Christopher Alexander and the Architecture of Collaboration (Part 2 of 2)

June 20, 2013

While there are numerous wonderful and obvious resources available to anyone interested in building successful collaborations, there are also gems—case studies—that are easily overlooked simply because they are marketed in a way that doesn’t immediately bring them to our attention.

Alexander--Battle_for_Life_and_BeautyAs noted in the first of these two articles, architect Christopher Alexander’s latest book (The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth: A Struggle Between Two World-System) is about far more than architecture; its description of two different building systems—one that is very traditional and cookie-cutter rigid, and one that incorporates flexibility and a firm commitment to collaboration to bring a project to completion—makes it a book with a compelling story as well as an essential guide for anyone involved in project management—including volunteer-driven community-based projects.

The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth is, first and foremost, the story of how Alexander and his colleagues worked with a client in Japan to build a stunningly beautiful campus that continues to serve high school and college students in a unified setting designed to inspire and nurture learning. With plenty of photographs to lead us from start to finish on the project, Alexander describes the process of how a commitment to collaboration at times produced spectacular results and at other times really did create battle-like cultural confrontations between those who wanted to collaborate their way to implementation of a dream (the campus) and those who simply couldn’t move themselves past the formulaic (and lucrative) process that was at the core of their approach to project management.

And that’s where The Battle becomes useful to many of us who are not at all involved in the creation of architectural building, but are deeply immersed in building of another sort: building training-teaching-learning offerings that make a difference to learners and those they serve; artistic endeavors that reach and move appreciative audiences; and the sort of community-based project that the Hidden Garden Steps endeavor in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District, represents—an effort to create a beautiful neighborhood gathering place which, when completed, will feature a 148-step ceramic-tile mosaic surrounded by gardens and murals to complement the earlier nearby project that inspired it.

HGS--Tile_Images--2013-03-11[1]Where Alexander begins with his standard practice of spending many valuable and highly-productive hours on any site upon which he and his colleagues are going to build, those of us involved in working with artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher on the Hidden Garden Steps project have spent hours walking up and down those 148 concrete steps that were originally installed in 1926. We know, by heart, the number of steps on each flight; we know how light bathes various points on that site throughout the day and how the site feels in sunlight, fog, wind, and rain. By working with colleagues in the San Francisco Department of Public Works—the government agency in charge of the site—as well as with tree trimmers and plenty of volunteers engaged in monthly onsite clean-ups, we have become familiar with the soil, the native vegetation, the erosion-control and onsite structural issues that must be addressed before the ceramic-tile mosaic-in-progress (pictured at left) can be installed later this year (if everything continues on schedule), and even the wildlife that is increasingly drawn to the site as we have worked to erase decades of neglect and create a habitat that supports everything from birds to a species of butterfly (the green hairstreak) that used to be prevalent in the area but had become rare until colleagues in Nature in the City began working to restore habitats throughout the nearby hills. And by working side-by-side with the artists in free public workshops, we’ve even played a hands-on role in creating the 148-step mosaic that is at the heart of the project.

Just as Alexander describes how he worked with numerous collaborators as well as those who were skeptical of his ability to produce the campus he was designing and working to build, we have created an organizing committee that serves as a project management team while reaching out to other existing groups ranging from neighborhood associations to our local elected officials. We’ve been present at neighborhood meetings, street fairs, and other events that have drawn in new partners. And just as Alexander attempted, in every imaginable way, to foster collaboration rather than hierarchical organizational structures, our organizing committee has been and remains the sort of partnership where the only real titles (co-chairs) exist so that those interested in joining us have a point of contact and so that we have what in essence serves as an executive committee tasked with keeping the project on schedule rather than offering top-down decrees as to how the project will be completed.

Alexander’s description of how the high school/college campus was completed comes across as an honest meditation on the joys and challenges of bringing a collaborative project to fruition, and those of us involved in the Hidden Garden Steps project have certainly had our moments of joy as well as moments of disappointment along the way. But what we all share in common is a start-to-finish commitment to working together as inclusively as possible to create something tangible (the campus, the Steps, or a training-teaching-learning opportunity) as well as something intangible and equally compelling: the sense of community that comes from building something together.

N.B.: This is the second of two articles applying “The Battle” to non-architectural settings, and the sixteenth in an ongoing series of articles to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco. A final free public workshop for volunteers interested in helping construct small parts of the overall mosaic will be held indoors in the St. John of God community hall in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District (5th Avenue and Irving Street) on Saturday, July 20, 2013 from 1-5 pm.


Christopher Alexander and the Architecture of Learning: When Systems Collide (Part 1 of 2)

June 19, 2013

Architecture quite clearly can offer an inspiring framework for teaching-training-learning—an idea that becomes obvious as we read between the lines of Christopher Alexander’s latest book, The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth: A Struggle Between Two World-Systems.

Alexander--Battle_for_Life_and_BeautyAlexander, whose extensive writings have been coming our way for more than 40 years, always writes first and foremost of his architectural endeavors. The books, however, are far more than explorations of his chosen field. Whether we’re reading some of his earliest works, including The Timeless Way of Building or A Pattern Language, or immersing ourselves in the 2,000 pages of his more recent four-volume The Nature of Order, we always find ourselves in the company of someone who looks beyond his own craft to see how it creates a world that works better—a phrase familiar to those of us who are active in the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD).

Making a world that works better is at the heart of almost any endeavor worth pursuing, and Alexander’s thoughts on the subject as it pertains to architecture often resonate for those of us continually striving to make training-teaching-learning something that results in a more beautiful, cohesive world.

At the heart of The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth is a compelling description of a challenge any trainer-teacher-learner can understand: the conflict between creating something that fits a predetermined template and uses the same approach everyone else uses just because it’s all we know, and creating something that meets the unique needs of each situation and set of clients (learners) we are called upon to serve.

In The Battle, Alexander describes an almost epic struggle to complete a project using what he calls System A—“…a type of production which relies on feedback and correction, so that every step allows the elements to be perfected while they are being made…”—rather than System B—“…a type of production that is organized by a fixed system of rigidly prefabricated elements, and the sequence of assembly is much more rigidly preprogrammed” (p. 19).

This clearly parallels the struggle we face in training-teaching-learning endeavors. We have abundant evidence that trying to rush learners through the learning process in the shortest period of time possible produces little more than test-based learning that is forgotten or quickly cast aside by learners who find little reason to apply newly-gained skills and knowledge to situations that do not support the use of those skills and that knowledge. We also have abundant evidence that densely-packed PowerPoint slides filled with far too much information for learners to absorb serves only to allow instructors to prove that they delivered the information they were meant to deliver—regardless of whether it results in the behavioral change great training-teaching-learning is expected to produce.

There are numerous beautifully-written, artful passages in The Battle that make us want to keep turning those pages as if we were reading a best-selling suspense story or a dramatic novel with characters we have come to love and care about. But in this case, the characters are compelling because we have come to understand their aspirations; are rooting for them to succeed; and become emotionally involved when they discover they have been betrayed and stand at the edge of a precipice from which there appears to be no escape—just as our learners understandably feel betrayed if we do not design the flexible, interactive learning opportunities that foster their—and our—successes in workplace learning and performance and other learning endeavors.

“Be patient, and take this in slowly,” Alexander counsels us at one point in his narrative (p. 394). If we take his advice and linger over that line itself, we realize how much of value that single line imparts to us in terms of all we dream and think and do. More importantly, we slowly and deeply begin to assimilate the lessons he imparts; see ways to translate them into training-teaching-learning and any other creative endeavor we commit to undertaking; and remind ourselves that books as inspiring and rewarding as The Battle require far more than a single cursory reading if we want to absorb all that the writer is offering us.

Next: Christopher Alexander and the Architecture of Collaboration (Applying “The Battle” to the Volunteer-Drive Community-Based Hidden Garden Steps Project)


%d bloggers like this: