Next week will be my 5th anniversary working for the Planning Advisory Service. I’ve been here from pretty much the beginning, when first there was three, then quickly four to now where we’re temporarily sitting on 15 people.
I’m not a planner. Didn’t really know much about it when I began… still can’t profess to know loads even if I sometimes feel I know too much about the government industry that surrounds it. Our now departed ‘spiritual leader’ Sarah Richards used to try and tell me I’d find myself doing a planning course and becoming a planner before long. She wasn’t quite right. For a long time I just couldn’t get into it as a profession, despite meeting a bunch of good hearted bods, genuinely enthusiastic about making the world a better place.
Sometime in the last year RichardPritchard sent through a link to Mathew Helie’s excellent blog ‘Emergent Urbanism’ to flag up some particularly vicious satellite shots of planning gone wrong. I pulled off Mathew’s introductory academic text – his ‘Principles of Emergent Urbanism’. It struck a chord, even if some aspects seemed beyond my intellectual grasp there was a core to it that appealed. A lot of it was pointing to the work of Christopher Alexander, a noted architect and teacher.
I borrowed his 1977 Book ‘A Pattern Language’ from the library and was floored. Here was a text that was eminently readable, accessible, frequently insightful and often funny to read. It was inspiring. It made me want to build my own house, my own community, a city – to be a planner. Here was a book – interestingly an early example of a hypertext ie intarweb-like doc – that did an exceptional job of setting out “why is planning a good thing?”.
The thing is though, that the town planning made real for me by A Pattern Language bears so little resemblance to what we experience and work with in the UK. The evidence for their patterns nothing like an LDF evidence base… yet the evidence for the patterns are powerful evocations of why places should be shaped in a certain way. Why certain kind of structures should be built and where. How this inspirational quality of what is essentially a planning document can be brought to life in the work of planners in this country is something I’d really love to see understood. Let’s call it my great hope of 2010…
I’ve now moved on to Alexander’s more recent works – in many ways these are concerned more explicitly with aesthetics and metaphysics – both inextricably linked to the practice/process of creating buildings for Alexander. Here’s a story from ‘The Luminous Ground’ (the 4th book of ‘The Nature of Order’ series) I read on the plane back from Sweden yesterday. It made me think about planning, but moreso, it made me feel good, and I wanted to share it.
Alexander was involved in the design of a new high school campus in Japan in the 80s. He talks about a special method for asking questions – I’m not sure of the method here, probably a way of finding out – but the outcome is most important. They would ask questions to students and teachers at the school about what they wanted – their dream place. It was difficult to get a response. Either the questions wouldn’t be taken seriously or people couldn’t get past expectations. Eventually, through applying their method, they discovered a repeated desire for water that they incorporated in the form of a lake.
“And now, so many years later, when people are asked what it is about the school that means the most to them, many say “the lake”. It has become first on many people’s list of things they like about the campus. What people originally told us, half-ashamed, about their dreams of water and small paths where they could think about their next lecture, was something real. Now that the lake is there, this real feeling has room to exist, and has become more real. The connection people expressed as an aspect of their inner selves was not an artificial concept but an inner reality which has been proven in practice”
He then goes on to detail what happened at the new campus – uniforms and rules abandoned, but the more poetic outcomes were that students started taking a greater involvement in after school activities (widespread in Japan) – early buses home emptied and the last one was always full. Eventually local parents pooled their own funds to build a building on campus that allowed them to be there, too. The sense of attachment and belonging to the place – community – was profound. A beautiful thing. Would be nice if we could make those kind of places here, too.