“Your flaw is to seek convenient explanations, explanations that fir you and your world…The explanation is not what you would call an explanation; nevertheless, it makes the world and its mysteries, if not clear, at least less awesome. That should be the essence of an explanation, but that is not what you seek. You’re after the reflection of your ideas.”
Carlos Castaneda

Tales of Power

Small glimpse into human nature


I parked next to the village post-office. As I got out of the car a ragged old man passed by me and started talking … in Romanian … I though he was talking to himself. We passed each other and I was on my way to the post office when I realized he was talking to me. He moved very slowly, so it took him time to turn around and face me.

With my basic Romanian I was trying to understand what he was saying. He assumed I spoke Romanian so he wasn’t being considerate and speaking slowly or clearly for me. When I looked confused he took out his ragged wallet and from it a small piece of folded paper. He unfolded the paper which had a phone number on it. With that clue I was able to piece together that he was asking for a phone to call his wife so that she could come and pick him up. I asked him, would you like to use my telephone … holding my telephone out to him to compensate for my Romanian. He said yes.

I dialed the phone number on the paper for him and gave it to him. He immediately started talking … assuming the connection had already been made. I told him to wait a second. I am guessing he then heard the phone ringing and waited. During that short interval I had a chance to look at him more closely. His eyes were partly closed. He was wearing ragged clothes. The zipper on his pants looked broken … his pants were tied on and one of his sweaters was sticking out where there should have been a zipper. His hand was shaking nervously (some kind of illness I am guessing). A woman’s voice answered and he asked to come and get him. He then switched to speaking Hungarian and spoke for another half a minute. Then he handed me the phone back.

I wished him a good day and started to resume my journey to the post office. He asked me to wait. He fumbled with his wallet again and his fingers opened the slot that holds bills. There was only one bill of only one lei. He pulled it out and handed it to me. I replied: no thank you, I was glad to help have a nice day. He insisted. I insisted too. He held his arms out and embraced me softly, thanking me and wishing me health.


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Christopher Alexander on Doing Work Together


One beneficial side effect, I believe, to a process as described in this quote, would be that group decision-making would probably take more time (then is typically allocated for it) … as it should. This kind of process unveils the illusion of quick-feel-good-superficial-consensus. It takes time, engagement, care, patience, attention to detail … if a group does not have time and space for this kind of engagement the process will make it known … it has potential to keep a group from escaping to superficial agreement … it may bring a group’s attention back to itself … to its own ability to function … instead of allowing a disability to be overlooked and generating disabling decisions.

When people work together, in small groups, how then does the unfolding process work?

No one quite knows where to start. They want to express themselves, they want to express their own individual ideas; yet they want to work together. How to curb the bounds of individualism, when to give in, when to insist? It is extremely hard …

If, for example, we are to place a bench i a neighborhood, and say there are quite a number of people involved in it. And suppose, for the sake of example, that two alternatives are placed before us. Choice is (in theory) the classic tool of democracy. So let us – together, perhaps thirty or forty of us – try to decide which of the two benches is better for this place, bench A or bench B.

The problem is that bench A and bench B differ in so many different ways, on so many dimensions. One bench is wood, one bench is metal. One is blue, or is black; one has a more comfortable profile than the other does, perhaps A is comfortable, B is more formal. On the other hand, A, which is more comfortable, is perhaps made with a shape not entirely pleasing to the eye; while B, less comfortable to sit on, is very delightful in its shape.

So as we, the thirty of us who want to decide this thing, set out to work together, how can we decided whether A or B is better Of course we cannot … The difficulty comes from the size and extent of the decisions we are trying to agree on. Choice among alternatives, as a strategy, does not work realistically.

The answer, the solution to the difficulty, lies in the use of the fundamental process, applied over and again, focusing on very limited, tiny decisions taken one at a time, in sequence … the steps can be made so small and so particular that for each step the thirty of us will find it possible to succeed in deciding among the possibilities, what is best by checking versions, testing them, trying things out …

Even when the whole is as big as a building, or even a portion of a neighborhood, the complex of answers optimizing a group consensus can be arrived at by arranging the whole evolution of the form, as a sequence of smaller questions. Provided the smaller questions are taken in the right order, step by step, resolving one step at a time, in a manageable way, we shall be able to reach agreement even as a group. But the end result of these limited agreements will not be a single choice among half a dozen alternatives (inevitably a phone choice). It will be a unique thing which has been generated, truthfully, as a product of twenty or fifty or a hundred true answers to unique questions … because the questions were small enough and reasonable enough, not arbitrary, so that people could discuss them, feel them the same wat, settle them, move on to the next, and thus gradually approach consensus on the emergent whole.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 3: A Vision of a Living World

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Christopher Alexander on Static & Dynamic


dynamic and static indeed … and also … how to juggle these two qualities

“Think about the time dependent process by which an unplanned human settlement grows naturally. Someone starts with the idea of building or living on a certain site. A few people build their houses there. In the natural order of things, perhaps an office or workshop is built there. Then a small cafe is built. That happens in response to people’s needs and the press of their activities. As a result of the cafe and the office, and their interaction with the terrain, people start driving to that place in a certain way, parking their cars in a certain way.

Those parking places and that dirt road set up in relation to the terrain, take on a certain natural form. Then, if another person wants to build a workshop there, or an office, it goes in a certain place which is related to the existing directly aligned dirt road, to its parking, to the office, to the cafe and its view.

The position for the second workshop is a natural outcome of the answer ‘Where would I like to locate in relation to all these other things that are there already?’ It is, almost certainly, a very different spot from the spot that would have been marked on an original master plan, if one existed. That si because on the master plan, someone was trying to arrange everything at the same time … So if the second workshop wer built according to a master-plan it would inevitably be unrelated to the terrain, cafe, road.

… Even in this first very small increment of construction, the dynamic time-dependent process creates and maintains relatedness. The static master plan does not. It a community growing over time, such increments will happen hundreds – more likely thousands – of times. It a dynamic process is followed, so that each time the next step follows existing things – preserves the structure, and creates and maintain relationships – we get a harmonious living community.

If, instead, a static master-plan based process if followed, and the 20 or 100 things are built according to the original drawing or plan, then they will exist, for the most part, without real functional relationships: the whole is unrelated in its internal elements; there has been no structure preserving going on, step after step, and the whole remains dead.

Thus, the main problem of community development, of growing a neighborhood, is to do it in the dynamic wat not in the static way.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 3: A Vision of a Living World



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Christopher Alexander on Cars in Neighborhoods


… though the subject of a neighborhood is of lesser interest to me …this is a wonderful example of direct reasoning and priorities … and this is just one example … is it any wonder that our sense of community has been eroded … and the funny thing is that I too always appreciated the spacious roads and organized parking lots … and I too rarely walked anywhere … except to and from my car … which makes me wonder how we have also eroded our sense of like … replacing wholeness with superficial comforts … and then searching and searching … and not finding a sense of wholeness

“… A neighborhood should be a place where you would rather walk than drive your car, where people feel ree to walk, meet, enjoy themselves, a place where children can play safely almost anywhere; …

In a neighborhood modified by a living process, the car must therefore be made to play second fiddle to the pedestrian … It is convenient, the car can reach almost every house, almost every workshop, but it is not allowed to dominate the situation, nor to create conditions which threaten the well-being of the pedestrian world …

To achieve this we give in the unfolding process, priority to the process that established the pedestrian structure, and we expect this … to be coherent, dominated by local symmetries which form the land into nice pieces …

… The process of setting in parking, lanes for cars … comes later. And we expect that the paths for cars will be somewhat tortured. It makes the car slow down when it is in the neighborhood. The car can easily negotiate bends, curves, etc. On the other hand, for the pedestrian, unless there are views, and a coherent sense of the space, the pedestrian world will not easily be grasped. So (contrary to most 20th-century thinking) the car si given irregular streets and parking, while the pedestrian is pampered, made to feel kind, allowed to feel at home.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 3: A Vision of a Living World


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Christopher Alexander on Unconventional Wisdom


…in my 43 years of living no one has ever asked me, in a meaningful social context, to speak truly about my life … about “our” life … I have not yet been a part of … is it just me or is that the way things have been in recent human history?

“How could I ever have guessed, when I began working with the people of Chikusadai in Japan, that they would, above all, revere the insects, that they wanted a world where insects – and above all cicadas – would be safe – because they felt that in such a world, once the insects are all right, then they, the people themselves – would be all right too …

No outsider can do justice to these human phenomena. Usually, they can be described only from inside by the people who are part of them …

When people think about this, they CAN articulate it. They know what is needed to give them – for their place – surroundings in which life can be lived. And when they dream of a world, imagined by people for themselves, they come closer to a life which grants true freedom …

When people are given the freedom to speak truly about their lives, they have an unconventional wisdom, an idiosyncratic quality, which brings forth unique centers, unique living structure in each situation. That is what we mean by their culture or their ‘way’. It is a shared vision … not part of the conventional professional wisdom of architects and planners …

It is this, which receives expression through the medium of a collective pattern language. It celebrates human uniqueness, the enormous variety of human effort, human desire, human aspiration.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 3: A Vision of a Living World


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