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 ~ Vernacular Design 

Christopher Alexander Print E-mail

ImageThe current state of architectural education is rooted in assumptions: notions which everyone accepts, often without thinking about them or questioning them. Many of these assumptions are false or worse, dangerous. They are deeply held, but are based on outmoded forms of practice, and calcify the profession and prevent it from doing a good job.



As the people who teach the architects of the future – both dedicated educators and practitioners – we are in a position to not only to question the hidden assumptions, but also to train students to make conscious choices outside these assumptions, thus working toward new forms of architecture that will bring health to society,

Here are a few examples of what I mean by hidden assumptions:

Commodity instead of community
One hidden assumption underlying everything in present day architecture is that everything is to be built as a commodity, something that is to be traded: bought and sold in the marketplace. A view has come into being which has effectively stripped away most of the essential and traditional human values which made buildings and land habitable in the past.

A better urban community is built be people with the land, with materials that last, trees and plants, and animals, and the feelings of all participants are nurtured in the process. This implies that the work of architecture needs to be much closer to an anthropological and human venture than a purely physical one, far from what a typical architect is taught today. I am convinced that buildings will not improve until these issues are addressed.

Technological fixes for sustainability
The hidden assumption here is that the primary methods with which we shall achieve sustainability are technological fixes: wind turbines, solar panels, heat pumps and so on.

This is very different from a view of sustainability in which one sees the flows and repair systems of the earth – water, soil, wind, sheltered community, harvest, and use of rainwater and other resources. This view is a human vision, not a technological one: the cooperative work of people in society, repairing their own communities and houses, making places their own, creating the knowledge that they are a feeling of belonging on the land.

Working drawings
The efficacy of working drawings is a deeply held assumption. For an architect, the preparation of these drawings is assumed to be the only way in which a building can be created. That is because architects no longer use their hands in making buildings and then imagine, wrongly, that specifying every last detail for a distant contractor will make the building beautiful inside. It just isn’t so.

You cannot predict what aspects of a building work well from a working drawing, and currently there is no cost-free procedure for changing the building while it is being built. As a result, contemporary buildings are literally pepper with thousands of mistakes, small, medium and large, trivial and fundamental.

How to build
We assume that architects can be educated successfully, without teaching them how to build with their hands. And the deeper assumption is that a building is conceived by styling programs, on a computer or on paper. Once a geometric shell has been conceived in 3D, give it to someone else to work out how to build it. So, of course, the resulting buildings resemble cardboard.

The real stuff of a building that has passion depends on the way the materials are shaped, moulded and arranged. That is not something that can be done on paper, or on a computer screen. It is the feeling of the three dimensional solid mass at the scale of inches and feet – close to you as you walk about – that must be given life. It is absurd that architects don’t know construction trades and don’t have a clue how to form and pour six yards of concrete. Yet today that is thought of as something somebody else does.

When they do know it totally changes their attitude. I taught a generation of architects these things at the University of California. They became excited about building and were not hamstrung by the desk-job view of the professional.

Positive space
Possibly the most important thing in all urbanism is the creation of positive outdoor space. Space is positive if, when you are standing in a piece of outdoors with sky above and buildings around it, it ha a beauty and shape by itself. When it is positive, you feel you belong there. Otherwise you do not.

The hidden assumption in this regard is that architects design buildings. The space is left over. It doesn’t make sense for architects, who are supposed to be masters of habitability, to ignore the outside.

The space of a city is made up of shaped outdoor space and shaped indoor space, both have got to be interlocking and with their own hierarchies of sizes and so forth. Present zoning practice makes this very difficult.

Architects must learn to experiment with shape, zoning setbacks and interaction with the landscape to make sure that the urban fabric is made up of hundreds and thousands of positive spaces.

Working from the budget and program budgeting
Any architect has to know enough about money. The first thing you do is not get a pencil and start sketching. Instead you set up a spreadsheet and look at how much money has to go on foundations, doors, windows, external space, and adornment, so that the design is tailored towards the cost and you are in an authoritative position to spend the client’s money. Then you are more likely to bring in a project for the money a client actually has, rather than pushing it up all the time.

You can’t have an idea of how to do a project unless you have divided up the project into different percentiles. That is presently seen as a quantity surveyors’ work. But architects are the ones who should be driving it. My first sketch design is a spreadsheet showing how much to spend on the different components, so as to make the building beautiful.

Organisation on the building site
The way crafts and people are organised on the building site begs for attention. The whole organisation of manpower on a typical site is devastating. Workers aren’t able to contribute by their own hands and by their own thoughts. It is all worked out on paper and fixed unnecessarily. Love and affection is rare from construction workers on a project.

Addressing this involves a new kind of cooperation between those who know about human organisation and architects – who must release their egos and learn to engage with others in the creation of buildings and the positive space between buildings.

I am currently writing a book, Battle, which will show how the problems I have spoken about were solved in a $30m college project in Eishen Gakuen, west of Tokyo.

Today, as an architect you can get your thrills mainly from the physical elegance of your geometrical fantasies. That’s the only source of pleasure. If architects could begin to take on creation of human community it would make a real difference. The question is: how many people have generated the thing? How many who are going to live in buildings, or who are craftsmen, are really involved in the real decision making?

This is the giant problem in the organisation of production. Architects have rarely thought about this as a primary problem. When they get their pleasure from that, by creating a human creative flood, then I think we have a chance for a renaissance of a different kind.

First published as "Mental Block Christopher Alexander on what’s holding back architecture" in the RIBA Journal July 2008

Christopher Alexander was in conversation with Eleanor Young.

Copyright RIBA 2008

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