In the last post I summarised the processes of tuning or immersing into the people and place aspects of a particular design and development project (Mayberry Woodend).
I shared how we clarified the overall vision for the project, the areas and activities initially envisaged as contributing to this vision, and the existing structure or layout of the site and its surrounds.
In this post I continue the story of this process as it steps into the question of what move to make first?
For this is a story of experimenting in the space of generating, where rather than fabricating a whole-site design up front (whether to the concept or detailed stage) the focus is on clarifying a sensible first move, making that move, clarifying the next best move, making it, and so on.
Here, in Christopher Alexander’s words,
Each … decision, is made in sequence and in context. It is worked and reworked right then and there until it is mistake-free, i.e., it takes into account all the connecting relationships. This must be done in sequence and in context because the necessary information for a successful decision is not available prior to that step in the unfolding. (2002, p. 201)
The idea is that, taking natural processes as our model, we don’t bother trying to predict the future in the sense of making premature decisions about what happens down the line. We instead focus everything on being present to where we are now and what the right next step is from here.
In this sense a generating process is an unfolding process, where design and implementation are inextricably intertwined, and once things are in motion, co-exist as co-partners in an ongoing dance.
Getting High-Level Tensions on the Table
Some of the highest-level tensions to emerge during the analysis and assessment phase were to do with:
Water (lack thereof)
The site was very dry over the summer months and the two existing dams (ponds) were not holding water well at all, evidently due in part part to very limited catchments. Helping those dams better catch water falling as rain during winter and then store it for summer irrigation was an obvious design priority.
Wind (excess thereof)
The site was very windy to the extent of often unpleasant for food-producing plants, people, and other animals. In summer the strong winds exacerbated this tension around dryness. One could feel one’s skin desiccating, during a short walk, so one can imagine the effect of the skin of the earth (topsoil)
Visual Privacy and Property Integrity
Related to wind was the tension one felt around being fully exposed in all directions not just to wind but to neighbour’s eyeballs (including the neighbours yet to move into a large adjoining suburban development). Part of this two was the feeling of the place sort of bleeding into the surrounds without any kind of framing, any indication (apart from just anther fence) as to where the place started and stopped.
The existing driveway and main entrance to the houses was chronically tension-ridden. Here it is indicated on the aerial photo then with a photo of walking in:
Some of the tensions were:
- as a guest arriving it felt very uncomfortable in that the driveway shot you into the most sheltered, private area tucked in behind the houses such that you couldn’t see where you were heading until you where there and it felt inappropriate as if you were bursting into the resident’s private space unannounced
- on top of this as a guest arriving it felt very unclear where you should park both as you approached the homes and after you had entered the private-feeling space around the back
- as a resident it felt uncomfortable to not be aware of a car arriving until it was at the back door, and sometimes not even until the guest knocked on the back door.
- as a resident it felt unsafe to let the young children play in the most obvious, sheltered, shaded and accessible place given that at any moment a car could come flying into the space
- the driveway was pushed up against one boundary meaning you didn’t get any kind of feel or view of the property you were entering
- the driveway felt unbalanced in that on one side there was a semi-dense cypress hedge and on the other a line of large blue-gum eucalyptus & pine trees at much wider spacings meaning the driveway felt like a lop-sided, incomplete avenue (not to mention that the gums and pines were like a massive wick leading from the direction of highest fire-risk directly toward the homes)
- the semi-dense cypress hedge on the boundary still allowed very partial vision through into the neighbour’s place which because it was mostly concealed felt somehow inappropriate
- The Mayberry crew had from early on envisaged an additional dwelling of some kind, such as a bed and breakfast, on the property, and it seemed likely this would end up down he back. The current driveway meant guests would have to drive almost right through the main houses to get to their getaway – not ideal!
The First Move: honing in on, clarifying, and crash-testing from multiple angles
Now it was clear, a no-brainer if you will, that trees would be involved in addressing the tensions around wind. However, drawing on the idea underlying Percival Yeoman’s scale of permanence, we knew that the changes we made around water sat at a higher and more permanent level than trees. Same for the primary access ways into and through the property.
For after Climate and geology/landform, which we’d tuned into earlier, Percy’s scale run water, access, trees, and on from there.
So though we knew trees would be in the mix, we forgot about them for now. We knew we could get them fitting in with the higher-level water and access program later on.
This left us with water and access, which we also knew tend to work together to define a sort of skeleton for the site, that you subsequently can flesh out with trees and all the rest.
So we now focused 100% of our energy on this question:
how might we reconfigure the existing dams and access in order to fully resolve (or dissolve) the high-level tensions currently felt of each, and in a way that takes us toward the project (place and people) vision, and harmonises with and extends the existing deep structure of whole site?
It was game on and the ideas started flow.
One idea that emerged early on, and that emerged independently for a few of us, was the idea of re-routing the driveway such that it wound through the centre of the front of the property in such a way as to also define a drain enlarging the catchment for the largest dam.
Thanks to Tom for penning this recollection of how the idea arose for him:
One thing I was reflecting on last night was how the idea of the driveway came to me from the client perspective. On top of all of the analysis work there was an important factor in all of it – which was just ‘time’.
To use a cooking analogy – We threw all of the raw ingredients (area mapping, topo maps, tensions we felt, holistic context, wishlist, walking the property over and over and mentally noting certain observations) into a big pot and let it warm up, simmer (for a few months at least) and eventually it bubbled over. I stood in the back paddock on that high convex platform and without forcing it, the idea of a private, ‘away from the homestead’ guesthouse arose – it felt like it couldn’t be anywhere else. So then I wondered ‘how you would get to it without going through our private house area?’ – which was one of our big existing tensions anyway. And almost immediately (thanks to countless walks around the dam wall) I saw this new driveway taking us around the dam, away from the houses and connecting us to the back of the property. In that moment so many tensions related to Access just evaporated and I thought ‘Wow – this is the answer!’
Here is the sketch Tom drew after this moment (the large oval representing a vaguely-defined possible area for the b&b idea they wanted to keep open as a future possibility):
I should mention here a critical aspect of the attitude to new ideas as they arose: we assumed that everything we came up with could be wrong, and set out immediately to seek and find evidence that it was was wrong.
It was walked. It was driven. It was discussed. More sketches were made. Here is an early version in which you can see noted two remaining issues/tensions:
Here’s a version with a suggested resolution of those two residual tensions. This was sent through to the earth worker (Graeme Jennings) and tree systems guru and project co-manager (David Griffiths) for feedback:
But it didn’t stop there. Oh no. We sought to put the decisions we were testing through every grinder imaginable. While staking out and tweaking over and over with a lazer level was part of the mix, so was the Mayberry crew building a clay model of the property and crash testing different driveway and dam configurations this way:
At one point I enjoyed watching this youtube of a driveway test from the comfort my house bus in New Zealand:
Here is a video of one of the many testdrives:
Time for Action
Here’s a hint of what happened next:
More in a week. Catch you then.
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.