Re: arcology & permaculture

From: Stirling Westrup (
Date: Sat Jan 06 2001 - 13:15:31 MST wrote:

> An orthogonal view of architecture to that of Soleri is provided by
> Christopher Alexander. Alexander believes that the strongest constructions
> (the best places to live or work) are those that have developed
> organically. In his work, he has attempted to codify all the forces that
> come into play at varying levels of abstraction (from design of a doorway
> to regional planning of highways). He then does design, taking into
> account all the patterns he has captured, leaving room in the process for
> the various parts of the developing entity to inform each other so that the
> result can be much more than the result of one person's ability to foresee
> all the affects ahead of time.

I was first introduced to Alexander's work many years ago when I saw a
copy of "A Pattern Language" on the desk of a co-worker. Since we are both
computer programmers, I assumed it was about programming. He leant me the
book, and I became fascinated by it. Ever since, it has strongly
influenced my views on architecture. All that having been said, I'm afraid
that in many ways Alexander seems to be a bit of a luddite, in that the
book is almost totally devoid of technological solutions to architectural

For example, he notes a number of studies (another nice thing about the
man, he provides references) that show that people living in apartments
that are over 4 floors removed from the street almost never participate in
the activities that go on at street level, while those who live four
floors or less removed often do. His conclusion is that no habitat should
be over four floors tall. *My* conclusion was that a communal living area
must be within four floors (and within view) of any living quarters. His
conclusion rules out arcologies (for instance), where my conclusion merely
imposes some reasonable constraints.

This is just one example. Throughout the entire book I kept wanting to
shake the man and say "Look, technology *exists*. Use it already!". The
final third of the book, concerning details of house construction was the
most bothersome. He seems to feel that houses need to be customizable
(fine by me) but that that implies that the house must be modifiable by
hand, *without* the benefit of power tools. Now, I've yet to live in a
house that didn't undergo modifications to suit me or my parents, and not
once did we find the requirement of power tools either offensive or
difficult. In fact, we would have scoffed at the idea of walls that were
soft enough that you could carve out bookshelves with a spoon. The results
would have been walls that were always scratched and missing bits. Just
think what kids would do to such a structure!

> It's at least a start at a theory of how to design in a way that allows the
> inhabitants and users of a space to adapt the built environment to their
> own needs and tastes.

It is that, and I do heartily recommend the book to those interested in
architecture, or design issues in general. I'm just saying it has its

> There's a sub-culture in software development (within Object-Oriented
> Programming) that has stolen the theme from Alexander and started
> developing similar catalogs of patterns of forces at varying levels of
> abstraction. Alexander gave a talk at Stanford in November on the
> implications for software of his ideas. (He apologised for not
> understanding software better.) He apparently has more readers these days
> in the software community than in architecture. Like Soleri, he's never
> gotten much respect or attention from his peers.

True. Many of the problems of designing large complex systems are shared
by architecture and computer science and Alexander provided a wonderful
insight into a way or organising interlocking solutions to these problems
as they are developed. That said, most books that I've yet seen on
software patterns are either too simple, or seriously flawed. Then again,
the field is in its infancy. Give it another 10-20 years and we may start
having a field of computer engineering which is worthy of the
'engineering' part.

 Stirling Westrup  |  Use of the Internet by this poster       |  is not to be construed as a tacit
                   |  endorsement of Western Technological
                   |  Civilization or its appurtenances.

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