny of such structure, and, in that, he has been more successful than anyone. But he's also been trying just as hard to do something else -- to generate such places. He identifies two levels of failure here. At one level, he has difficulty creating such places himself ... even with the help of many people. At a second level, he has a difficult time effectively putting the tools for good building into the hands of others. Although his attempts to do so, such as A Pattern Language, have sometimes been hugely influential, the effect has been insufficient to reverse the trend.

Really, he cannot overcome his field. And he knows this. Architecture, like most modern professions, reflects the unfortunate, elitist human tendency to consolidate power away from the population.

So, unfortunately, most of Alexander's fascinating and people-centered work, starts from the wrong point of action.

If you want good buildings, you don't first need to tell people how to build well.

You must instead help people to empower themselves. First, empower individuals, families, groups and communities -- help them gain control of their environment. Defend them against governments, corporations, and other aggression.

Until this is accomplished, there will be no structures with a sense of belonging. There will be no life.

When it is accomplished, people will naturally re-discover that timeless quality -- and Alexander's hard-won research on how to build well -- so completely lost by professionals in modern times.