the languages have broken down

"But in our time the languages have broken down. Since they are no longer shared, the processes which keep them deep have broken down: and it is therefore virtually impossible for anybody, in our time, to make a building live." -- Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building

I first heard of Christopher Alexander in architecture school. I didn't know quite what to do with him then, didn't know how to make him and my love of vernacular architecture fit within the confines of what I was expected to do to graduate. Even so, I knew that what he was saying and what I was feeling were important, and his discerning analysis of the failures of modern society has stayed with me.

What I've realized more recently is how much his insights apply to all facets of modern human life, not just the making of spaces.

He starts off here speaking of what happens when personal autonomy is a given:

The connection between the users and the act of building is direct.

Either the people build for themselves, with their own hands, or else they talk directly to the craftsmen who build for them, with almost the same degree of control over the small details which are built.

The whole emerges by itself and is continally repaired. Each person in a town knows that his own small acts help to create and to maintain the whole. Each person feels tied into society, and proud because of it.

The adaptation between people and buildings is profound.

Each detail has meaning. Each detail is understood. Each detail is based on some person's experience, and gets shaped right, because it is slowly thought out, and deeply felt.

Because the adaptation is detailed and profound, each place takes on a unique character. Slowly, the variety of places and buildings begins to reflect the variety of human situations in the town. This is what makes the town alive. The patterns stay alive, because the people who are using them are also testing them.

But, by contrast, in the early phases of industrial society which we have experienced recently, the pattern languages die.

Instead of being widely shared, the pattern languages which determine how a town gets made become specialized and private. Roads are built by highway engineers; buildings by architects; parks by planners; hospitals by hospital consultants; schools by educational specialists; gardens by gardners; tract housing by developers.

The people of the town themselves know hardly any of the languages which these specialists use. And if they want to find out what the languages contain, they can't, because it is considered professional expertise. The professionals guard their language jealously to make themselves indispensable.

[...]The languages start out by being specialized, and hidden from the people; and then within the specialities, the languages become more private still, and hidden from one another, and fragmented.

Most people believe themselves incompetent to design anything and believe that it can only be done properly by architects and planners.

This has gone so far that most people shrink, in fear, from the task of designing their surroundings. They are afraid that they will make foolish mistakes, afraid that people will laugh at them, afraid that they will do something "in bad taste." And the fear is justified. Once people withdraw from the normal everyday experience of building, and lose their pattern languages, they are literally no longer able to make good decisions about their surroundings, because they no longer know what really matters, and what doesn't.

People lose touch with their most elementary intuitions.

If they read somewhere that large plate glass picture windows are a good idea, they accept this as wisdom from a source wiser than themselves -- even though they feel more comfortable sitting in a room with small windowpanes, and say how much they like it. But the fashionable taste of architects is so persuasive that people will believe, against the evidence of their own inner feelings, that the plate glass window is better. They have lost confidence in their own judgment. They have handed over the right to design, and lost their own pattern languages so utterly that they will do anything which architects tell them.

Yet, architects themselves, have lost their intuitions too. Since they no longer have a widely shared language which roots them in the ordinary feelings people have, they are also prisoners of the absurd and special languages which they have made in private.

Even the buildings built by architects start to be full of obvious "mistakes."

[...] There is not a single building built in recent times, nor a single part of a city laid out by planners, in which such trivial mistakes -- caused by the loss of patterns -- cannot be described a hundredfold. This is as true of the greatest works of so-called modern masters, as of the most mundane works built by tract developers.

And those few patterns which do remain within our languages become degenerate and stupid.

This follows naturally from the fact that the languages are so highly specialized. The users, whose direct experience once formed the languages, no longer have enough contact to influence them. This is almost bound to happen, as soon as the task of building passes out of the hands of the people who are most directly concerned, and into the hands of people who are not doing it for themselves, but instead for others.

So long as I build for myself, the patterns I use will be simple, and human, and full of feeling, because I understand my situation. But as soon as a few people begin to build for "the many," their patterns about what is needed become abstract; no matter how well meaning they are, their ideas gradually get out of touch with reality, because they are not faced daily with the living examples of what the patterns say.

If I build a fireplace for myself, it is natural for me to make a place to put the wood, a corner to sit in, a mantel wide enough to put things on, an opening which lets the fire draw.

But, if I design fireplaces for other people -- not for myself -- then I never have to build a fire in the fireplaces I design. Gradually my ideas become more and more influenced by style, and shape, and crazy notions -- my feeling for the simple business of making fire leaves the fireplace altogether.

So, it is inevitable that as the work of building passes into the hands of specialists, the patterns which they use become more and more banal, more willful, and less anchored in reality.

--From The Timeless Way of Building, Chapter 13, The Breakdown of Language

the fisher and the businessman

I don't know where this story came from, but it's a great one:

A businessman was vacationing in a small coastal village when a small boat with a fisher docked at the pier.

Inside the small boat were several large fish. The businessman complimented the fisher on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The fisher replied, "Not very long.” The banker asked, "Why don't you stay out longer and catch more fish, so you can make more money?" The fisher replied with a smile, "This is more than enough to support my family's needs." The banker then asked, "But what do you do with the rest of your time?" The fisher said, "Ah... I sleep late, play with my children, nap with my wife, and stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my friends. I have a good life."

The businessman said excitedly, "That's all well and good, but imagine what you could accomplish if you worked harder. If you caught more fish, you could use the proceeds to buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several more boats and hire people to do the fishing for you. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor; eventually you could own your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You could leave your poor village and move to a big city to run an ever-expanding enterprise!"

The fisher asked, "But how long would all this take?" The businessman replied, "Oh, probably fifteen to twenty years." "Ah," the fisher said. "And what then?" The banker laughed and said, "That's the best part! When the time was right you would sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You could make millions!"

"I see... and then what?"

The businessman said, "Well, you would retire, of course!... move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, nap with your wife, and stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your friends. Think what a wonderful life you would have!"

"we shall laugh"

When we get out of the glass bottles of our ego,

and when we escape like squirrels turning in the cages of our personality

and get into the forests again,

we shall shiver with cold and fright

but things will happen to us

so that we don't know ourselves.

Cool, unlying life will rush in,

and passion will make our bodies taut with power,

we shall stamp our feet with new power

and old things will fall down,

we shall laugh, and institutions will curl up like burnt paper.

--D.H. Lawrence