Visionary with a Toolbelt

A few weeks ago, East Atlanta resident and cooperative preschool co-founder Jason Deck and I sat at Inman Perk Coffee discussing A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander’s massive 1977 book about urban planning. In a little over two months, however, this situation could not occur. Not because Deck or I will be gone—though existentially that is not out of the question—but because Inman Perk Coffee itself will have relocated across North Highland into the row of new, tall, steel-sided lofts, about one hundred yards from its present location. Still “Inman Perk” by name, the space will inevitably look and feel a bit different than its current locale and will have a newly distinctive impact on those who meet there, a fact that reopens the ongoing debate about what gives a certain place its specific atmosphere. It’s the particulars of this imminent move, though—its causes, consequences, and implications—that are an apt set of circumstances in which we might, with a modest degree of success, conjure up and reconsider Christopher Alexander and his entourage of planners whose work continues to incite readers to re-envision the built environment and our place in it, even some thirty years after its original publication.

A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction is a sprawling, colossal tome that is intimidating to look at as well as to hold. Part of a larger, even denser trilogy of urban contemplation (including The Timeless Way of Building and The Oregon Experiment, all three of which the author explicitly states should be read together), it comes as some immediate relief that A Pattern Language seems not so much meant to be read as it is to be consulted. The preface is tellingly entitled “Using This Book” and in it Alexander & Co. note that in what follows the “solution is always stated in the form of an instruction,” referring to the many environmental “problems” they set out to solve. Fractured into over 250 subsections (Alexander calls them “patterns” that together “create a coherent picture of an entire region”), the book overflows with illustrations, notes, numbers, figures, suggestions and explanations. At once a practical and theoretical do-it-yourself manifesto, it has enjoyed intermittent popularity as both a textbook and an underground marvel.

Jason Deck, a native to Atlanta, was himself introduced to A Pattern Language in childhood, growing up with parents who were active in the community. “My family was always very interested in public causes,” Deck reports, “and so I remember seeing Alexander’s books around the house.” More than anything, he says, his parents tried to impart to him how to be a good steward of the land. From there, Deck admits that he used A Pattern Language over the next ten years as he needed it, never necessarily reading it all the way through front to back (admittedly, a daunting task), but rather seeking out threads within the encyclopedic volume that would help him build structures, organize groups, or conceptualize projects. So after he moved back to Atlanta post-college and started his own family, Deck says Alexander’s book resurfaced as latently influential when he and a group of like-minded citizens in Cabbagetown began looking for a building in which to set up the “Cabbagetown Campus” of the Grant Park Cooperative Preschool, an educational facility/community center.

As seems consistent with Deck’s character and community ethic, it’s not surprising that at both the onset and conclusion of our conversation, Deck emphatically stated that the “preschool has really been a cooperative effort between a bunch of folks—emphasizing the fact that this was a community effort is important.” In Alexander’s models, accordingly, individual people are rarely solely responsible for any part of what is built and maintained in the community, which might explain why Deck has thus far blended into the woodwork, so to speak. Most successful urban construction efforts, Alexander stresses, result from the work and input, even if indirectly, of the many people who will be affected by what is built. “There’s a long history of neighbors working to revitalize Cabbagetown Park,” says Deck, “and the attached community center [that became the preschool’s eventual home] was acquired from the city by them. The preschool is now the primary tenant and has done all of the heavy lifting as far as money, management of permitting and construction goes, but we lease the space from the neighborhood.” Like in a harmonious, well-balanced community matrix, then, no one entity controls the space.

To get to this point, though, Deck and his peers found resistance on many bureaucratic levels. “The last permitted use for the building was in the 1990’s as a daycare center. The building had been in use unofficially for several years as a community center. The problem we ran into was the mixed-use concept of combining a school and community center.” Where he and the city disagreed, Decks says, was on the level of language. “They didn’t get it, didn’t understand what we were trying to do with this old, unused building.” It is precisely this complex and problematic language “for building and planning” that Alexander attempts to codify in A Pattern Language. In fact, the notion that cities and communities are organic entities that is so central to the book is one that Deck says has been most instrumental to his efforts in East Atlanta. “A school isn’t just a place for kids—it’s a place for parents and community members, too—that’s what we were trying to explain to city officials.” It’s little wonder then that Deck and his preschool ideas were met with opposition: buildings and planned communities are usually almost solely commercial endeavors, which also explains why so many cookie-cutter “lifestyle centers” like Atlantic Station® and the Edgewood Retail District are cropping up in large metropolises across the country. Deck and the city of Atlanta were indeed, therefore, speaking different languages.

The cooperative school has eventually taken off, but not without overcoming its share of obstacles—from zoning issues to legislative measures—but it’s founders have done so because they believe what is essentially an Alexanderian tenet: “[Town and neighborhood structures] can emerge gradually and organically, almost of their own accord, if every act of building, large or small, takes on the responsibility for shaping its small corner of the world.” What Deck and his compatriots saw was a need to make their neighborhood a better place. Currently, 55 children are enrolled in this the first year the preschool’s doors have been open and Deck is proud of that. “It’s great. It’s a physical space and culture working together. When people think about the space they are creating, interrelated to the rest of the city, it makes the entire area more livable.”

What’s striking about Jason Deck’s demeanor is that he does not come off as an urban visionary, though that’s exactly what he is. Though he serves on the boards for several nonprofit organizations (such as the SoPo Bike Co-Op, which he is currently helping to gather steam in East Atlanta Village), Deck understates his many achievements and contributions, all the while seeming to eschew pure theory, which may seem paradoxical considering his affinity for Alexander’s dense, speculative work. Furthermore, Deck speaks conscientiously—if not overtly diplomatically—about political, environmental, and community affairs with which he does not agree. In many ways, then, Deck actually works in direct contrast with those who have elsewhere taken up Alexander’s work. Whereas Deck is wholly invested in grassroots design that occurs, in essence, from the bottom up (that is, citizens building upon what already exists, based on a foundation of need) others have taken from Alexander’s work the notion of planning and executing a community before it actually exists—in other words, in a governmentally sanctioned, top down method where businesses and legislators determine the needs of the people. To build a future, Jason Deck and his kin would rather strap on a tool belt, walk into an abandoned building and get to work making it livable, instead of sitting at a table with piles of plans, devising and drawing people into a space that does not yet exist.

From his work on the preschool, Deck said he has learned much about negotiating for the actual needs of a neighborhood. He came onboard SoPo for many of the same reasons he undertook the school. “It’s a community project that is based on a network of people learning,” Deck says of the nonprofit bike center. “Like a school, SoPo is more than the sum of its parts—it’s a place where people meet and learn and teach each other, and not just about bikes.” Saying that cooperative efforts like SoPo make communities more close-knit is not only appropriate, but also accurate. Like in knitting, pulling on one thread inevitably affects the rest of the threads, and the entirety of the garment, in the same way that Alexander believes everything about a society overlaps and is intertwined.

Whether he is discussing SoPo, the preschool, or anything else, Deck is never far from reiterating his drive: to help communities meet human need. Looking forward, Deck is enthusiastic in trying to help SoPo solidify a move into the East Atlanta firestation when its new firestation is finished being built. “SoPo is a place where people share tools and knowledge,” Deck asserts, “making it an important public space.” During our conversation, in fact, it became evident that Deck is concerned that what’s missing in our neighborhoods and cities is what he calls “real public space,” even if it gave him pause to define what exactly that means. “It’s a vague concept,” he admits, but as he went on it’s clear that his italicized notion is tied to a variety of aspects, from public authenticity to how businesses are run, from where people go for fun to why people have certain perceptions about certain places. In short, Deck laments the “loss of individual investment in the ‘place’,” an idea he no doubt got from Alexander. An overriding motif of A Pattern Language is the belief that when people invest themselves in work that is close to home, which is itself close to parks and community centers, which are in turn close to businesses, a community successfully pulls itself together as a safe, enjoyable, and livable place. It follows that instead of always beginning anew—as in building new places on the outskirts of town which results in the town always growing outward instead of inward—we should advocate reuse of buildings that already exist and find a way to make them livable as they now stand. Alexander writes, “When someone tells you where he ‘lives,’ he is always talking about his house or the neighborhood his house is in. It sounds harmless enough. But think what it really means. Why should the people of our culture choose to use the word ‘live,’ which, on the face of it, applies to every moment of our waking lives, and apply it only to a special portion of our lives—that part associated with our families and houses?” If we take Alexander’s advice and “think what it really means” in relation to, say, Atlantic Station® and its corporate-sounding slogan “Life Happens Here,” we’re left wondering who exactly designed this “life” and who exactly they had in mind when they began construction. It seems suspicious that a brand new multi-use development—whose very name is a registered trademark—can self-proclaim that “life” and its many layered connotations occurs there. The paradox of this self-referential language allows Alexander’s point to reverberate: we should pour deliberate thought into the consequences of how and where and especially why we build, which brings us irrevocably back to the situation with which I began this article.

If you have ever visited Inman Perk Coffee (full disclosure: your author is employed there as a morning-shift barista) you will notice that many people seem to be at work there, and I mean this quite literally. A high percentage of the clientele are usually on computers, almost as if the space is their cubicle-free office. The cafZ is being displaced, however, because the building in which it resides is scheduled for demolition to make room for a new building, though no one seems to know what this redevelopment will bring. Though a building already exists, plans have been set into motion to make a new one, almost certainly because the one in existence is not as financially lucrative as the one that will supplant it. The story, one assumes, goes like this: an offer was made to the building owner, an offer that was most likely difficult to turn down. The owner therefore sold the building, and the developer who purchased it did so because the newer one will generate more revenue than the price that was paid for the current building. Alexander would hang his head at this equation because every detail of it is privatized and is not rooted in public good or public need. “Shops rarely place themselves in those positions which best serve the people’s needs,” he writes, “where the shops are seen as part of society’s necessities and not merely as a way of making profit for the shopping chains.” And though it is not yet certain what will become of 280 Elizabeth Street or how it will affect the feel of that neighborhood, we might safely say that the redevelopment is driven by monetary gain and not the best interest of the people who live and work and relax in that part of the city.

Throughout A Pattern Language it is clear that Alexander’s unwavering interest is humanity and the cities it has created. His “language,” unfortunately, has not been translated by his readers as cleanly as it might have. Larry Quick, an urban planner I consulted via email whose work centers on complex adaptive systems and resilient communities, concedes that Alexander is “working tirelessly to get understood before he passes.” Quick says Alexander’s work focuses on “the built form through a careful design and choice of sequences—you design over time a range of sequences for a particular task, and you apply those sequences—not in a static linear form, but more a dynamic, situation based manner. That way you get to choose how you approach a building task that befits the time, space and ‘language of the land’.” Unfortunately, Quick writes, since the principles of Alexander’s work are usually not financially lucrative, they are ignored by planners and builders alike.

Not unlike “The Communist Manifesto” or the Bible, then, A Pattern Language is a controversial text that simultaneously endures scrutiny, scorn, and praise. New theories have come along to challenge its theses—while concurrently being in debt to them—but the book holds invaluable nuggets of urban consciousness that can help us interpret the unique problems of our current historical situation. Like any respectful study, understanding and making use of Alexander’s work takes time, hard work, and careful thought.

The problem with talking about “solutions,” if you’ll recall that moment in Alexander’s preface, is that they are so final sounding. Many of Alexander’s “solutions” (which are “in bold type,” he writes in the preface, “like a headline”) come off as aphorisms or moral commandments, absolutes that should never be disregarded. Though it sincerely attempts to be a practical guide, A Pattern Language cannot help but be rudimentarily hypothetical at its core, though that fact has not stopped groups of planners from building entire new towns from scratch using some of Alexander’s premises. New Urbanism, for example, advocates that new communities be built, often independent of existing cities, in hopes of reforming and restructuring “public policy and development practices,” as the Congress of New Urbanism states in its charter. Though this type of design has several positive aspects, it ignores Alexander’s hope that community development be driven by the needs of the public. All this is not to say that Alexander’s work is not useful and appropriate; only that we must apply its advice and declarations to spaces that already exist, much like Jason Deck has done.

The danger of all complex ideas is that they will be misunderstood and then applied in harmful ways, but this is rarely the fault of the work itself. Alexander has produced a brilliant, if complicated, system for understanding human community systems. But, as Quick writes, “only Chris really gets his work.” Our job remains to find how the observations and designs amassed in A Pattern Language can work to make our world a more livable place, as Alexander writes, “without ever doing it the same way twice.” Taking time to learn the “language” of the land and our culture will help ensure we’re not just hearing our own voice. At some point, we must recognize that the luxury to expand and start over is gone; we have to deal with what we’ve already created. Deck and Quick agree that Alexander’s work, though it is difficult to penetrate and impossible to simply and universally apply, needs to be studied and contemplated by the minds of our current, if not also our next generation. Whereas Quick advocates that youth take up and ponder Alexander’s work, Deck encourages city officials and planners to become fluent in Alexander’s specific language. If we work to understand what the land is saying to us now, and what Alexander was saying to us 30 years ago, it is almost certain that patterns will start to emerge—patterns that, if recognized, will help us build and live fuller, more enjoyable lives in an ever-changing world.

See and Do for Yourself:

A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, Oxford University Press, 1977, 1171 pages, by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein with Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King and Shlomo Angel. (In the spirit of A Pattern Language itself, it seems only appropriate to mention that the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System owns two copies of the book, one at the Ponce de Leon branch, and the other at the Central branch.)

SoPo Bike Co-Op

Grant Park Cooperative Preschool

Larry Quick and New Commons ‘Think and Do’ Tank

Atlantic Station®, Atlanta

Congress for the New Urbanism