The first and second posts of this inquiry summarised nine different published presentations of permaculture design process. The third post shared a seeming contradiction between permaculture’s emphasis on mimicking nature and the common permaculture practice of completing and only then implementing a detailed design.1
In this fourth post I explore Christopher Alexander’s long-standing contention that this is a real contradiction and furthermore a contradiction that can only be resolved by revisiting and radically revising our most basic understandings of what nature-mimicking design actually is.
I’ll start by looking at a tiny part of Alexander’s career-long critique of the design processes used by conventional architecture (the flip side of his attempt at an alternative). We can consider what (if any) of this applies to permaculture later. But first, let’s consider the validity of his critique in a purely architectural context.
In Book Two of his Nature of Order Series, titled The Process of Creating Life, Alexander (2002) describes in some detail the process used by the famous painter Henri Matisse when creating his works of art. He then goes on to ask:
What is the essential difference between Matisse’s successful process and the unsuccessful process typical of our professional architecture today? Suppose an architect at a large commercial office like Skidmore, Owings and Merrill is drawing their design, and then makes the claim that what they are doing is just like the Matisse process? Can we answer? Is there an objective distinction between the one process and the other?
The critical difference is the absence of feedback. In Matisse’s process, each step is a small step forward from a previously existing reality. The next step is taken as a feedback and as a response to the reality of the actual painting, as it emerges. That is what keeps the thing on track, and what keeps making it better. Matisse is watching the actual painting; his hand is hovering over it. He drops down one more spot of colour, in response to the real thing. Each move he makes is based on the direct feedback from the real thing, and the real feeling as a whole, which the evolving painting creates. The process therefore has a good chance of making the real painting better all the time.
The architect drawing at their table or on their computer is an entirely different case. The architect is drawing the building. But since it is not the real building which is being formed, nor any simulation which might come close to creating feelings and sensations like those which the real building will create in the user’s mind, the architect cannot tell, while they are drawing and from what they draw, what would really be going on in the actual building if it were built. They get no realistic feedback from the drawing on paper because one cannot judge the real behaviour, the nature of the real building, by looking at the lines on paper. Of course, this architect, if challenged on this point, might claim that this is just where their experience lies: that they can tell, from the pencil lines, what the real building would be doing and that it is this ability which makes them an architect. But this is a polite fiction. It is a polite lie on which our 20th-century architecture was based. The truth is that no one can tell what the three dimensional reality of the building is going to be based on a few pencil strokes or a few lines on a computer screen. You cannot tell what the light is like, what the view is like, where the plants will grow, where you feel like walking, where you feel like sitting, what natural intuitive response a group of people will have to sitting in a particular room (if it is too high, too low, too wide, too narrow, too strangely shaped, too distant in feeling from the garden or the room next door), where the sun is going to shine on the floor in winter, whether one can hear sounds from one room to the next, and so on–a thousand things. And it is because of this ignorance about real things that we do not get feedback from the pencil sketch.
That is why what we architects do with our pencil sketches is not in the least like what Matisse did when he painted the Woman in a Chair. At best the architect is drawing something, and their next step is a reaction to the drawing. Each pencil stroke is thus only a reaction to a previous set of pencil strokes. Since it is not, at any step, based on feedback about reality, there is every chance — one might say there is a certainty — that this process is going to go off the rails. It is the lack of continuous responses to reality which makes the process used by big commercial offices highly vulnerable, and which makes it — inevitably — unsuccessful. (p. 245)2
The significance of this passage is made harder to grasp by the fact that in Matisse’s case, the actual thing he is ultimately creating is on paper. The thing the architect is ultimately creating, on the other hand, is out in the world and made of concrete (or mud bricks) and glass etc etc. The question naturally arises, therefore, of “yeah sure but how on earth do you get the real feedback you seek as an architect – are you saying that you must go ahead and start building with no plan? With no design? That is a patently insane recipe for disaster!”
This is a question I’ll come back to in upcoming posts.
But for now, let’s start teasing out the implications of all this for permaculture design.
For a start, we should acknowledge that surely all (or at least most!) permaculture designers are more in touch with the realities of the site than the average architect. Permaculture has always been about tuning deeply into the landscape, and increasingly emphasises tuning deeply into the clients and the goals they articulate.
Yet these truths in no way erase Alexander’s contention that no matter how deeply we initially tune into people and place, if we complete a detailed design on paper (or computer) before implementing it on the ground, we lack the feedback necessary for the design to be particularly good, in the sense of highly adapted and harmonious (akin to nature’s creations).
An obvious retort from a permaculture designer practicing in what we’ve established as the standard permaculture way might be:
yeah we get all that – hence the evaluation or feedback phase during or after the completed design’s implementation
Toby Hemenway said as much in The Permaculture City:
This [evaluation] step is missing from many traditional design processes. Often, architects and designers move onto another by the time one project is done and don’t hear whether their concept actually worked. In permaculture design it’s an integral part of the design process. It creates a feedback loop, a defining hallmark of any whole system (p. 46)
Yet from Alexander’s perspective, this kind of after-the-fact feedback doesn’t cut the mustard. It is too little. It is too late. In the next post, I’ll go deeper into why.
Note: In the meantime, I invite comments3 from anyone who has experienced the process of completing a detailed design then implementing it. How did it work out? Did the lack of real feedback discussed by Alexander in this post create any issues? Was the detailed design a help or a hindrance? Did you have to tweak or adjust your design as the implementation unfolded? Or was it totally fine and you see no issue with such an approach? Do you feel any resonance of any of this stuff with your own experience? Come on people, don’t be shy, say something – let’s crack this conversation open together!
Alexander, Christopher. The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe: Book Two: The Process of Creating Life. Vol. 2. of 4 vols. The Center for Environmental Structure, 2002.
Hemenway, Toby. The Permaculture City. Chelsea Green, 2015.