Blog: entries tagged with "christopher+alexander"

Nature, cities and brains

Table and chair on Ward's Island. Photo: Sean HowardMy copy of Christopher Alexander’s The Phenomenon of Life arrived in the mail today (I’ve written here previously about his book A Pattern Language). It’s the first of his four-part opus The Nature of Order, an attempt at a grand theory of architecture and aesthetics.

You might have read Jonah Lehrer’s Boston Globe column about the impact of urban versus “natural” environments on cognition. In a University of Michigan study, participants spent an hour walking through the streets of Ann Arbor, or through U-M’s botanical gardens, before undergoing tests to gauge the effect on their memory and attention. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those who walked through the gardens did better.

Chalk one up for nature, then—or at least for superficial science writing. I’d like to see a lot more exploration and research, to give us a more detailed idea of the effect of different types of urban environments (bustling or empty, immaculate or run-down, a hip, bohemian neighbourhood versus a Fifth Avenue, the financial district, the suburbs) and more natural ones (a park, a formal European or Japanese style garden, a vegetable patch, a swamp, a farm, a mountain, an old-growth forest, a riverside)? How about some brain imaging?

Alexander’s research has been an attempt to build such a picture—to draw out the elements that give one place or thing more life than another. Much of his study boils down to simply presenting a subject with two objects or photos, and asking: which of these makes you feel more alive? Which makes you feel more whole? Which more closely reflects your own inner being? He concludes that there are actual, universal principles that underlie our affinity for places, things and other beings. Erich Fromm (and later E.O. Wilson) called this affinity biophilia; Alexander offers a possible structure for understanding it.

The Phenomenon of Life describes 15 essential qualities that contribute to the integrity and life of a system or structure, largely concerned with how the parts of such a system interrelate and support one another: interlock and ambiguity, strong boundaries, local symmetries—essentially extending and generalizing his work in A Pattern Language.

I’m looking forward to examining the world through this new set of lenses, and applying it to other fields (interestingly, while many architects have understandably been cool to his ideas, a number of enthusiastic computer programmers have found ways to apply them to their practice). Alexander only discusses physical objects, so relating his principles to music, for example, is going to be a fun exercise (for instance, “interlock” has strong parallels with counterpoint, and “levels of scale” applies very naturally to rhythms) and one that may finally inspire me to get back to composing.

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Human spaces: Hallowe’en, a new office, and a book or two

This summer we moved to a house just north of the Danforth, near Chester station. It’s a cozy neighbourhood, an old “streetcar suburb” from the early years of the 20th century, fairly well off, mostly single-family homes on snug little lots. And holy geez do they do Hallowe’en. It was a lovely mild night last night, and the sidewalks were absolutely crammed with parents and kids. Every other house seemed to have elaborate decorations. It really felt like a celebration, a time for neighbours to mingle, chat, try to outdo one another, and generally have fun. As a non-parent, I was very much an outsider, but it was still cool to see.

I really love it when the sound of people drowns out the sound of traffic, especially on a warm night. I strolled down Baldwin early this past summer, on the first “patio” weekend, as the sound of clinking glasses and cutlery and soft conversation drifted across the road. Between that and the lights on the trees (for some reason I love the sight of artificial light filtering through tree branches at night) it was really magical.

Floor planIn other news, we looked at a great new potential office space today, near Queen and Broadview. Many cool possibilities. The hot water’s already partly solar heated, and there’s talk of a green roof, solar and wind power, and other initiatives; we’d have a lot of freedom to shape the space; they’re planning to rent out other parts of the building to other like-minded initiatives (architects, artists, and ‘green’ companies). It would be really cool to work on building a community of little workplaces there, both socially and physically, in the built/landscaped environment.

So I’ve been raving about Christopher Alexander‘s A Pattern Language, which talks about the sort of ‘building’ I mean. It’s an approach quite at odds with modern development practices, one that seeks to create spaces that have a real, genuine life, that instill a sense of wholeness, wellness, humanness, and do so at all scales, from regions to streets to rooms to windowsills. We can only do this, Alexander has argued, by allowing people to shape their own spaces in a real and direct way. I can barely do it justice in a short entry. Go read his books - they completely deserve the term “classic”.

Worldchanging coverSpeaking of books, I ordered a copy of Worldchanging, the book for the office, and it arrived today. It’s a hefty little compendium of ideas and resources for making human civilization more sustainable, filed under Stuff, Shelter, Cities, Community, Business, Politics and Planet. I’ve heard it compared to the venerable Whole Earth Catalog series, and it’s not a bad comparison - page after page of useful and inspiring stuff from all over, aimed at bettering the world. Go buy it now.

(And it just so happened that when I opened it at random, the first page I came upon was the one about “Place-Making” - complete with a discussion of A Pattern Language...)

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Street furniture

(Expanded from a comment I left on the Spacing Wire - it helped crystallize some thoughts I’d been meaning to write about here.)

The City of Toronto has been working on a Coordinated Street Furniture Program for a few months now. They write:

Over the past decade, a number of new street furniture elements have been added onto Toronto’s streetscape. Some items such as the Post and Ring Bike Stand, have been individual successes. However all of these pieces, including transit shelters, waste/recycling bins, benches and phone booths have been designed as separate elements. Publication vending boxes have also grown in number and vie for space and prominence with other street furniture on the public sidewalk.

A coordinated street furniture program will harmonize the design and placement of these street amenities in an aesthetically appealing, functional and accessible manner.

While this may mean a better unified streetscape - a “signature look” for our newspaper boxes and lampposts and whatnot - I’m not big on the thought of the whole city having the same look from end to end.

Having standards for our street furniture, that’s hardly a bad thing. But standardizing it is a different matter. I’d much rather see pieces designed by local artists, like the Style In Progress utility box project, or Intersection Repair in Portland.

I’d love to see a provision in the program to let neighbourhoods decide on their own furniture… or even a bit of money toward helping people (artists, neighbourhood associations, anyone!) to create/improve street furniture. What if there was someone you could go to for advice on bench standards, or on how to make sure your awesome-looking bike loops are theft-proof?

Hmm. A new how-to column for Spacing?

In my fevered imagination I’m seeing a cross between Make magazine and Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language… perhaps I should look around for a blog to contribute to, or start one.

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Recently Sean, Stephen and I visited Everdale, an organic farm/education centre near Erin, this side of Guelph. We may be doing some neat work on their web site, and part of the visit was to discuss that. Part of it was just to see the place, though…  which was quite thrilling.

We’d never seen a real straw-bale built building before, and they have several. The main one is Home Alive!, a cozy little two-story house with a well thought out heating and cooling system, a rainwater catchment system, plus photovoltaic and wind power, and radiant heating in the floors and bathtub(!) The thick walls give it a wonderfully snug feeling, and deep reveals for the windows… so much of it is straight out of Christopher Alexander and co.‘s A Pattern Language. The beams are made out of recycled timbers, for an extra rustic touch.

Floor planAnyway, that got us excited all over again about the idea of building. Sean’s started talking about building a small set of offices that could serve as an “incubator” for green businesses. Sean suggested a music studio too. I’m picturing a network of people to hang out with, a room for coffee and hanging out, perhaps a little quiet space for people to do yoga or nap… I still have reservations about moving out of town, but all these ideas have me a bit more optimistic about the prospect.

Of course, the more elaborate it gets, the more time and money it takes. So I’ve been wondering what sort of stages we could go through to build something. We could start by getting land with a conventional building on it and living there, or using it as a retreat.

The initial buildings could be little detached cabins, usable later if we decide to offer the place as a retreat… but simple enough that it’s not a catastrophe if there are some mistakes. We’ll learn as we go.

The office could grow piece by piece too: one room, with some tables and a comfortable couch, a desk. Then build a second section, this one with plumbing, a two-piece bathroom and kitchen. And keep growing from there. The third section might be two stories… and so on.

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