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Breathing life into study and practice

A post-conference conversation about the future of building,
with Gabrielle Brown and Greg Bryant

Vero Jully 22, 2014

The themes of a conference called PUARL, held in 2013 in Portland's White Stag building, reflect the lifelong pursuits of Christopher Alexander. Alexander is best known as the driving force behind the 1977 book A Pattern Language, a compendium of good practice for creating humane cities and buildings. Thousands of architects, builders, designers, and instructors, around the world, have poured over Alexander's writings for over 50 years. 

But two PUARL conference participants believe that no self-sustaining movement, neither academic nor professional nor community-based, has yet emerged that pursues the original intentions of Alexander's work. There are many experiments along these lines, however, and we'll be exploring these in future RAIN reporting.

Here is one conversation, two years ago today -- between an instructor helping architecture students to grapple with Alexander's work every day, and an activist who works to provide these ideas to people in neighborhoods. What emerged, from these supporters of Alexander's work, are two distinctive new themes that could push this movement forward. These are two approaches that should be part of any academic curriculum for architects and builders.


Gabrielle Brown is a doctoral student and Graduate Teaching Fellow at the University of Oregon, who sympathizes with students and faculty trying to do good in the world.

Greg Bryant is a community organizer and computer scientist, and a member of the research faculty at the university. He worked closely with Alexander for about a decade, and was his primary colleague regarding computer initiatives for the built environment.

Recorded on Tuesday, Jul 22, 2014 at Café Vero:

The General Problem

The Foundry at the University of Oregon in Eugene

GREG: Gabrielle, as a doctoral student and a GTF at the UO, what's the feeling you have about how people can get involved in 'this stuff': the ideas everyone talked about at the PUARL conference? Have we 'felt out' a way forward here? What might work, say at the UO, for students of the current generation?

Gabrielle identifies an irony in the way Alexander's work is perceived by architecture students -- despite the fact that the work is famous for advocating inclusive, participatory architecture and planning from the grassroots.

GABRIELLE: Well, I think there is an increasing emphasis on ideas like complexity and emergence, on looking at systems as equilibrium-seeking as a whole, and as not produced from the top-down. That's a good start, anyway. But I think one of the ways students view Alexander's work, is as a 'top-down dictate'. Like: "here are the patterns, and these are right".

GREG: It sounds dogmatic.

GABRIELLE: Yeah. As if, "all I need to do is follow A Pattern Language and grab these patterns as I go along, and then I'll have a good product". Without thinking about the theory behind it. I think part of the problem, maybe, is confusing metaphors, like this common one: "patterns are the atoms of the environment". That's problematic because atoms sound like discrete elements, with 'explainable rules' that don't compromise. I prefer thinking of patterns as genes in the environment, potential solutions that have been vetteThe Foundry at the University of Oregond by time and use, and are worth considering … the patterns that work get passed down. I think that's an easier way to understand patterns as a whole. Some are really good for certain situations, some could be really bad, and most are going to be average. I'd like to see more of that, an evaluation of patterns, contextually … something that shows them working well, or not, depending on context.

Greg thinks patterns are just good ideas: practical advice that makes sense, can feel good, and can have a good effect, if used well. The best patterns inspire a sensitivity to the complexity of living structure, and are chosen using that sensitivity. Consequently, it's an important "sensitivity exercise" to try to imagine, or feel, what ideas or habits, good or bad, might have dominated particular building decisions.

GREG: One way to do that, would be not to teach patterns per se, but to ask students to find them in the environment, and evaluate them in a project. They could try to evaluate the results of projects that explicitly used patterns: at the UO, almost every new building uses something like patterns conscientiously … since you've been at the UO, have you seen any kind of 'field work' in patterns? Something that makes them more tangible, something that lets students figure them out for themselves?

The foundry at the University of Oregon in Eugene

GABRIELLE: No, not enough. I'd like to see classes where students and professors look at the problem itself, and then propose a pattern, and then go out into the real world and see how real issues were resolved, and evaluate that pattern relative to other solutions that arose. As far as what 'is' or 'is not' a pattern … I don't think there's a lot of instruction on that. Except for a simple 'yes' or 'no' … when I've co-taught studios or research projects, where the faculty have used patterns as a basis, the feedback tends to be 'that is a pattern' or ' that is not really a pattern'. It feels more like trial-and-error, to the students: if I throw enough ideas out there, some will be patterns -- according to whomever, say, the professor -- and those will be acceptable, and the others won't.

It would make an interesting class or studio, where the point would be: find a project you've already done, and evaluate it as if it were not your work, and follow the line of thinking from beginning to end, see where the flaws and where the successes were … it's seems really basic, but this just does not happen.

A new track: community development for architects

This led to a discussion about a fundamental problem for students: they leave school as idealists, hoping they can improve the world. But really, school doesn't give them the right experience, or even the time to reflect on how to start. Instead, they struggle to find work in architecture, and ultimately become workers-for-hire. The spirit of doing good, so carefully encouraged by their teachers, gets beaten out of them.

GREG: If a student, designing a project, was given a broader brief, you know, "we're trying to do social good" and make a 'community development' project, not just an 'architectural' project, he'd think about things differently, and learn different things, ultimately. The business school still doesn't have a 'developer' program. There's no certification. And what they would teach isn't community development, anyway.

GABRIELLE: Right, the principle seems to be: as long as you have capital, you can be a developer.

GREG: Plenty of developers start small -- they fix up a house, sell that, partner with a business, build a building, improve a neighborhood, etc. They gradually learn it. But then there's another group of people who do this as community service, in Community Development Corporations. Those are the community organizers who need to either partner with idealistic architecture students, or be them. This happens sometimes, but … compared to everything getting built, it's really rare.

Community PartyThis is actually one lesson I took from watching Chris' career -- it would have been nice if he hadn't tried to be a community organizer from within the architect's role. Instead, I think you really need do it all, and become the organizer-developer/architect-builder. If you want to build the things he wants to build, for real people, and make it work, you need to initiate it, and find out how to make it work. Today, he knows how things work, and I don't know, maybe, if he could start over again, he'd do that. [laughter] But instead, he focused on 'getting hired'. The way his speciality was defined is not his fault -- we live in a specialized world, reinforced every time someone comes out of school. A student may end up being a community-developer and an architect-builder, in the way a lawyer can become an activist. But there's no program helping architects to do that … and, by the way, there are academic programs to help lawyers becomes activists.

GABRIELLE: I think it also needs to be a person who's ingrained in their community, or at least can get a real feel for a community.

GREG: Absolutely.Open Dining

GABRIELLE: But that happens so rarely, it seems.

GREG: But, don't you think, encouraging this is kind of necessary?

GABRIELLE: Oh yeah. It would be fantastic if it was the primary driver. 

I feel like, after the recession, in Portland the first developments I started seeing were small design-builds. A lot of 1/8th blocks here and there. They really became ingrained in the character of the community, partly because they're small, partly because the person doing it was from the area. They started by working in spaces near them, and it was interesting to watch. Today, there seem to be big developments going on again, a return to the status quo. But there was a window there, which really seemed community-driven.

GREG: I feel like there is a desire among students to do this kind of work, to really participate and improve the environment around them. There always has been. Everybody wants to see something good happen.

GABRIELLE: Right, especially when some small effort, with a community, could make a big difference for a small problem. It doesn't need to solve huge problems, but it does something good. That's always been a great direction.

So what form does 'teaching community-based development' take, in an architecture school? In a basic way, to get good things to happen, a developer just needs to listen to the community. But what will they hear? And how can students become prepared for all these local, economic, business, activist, and quality issues? Only by going through the experience themselves. It would be similar to the design-build tracks: a community-development-design-build academic track.

GREG: I think we agree that there needs to be a track for students who want to be architects contributing to their community, in a way that we could roughly call community sensitive and realistic. A track where they would learn about the CDC model, organizing, financing, or crowd-financing, or whatever tactics that can make things happen, and work well … I think of it as like an architecture version of the Community Studies program at the UC Santa Cruz. They spend the first two years examining successful community projects in Santa Cruz, when they start hanging out with them, helping them, and then they start some kind of community project to address a need in their final year. This program created a generation of amazingly effective and creative community organizers in Santa Cruz, who built all kinds of projects: buildings, farms, credit unions, etc. There's no reason that architects need to be shut away in a professional silo ...

We also agreed that planners need a track like this too. Maybe the exact same track.

GABRIELLE: 'The education of an architect' is pretty narrowly prescribed by the powers that be …

GREG: Well, but it only needs to include the narrow things. They can do more.

GABRIELLE: Certainly, and every university does. Take my undergraduate education at Texas A&M, versus graduate school here. At A&M students get much more about structure, finance, and practical aspects. There's a big 'building science' aspect to that school. When I came to the UO for graduate school, we started to talk about deeper elements, it was more intellectual and theoretical. But it was a lot easier to put those thoughts into action only because I already had this base, about how to build something. Being here now … I don't see it. I see an emphasis on activism, and ecological sustainability, but it lacks a grounding in what you can actually do for a community through built structure.

GREG: And how you would do it. When I say there should be a track like that, I'm thinking of it as an attractive thing for students. 'Be fully empowered.' 'Make the world better.' I think it would make a very nice generation of architects! 


Another new track -- natural philosophy

One of Alexander's primary interests is: what is happening in the world, when we make a beautiful, functional, living thing? He poses this as a question within the natural sciences. It is inseparable from the question: how do we make it?

Even with all the significant advances Alexander makes while investigating this question, it's really just a start. But, worse still: 1) almost no one else is involved in this research program, and 2) it needs to go on, because it's a complex subject. We're in the beginning stages of a major research program, more or less the state physics was in just after Galileo.

So, how do we encourage researchers of the future to get involved?

ferns on tree
GREG: Chris put huge effort into this, and discovered things that should get broader exposure among scientists, although they're not often in the right frame of mind to see it. Anyway, there's a sense I have, that there could be an interesting architecture-as-natural-science track. Now, you're interested in systems, and in topics like those explored in the Nature of Order. In your opinion, in the years you've watched the PUARL conferences, for example, has there ever been any inkling that students have been interested in this aspect? Or, has it ever been presented in a way that could entice students into that side of things? After all, we're really talking about Chris' entire body of scientific work. It's interesting, enlightening, provocative, and as a topic of research, it should continue.

GABRIELLE: You know, I haven't seen much of it here. The way it's perceived by students is "this is something that was assigned to me, and I have to come up with a pattern", and after a superficial investigation of what patterns are, that's enough to satisfy the requirement. It's rare for students to use the theory beyond requirements. I found a lot of attractiveness to it when I rearranged in my head what patterns might be, the change from 'atoms of the environment' to 'genes of the environment' was, for me personally, profound, and made it more palatable. Patterns were no longer dictated 'right things' … they could be right, could be wrong, for different situations, and there's not just 250 of them. And anti-patterns … all these ideas are quite stimulating, and drove me to do my patterns papers. But I think even this is rare. There's not much time dedicated to it. They might use it in their last year, but then they go into professional practice, where it's not common. And so it just disappears.

GREG: And no research program, develops. It's just an individual thing.

GABRIELLE: No … but, I was just thinking, this would be a great class. Just a 'philosophy of architecture' class. We do architectural theory … but that doesn't seem to address these basic issues at all.

usnea trees
GREG: Right, nothing about these basic scientific questions. We want to better understand what the world is, how our minds interact with it. We need to investigate what's going on, we need to explore and develop enlightening theories, construct experiments, interact with other disciplines, and just generally pursue principles and doctrine with some real rigor. Chris has provided a real launching point for this kind of study, but I don't really hear any engagement yet. People just use his books as fuel for whatever they're doing.

So, we conclude that Christopher Alexander's assertions about the natural world could be pursued through a Natural Philosophy academic track in Architecture. It would need to start with a year-long course to familiarize students with the core material while they join a network of students and researchers actively listening to each other, reviewing each other's work, and meeting, to make corrections and move forward. At its best, this PUARL conference showed a glimmer of this -- when everyone listened to each other's talks, considered them carefully, and responded with collegial rigor. Let's hope we can pull together all this interest for the benefit of our future colleagues.