The posts on this blog were mostly considered emails written to people interested in a particular approach to addressing the problems facing humanity and our relationship to the planet. If you are interested in what you read - please leave a comment...

November 28, 2011

Letter to Christopher Alexander

I wrote this letter after seeing Chris. Alexander speak at the kevin Lynch Memorial lecture, held by the Urban Design Group in London, November 2011:

Dear Chris,

Thank you for the presentation at the UDG event on Wednesday. I was pleased not only to be able to come and hear for myself, but to bring along some others who have long known of my interest in and dependence on your work.

I have been and remain terribly frustrated (in the US sense of the word) by the lack of forums in which intelligent debate and development of the many ideas, possibilities and imperatives implied by your work. I have often attempted to discover others who might be interested in such work and talk via the Internet - only to fail.

I am really seriously concerned that humanity should not miss the point and value of your work. Although I know that you have focused strongly on architecture and the ability of humans to create beauty (as have I), I have a very strong feeling that the tools you have perforce had to create in the attempt to develop reliable approaches to inherently complex and indeterminate  (as in not-computable) systems have an enormous potential beyond the world of architecture (filled, as it frankly is, with intellectual duds, mountebanks, egoists clever and stupid, plodders, chancers, cynics, and sweet, deluded mystics of all kinds - plus the odd self-entranced genius of course).

Put simply, I believe that the Pattern Language approach is humanity's best tool so far developed for allowing our poorly adapted fleshly brains to deal with complexity. As we seem to have arrived at a position where the outcome of the short term 'successes' of reductionism is about to severely undermine the potential for human development by changing the ecosystem beyond our ability to adapt, and since the ecosystem is perhaps the second most complex system known to us [universe>ecosytem>brain], it is urgently necessary for humans to get better at managing to think effectively about complexity, in ways that help us get beyond reductionist approaches (and leverage them where required - this is not about throwing the baby out with the bathwater).

To my mind, the only reliable measure of human 'progress' is the increase in the number of ways generally available to us of thinking about things (I use the term metaphysics); so that language is a genuine advance, while the development of the steam engine is not (although the consideration of all sorts of implications of steam engines has led to real advances). We are living in a period where the most powerful metaphysics has been that of reductionism. Reductionism has had a few hundred years of astounding impact, that has led us (as a culture) to believe that it is deeply powerful. Unfortunately, we live on such a short timescale that it is hard for most of us to see that reductionism, practised to the exclusion of practically all else, is like a short cut across a swamp - seems quick, but is doomed to disaster.

The patterning approach to complex systems is a genuine advance in these terms - a genuinely new way of thinking about the world. And it is fantastically simple to get the hang of  (although I am always aware of the injunction at the beginning of APL that possession of a language does not guarantee poetry). It is genuinely useful.

I have tried to explain this more fully here, in a letter to Ward Cunningham, who developed the first Wiki software for use in collaborative development of software 'patterns' after being inspired by 'APL'. I wanted him to help me develop a software tool for capturing pattern languages, and we did get somewhere, but couldn't get any software engineers to help on an open-source basis. There are some other relevant posts on that blog, as well.

You see, I firmly believe that patterning approaches can be widely relevant in all sorts of areas of human endeavour - I think that pattern languages need to be as widely used for approaching complex systems as other sorts of analyses are in other realms. Patterning approaches are among the metaphysical tools than can help us think our way out of the mess we are in - and crucially, it is the only approach I have seen which does not depend on an enormous ability with higher mathematics and access to a supercomputer.

In other words, it is the only approach I can think of which has a hope in hell of being useful to the mass of humanity.

This email is getting to be rather long, so I shall come to my point. I believe it is time to be gathering together a body of people that will support and sustain a Pattern Language Institute - one that is firmly connected into the wide world - not solely with architecture. I would suggest it could be associated with something like the Rocky Mountains Institute or a university with an established expertise in complexity - there are scientists writing very interesting and useful books in the area now, but the case needs to be made that broadly useful tools for grappling with complex situations need to be developed alongside the science, and that pattern languages are demonstrably powerful.

For instance, I have developed a strong argument that Pattern Languages are invaluable tools for constructing hard-headed business plans and business systems - both highly lucrative and busy fields that appear to muddle along with antediluvian methodologies. I am convinced that pattering approaches could be highly useful in the analysis and meta-analysis of social and ecological systems, allowing higher-order understandings that are very hard to see without structured representations of insights. I imagine (rather vaguely here...) that development of the mathematics of semi-lattice networks would give rise to other tools. I am aware that pattern recognition is a huge field in the realm of artificial intelligence, and cybernetics, but I am not aware of the use of semi-lattice networks in the synthesis of such recognitions. I wonder strongly whether Bayesian analysis of systems observed and patterned might not be a powerful tool for artificial intelligence; and so forth....

As far as architecture is concerned, I am convinced that the architectural community needs to be bypassed - it is in a hopeless state at the moment, utterly consumed by alternate delusion and despair, and hopelessly in thrall to global consumerism. To coin a US term, an 'end-run' is what is required. The PoW Institute is an example of this - you may know that they have been accredited as one of only three institutions allowed to be appointed for certain government funded community design exercises in the UK. Of course, any Pattern Language Institute would have a strong presence in practical architectural theory, but I personally believe that it will be people from engineering and construction disciplines who will be the people to actually get this as an approach - precisely because they are interested in building successfully without having been poisoned by all the 'design' nonsense.

All this is far beyond my own expertise, but I would certainly wish to help if at all possible. It makes no sense at all to me for your work to be seen as only relevant to architects, who are by and large incapable of and/or unwilling to understand it. There is an enormous depth of insight, of analysis, of beauty, of material which deserves the fullest possible understanding, dissemination and development; not for its own sake, or for the sake of those of us that know and respect you, but for its value to humans.

Please do let me know if this makes any sense at all to you. I wish that I had said it to you before.


jack said...

hi, i am an undergraduate of architecture. i am fascinated by chris' works since a few years back since i first picked up timeless. however it has been extremely frustrating for me in trying to apply it in my studio projects, mainly because few ppl pay attention to chris' theories... i cant beleive so few ppl apprecaite the magnitude of his works; they are massive in educating me

dilgreen said...

Hi Jack,
Yes indeed, Alexander is not at all fashionable in the sadly trend obsessed world of architecture.
I would say that the good news is that you can use his work and his ideas without having to tell everyone about them, if they don't want to know - it will still help you design well, and help you explain your design in straightforward terms that (clients, at least) can understand |(not so sure about architects)
Getting used to using patterns so that the ones that really make sense to you become second nature is one thing. Understanding the introductory sections of A Pattern Language deeply is also valuable, particularly the section called 'The Poetry of the Language".
The last element is not really in'timeless' or APL, but is described in Stephan Grabow's book on Chris., and more clearly in 'the nature of Order' Book One Chapter 8 - "The Mirror of the Self" - these techniques are useful in training yourself to make decisions that increase quality.