I have recently been reading upon the renowned British-American architect and design theorist, Christopher Alexander.
Alexander is known for the idea of pattern languages. A pattern is a collection of a known problem discussed with a solution for the problem. As Alexander explains it:
Now, a pattern is an old idea. The new idea in the book was to organize implicit knowledge about how people solve recurring problems when they go about building things.
For example, if you are building a house you need to go from outside to inside and there are centuries of experiments on how to do this in a “just so” way. Sometimes the transition is marked not by just a door but by a change in elevation (steps, large, small, straight, or curved), or a shaded path, or through a court yard.
We wrote up this knowledge in the form of a pattern about entrance transitions.
I was very much inspired by what Alexander was pointing at. Alexander’s view is that a construction should always promote social interactions and thus life. He would ask the question, which building has more life? In a city or a village or even in your house, where do you see life? Is there a particular room that you really love in your house? Why do you like that room? Alexander was after this question. He and his team came up with 253 patterns that they observed by studying the world around them. They noticed that certain buildings and locations had more “life” than others. People were engaged in more interactions and they were enjoying being with one another. These buildings and locations add to the wholeness of the surrounding and also to the people themselves. They promote the nature of order.
For example, one of the patterns Alexander’s team came up with was “SMALL PUBLIC SQUARES” (Alexander’s team used capital letters to denote a pattern.) This pattern provides guidelines for the width of the public squares to less than 70 feet.
A town needs public squares; they are the largest, most public rooms, that the town has. But when they are too large, they look and feel deserted.
It is natural that every public street will swell out at those important nodes where there is the most activity. And it is only these widened, swollen, public squares which can accommodate the public gatherings, small crowds, festivities, bonfires, carnivals, speeches, dancing, shouting, mourning, which must have their place in the life of the town.
But for some reason there is a temptation to make these public squares too large. Time and again in modern cities, architects and planners build plazas that are too large. They look good on drawings; but in real life they end up desolate and dead.
Our observations suggest strongly that open places intended as public squares should be very small. As a general rule, we have found that they work best when they have a diameter of about 6o feet – -at this diameter people often go to them, they become favorite places, and people feel comfortable there. When the diameter gets above 70 feet, the squares begin to seem deserted and unpleasant.
They reasoned that a person’s face is still recognizable at 70 feet, and the voice can also be heard at this distance. In other words, any distance further than 70 feet reduces interactions, and thus does not promote “life”.
I am not an architect by trade or by passion. However, I noticed that the ideas that Alexander was talking about has much wider use. His ideas were behind the wiki movement.
We generally construct conceptual models to explain how things work in our mind. For example, when we look at a car, we may construct a conceptual model in our mind to explain how the car works. It could be as simple as – put gasoline, and the engine runs making the car move. When we talk about problem solving and problem structuring, we are in many regards constructing a conceptual model in our mind.
One of the things we looked for was a profound impact on human life. We were able to judge patterns, and tried to judge them, according to the extent that when present in the environment we were confident that they really do make people more whole in themselves.
The allegory of “constructing a model” works well with Alexander’s ideas. Alexander would propose that one should not construct a building that does not add to the existing surroundings. Furthermore, it should add to the wholeness, and it should promote life via social interactions. I am sometimes guilty of coming to a problem with a preconceived bias and notion. When I am informed of a problem, I may construct the problem statement immediately. I come to the source with the problem model already constructed. This hinders “life” and promotes “unwholeness”, as Alexander would say.
Similar to Marie Kondo’s question of “Does it spark joy?”, Alexander asks the question, “Does it promote life?” and “Does it add to the wholeness?”
Alexander defines wholeness as “the source of coherence in any part of the world.”
When you build a thing you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must also 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 take its place in the web of nature as you make it.
When we are constructing a problem model, we should not come with the box already prepared. Instead, we should construct the box around the problem as we find it at the source, the gemba. We often talk about lean problems and six sigma problems. This is not the correct approach. We should construct the box around the problem making sure to match the conceptual surroundings. The model should add to the wholeness. This in my mind is regarding correspondence and coherence. The problem model should correspond to the reality, and should promote coherence to other ideas and models that we have in our epistemological toolbox. In other words, the problem model should make sense.
Each pattern is connected to certain larger patterns which come above it in the language; and to certain smaller patterns which come below it in the language.
No pattern is an island… Each pattern can exist in the world, only to the extent that it is supported by other patterns.
A thing is whole according to how free it is of inner contradictions. When it is at war with itself, and gives rise to forces which act to tear it down, it is unwhole.
In this post, we will look at one additional pattern that Alexander’s team came up with called “DIFFERENT CHAIRS” to discuss this further. This patterns adds further clarity to the multidimensional and multireality nature of complex problems.
People are different sizes; they sit in different ways. And yet there is a tendency in modern times to make all chairs alike. Never furnish any place with chairs that are identically the same. Choose a variety of different chairs, some big, some small, some softer than others, some rockers, some very old, some new, with arms, without arms, some wicker, some wood, some cloth.
In my mind, this alludes to the multiple perspectives that we should consider. Problem structuring is extremely difficult (and sometimes not possible) for complex problems mainly because of the numerous connected parts, numerous perspectives and due to the fact that there are portions of a complex phenomenon that we are not able to completely grasp. We should always welcome multiple perspectives. The great American Systems Thinker, Russell Ackoff said:
Effective research is not disciplinary, interdisciplinary, or multidisciplinary; it is transdisciplinary.
In our case, we can paraphrase this and say that effective construction of a conceptual model is transdisciplinary.
The same idea of conceptual model is applicable in Systems Thinking. A “system” is also a conceptual model. This is very well articulated by Weber Ulrich:
‘Systems’ are essentially conceptual constructs rather than real-world entities. Systems concepts and other constructs help us describe and understand the complex realities of realworld situations, including natural, technical, social, psychological or any other aspects that might potentially or actually be relevant at any one time.
Alexander proposed an 8-step approach for promoting “wholeness”. As we look at the steps, we can see that it requires deep questioning and thinking. How can we use this approach to promote constructing better conceptual models?
- At every step of the process—whether conceiving, designing, making, maintaining, or repairing—we must always be concerned with the whole within which we are making anything. We look at this wholeness, absorb it, try to feel its deep structure.
- We ask which kind of thing we can do next that will do the most to give this wholeness the most positive increase of life.
- As we ask this question, we necessarily direct ourselves to centers, the units of energy within the whole, and ask which one center could be created (or extended or intensified or even pruned) that will most increase the life of the whole.
- As we work to enhance this new living center, we do it in such a way as also to create or intensify (by the same action) the life of some larger center.
- Simultaneously we also make at least one center of the same size (next to the one we are concentrating on), and one or more smaller centers— increasing their life too.
- We check to see if what we have done has truly increased the life and feeling of the whole. If the feeling of the whole has not been deepened by the step we have just taken, we wipe it out. Otherwise we go on.
- We then repeat the entire process, starting at step 1 again, with the newly modified whole.
- We stop altogether when there is no further step we can take that intensifies the feeling of the whole.
The title of this post is adopted from the title of a Christopher Alexander book, “The Nature of Order”. I welcome the readers to take upon reading and learning his wonderful works. I will finish with the complete description of pattern 252, DIFFERENT CHAIRS:
People are different sizes; they sit in different ways. And yet there is a tendency in modern times to make all chairs alike.
Of course, this tendency to make all chairs alike is fueled by the demands of prefabrication and the supposed economies of scale. Designers have for years been creating “perfect chairs” – chairs that can be manufactured cheaply in mass. These chairs are made to be comfortable for the average person. And the institutions that buy chairs have been persuaded that buying these chairs in bulk meets all their needs.
But what it means is that some people are chronically uncomfortable; and the variety of moods among people sitting gets entirely stifled.
Obviously, the “average chair” is good for some, but not for everyone. Short and tall people are likely to be uncomfortable. And although situations are roughly uniform – in a restaurant everyone is eating, in an office everyone is working at a table – even so, there are important distinctions: people sitting for different lengths of time; people sitting back and musing; people sitting aggressively forward in a hot discussion; people sitting formally, waiting for a few minutes. If the chairs are all the same, these differences are repressed, and some people are uncomfortable.
What is less obvious, and yet perhaps most important of all, is this: we project our moods and personalities into the chairs we sit in. In one mood a big fat chair is just right; in another mood, a rocking chair; for another, a stiff upright; and yet again, a stool or sofa. And, of course, it isn’t only that we like to switch according to our mood; one of them is our favorite chair, the one that makes us most secure and comfortable; and that again is different for each person. A setting that is full of chairs, all slightly different, immediately creates an atmosphere which supports rich experience; a setting which contains chairs that are all alike puts a subtle straight jacket on experience.
Never furnish any place with chairs that are identically the same. Choose a variety of different chairs, some big, some small, some softer than others, some rockers, some very old, some new, with arms, without arms, some wicker, some wood, some cloth.
In case you missed it, my last post was UX at the Gemba: