Timeless Way of Building

Day 107 of Self Quarantine                       Covid 19 Deaths in U.S.:  127,000

I love Christopher Alexander’s Timeless Way of Building.

I love the form and the content.  Alexander wrote the book so that it can be read in 5 minutes, 20 minutes or the full book in five hours.

My favorite passage stops me every time when I try to do the 20 minute read:

Chris Alexander, Timeless Way of Building

In the midst of the pandemic, the economic crisis, and the Black Lives Matter protests, I am re-reading my timeless companion.

During my first reading, I noted a passage about the importance of work, play and home life being in the same place for a town to be alive.  I loved this design pattern as an ideal, but I saw no way that it could be realized in our modern life (pages 105-108 of Timeless Way of Building, 1979).

A man is alive when he is wholehearted, true to himself, true to his own inner forces, and able to act freely according to the nature of the situations he is in.

To be happy, and to be alive, in this sense, are almost the same.  Of course, a man who is alive, is not always happy in the sense of feeling pleasant; experiences of joy are balanced by experiences of sorrow.  But the experiences are all deeply felt; and above all, the man is whole; and conscious of being real.

To be alive, in this sense, is not a matter of suppressing some forces or tendencies, at the expense of others;  it is a state of being in which all forces which arise in a man can find expression; he lives in balance among the forces which arise in him; he is unique as the pattern of forces which arises is unique; he is at peace, since  there are no disturbances created by underground forces which have no outlet, at one with himself and his surroundings.

The fact is, a person is so far formed by his surroundings, that his state of harmony depends entirely on his harmony with his surroundings.

Some kinds of physical and social circumstances help a person come to life.  Others make it very difficult.

For instance, in some towns, the pattern  of relationships between workplaces and families help us to come to life.

Workshops mix with houses, children run around the places where the work is going on, the members of the family help in the work, the family may possibly eat lunch together, or eat lunch together with the people who are working there.

The fact that the family and play are part of one continuous stream, helps nourish everyone.  Children see how work happens, they learn what it is that makes the adult world function, they get an overall coherent view of things; men are able to connect the possibility of play and laughter, and attention to children, without having to separate them sharply in their minds from work.  Men and women are able to work, and to pay attention to their families more or less equally, as they wish to; love and work are connected, able to be one, understood, and felt as coherent by the people who are living there.

In other towns where work and family life are physically separate, people are harassed by inner conflicts which they can’t escape.

A man wants to live in his work and he wants to be close to his family; but in a town where work and family are physically separate, he is forced to make impossible choices among these desires.  He is exposed to the greatest emotional pressure from his family, at that moment when he is most tired — when he just comes home from work. He is confused by a subtle identification of his wife and children with “leisure,” “weekends.” and hence not the daily stuff of life.

A woman wants to be a loving woman, sustaining to her children; and also to take part in the outer business of the world; to have relationships with “what is going on.”  But in a town where work and family are completely separate, she is forced to make another impossible choice.  She either has to become a stereotyped “housewife,” or a stereotyped masculine “working woman.”  The possibility of both realizing her feminine nature, and also having a place in the world beyond her family, is all but lost to her.

A young boy wants to be close to his family, and to understand the workings of the world and to explore them.  But in a town where work and family are separated, he, too, is forced to make impossible choices.  He has to choose to be either loving to his family, or to be a truant who can experience the world.  There is no way he can reconcile his two opposing needs; and he is likely to end up either as a juvenile delinquent, who has torn himself entirely from his family’s love, or a a child who clings too tightly to his mother’s skirts.”

The Covid 19 Pandemic is illuminating the best and worst of the above two juxtaposed worlds for many families.  The problem is exacerbated with two parents working full time AND teaching their children.

The positive aspect of our new normal showed up for my daughter.  She was on one of her many Google Meet online meetings when she excused herself to help her six year old daughter who was in the middle of a science experiment.  “Wait a minute,” her peers on the meeting interrupted.  “Move your camera so we can see the science experiment.  That is a lot more interesting than what we are currently talking about.”

The negative aspects are washing over parents and children as their stress levels reach higher and higher as they try to maintain their old way of working, while trying to teach full time, and strive to have a family life.  And do all of this while in the lock down environment of self-quarantine.

While modern communication technology has enabled many of us to survive this pandemic, Alexander’s vision of a bygone era doesn’t fit our new normal.  We have to envision what a mixed work and learning and family life environment can be.  Alexander for all his wonderful visions of a healthy work life balance falls far short of what we need today AND tomorrow.

This entry was posted in Content with Context, Design, Family, Flipped Perspective, Idealized Design, Values. Bookmark the permalink.

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