25 March 2009

Signs of The End

Signs that we are in the last days: police action in the wild-lands of Palo Alto. On the very same day as my encouraging visit to Peet's, I was walking in Arastradero Park, in the foothills above Palo Alto. This is no city park: there are no lawns, no landscaped flower-beds, no bandstands--just 10 miles of beautiful trails.

A great effort has been made at Arastradero to return this suburban open space to wilderness. But wild is as wild does.

After shooting some pictures of wildflowers just off the trail, I was met by a ranger (where DID she come from?) who scolded me for leaving the path--a violation of park rules. This picture is the evidence of my shameful transgression.

OK, I know, because she told me, that this park gets "loved to death", and that the rules are there to preserve this natural beauty for future generations. But the whole experience made me feel like I was in a museum, or a zoo, except in some zoos you get to go through the fences and pet the goats. Look at that trail. It's beautiful. Isn't it spoiled, just a bit, by a "Keep Off The Grass" sign?

I've written about this kind of madness before. If I cut off a trail at the same place as a hundred other people, or if I choose to walk just to the side of a trail to avoid the mud in the low track, then I would be contributing to visible wear on the ecosystem. But is it really going to scar the planet if I leave the trail at a random point to walk out in the grass a bit for a different view? Please.

No matter what justification is offered--and it all has a kind of grim logic about it--who can be happy about such barriers arising between human beings and nature? There are many more disturbing things in the world, but this still feels to me like one more sign of the apocalypse.

Signs of Hope

Signs of hope ... that we Silicon Valley peoples aren't totally enslaved to our devices. A couple days ago, in a local Peet's, I counted a total of no laptops. You read that right. I also counted no smartphones, no handheld computers, no Internet surfing technologies whatsoever. The place has wifi, but the clientele seemed totally unconcerned that they were falling behind on their email. And the place was full of coffee drinkers: can you drink coffee and not be productive?

There was the old couple in the corner mostly being quiet and looking out the window (searching for ...?). There was the family of four (mom, dad, teen girl, tween boy) sitting around a small table and talking, not on phones, but all in-person and stuff. There was the guy in the corner reading a book, printed on a pre- e-paper technology called, confusingly, paper. There was the man chatting with the store manager, who sat next to him on a bench against the wall.

And just in case you don't know how strange this is, in case you live in a town where it's normal to go out in public to be with people, consider the case of the Red Rock Coffee shop, a mile or so down the street. I was in the Red Rock today. I love the Red Rock. Good coffee. Good art. Good vibe. Good grief: I counted twenty-eight laptops.

16 March 2009

Timing and Technology, A Pattern Language

One of my very favorite books is A Pattern Languageby Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein. The book is ostensibly about architecture, detailing how to design and build the places we live, from the regional scale down to the nook in the corner of a child's room. It is a beautiful manifesto for simple, economical, ecological, human-centered design; I know of nothing better to have come out of the 70s. Inside this 1200 page book are about 250 patterns, each describing a principle, a pattern, that is essential to designing and building livable, humane spaces and communities.

But the beauty of The Pattern Language is that you quickly come to realize that the patterns being described are not limited to application in the world of architecture. Alexander says in his introduction that he hopes "that a great part of this language ... will be a core of any sensible human pattern language, which any person constructs for himself, in his own mind" (my emphasis). To read how Alexander lays out the pattern for the furniture in rooms (Pattern 185, Sitting Circle), or for the essential businesses in a town (88, Street Cafe, etc.), you get the idea very quickly that the patterns all assume that the reason for design is to accommodate life, not economic forces or engineering principles. The book has the effect (whether or not you are in a position to build your own home) of awakening an appreciation for community and humanity that has been somewhat dampened by the design of modern social spaces. The book is inspiring, and gives me a sense of expectation that good things can happen between people when technology doesn't get in the way.

Technology, by definition, is the application of scientific knowledge for the purpose of increasing efficiency in any practical endeavor. There is nothing wrong with technology in itself. Problems come when a technological solution is pursued blindly, hastily, and at the expense of the potential intuitive solutions that are much better suited to a local context. Technology is tied to efficiency, and efficiency is tied to questions of scale. It makes a certain economic sense to mass-produce formulaic solutions that can sell, or communicate, across cultures. Technology often provides the most efficient and economical solution. But, does it ever provide the best solution? Getting back to architecture, Alexander argues that normal people are fully able to discern, design, and build their own unique living and work spaces, and that they will do the best job of it for the least amount of money, too. Does that sound radical? Why should it? It wasn't that long ago when that was the way it was done. Today, we assume that anyone who builds their own home is either a licensed contractor or just quaint (think of people that gather for barn-raisings, all beards and buttons and suspenders). Alexander intends to provide "an alternative to technocratic and rigid ways of building that have become the legacy of the machine age and modern architecture" ... for normal people, not only contractors and the quaint.

I've been reading the book for three or four years (not unheard of with me and certain books) and I'm almost done. I recently came to a moment late in the book where I was stunned to realize just how serious Alexander is about providing alternatives to rigidity. This moment, spanning two patterns that come into play as a subject begins to build their house, perfectly expresses when and how to embrace technology.

In pattern 212 (Columns at the Corners), Alexander describes the standard architectural practice of hiring a draftsperson to create blueprints from a design and then turning them over to a contractor, who relies on the drawing to raise the house on-site. But, he says, this practice "cripples buildings". Not only does it force a kind of rigidity on a design and put too many technological barriers between design and construction, but it will be doomed to frequent revision as the builder encounters a multitude of problems on site not imagined when the design was committed to paper. Many trips back and forth between contractor and designer and client result. This scenario, which threatens to suck a property owner dry of enthusiasm and money, might be eliminated if the client could be both the designer and builder, and skip the whole blueprint stage entirely.

Oddly enough, the way I first learned about A Pattern Language was by reading the account of a writer who decided to build a small writing hut on his property. Odd because he falls into the very trap Alexander is preaching against. When the floor of his hut was laid, a mistake in measurement was discovered: the foundation was ever so slightly off-square, and it could not be easily or cheaply fixed. With horror, the author and his handyman realized that the whole building was now going to need customizing. Every subsequent piece of the building would need to be finished with a slight angle to fit the whole, a situation described as catastrophic. I guess this author failed to read or take seriously the part of Pattern Language where Alexander suggests that they could have scribbled the design on the back of an envelope, and then walked the site pounding in stakes where the corners felt right, with no concern for uneven lines or imperfect angles. In case you didn't get that: Alexander is really saying that precise blueprints are not necessary. In fact he would rather they be rejected: in the pattern language, the design process doesn't end until well after you mark out the corners of your building, with chalk or stakes or whatever. The beauty of this organic process, as it is described, is that the design grows around the realities of the environment ... and the concerns of the people who will live there. Stand in "the kitchen" and you'll realize that the wall with the window and sink will need to be bigger, and perhaps angled differently to take in that particular view ... no sweat: move the stakes. Change the size of rooms according to your experience of the site, and obsess ye not over right-angles. Amen.

But before the reader can swear on a stack of building codes never to step foot inside a house where design and construction are happening all at once, we move on to pattern 213 (Final Column Distribution). In this pattern the question is asked how the "spacing of columns" is effected by the size of rooms and number of stories, and the chapter is sensibly free of any organo-hippie vibe. Having just told you in 212 to put the corner columns wherever feels right to you, Alexander goes on in 213 to detail the complex technical formula for determining how to design a wall, with it's intermediate columns, to support the weight of a roof and additional upper-story rooms. And this technical, industry-standard formula comes just in time. It is important for walls to be able to support a roof - this will provide many holistic benefits to the occupants of a home, like not dying under a collapsed roof when you slam a door, or not dying under a collapsed roof when the wind blows, and so on. I believe it is axiomatic that one should not take shelter in a home where the compressive load-bearing capacity of its walls has been intuited organically.

If technology is the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, then there is a time and a place for it in all aspects of our lives. Technology can be a lifesaver. However, apply it too early in a design process and it cripples our products and projects, our homes and communities. They become cold and rigid--we fear any imperfection in them. They will be impersonal and homogeneous, ill-suited to our unique context or environment. You can see the results of an overly technological architecture everywhere you turn in suburbia: homes built according to some remote architect's bland, marketable standard of what a beautiful home should look like ... and when such "homes" are planted on a typical suburban half-lot, these mini-mansions look like part of a demonic plot to destroy a neighborhood. The best thing you can say about them is that they won't fall down in a storm ....

Let's adopt this as a (low) tech writer principle: let individual or community wisdom, forged-in-context, dictate the unique shape of your house, project, product, or organization. Take time to listen for, intuit, and live with the implications of the designs you are working on. Only after organically discerning the shape and scale of a new project should you consult outside "experts" (or formulas). These may aid in developing levels of structure efficiently, but such expert witnesses will seldom have your local, contextual perspective, and so should not under any circumstances be allowed to dictate design.

The Old Testament book of Proverbs 24:3 says, "By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; and by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches." This is the original idea of getting the order right in building. "Wisdom", it says elsewhere in Proverbs, is the product of a healthy reverence (awe) for God. In the biblical context, of course, this is referring to the need to listen to God before you start anything that bears The Name, whether a building or a military campaign. In other contexts, the same reverent attention to the names associated with a venture is called for: the name of the family that will dwell in a home; the name of a town where a business is starting up. How does the life of these communities, small and large, dictate the design of the structures that will serve them? The getting of wisdom has to come first in the building of anything, a home or a life. Later, once the foundation is understood and laid, it's gifts of a more intellectual kind (not less sacred) that come into play: the understanding of compressive load-bearing capacities that makes it possible to raise a structure, and the knowledge of the community that dictates the filling of the structure with the stuff that makes a place livable and pleasant. But wisdom is needed to determine the shape of a thing, not technology or intellectual precision. And wisdom comes from a reverence for the life that a thing is meant to serve.

A companion volume to A Pattern Language is The Timeless Way of Building.This book takes a higher-level view of the philosophy of building towns and buildings.

15 March 2009

09 March 2009

Homemade Flute

I have often wished that I could play a musical instrument, but the learning curve seemed to be too steep. And while I have once or twice tested the waters (Learn Harmonica in 30 Minutes a Week!), I didn't have the energy to pursue it. My parents gave me a chance back when I was in elementary school. I missed catechism at St Bartholomew's that year because I was taking trumpet lessons at West Elementary in Hillsborough. It just so happens that I learned how to play the trumpet from the man that taught Ansel Adams how to play the piano. I take some comfort in the fact that Ansel Adams didn't become famous as a pianist, just like how I didn't become famous as a trumpeter. I can't wait to become famous for the other thing, just like Ansel Adams got famous for his other thing.

But I still wished I could play something and if I could have picked an instrument to play it would have been the flute. A couple months ago, I found designs on the Web for a make-your-own PVC flute. For less than a dollar, I got a scrap of PVC plumbing and followed the directions, and you're looking at the results. I am now the proud owner of my very own flute.

I've been able to pick out some songs on it, even though I can't read music. The trick seems to be that if I have a tune in my head, then I can play it with some practice. As it turns out, the tunes I have in my head are hymns, so I can play Amazing Grace, Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus, and another one the name of which I can't remember, but if you were here I could play it for you.

What I love about the whole thing, is that I'm playing music right now without anyone telling me how to do it: no learn-to-play-in-thirty-minutes-a-week techniques, just me. I suppose I could take lessons some day, and maybe spend a few hundred on a real flute, but for now I'm loving that I'm enjoying a nice low-tech, low-cost musical renaissance. I'm still not famous, but I am enjoying myself.