Monday, January 25, 2016

Personalized Engineering and the Vision of Christopher Alexander

One way to encourage ethical engineering is to talk about moral exemplars—people who have faced a challenging ethical situation and dealt with it in a remarkable and positive way.  The moral exemplar I'd like to introduce to you today is someone you have probably never heard of—Christopher Alexander.  He's not even an engineer in the conventional sense.  But he has devoted his career to a vision that I think engineers ought to know about, at least, and perhaps can apply in hitherto un-thought-of ways.

Alexander is emeritus professor of architecture at the University of California at Berkeley.  His undergraduate education at Cambridge University was in chemistry and physics, but then he went on to receive the first Ph. D. in architecture awarded by Harvard University. 

I can perhaps describe his unique achievements by setting up a contrast between how architecture is usually done in modern industrial countries, and what Alexander does.  Most buildings that people live in and work in these days in the U. S. are products of a mass-production philosophy whose criteria are efficiency, profit, conformance to building codes, and free-market forces that favor economies of scale over small, individualized efforts.  For example, the town I live in—San Marcos, Texas—has broken out over the past decade in literally dozens of mass-produced apartment complexes.  Some of these are better to look at than others, but one glance at them tells you they were designed by some anonymous committee in Atlanta or Pittsburgh and plopped down here in Central Texas with the main goal of maximizing return on capital invested.  The fact that people spend parts of their lives in these things is almost an afterthought, at least in some cases.

Here is how Alexander would design an apartment building, as he describes in his book The Timeless Way of Building.  First, he gathers not other architects, or building inspectors, or structural engineers, but the people who are actually going to live in the building.  He spends a lot of time with them, and familiarizes them with a special set of phrases that he calls "pattern languages."  A lifetime of study has enabled him to describe the complex of interactions between people and the built environment in a rigorous yet understandable way that brings architectural design within the grasp of the ordinary people who will use the buildings—who, incidentally, were the ones who designed most buildings before architecture became an independent profession. 

Once the future occupants understand how pattern language is used to describe a design, Alexander takes them to the actual building site and asks questions—lots of questions.  Where will the entrance be?  What should we do with these trees?  Which way does the light fall at various times of year?  And in a process that takes days, rather than weeks or months, he stakes out locations on the ground where different structures will rise up organically, in response to a reasoned and thoughtful discussion about the needs and feelings of those who will live in the apartments.  Ideally, this back-and-forth discussion using pattern languages continues during the construction of the building as well, down to details such as ceiling heights and doorknobs. 

The result, according to Alexander, is a building that lives.  Most people have had the experience of visiting a special place that stayed in your memory as (in Alexander's carefully chosen words, none of which does the job completely), alive, whole, comfortable, free, exact, egoless, and eternal.  For one person, it might be a certain bench in a park—for another, a cathedral.  He claims that his pattern languages can capture those aspects of special good places that make them that way, and his process allows people—ordinary people, not just architects—to express their thoughts in a way that allows more good places to be built:  places that can grow organically like trees even after they are nominally finished. 

What has this got to do with engineering?  Surprisingly, more than you might think.  The Wikipedia article on Alexander says that some of his pattern-language ideas have found applications in computer science and have been applied to software design.  But I think every engineer, not just software engineers, could benefit from a knowledge of Alexander's philosophy and approach.

What Alexander is trying to do is to humanize architecture, reversing a trend that has roots in the industrial revolution of the 1800s.  Modernist architect Le Corbusier's famous description of a house as a "machine for living in" expresses this trend, whose underlying philosophy is behind nearly all modern technological developments.  What is the entrepreneurial dream of today?  To come up with a single concept—Google, Facebook, self-driving cars—that billions of people want and are willing to conform their lives to.  Most of the time, these developments simply ignore or displace existing social and cultural structures and impose a bland, uniform modern appearance everywhere they go—like seeing McDonald's golden arches in Paris, London, and Tokyo. 

I wonder if it is possible to humanize engineering the way Alexander has humanized architecture.  This would involve bucking a million trends and starting small, and probably staying small, too.  Certain attempts of charitable organizations to fit engineering to indigenous needs make efforts in this direction, so it's not like nobody at all is trying.  But by the nature of things, such anti-establishment attempts will not attract a lot of money or attention.  That doesn't mean they are not worth doing.  But it does mean those who try them will probably be misunderstood and lonely, and may not be able to succeed against the incredible pressures to conform to the modernist paradigms. 

Alexander came to my attention through an essay he published in First Things, a journal of religion and public life.  He is a practicing Catholic and in the essay he says that "the sacredness of the physical world—and the potential of the physical world for sacredness—provides a powerful and surprising path towards understanding the existence of God, whatever God may be, as a necessary part of the reality of the universe."  And to those of us who believe in God as the ground of all being, systems which work under the assumption that God doesn't exist are fatally flawed, though the flaws may not become evident right away.  Maybe doing engineering the way Alexander does architecture could teach us something equally profound about engineering.

Sources:  Christopher Alexander's essay "Making the Garden" appeared in the February 2016 issue of First Things, pp. 23-28.  A good introduction to his work is his The Timeless Way of Building (Oxford Univ. Press, 1979).

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