This is a fundamental view of the world. It says that when you build a thing you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must repair the world around it, and within it, so that the larger world at that one place becomes more coherent, and more whole; and the thing which you make takes its place in the web of nature, as you make it. -Christopher Alexander
The following accidentally happened when I laid a fieldstone walk on a Sunday morning…
Life is smoother when things converge:
When the chickens eat our leftovers (I’m serious!)
When I find the lumber I need for a project in my barn, instead of having to buy it
When a collection of ideas intersect and flesh a creation (I’ll get back to that one)
Such convergences are hubs in the universe’s flight map, some lesser than others. I am reminded of Holmgren’s Permaculture principle of “observe and interact.”
Remember, I was laying a fieldstone walk. These thoughts were related to what I was doing. Laying a stone walk is hard thinking work. There is a great difference between laying a random stone walk and a brick walk: the brick walk is right to left, front to back, edge to edge. The stone walk is about centers and the relationship of the centers to each other. If you pay primary attention to the edges, then you have forgotten the nature of the material and the use of the walk.
I snapped into a different view there for a while, on Sunday morning, one which I have some trouble getting back to, and remains within me as a seed. It was a whole different way of seeing: centers.
Our universe is organized in centers. Suns, planets, trees, towns, people. Nested scales, nested systems, self similarity; these are all representations of the sort of geometry that focuses on centers and halos around centers. A fieldstone walk functions more according to the universe’s organizing principles then any brick walk laid left to right.
Our inner world and our shared consciousness, the unseen that underlies everything is built on a geometry of centers. Memories radiate from centers. Accumulated energies are concentrated in and radiate from, centers. People self organize into centers; not as grids and rows. They cluster in radial geometries. Things are concentric. The unseen map is filled with bright spots and clusters of bright spots, like a relativistic map of the universe showing gravity wells; hotspots of memory and energy.
Centers are. They exist apart from our knowing. They were there in my pile of stones all along, I just needed to see them. Building in a place – living in a place – can choose to see and work with the centers of that place, and can also choose to ignore those centers. But the fabric glows brightly at centers and to knit our actions to them creates harmony.
One may feel strong centers, but not know them as such. Christopher Alexander writes of this as feeling life in a place, or in a thing. I felt this simply when I was laying my walk, that a different way of seeing and designing was needed to reinforce the nature of the material; to work with it.
Now this talk of the fabric and centers can remain a subject of vision; a particular sense that some feel stronger than others; but to do so is to limit an important conversation to a few.
So let’s distinguish centers from convergences. Centers are and convergences can be made. When design knits systems that exist around the object being designed, that is a created convergence. Such knitting can be regenerative if the systems being knitted have been damaged.
We are trying to see what this looks like in practice on a few projects, and investigating whether it is a way to knit pragmatic concerns and more ethereal considerations of our sense of the life in a place and reinforcing its centers.
Building can be formed, shaped, by the convergence of systems. This is building created by the overlay of surrounding systems, rather than the more conventional overlaying of building upon surrounding systems (similar to my older differentiation of building in nature vs. building on nature). The new school I have been writing of in previous posts is replacing a school that was flooded by hurricane Irene and tropical storm Lee. To form the building, we overlaid in a stack (literally a stack of tracing paper), some major systems at work on the site. Some of these were water cycles, community and river geometries, material systems, the memory imprints on the site, physical embodied energy existing on the site, community and river interface and circulation systems, and sun and wind paths. When these systems are mapped one by one on a site plan, and overlaid on one another, the building’s form and relationship to these systems suggests itself; it emerges. One of our team members, Natalie Hansen, created the diagram below to express this emergence:
Several things occur: The building reinforces existing centers, because it is shaped by the same systems that create those centers. The building form is a physical convergence, created by the overlap of site systems. The building form and material palette are justifiable to those with diverse viewpoints; the building makes sense pragmatically and passionately, because the mapped systems are of many types: natural, emotional, social, literal and figurative. Each participant can find their footing in a particular system of the stack.
And we realized a litmus test: the building thus formed looks arbitrary on a sheet of blank paper, without the site surrounding it. Its geometry belongs to its place, not to itself. As such it cannot make sense without its site. And it cannot occupy any other site, although its process of making can be replicated to form a unique building on another site.
This process is one way to create building-place systems (and the place is integral to the building system here) that regenerate (heal) the systems of which they are a part.
This process is also a way to recognize and integrate the unmeasurable with the measurable, as the layers of the stack integrate into building. It can speak of the underlying fabric of a place, its memory and unique energy. It is a way of holding singular vision through development of design.
This results in a building-place design solution that can be argued for from a multitude of points; first from the perspective of any layer in the stack and secondly by the convergence of multiple sets of layers.
It may be also that making a convergence or identifying a center is a less idealistic version of synthesis. An issue we have found with synthesis is that when we look for examples, we only find it in slight degrees in most things. But convergences are fairly easy to make, and centers are actually quite easy to find. Not so much in things that we make, but all around us in nature, and in the way we interact with each other.
Just as I feel I have accomplished small convergences when I build from scraps in my barn, or when I create connections in food cycle between my family, my compost, my garden, and my chickens; convergences are a way to teach others how design can speak of the pragmatism of recognizing and knitting physical systems, as well as opening conversations to less measurable criteria of place and fabric.
That was a lot for a Sunday morning. I wonder what I’ll discover when I start building the porch steps that lead from the walk?