As I stated in my last post, Spaces, Christopher Alexander’s design ideal is to “design from within,” that is, grow your root space, using spacial patterns that are psychologically comforting as proven through the ages. Furthermore, Alexander came to believe the building process needs to include those who would live in the developed spaces. And they need to be included from the beginning, starting with obtaining the building loans to build the house.
Alexander eventually got to experiment with his ideal: because they felt the project would create less expensive housing than otherwise, the government of Mexico backed the Mexicali development. They committed to the financing of thirty houses, to be built by Alexander and his architects, in a cluster, and in partnership with the families that would live in and own the houses.
The Mexican government pulled the financing after just five completed houses because they didn’t look much different from conventional houses. But that the Mexican government abandoned the project shouldn’t be a sign of failure. Governments can be as flighty as crows on a telephone wire. However, Alexander was also disappointed in the completed houses. They did not display the patterns that had the (in his terms) “quality without a name” to his satisfaction. But guess what? The owner/builders liked their new houses.
What those five houses had, was not Alexander’s but the owners’ concept of habitability much as those owner-built farmhouses Alexander admired. I’ll suggest that because the owners built them, those five houses passed the habitability test in the owners’ minds, despite falling short of Alexander’s ideal. Not only could they modify their houses if and when they wished, but because they built them, their houses hold no demons; no sneak attacks of large expenses; no lengthy inconveniences while owners learn those commercials by insurance companies are sales pitches, not reimbursement policies. The owners would not need to rely on hired help to maintain their houses.
As with self-driving cars and peace in our time, the attempts to design modern no- or low-maintenance housing has so far been a failure. Old-fashioned wood-framed houses need ongoing maintenance, but we already know how to do that. But, by “we,” I mean those with the relevant skills that leave most of us out. And that’s the problem. The Mexicali project was so important to Alexander’s ideas and ideals that the owner/builders had ongoing mentoring while the houses were being built. There’s no reason to believe the owner/builders could have built houses on their own to even their own satisfaction.
Those ancient European buildings Alexander based his ideas of comforting spacial patterns were built before the complications of indoor plumbing, electricity, and modern heating. In my recollection of the Little House on the Prairie books I read to my daughter, Pa’s log cabins did not include the complications of indoor plumbing, electricity, and modern heating. So building out the farmhouse as needs changed dealt with only a fraction of what a modern owner/builder would contend with.
Wealth of Nations (but not of its citizens)
The Wealth of Nations was published four months before the United States Declaration of Independence. Author Adam Smith is called the father of the economic system of capitalism, but he was also the uncle of the division of labor, the concept that a workforce of specialized skills would produce more national wealth than a nation of many-skilled Jack of all trades. While Smith was right about more national wealth, the division of labor does not necessarily produce more national wellbeing.
The division of labor has created a sometimes bizarre level of reward for those who fit a right-place–at–the–right–time niche, while leaving those who don’t fit that niche to struggle financially and psychologically.
Masters of a very small universe
In the eighties, the macho hero had morphed from the man who could take care of himself, to the Wall Street stock market hero such as depicted in the film, Wall Street. The most ridiculous (but should have been ridiculing) characterization of the 80s Wall Street hero was published in the business section of the Los Angles Times. The article was on men’s sleeve length, and the major point was the more your shirt cuffs extend past your jacket sleeves, the more “power” you exhibit. I hope the journalist got a Pulitzer.
In his novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe used satire to drive a stake through the heartless self-absorption and delusions of grandeur of these crusaders for personal wealth. When the self-proclaimed ”Master of the Universe” stockbroker misses his freeway turn, he accidentally steers his Mercedes into a dangerous, violent neighborhood. As he finds out, no amount of exposed cuff would stand up to the Masters of the Bronx. He panics, and a tragicomic plot ensues. Outside his contrived niche, this character is not a master of anything.
“An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about nothing.”
—Nicholas Butler (One-time president of Columbia University)
The scariest show I’ve ever seen is the TV miniseries, The Haunting of Hill House, based on the novel of the same name. Like all great horror stories, the dread is mostly in the anticipation of the unknown, what can spring up for that which you're ill-prepared. But at least haunted house movies prepare the viewer (if not the movie character) for nasty surprises through change of perspective, lighting, and music.
That people fear change, the unknown, is an insight that deserves a big “duh,” but our fears of change and the unknown has taken a colossal jump because our competence beyond contrived niches has atrophied. We’re buggy-whip salesmen witnessing the introduction of the Ford Model-T.
Those who whip up fear and hatred against scapegoats are exploiting our fears of incompetence, our fears we can be easily “replaced.” Our increasing incompetence is real, brought from obsolete influences:
The division of labor had advantages for everyone (in first-world countries) when you had lifetime employment at General Motors or IBM. Today, job security doesn’t exist. Instead of job security, knowledge workers (those who work with only words, symbols, and numbers) are advised to develop their “brand” so they can make it as “independent contractors.” Now, everyone needs marketing expertise—Mad Men skills—in addition to their vocational expertise. Tell that to coal miners and store clerks.
The public school model we use was largely defined in the 19th century in Germany to churn out low-skilled workers for the industrial revolution.
Higher education (once a gentleman’s club for those who didn’t need to earn a living) was designed to churn out narrowly trained knowledge workers for once dominant corporations that may be now past their pull date.
The narrow-niche education and training that create over-specialized competence is no longer viable for the “engine of commerce.” But more than that, narrow-niche education and training has had a negative effect on our general competence and psychological wellbeing. We’re good at not just fewer things, we’re less confident and secure. While most of us won’t ever build our own house, to either Alexander’s standards or our own satisfaction, we can learn to be less dependent on niche competences that could evaporate within a generation.
Next: Learning and Education