Habitability, Pt 2
It was fun growing up with a brother close in age. There weren’t many kids in our neighborhood, so we invented two-player games of baseball, football, basketball, and even hockey using roller skates, golf clubs, and tennis balls. But when I reached my teens, I thought it would be handy to have a sister who could have helped decrypt the code of girls.
The closest I got to having a sister was visiting my three cousins in Chicago, two of whom were girls. My favorite memory with them was sitting in their little kitchen alcove, sipping (pre-drip era) percolator-brewed coffee in the morning, and gossiping about who knows what. My cousins were funny and pretty, but what I didn’t understand at the time was the contribution of the kitchen alcove.
Architecture is a prediction, and all predictions are wrong
Let’s say I’m an extrovert who likes big parties (I’m neither, don’t throw me a surprise party), so I invite fifty people to my home. Thirteen don’t enjoy the party and leave. The remaining thirty-seven are having a good time and suggest, since we get along so well, they’d like to stay for an indefinite time, but feel my modest-sized house is too small. It needs more bathrooms for thirty-seven dwellers. And another refrigerator. And a larger dining table. And so on.
I call my architect, Jay, who designed our modest home. He just sighs: The house wasn’t planned for expansion, it was planned for two adults and two children, a finite nuclear family. He won’t attempt to re-design on-the-fly.
If you have thirty-seven people in your home, chances are at least three have done carpentry. That’s an absolute fact I just made up. And the group probably includes a painter, an electrician, and a plumber. The carpenters, electricians, and plumbers begin to add bedrooms, bathrooms, and a larger dining area. I recall my fun with my cousins: “Don’t forget the breakfast nook!”
The expansion takes considerable time. From the outside, my house starts to look like a spiked punk hairdo, but it’s comfortable—comforting.
To my shock, Architectural Digest is impressed, and does a cover feature. The magazine story is a big hit, and all the trendy people hire architects to design one just like it for their nuclear families. Well, not just like it. Architects have to prove their value and have to attract new customers. Each house they design is a billboard. The hired architects soften the punk look and make other changes that improve its outside appearance. The rooms inside, of course, have to be molded to the modified dimensions. Ironically, the architects’ versions would defy the hallmark of the original, the ease to modify the house for changing needs.
In my larger now crowded house, over the years, dwellers come and go, old people die, children are born. The house continues to get modified as needs change. Eventually, though, almost everyone has moved on. The house is sold, and a conventional MacMansion is built on the lot.
The architect-designed versions are hated by their owners and sold.
Christopher Alexander (who died in March 2022), mathematician turned architect, and Cal, Berkeley, professor of architecture, was a philosopher and theorist of optimal layout patterns in communal spaces, such as public buildings, homes, rooms, towns, eating and drinking establishments, public squares, and any place people live and congregate. He writes about what and why there are living spaces that attract people, such as the cozy alcove in which my cousins and I sat.
Alexander’s books assert two principles of design for living spaces: First, most architectural and city planning design is too abstract, in that it doesn’t take into consideration the living experience of the dwellers. He came to believe, rather than a space designed whole, dwellers need to live within an initial structure, the roots of a living space, and grow the space as they feel the need. Second, living spaces should conform to spatial patterns people have enjoyed through the ages.
An Alexander ideal is the farmhouse, where you start with a big kitchen and add rooms as needed for a growing family. As he began his career as a college professor, my yet unmarried brother bought a one-room cabin on a lake. A wife and three children, later, the cabin had grown to a two-story, four bedroom house. My wife, who was raised in rural western Pennsylvania, explained it was common for families to start with a basement and add a first floor as their needs grew.
We shape our buildings, and afterwords, our buildings shape us. —Winston Churchill
Notice I used biological terms, “roots” and “grow,” to describe Alexander’s ideas. These terms imply a co-evolution of dwelling and dwellers. If some dwellings give people worse psychological comfort, and some better psychological comfort, then those dwellings are shaping those who live (or work) within. And if the dwellers are sufficiently sensitive and capable, they can regard the initial structure as a root and grow that structure to improve their psychological comfort.
Alexander’s ideas of patterns are not limited to dwellings. His 253 patterns include cities, public squares, cathedrals, and all spaces used by humans in their daily lives.
Alexander’s concept of designing from within, modifying a current dwelling for comfort and need while using his ideal patterns as guides, was named “habitability“ by Richard Gabriel, a software language developer. Software developer? Alexander’s influence has long gone beyond design for living spaces to (my characterization) designing from within, with patterns, in non-material domains, such as software development.
Alexander acknowledges that all buildings are designed initially by an architect. But if the building has been designed by an architectural Tetris player, where every space is tightly interdependent, it defies modification. The building cannot be changed for need, only torn down and rebuilt. The changing needs of the dweller are rendered insignificant. Contrast with the traditional country farmhouse that can be modified for need, endlessly.
Most people now live in the city or suburbs, in bounded homes, whether houses or apartments. Real estate marketing has replaced user home-building skillsand has colonized our imaginations: we once had roots and growth farmhouses, now we have “starter homes,” “homes for growing families,” and “downsizing.”
Whereas we used to live in our homes, we now squat on our asset, until we need to exchange our current asset for one of the three home assets, above. Building codes, created for safety, now primarily serve conformity and “property values.”
Just one of many below-our-awareness frustrations that influence our lives.
More habitability sequels to come.
Those of us less adept, can barely find skilled builders to modify our homes because they have more than enough work tearing down old houses and replacing with bigger houses or multifamily dwellings.