Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Easily detroyed

Christopher Alexander spent decades exploring our relationship to reality, in the hope of  finding a description -- comprehensible and effective -- of a process that would let people improve their built environment for themselves.

The Nature of Order is the final expression of his exploration, and he offers this essential, boiled-down advice -- to make something alive, use your feeling.

This advice works well for those already sensitive to such things, who are practiced at using feeling in creative work. It requires more, of course. You need control of your projects -- perhaps an architect/builder/developer could be considered sufficiently empowered, and sufficiently free, to use feeling. Christopher Alexander, who always uses feeling on his projects, struggles mightily to find an environment where it can unfold. In the modern world, his simple advice is easily dismissed, and so the possibility of creating a place that is alive is just as easily destroyed. Protecting places with a living quality is just as difficult. It doesn't matter how much one likes Alexander's other ideas. Computer engineers, who eagerly read Alexander's books for inspiration, have ignored this advice, or decided not to pursue it. Feeling, although it clearly exists, is strangely considered something you shouldn't talk about in the context of building something.

Despite this, feeling is a tool used in many indigenous cultures, to this day ... and their living environments are being destroyed to this day, by the march of technocracy. Feeling is the tool used to build those beautiful, special places, centuries ago, which tug at our hearts when we see them today. They are rare, along with the cultures sufficiently in harmony with their surroundings to grow them.

Our modern social organization has separated our modes-of-action so completely from the richness of our surrounding reality, that feeling alone is no longer potent. Stand in front of a City Council anywhere in the US, and describe a process that makes use of feeling, in order to build something necessarily rich and comforting and community-based. Some heads will nod. But the buttons that destroy neighborhoods and replace them with parking structures, will still be pushed.

Before the natural tools of humanity are available to us again, we must enable people to unite, to come together again, in coalition, so they have the power and freedom to use such tools. This is the primary work ahead, for students of Alexander's research on the timeless way of building.

Postscript: along with feeling, and cooperation, one important tool is the ballot initiative.

Postscript two: 'feeling' is innate, in every person, but it takes training these days to make use of it.

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.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Communities are more important than their buildings

This is a kind of heresy.

But with the world so trapped in the path of negative structural development, the priority is not to build better-adapted buildings. It's to build good humane organizations.

In some way, current buildings are well-adapted to suit their anti-human purposes.

Take the soul-deadening, cubicle-based office park. This is exactly the environment in which you want to run a tyranny, one where the victims (the employees) never feel good, but they never feel bad enough to leave, or revolt, and they go through life as wage-slaves in a stupor.

Once you understand that this is the purpose of the organization, then the building seems perfect.

So, good organizations, and good communities, working positively, morally, openly, co-operatively, for the direct benefit of people, are the necessary preconditions to good building. There are plenty of examples of good buildings with bad communities. Let's prioritize: let's start good projects, and then grow buildings around them.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Involvement, empowerment and feeling

With the city planner for downtown Eugene, Oregon, I discussed a massive, proposed private urban plan, subsidized by public funds of course, which looks very negative. If built, it would wipe out a lot of incremental improvements downtown, and would happen essentially without public input.

At some point in the discussion I made an assertion, one that I think is true, but which is not the kind of assertion that can be made without an explanation.

I said that positive change is made exclusively by increasing the participation of people in a project, whether a building, an organization, a polity, a city ... whatever. If you want to increase quality, get more people involved, more broadly & more deeply.

For example, non-violent grassroots action, by the mass of the public, forces elite institutions (companies, governments, non-profits) to pay attention to the public interest. It makes them become more sensitive to the needs of people & nature. Although typically this is a point made in discussions about anti-imperialism & civil rights, participation also is recognized as necessary for good design -- hence "focus groups".

But let's take city planning. If you go back to the building of medieval, aboriginal, and early modern, villages & cities, the reason they are so nice is because they were built with more sensitivity: to people (their needs & feelings) & nature (its connection to human life & respect for resources). No matter what the political & social structure on paper, actual sensitivity was demanded by the masses of townpeople ... and this demand was effective. Sometimes it had a political effect, but it certainly had a structural effect on the shape of the town.

No one would be able to get away with modern urban planning in medieval times, because everyone knew what worked and what didn't. When structures didn't work, when they had no feeling, the builders & "town fathers" just looked ignorant. These old "city planners" had to impress everyone with their sensitivities, partly because elite power was then (and is today) a very tenuous thing. Today, however, the vastness of scale means that people are subject to manipulation by mass media and bulldozing by massive power.

People can still effectively push back -- but they don't always know, in time, that they should. The employed masses tend to assume that the elite is working in the public interest, because the elite say they are, and normal people would behave honestly, and in the public interest. Unfortunately, the elite do not behave well -- institutions are increasingly geared towards concentrating power and wealth.

When simple sensitivies to people, such as their survival, are successfully ignored by governments & corporations, then good urban structure can be demolished more easily. But, certainly, if people are more involved in positively shaping their local space, they will become more involved in pushing back against the larger empire. Because these are intimately connected, you have to fight them both.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Keeping things alive is the key to self-repair

The process of good design must be an incremental one, and a living one. That means: make your project work from the start, and keep it alive as you work on it. If you don't do this, if you try to re-design the whole system, you'll learn nothing about designing while building. And you'll learn nothing about how nature works.

If you keep your system working, you will learn how self-repairing systems are structured. To make an improvement, you'll need to create a series of changes, so that the result engages each existing thing, based on its circumstances. This system will then be able to deal with new things more flexibly. The overall system becomes more robust, and will tend itself better.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Centers and the web

I just had an interesting dream, about an extraordinary community in the woods I just visited, known as Breitenbush. There was a meeting space, with quite a lot of steam, very atmospheric in the way Breitenbush is with its countless hot springs. Somehow, everything we said in this space was being recorded, as a community memory. Over time, slowly, community administrators would go through and transcribe the meetings. Also, over time, everyone would create links between the transcriptions. The result was searchable by watching the recordings, and stopping at any point to fast forward or backwards, and the recordings would get louder & warmer when the topic was related, so you could stop and watch the unfolding of the topic over the years. It was a dream, so actually when you saw these recordings, you relived the meetings from that time. Somebody (I think it was the voice of my conciousness) said "this is terribly disorganized! We need to create a hierarchy of topics, and put all these memories into specific labeled boxes." And the community didn't allow this, but said anyone could create a category, an abstraction, and link it to as many points in the network of transcripts that he liked.

A very Gestalt dream. But it makes sense that people building an egalitarian sustainable community in a forest of hot springs, near a dormant volcano, would see such a picture naturally.

So we come to the web itself, and the fact that the Open Directory and Yahoo Directory, a.k.a. 'ontologies', are kind of like the office-librarian-voice, and searches weighted by connections are a lot closer to the community-voice. Google's success is based on the weight of clusters of connections. These clusters are kind of like fields, but specifically like centers.

In The Nature of Order, Christopher Alexander advocates looking at the world as intertwined, overlapping centers. I can describe centers best by example: I'm typing on a keyboard. That is a center. The keys are centers. The keyboard is a center. The spaces between the keys are centers. These spaces plus the surrounding keys are centers. The clusters of keys are centers. The keys in various states are yet different centers. My finger hitting a key is a center. My hands hovering over the keyboard, the space between keyboard & hands, along with the impact of a specific key in time, also, together, makes a center. The idea I have, and the impact it has on the keyboard and ultimately on the web, is a center.

Centers are a kind of boundary-less field in space, overlapping each other, so that these structures all exist at once, with some changing faster than others.

But they also have weight. A very coherent field of centers has more life, or weight, depending on the strength of the connections among all of these intersections, and how the whole of them creates something far more than any of them would in isolation.

Those of us who've built computer networks for years (I first used email in 1974), knew that weighted connections were important, and when the web came along, with its potent version of the hypertext vision, it was quite natural to think in terms of weighing clusters of connections. In 1998, a friend and I sat at a computer and starting building some software to search based on numbers & cycles of links ... we were 150 feet from Larry Page's apartment, and we didn't know that he'd started to do this a year earlier. But that just goes to show that searching for connections, and the strength and importance of clusters of connections, is a perfectly natural thing.

The force of wholeness is one of these things you find in the strangest places. Right about the same time, 1999, I was in Haight Ashbury with some friends, at a pub called "Hobsons' Victorian Punchbowl House". Everyone was ordering a fashionable drink, but, as far as I could tell, no one in this crowded place had ordered the victorian punchbowl. We did, and we put it in the middle of the table, but there were six cups around the edge of this bowl, and only three of us, all sitting on one side of a table with five chairs. It was unbalanced. It wasn't whole. That is the only possible explanation I have for why two girls, from another table, suddenly left their dates and sat down on the other side of the punch bowl, and without asking, picked up a cup and took a drink and started chatting with us. They were actually kind of surprised that they'd done it, and we talked about how they'd done it completely unconciously. Despite all the funny possible explanations, I believe, in truth, they had been drawn to complete the whole.

Looking at my Breitenbush dream, it seems like there are a few things missing on the web today. One is community memory, which of course was the name of the first community computer network project, started by Efrem Lipkin and others in Berkeley in the 1970's. The idea was empowerment -- it was very easy to manipulate people if they couldn't follow the sequence of events. I'd also add that watching the creation of a project over time, something Christopher Alexander would call its unfolding, is the fastest way to learn why the project is the way it is. Adele Goldberg is working on applying this fact to educational software. A quality of no history on the World Wide Web was apparent very early on, and archive.org was built to help correct this situation. Still, we have a long way to go.

But another thing that's missing is making more connections in the production of content for the web. I keep a lot of blogs, but very often a blog entry (which is a center) should be in more than one blog. Other times, it should only be in one. I really have no way of managing this properly. When I can call anything a center, and consolidate, and cross-post, and give my overall output more coherence, more completeness, and work with others in this way, then we'll be closer to a web with a natural strength, built upon our desire and ability to perceive life and wholeness.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Where's the spark?

If you're hunting for US towns that kept much of their pre-WWII structure, look no further than Albany, Oregon. Blocks and blocks of buildings begun in the 19th century. Including the beauty above, the Flinn Block, on sale now for $350,000. The wonder of downtown Albany is that you can still see the pedestrian network, between a dense downtown and pre-WWII small-town suburbs.

Unfortunately, there's nobody downtown.

That's not completely true, and you can see many purposeful people, who obviously are struggling to revive interest in downtown, day in, and day out. They haven't made much of a dent yet, but they may very well succeed.

Their problem is obvious. The townspeople are oblivious to their beautiful downtown. Most of the small business in the city is outside of downtown, and in franchises, from roast beef to auto parts. And these franchises are housed in franchise architecture, a modern extension of the billboard. Also, most of the housing in town is post-WWII suburban. But the problem is deeper. And, in a very important sense, it is deeper than structure. Which brings us to the Nature of Order.

The understanding of living structure had declined precipitously in the late 19th century, but nothing like it did after WWII, when all connection was lost, when the inside of anyone's bathroom reflected more living structure than the exterior hull of most buildings.

When you look at downtown Eugene, Oregon, you see a large city with a concrete, urban-renewal-damaged structure at its core. It takes quite a lot of imagination, and will take a great deal of effort, to make this a living center.

But if you look at downtown Albany, you have a hard time understanding why every owner of a suburban shop doesn't jump out of their jeans at the opportunity to relocate to the fantastic buildings of their forefathers.

But the situations are the same, nonetheless. Structure matters, of course. But the important thing is the spark, or what's inside the buildings.

I don't want to lecture small-buisness holders. Life doesn't seem easy, even in the US, and creating a franchise or even an independant business is hard enough without trying to fit it into an old building. But, that's just the problem. The middle investment class may be more comfortable than their workers, but not by much. They are squeezed for profit by "the system" too. Who is making those auto parts? Skilled Chinese laborers. They are paid 1% of the sales price of that part. The creators of the franchise, the part factories, and the auto companies, are making profit while the local auto service workers run around a warehouse in a parking lot, and the Chinese worker pulls levers and positions jigs in a soul-wrenching factory. This isn't right. Solving this is the heart of the problem. Making a nice building isn't possible when capital is squeezing people into the suburbs.

The alternative? Near the Flinn Block are about a half dozen independent movie theatres and playhouses. They're trying to steal thunder from the mass-media multiplexes on the outside of town. The same can be done in manufacturing, retail, agriculture, etc. When Albany and similar towns had populations of only 3,000, they made everything for themselves and for each other. And that's when they made these lovely structures.

I'm not calling for a return to a time, but an understanding that the spark, the freedom, which is missing in our buildings, our work and our lives, was part of local self-sufficiency. The tools for creating the organizations to fill the spaces, and make a new economy, are prerequisites to building living structure.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Latent bookshelves

If you believe that the universe is just a bunch of isolated bits & pieces which tend towards entropy, well, how does one explain life? Or, for that matter: gravity, magnetism, chemical bonds ...

As the Taoists knew, things fall apart, but only as a complement of the way they cohere, or come together.

In the same way that an object in a gravitational field has potential energy, so a field of matter in a 'loose state' has potential coherence. This is not a philosphical distinction, but a physical description. Is is difficult to measure ... few even try, and work needs to be done! But everyone is aware of it, and whenever you see two things that would work better together, you are seeing potential coherence. You are part of the field too, and when you act, to make something more coherent, it makes you feel better.

Christopher Alexander sometimes calls them latent fields of coherence. They are physical fields. So, the next time you see a haphazard pile of books sitting against a wall, you are, in fact seeing a latent bookshelf!

What's a pattern?

A pattern is something that is repeated ... and a pattern in the sense of A Pattern Language is a solution that is repeated.

One of the most difficult issues, is the quality of the pattern. It should be generative, as many people have pointed out. I think it's more useful to say it should be inspiring. That implies that it must be good. No one is turned on by a bad pattern: although in software the notion of an "anti-pattern" has taken root.

But that's just "do's & don'ts". The final quality of a pattern, is it's profundity.

A good pattern is something your head understands, and your heart knows is true. It ties together your feeling and your cognition.

Monday, November 15, 2004


I'm back ... but I'm just blogging this subject for myself. I'll look for a good home for a public discussion on this topic. But a blog isn't the place for it. I apologize to Christopher Alexander for suggesting that it might be. I'd still like him to blog, and I'll do my best to goad him into it.

I'm always in the midst of new projects. I'm a maniac, with too many ideas, all the time, and I sift through them all, dismiss most, present many to friends, experiment with some publicly, and finally commit ... to more than I have time or resources for. Often my projects have been inspired by the work of Christopher Alexander. Sometimes, he & I collaborate closely on projects, and he's left a marked impression on the way I work.

In that sense, everything I do is a consequence of the Nature of Order. I'm more keenly aware of the gestalt aspects of a situation, and try to concentrate on connections, harmony, feeling, unfolding and people.

Today, harder than ever, I'm trying to maximize the good I do. Although I'm an activist, I'm also a computer person ... I've been programming for over 30 years. Not surprisingly, the two activists I look to for inspiration are also the ones who, without trying, have had the greatest effect on computing.

That would be Christopher Alexander and Noam Chomsky. Their fields are architectire, art, urban planning, linguistics, cognitive and political science. The work of these two launched design theory, design patterns, object-oriented programming, wikis, extreme programming, compiler-compilers, stacks, context-switching, context-free grammars, formal language design, et cetera. It is an amazing story, which I could write a book about, if I had the time. The computer world would be a much duller place without these two anarchists. Yet they are barely aware of their influence on computing.

We can only hope they will inspire much more. Actually, you can bet on it.

Monday, October 06, 2003

The Nature of Order

The Nature of Order is a series of books I've been waiting to see for years. The first volumes are now available.