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Reflections on PUARL 2013: hope & surprises


January 16, 2014

Unless you've read something by Christopher Alexander -- the architect, urban planner, and philosopher -- these reflections won't make much sense to you. 

His influence over the last 50 years is difficult to sketch. From the University of California at Berkeley, he led widely-read research, along with an active practice, exploring what we mean by good cities, environmental structure, natural design, and humane buildings. 

The easiest path into his work is to dip into the 253 short, enlightening chapters in his 1977 book, A Pattern Language. This is the bestselling book on architecture of all time. To anyone interested in helping the world, and in understanding what healthy communities look like, it covers extremely important territory.

It's not surprising that there's a biennial international conference of planners, activists, and architects focussed on continuing his research. It is hosted by the University of Oregon's Portland Urban Architecture Research Laboratory, or PUARL, an ambitious program, initiated by Professor Hansjoachim Neis. Dr. Neis launched the conference 2009, filling a significant need, since there are countless conferences in other fields inspired by Alexander's research, especially in the world of computing.

In 2013, this conference made all of its participants quite happy. It provided a tangible sense of community, among people with common interests, who are normally scattered across the world.

I've been writing about Alexander in RAIN Magazine for some decades now, and we worked together for years. This is true for many of his colleagues, co-authors, and students at PUARL 2013 -- but the majority was not so tightly associated with him. Still, everyone had terrific practical experience in the world -- true activists in one sense or another, and sensitive observers of the human condition. They took inspiration from the books, and from people in Alexander's circle. A dizzying range of projects was presented -- these were not armchair researchers! The conference was rich with fascinating particulars.

There were plenty of good surprises. Our discussions continually built upon one another. The first full day was extra special, because all of the presenters were carefully listening to each other's talks. By the end, it felt as if we'd built a new community, and even built some intellectual consensus on various topics. 

In the spirit of furthering that consensus, and in the spirit of this circle's positive habit of following praise with critical analysis, I'd like to describe a few topics which, in a surprise for me, were not really discussed.

Innate Judgement

One topic was implied, but undisclosed and unremarked upon: the criteria by which we form judgments about what is 'good'. 

The conference was well-run by UO students, and during the panels and Q&A sessions they asked many probing questions. In one case, the discussion led them to ask "why do you believe this approach to architecture to be the right one?" 

I was not on that panel, so I'd like to respond now. It's a key question.

Alexander expended enormous energies to convince people in his profession that the standard for making anything that's really good, is closely tied with processes used by nature, whose results we judge to be alive. This ability to judge life seems to be universal for people. And this universal ability seems to be a factor in all human judgment ... in fact, the closer we get to directly judging this quality, the less disagreement there is about it. It is in that sense objective, and consensus-generating.

To see it, one needs to dig beneath much of our mental life, including years of indoctrination that all people, professional or not, are subject to. Our instincts are stimulated and trained to respond to anything that's flashy, or trendy, or familiar, or tricky. But it's not hard to put aside this training, and isolate a particular shared faculty of judgement: the one which allows us to judge the existence of living structure. People agree when asked which things 'have more life', or 'reflect inner calm', or seem 'more like nature', or 'make you feeling more profoundly human'.

This approach to the study of instinct, using an informant for judgment, and providing presentations to evoke impressions, is an experimental approach that can provide insight into internal mental structure. It is fundamentally the same kind of research that ethologists like Tinbergen and Lorenz did to uncover animal perception; which Noam Chomsky continues to use to uncover the innate structure of human syntax; and which cognitive scientists use to determine, for example, the structure of human visual perception.

It's called the "method of impression"  in experimental psychology. These kinds of informant-based scientific inquiries turn questions that we might consider "opinion" into questions of human biology. Because, like culture, our opinions are inside our heads. So, which aspect of a human response is universal, and which aspects are particular or developmental? These are terribly complex research subjects. We are experimentally uncovering the many factors that contribute to any human faculty or feature. These fall into essentially three categories:

1) genetic, i.e. universal, i.e. inherited, i.e. instinctive
2) internally or externally stimulated, i.e. developmental, i.e. learned
3) physical laws of nature, i.e. biophysics

Living Structure
For example in human language (I'll user the example in Michel Gondry's excellent and accessible Is the man who is tall happy?) a given sentence can be found to have instinctive factors (such as hierarchical structure), developmental factors (such as learning the actual combination of phonemes that shape the sound of a particular word), and biophysical factors (such as the minimizing optimization that takes place during the traversal of a hierarchical structure, when forming a question from a declaration).

Christopher Alexander's work in The Nature of Order showed, quite convincingly, that our judgment of life is also innate. He also argued extensively that this innate faculty is deeply entangled with the natural laws of physics, chemistry, biophysics, et cetera. Alexander helped many of his colleagues to understand these ideas while they read drafts of his book ... but I'm quite uncertain that the books, by themselves, allow a person to train to isolate the phenomenological experience of 'life' available to our faculties of judgement. The guidance of fellow-humans is still helpful.

But that judgment is the basis of Alexander's work, at least in his opinion. So I was rather surprised that nobody mentioned it during the discussions of criteria and qualities. Perhaps there was a fear of seeming too 'woo-woo' ... but it is straightforward to address these issues within the natural sciences. So I'm hoping more people will increasingly come to terms with life, at upcoming conferences.

Photo: Living structure. In this case, part human-built, part nature-built. 


Unfolding

The concomitant surprise was to hear no mention, besides my presentation and subsequent references to it, of a major tool and research topic, which Alexander believed to be the best guide to unfolding a living structure: the unfolding sequence. The idea is that the order of design and construction should concentrate on the largest and most systemically influential decisions first, and then the next most important decisions, in a sequence of ever more refined steps, which are in full harmony with the results of the previous steps, until one reaches the final levels of detail. Examples of actual sequences are extremely enlightening. 

This is modeled on the differentiation of cells in a developing organism, but it is also a practical approach to making good things happen. I was happy to be a "sequence advocate" at this conference, because it was the heart of my work with Alexander, on a computer program called Gatemaker. I hope this topic is included in more architecture, art, and planning curricula in the future. 

At the conference, I presented Gatemaker, whose development was funded by the computer industry. But, I must admit, not only were Alexander and I not successful at convincing computer people about the importance of unfolding sequences. I have not been able to convince them since, to even look at Gatemaker's evident psychological effects -- and its ability to engender the smooth production of high-quality living structure -- as objective phenomena. This is primarily because computer science is unfortunately not a natural science. The computing world is primarily composed of formal scientists (like mathematicians) and engineers, who gather themselves into communities of opinion and practice regarding approaches to making complex products. So, it's not surprising that computer people weren't interested in evidence of an 'unfolding sequence effect'. However, we should be able to get artists and urbanists to look at sequences. I'm hoping that computer engineers someday will become interested in these kinds of investigations.

Living Structure

So, a third surprise: sequences help produce living structure, but many presenters did not explicitly identify living structure in the world. There needs to be more discussion of this topic in the community. A smattering discussed some of Alexander's fifteen properties, which is a useful preliminary descriptive characterization of living structure. There was plenty of passionate discussion about places that were good for people and the environment. But very little about the actual geometry of good places. 

In addition, there was also no visible progress on those difficult-to-discover mathematical characterizations of living structure that Alexander searched for throughout his career.

Patterns

I saw patterns. Pattern languages. Local and particular typologies of patterns. New categories of patterns, et cetera. But the careful use of patterns, the evaluation of maybe less careful uses, and what patterns actually are, was not discussed.

The more senior presenters did not really mention patterns. Researchers need to describe interesting findings using any tool that is helpful: observations, properties, forms, hints, and principles. They could choose to call anything a 'pattern', but that would be silly. If everything is a pattern, then the idea isn't useful. So, I found many inappropriate or strained uses of patterns, something that is, it must be said, also common in the computer industry.

But, even putting these presenters' terminological enthusiasm aside, many people did not seem familiar with the decades-long discussion about the particular limits and particular advantages of patterns. Admittedly, this is certainly the fault of those of us who've been involved in these discussions.

Christopher Alexander gave a lecture, almost 20 years ago, where he said, quite explicitly, that the 'standard format' for patterns, described in A Pattern Language, is occasionally useful for the communication of generic ideas. But they don't address many critical issues. He explained why.

It's important to understand this. The hidden innate judgment of 'life', described above, provides everyone the ability to find good patterns. And sequences, and feeling maps, form languages, etc. This judgment allows good structure and good process to emerge, makes diagnostics possible, identifies important general concerns, and helps us to get the decisions right ... and of course it allows us to explore the nature of our inner faculty, which very much interested Alexander.

In a real project in the outside world, even after all the important exploration and analysis is done, it's this inner gift, which we all possess, that enables us to unfold a project with wonderfully integrated function and form. Patterns, pattern languages, specific project pattern languages, generic core pattern languages -- these were experimental tools for uncovering the nature of this critical judgement, while also enabling us to talk about building something that's harmonious with our surroundings and our goals. In this sense, patterns isolated from this vision can distract us from discovering the truly important tool: ourselves.

Conclusion

I'm extremely hopeful about the future of this diverse PUARL group, and look forward to its upcoming meetings. It's a sign of a very good conference when very busy attendees still don't want to leave. This was a network opportunity for working together to make positive change.

I'd like to see these people work together and support each other online, moving towards large-group collaboration around common goals. We have so many tools for addressing difficult urban problems -- over half-a-century of work, and millions of hours of experience -- and we need to find ways for the world-at-large to take advantage of them. 

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[Thanks to Olga Volchkova for letting me clip from her painting, and for her photo of the candles.]