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.


Hidden Garden Steps: Clean-ups, Collaboration, and Volunteers

March 15, 2012

We had the most wonderful of problems last week as we prepared for our monthly Hidden Garden Steps project onsite clean-up: the possibility of having more volunteers than could be effectively put to work for the two-hour Saturday afternoon event.

And we quickly found a winning solution for everyone by invoking one of our main vision statements for the project: collaborating with as many partners as possible to complete a $300,000 volunteer-driven community art and garden project.

Our monthly efforts to remove graffiti, sweep the 148 steps on 16th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton streets, develop gardens with donated plants (please see our online wish list for more information about specific donations needed for those gardens), clean clogged gutters and drains, and prepare the site for installation of a ceramic-tiled mosaic similar to what exists on the Moraga Steps here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District has steadily gained attention, support, and recognition since our first clean-up event was held less than a year ago and trees were trimmed free of charge by a generous donation of time and services from Tree Shapers, LLC.

Promotions through our San Francisco DPW Street Parks Program and San Francisco Parks Alliance partners (particularly Nancy Wong from DPW, who routinely delivers the gloves, tools, and other supplies needed, and Maria D’Angelico and Julia Brashares at the Alliance) help draw new volunteers to us each month. And a photo and blurb in San Francisco City/County Supervisor Carmen Chu’s latest newsletter inspired Elvina Fan (pictured here) and her fellow Lincoln High School Change SF members to contact us less than two days before the March clean-up to see how they could help.

This created a bit of a dilemma since nearly 10 members of Better Homes & Gardens Mason-McDuffie Realty here in San Francisco (pictured above, left) had already promised to join us for work that required no more than 15 people. But it was a dilemma quickly resolved through early-morning email exchanges with Andrea Jadwin, co-president of the Inner Sunset Park Neighbors board. She had a perfect project in place—and was willing to make arrangements with the Change SF volunteers on short notice.

“ISPN won a Community Challenge Grant in 2010 to make improvements to the parking lot in the heart of the Inner Sunset commercial district,” Jadwin recalled during a recent exchange. “The parking lot is home every Sunday to the Inner Sunset Farmers’ Market and other community events throughout the year.  Volunteers planted native and climate-adapted plants and painted the surrounding walls with coordinating colors and a simple design. Community Challenge Grants award funding is based on volunteer hours, so we try to organize several maintenance projects throughout the year—cleaning trash, weeding, replanting, and covering graffiti”—exactly what the Change SF students were offering to do for Hidden Garden Steps.

“It was great to have the students from Lincoln High’s Change SF service club come out and provide some much needed plant care and graffiti abatement. The neighbors, merchants and farmers will be so pleased with the results,” Jadwin concluded.

We sometimes hear, from those who are misinformed, that people are too busy to volunteer and that organizations need to compete rather than collaborate in attracting great volunteers and other supporters. But we certainly aren’t seeing either of those issues here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District. Volunteers from the Hidden Garden Steps project, the Inner Sunset Park Neighbors, Nature in the City’s Green Hairstreak [Butterfly] Corridor project, and other groups are working together toward our common goal of nurturing a sense of community that makes our neighborhood a place where we all belong. And we have the volunteers and other partners to prove it.

N.B.: This is the tenth in an ongoing series of articles to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco. 


Hidden Garden Steps: Volunteerism, Partnership, Community—and Success!

December 6, 2011

It’s magnificent to watch a community develop. It’s even more rewarding to be part of the group of volunteers contributing to that growth. So those of us involved in nurturing the Hidden Garden Steps project, designed to create a second ceramic-tile staircase surrounded by gardens (with  murals thrown in for good measure) in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District, are feeling absolutely giddy at the sense of community that is springing up around us.

Working with an ever-growing group of individual and organizational partners including the San Francisco Parks Alliance and the City and County of San Francisco Department of Public Works Street Parks Program, we managed to obtain another $10,000 toward our $300,000 project goal during a two-hour onsite fundraising event that drew generous and enthusiastic supporters to the Steps last Saturday. We attracted our 100th donor (organizing committee member Barbara Meli, pictured here) contributing to the individual tiles that will be installed up and down the entire stairway. We have also received donations to support installation of five of the 22 multi-tile elements that are a key part of project artists Colette Crutcher and Aileen Barr’s stairs design, with another two sets of donors committing to underwriting additional multi-tile elements.

And, the day before, we met with our colleagues in Nature in the City’s Green Hairstreak [Butterfly] Corridor project to explore ways we can work even more closely together to restore and extend a little of the area’s natural beauty and wildlife habitats throughout those Inner Sunset District hills.

Our monthly organizing committee meeting Saturday morning, furthermore, gave us a chance to catch up with each other briefly as we continued outlining our plans for more events, more onsite improvements, and additional steady growth toward completing the project. And we even took a few minutes to relish the increased sense of collaboration each new volunteer brings to this endeavor at long-term community-building.

Encouraging signs are springing up nearly everywhere we look. The trimming of the trees by Tree Shapers, LLC last spring and our efforts to remove considerable amounts of graffiti, debris and overgrown brush allowed us to begin installing the first a series of gardens combining California native plants, succulents, and other treasures. Our work is attracting an increasing number of birds and animals—including a squirrel that was sunning itself from the top of a telephone pole on a particularly sunny morning a few days ago hours after we added nearly two dozen Monkey Flower bushes–to that garden-in-progress at the top of the steps.

We’re continuing to work toward having structural repairs to the stairs completed as soon as possible so we can further prepare the habitat for the Green Hairstreak butterflies next spring and begin creating the tiles and tile elements that will adorn the steps. In the meantime, we continue to welcome interested members of our extended community to join us at the monthly plantings and clean-ups (second Saturday of each month from 1-3 pm if rain doesn’t prevent us from working), jump into the myriad volunteer opportunities available, or simply walk the Steps and join us in celebrating our accomplishments to date.

For information about purchasing a tile or becoming involved in the Hidden Garden Steps project, please visit our website at http://hiddengardensteps.org or write to us at hiddengardensteps@gmail.com. You’ll also find us on Facebook and Twitter (@gardensteps).

N.B.: This is the eighth in an ongoing series to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco.


Hidden Garden Steps: Growth

November 14, 2011

Who would have thought that Mark Twain’s timeless story of Tom Sawyer convincing others to paint a fence for him would find a parallel in San
Francisco’s Inner Sunset District? And yet, that’s what has been happening among the ever-growing group of dedicated, creative community volunteers collaborating on the Hidden Garden Steps project at 16th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton streets.

Those of us who have been involved in monthly clean-ups (second Saturday of each month, from 1 – 3 pm) since April 2011—painting walls and fences marred by graffiti, pulling weeds, sweeping steps, and planting the first small sections of what will eventually be a splendid set of community gardens around a ceramic-tiled stairway—are finding our ranks growing each time we spend a couple of hours on the stairs.

Last Saturday was no exception; a couple of new volunteers who learned about us through our participation in the Inner Sunset Street Fair in October and our latest reception at Crepevine joined us to weed around the succulents, California natives, and other drought-tolerant plants we’ve been putting into the ground as part of our effort to support Nature in the City’s Green Hairstreak (Butterfly) Ecosystem Corridor project. And while all of us were having fun cleaning up and putting a few new plants into the ground—including a small freemontodendron that will eventually be one of the signature elements of the garden near the top of the stairs—more people stopped to chat, offer encouragement, and ask how they could become involved in painting those walls and fences, pulling those weeds, and adding more plants to the garden.

It really is exactly what we all hoped it would be: a community project that thrives on the generosity of other members of our extended community. The initial plantings have been a combination of donations from our colleagues in the Green Hairstreak Butterfly project, neighbors donating cuttings from their own gardens, and nature’s own donations in the form of natives coming up  by themselves—ferns, a poppy that was one of the most colorful volunteers to pop up earlier this year, and a newly spotted lupine that broke ground within the past couple of weeks and will eventually add even more color and draw more wildlife to the site.

We’ve had a spectacular year of successes, including $60,000 in cash support and more than $20,000 in donated and promised services to push us toward our $300,000 goal. A colorful mural has already been painted at the foot of the steps by artist/art and mural instructor Angie Crabtree and a few of her Woodside International School students and alums as an example of how the project will beautify the neighborhood. Substantial tree-trimming was completed free of charge by Tree Shapers, LLC to enhance the views toward and from the stairway. The clean-ups and plantings are already transforming the site in ways that are attracting birds, butterflies, other wildlife—we even had a black-and-orange-winged butterfly rest on the hat of one of our volunteers while we were working last Saturday.

Next steps in preparing to tile the stairway will be to fix an off-center section and adjoining small wall at the top of the steps; colleagues at the City/County of San Francisco Department of Public Works are drawing up plans to complete that work at no charge to the project. Then, under the direction of project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher, the mosaic tile designs will be constructed by volunteers. Under the direction of the artists, professional tile setters will then apply the mosaic risers and grey tread tiles to the steps.

For information about purchasing a tile or becoming involved in the Hidden Garden Steps project, please visit our website at http://hiddengardensteps.org or write to us at hiddengardensteps@gmail.com. You’ll also find us on Facebook and Twitter (@gardensteps).

N.B.: This is the seventh in an ongoing series to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco.


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