Chapter 9: The San Francisco Bay Area – Soul
THE RESTAURANT looked like a California salad—twenty variations on the color green, with the occasional strip of purple. It was called, inevitably, Chardonnay's.
From a window table, the middle-distance view was of raw, turned ground. It was not, however, as in the old days of Northern California's San Ramon Valley, being readied for new walnut groves. Instead, it would soon be planted with a "town center"—a mall for the 585-acre Bishop Ranch Business Park, which already had more office space than downtown Milwaukee or Tampa or Memphis.
Despite the size of Bishop Ranch, Chardonnay's was its first "gourmet" restaurant, taking reservations and offering cloth napkins. And indeed, it was a sufficiently pleasant lunch place that you almost forgot it was inside a new Marriott designed with all the stolid, Stalinist, blocky masses of a works Progress Administration municipal building for an industrial city on the decline. The balcony rails looked like bars on a state prison.
That Marriott exterior really frosted Alex Mehran, the thirty-nine-year-old scion of Bishop Ranch, which is at the core of one of the biggest Edge Cities in the San Francisco Bay area, well into the mainland on I-680 in Contra Costa County.
Here he was, trying to bring some civilization into this place, said Mehran, something beyond just office space, and the design was changed; the execution was flawed—
"Oh yeah, it pissed me off. No question about it. We've spent millions of dollars out here attempting to create the highest quality environment. It was a big deal. I was very upset."
Alexander R. Mehran is to be taken seriously about what he views as a quality environment and civilization, for he is an urbane man. Of Persian descent, he was educated at Harvard in government, and then went on to England's Cambridge for law.
"I thought I was going to be a public international lawyer," he said. "Government, yeah. That's what I really wanted to do As a kid, I always wanted to figure out what can you do to influence the most people to make their lives better."
He ended up at Morgan Guaranty Trust for three years, and he still looks the part. His impeccably tailored double-breasted suit is of a fabric so luxuriantly black as to match his angular jaw, where even the most glistening shave cannot eradicate the shadow of his beard.
But in 1977, he returned to what had been the residential development business of his father, Masud. There Alex became the foremost Edge City builder in Northern California.
Mehran is very much part of the San Francisco scene. He commutes seventy miles round trip across the Bay Bridge to San Ramon each day so that he and his family can live at that pinnacle of San Francisco culture and wealth, Presidio Heights. He is a trustee of the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums, which oversee the Asian Art, De Young, and Legion of Honor museums near the Golden Gate. His wife, Lucinda, is an heiress, the daughter of Tom Watson, who made IBM what it is today. Mehran's fingernails are manicured; his manner is both charming and disarming.
In short, if America were looking to put someone in charge of building its new urban prototypes, it presumably could do a lot worse than to hand the task over to Alex Mehran.
That is, at any rate, what we've done.
For out on the floor of the San Ramon Valley, over which Mount Diablo looms with a Fuji-like presence, four Edge Cities have erupted, and Alex Mehran's is the most premeditated. In 1987, his Bishop Ranch won the Urban Land Institute award as "a model of foresight, planning, and partnership between public and private interests." A previous winner was Disney World.
Indeed, no twig, no blade of grass is out of place. The Mexicans with leaf blowers are everywhere. Mehran has spent a fortune on landscaping.
"Big money," he agrees. "Huge money. Our crews that look after the stuff go through intensive training. How to prune and how to deal with an irrigation system that's very conservative in the use of water. It's very state of the art."
Chevron USA's largest office facility in the world is at Bishop Ranch. Ten of the top fifty of the Fortune 5oo are here.
Toyota is here. The seventy-five-hundred-employee administrative headquarters of Pacific Bell at Bishop Ranch is so large, it features a fourteen-acre lake. There are master plans. There are enforceable covenants. There is a three-pad heliport.
Mehran is very pleased with Bishop Ranch 8, his latest development; he is eager to show it off to a visitor. Out front, thirty-eight jets of water dance, in a Rockettes-straight line. They are surrounded by miniature pansies this October day.
Bishop Ranch 8 is three, identical, 200,000-square-foot. five-story buildings. Each has black granite accent stripes. Each has curtains of smoke-gray reflective glass. Each is crowned by triple barrel-vault skylights. Each has a five-story atrium at its core.
The catwalks at each level, inside, are railed by smoke-gray transparent glass. Each walkway has a half-moon balcony. The edges of the balconies are equipped with an irrigation system from Sweden to allow ivy to cascade in proper Hanging Gardens fashion toward the sculpture and trees below.
The central sculptures in each building are made of metal and moving water. In the first building, silvery brushed sheets have been rolled into a curve. That curve matches exactly the one made by the sheet of silvery water ejected from the front of the sculpture, completing a half circle. Neat trick. In Bishop Ranch's brochures, such sculptures are referred to as "quality statements."
The indoor trees are not in tubs. They appear to grow right out of the floor.
"Why trees?" I ask Mehran.
"Quality of life. What I'm really trying to say more than anything else is, this is nice. When I drive you up and take you into the building, what I hope you'll say is 'This is nice. I could work here.' We have a lot of significant art that's around. Those are all important elements of this place."
"Would you want to live here?" I ask him. No, he haltingly concedes. No.
"Would your wife want to live out here?"
"Well, again, that presumes that the . . . We are city people. Both my wife and I prefer to be closer to those cultural attractions of San Francisco," Mehran admits.
This is no small issue. Here is a worldly man who believes in the benefits of civilization as it is enshrined in San Francisco, which prides itself on being the most civilized city in America. Here is a man with education, taste, money, and know-how. If anybody should be able to build civilization into our Edge Cities, it is he.
But what he is building is Bishop Ranch. That, according to the Urban Land Institute, is as good as it gets in America. Yet it is a place so devoid of what Mehran values personally as to be unrecognizable as a center for the soul.
This is the paradox of Edge City. Will it ever have civilization? Will it ever have life? Or will it be a vampire, without a spirit of its own?
And if you can't build a civilized Edge City in the San Francisco area, where can you build it?
San Francisco worships the notion of urbanity. It revels in comparisons to cosmopolitan European climes. The weather is Mediterranean, rarely burning or freezing, and so are the views. San Francisco, like Rome, is built on seven hills, and the vistas from their garden-cascaded spines are of the sailboat-dotted, ever-changing Bay.
Preservation and renewal of pre-automobile downtowns—not only San Francisco's, but even Oakland's—are unquestioned issues of civic patriotism. The Old World charms of residential neighborhoods, from the intricately painted Victorians of Russian Hill to the donkey-climb roads of the Berkeley Hills, are cherished. San Francisco is so dedicated to "quality of life" that this town, which rose on the muscular commercial shoulders of gold miners, China traders, financiers, and stevedores, now finds its number one industry to be tourism.
Yet in the San Francisco Bay Area the majority of new jobs and wealth are being created in Edge Cities that have been pushed as far as physically possible from the undeniable charms of the old urban core. Half a dozen logical, closer-in Edge City locations have been leapfrogged.
This conflict between life and growth is crucial. To understand it requires some grasp of San Francisco's enduring schizophrenia.
At the same time that it trumpets its worldliness, San Francisco is a relentlessly introspective, parochial, and not very large place. Fewer than 750,000 people actually live in that political jurisdiction, out of a Bay Area population of six million. More people live in San Jose, to the south, and far more live in Alameda County, on the East Bay, than live in San Francisco. The docks have moved to Oakland. The melting pot to Los Angeles. The financial muscle to Tokyo. And new wealth and jobs to the Edge Cities of the Santa Clara (Silicon) and San Ramon valleys. The financial district of San Francisco, of postcard skyline fame, has only a third of the Bay Area's white-collar jobs.
Nonetheless, the San Francisco Examiner delights in referring to San Francisco as, capitalized, The City. There is something about old downtowns on small areas of land almost surrounded by water that fosters an islandlike mentality. (Downtown Boston is the same way.) San Franciscans are convinced there is little save barely explored unpleasantness beyond the Tiburon Ferry. Silicon Valley is regarded as a weird, separate, sprawling world. It is as though, inexplicably, a chunk of Los Angeles has floated up into the back yard. It is viewed as certainly alien and probably evil. Similarly, the wine country of Sonoma and Napa, an hour to the north, is distinct. These valleys may be great places to eat, drink, and show visitors, but with inland afternoons a panting 20 degrees hotter than Nob Hill, they certainly are not part of the Bay. Oakland's existence is grudgingly acknowledged only because the A's are such a vastly superior baseball team to the Giants.
At least San Franciscans concede these places exist. That is not true for the land beyond the Berkeley and Oakland Hills. Abandon hope, all ye who venture beyond San Pablo Ridge. At the other end of the Caldecott Tunnel the world ends. That is the edge of urbanity, of hope for one's esthetic soul. "No one" lives beyond Tilden Park. To move beyond the sight of the TransAmerica Tower is to renounce civilization. One restaurant critic who did so—for the sensible reason that he could no longer afford the prices of the Bay—felt compelled to justify his defection by insisting, desperately, that he could "still get the New Fork Times delivered daily" to his Contra Costa address.
And in fact, over that ridge—the Contra Costa County line—and through that tunnel, one does enter into the economy and mindset of a different world. If, as the political demographer Michael Barone notes, the coasts of California belong to liberal Democrats, and the inland ground to conservative Republicans, San Pablo Ridge is the cultural divide. Contra Costa's Walnut Creek is not merely twenty minutes from Berkeley. It is separated by world views and values and assumptions about humanity.
Right there, inland, paralleling those north-south hills, is the valley-floor artery of Contra Costa, Interstate 680. That is exactly where four of the Bay Area's most voluptuous Edge Cities bloomed in the 1980s: around Concord, Walnut Creek, Bishop Ranch, and the Hacienda Business Center near Pleasanton. And that is where some people think the center of gravity of wealth and jobs in the Bay Area may someday be.
There are seven Edge Cities in the Bay Area with more than five million square feet of office space, not counting downtown San Francisco or Oakland. The four mentioned above are east; two are south in Silicon Valley—the area around Sunnyvale and the one around San Jose; and one is on the Peninsula, surrounding the airport.
Depending on whose growth estimates you believe, between two and five more Edge Cities are surfacing. One more is out on that Contra Costa strip, around the Pleasant Hill Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station. Two more may clot in San Mateo County on the Pacific Coast Peninsula, of which San Francisco is at the tip. One would be to the north, in the Daly City area near the San Francisco line, the other to the south, in the Redwood City area near Palo Alto and Stanford University. One may conceivably mature someday in Marin County, around San Rafael. And there's always the unlikely possibility that the Berkeley-Emeryville area may grow up.
But this distribution of wealth and jobs is not the way anybody really wanted it or planned it, neither the developers nor the preservationists. It is a function of the Law of Unintended Consequences.
Given the patterns in other regions of the country, in principle the most likely places for Edge Cities to arise in the Bay Area would have been around the intersections of whatever road functioned as a beltway and the spoke roads that radiated from downtown. Especially favored would be the areas of Nice, where chief executive officers would want to live.
Near San Francisco, most of those options were blocked. That is what made Contra Costa inevitable.
The San Francisco area is surrounded by wall-to-wall Insurmountability. Most of the 88 percent of the land in the Bay Area that is undeveloped is undevelopable, according to Richard LeGates of the Public Research Institute of San Francisco State University. Everywhere you look, there are wetlands, or flood-plains, or mountains, or ridges, or seismic or geologic problems, or dedicated permanent open space, or land that is verboten for reasons of public safety or the protection of natural resources. Even after a third of the Bay was covered with landfill—which now, in an earthquake, shakes like an overweight jogger—there remained a very limited amount of firm, flat land on which to build cities.
To that has been added a great deal of political Insurmountability. Petaluma, a small town north of San Francisco in the Sonoma Valley, became nationally famous when, in 1972, it radically departed from traditional community planning by shutting growth down to five hundred building permits per year. Until then, communities in the United States had viewed growth as desirable or at least inevitable, and focused on means to accommodate it in an orderly fashion, even to court it.
Given that the opposition to growth it pioneered is now ubiquitous, it's hard to believe that it was only twenty years ago that Petaluma's call for a stop was new. But in the late 1960s, the quality-of-life and environmental movements were young, and in Petaluma, the widening of a freeway attracted hordes of commuters seeking inexpensive housing, large lots, and good schools. This, of course, led to congestion, strain on city services, heedless exploitation of beautiful and sensitive portions of the environment, skyrocketing taxes, and long-time residents vilifying newcomers for destroying Petaluma's small-town character.
The result was the sparking of the American limits-to-growth movement. Petaluma's stance has been copied, with results both good and ill, in hundreds of communities. In few places, however, were the lessons heeded so thoroughly as in the areas near San Francisco.
Marin County is marked by mammillary hills, magnificent beaches, coastal wetlands, baylands with spectacular views, rural pastures, and narrow wooded valleys between untouched ridge-lines. The range of breathtaking juxtapositions may be unmatched in such small compass anywhere in the United States. Add the easy commute to San Francisco, and you get an extremely desirable jurisdiction that is the most rabid in the Bay Area about retaining open space and protecting the environment. Not surprisingly, the limits to growth have driven up housing prices. The people who live there are well-off, educated, and environmentally aware. Forget about an Edge City achieving escape velocity there anytime soon. San Rafael would have to more than double in size.
The other direction from downtown San Francisco, south, has similar constraints. The Peninsula is marked by places like elegant, manicured Hillsborough and Atherton. They sport stone-wall-lined lanes and the highest median home prices in the Bay market, a market that is hyperventilated by the standards of New York or Los Angeles. The old-money, "right" families made it to the Peninsula long before the Golden Gate made Marin accessible in 1938. This still counts in San Francisco.
Downtown San Francisco itself has put unprecedented limits on high-rise office growth, fearing the growth that has occurred already threatens the human scale of the place. In essence, only two new buildings, totaling a million square feet, may be built per year.
Due east is the town still referred to, by both its admirers and detractors, as the People's Republic of Berkeley. It was recently looking to put rent control on commercial space, to protect marginal home-grown retailers from the threats of more popular and profitable chains. Capitalism, most especially as it is practiced by real estate developers, is a whole lot less than welcome in Berkeley, practically and philosophically. Berkeley, like Palo Alto, has residents and shops that are impeccably urbane, but both places are accurately referred to as college towns, not large cities.
Thus, within the bowl defined by sharp edges of land sloping down to the Bay's flat bottom, there is not much left on which to build Edge Cities save the flatlands of the East and South Bay. Logically, the freeways around the Bay shore should have functioned as a beltway, with Route 101 on the west mirrored by Routes 8o and 88o on the east. Given the constraints to the west, it would not have been a surprise if an Edge City had grown up at every eastern point where this circulating highway was intersected by a Bay bridge—one to the north at the end of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, one to the south at the end of the San Mateo Bridge, and one in the center, at the end of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
That didn't happen, either. When Edge Cities began to take off in the 1970s, those flats either were covered with seriously unattractive industry, such as oil refineries, shipyards, warehouses, and containerized freight docks, or were packed with the homes of people who were blue collar to lower class to underclass. Many were black. A large number were unionized. This labor force did not have the education, skills, or attitudes that Edge City developers had in mind. These places represented too many headaches even to bulldoze.
It was at this point that developers took a deep breath and started casting covetous glances beyond the hills, away from the Bay, toward the far suburbs that had once been the arid farm country of central Contra Costa County. Walnut Creek was the emotional center of this area. It had been the market and financial center of the region from the 1980s, when it was, in fact, the walnut-growing capital of America. By the late 1970s, central Contra Costa was marked by big homes in bosky glens. These homes would have been viewed as breathtakingly expensive in most markets, but they were reasonable by the standards of the Bay. More important, they were physically and psychologically far enough from San Francisco that people already were beginning to look less and less toward the old city for their needs. When Edge Cities began to erupt in the early 1980s, then, all the ingredients were in place: an educated, affluent, underemployed work force of women; a great deal of relatively cheap land for expansion; high-end housing for executives; and business-oriented governments that saw in growth increased opportunities for tax money.
The result was office Platz up and down I-680. That road in effect became the outer, outer beltway of the San Francisco area. Where the spoke road from downtown and the Bay Bridge crossed I-68o at Walnut Creek, there grew the hottest job and retail center in the East Bay—larger than Oakland in white-collar jobs and more fashion-conscious than Berkeley. Concord, a few miles north, where the tracks for Bay Area Rapid Transit end, also boomed. Twenty miles south you got two more Edge Cities. That is where another spoke road crosses I-680—the road from the bridge crossing the Bay at San Mateo, leading to the international airport. One of these Edge Cities was centered on the Hacienda Business Park near Pleasanton, Livermore, and Dublin, almost forty miles southeast of downtown. Another was built in the vicinity of the Bishop Ranch near San Ramon, with the illustrious Chardonnay's. These southern Edge Cities are oriented toward San Jose and the Silicon Valley as well as San Francisco and Walnut Creek.
In fact, these last Edge Cities are sufficiently far from the old city of San Francisco that way on the other side of the Altamont Pass, smack in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley, the inland agricultural terminus of Stockton is now part of their commuter shed. Some people working in Silicon Valley endure sixty-five-mile commutes one way, starting at 4 A.M., in order to be financially eligible for a traditional suburban home and yard in such San Joaquin County towns as Tracy. No wonder the San Francisco metropolitan area now statistically includes Davis, eighty-five miles from downtown, almost halfway to Nevada.
Yet here is the antagonism between life and growth.
The preservation of nature, especially when it is as spectacular as that found in Northern California, is seen as a good. In fact, such nature is so valued that people will pay great amounts to live in its midst, as in Marin. But such homes are not seen as compatible with nature. They are said to "spoil" the serenity and peace and one-ness with the universe that people came to the area for in the first place. As does the traffic these homes bring.
Meanwhile, the yeasty cosmopolitan flavor of a diverse and complex metropolis such as downtown San Francisco is seen as a good. The most romantic and expensive neighborhoods of the old metropolises are in the "old town" neighborhoods, like Telegraph Hill, that boast three- and four-story walk-ups and very high residential densities—as many as sixty families to an acre of land. These, in turn, support all manner of good things in places like North Beach—from sidewalk cafés, to bookstores, to imaginative and idiosyncratic shops.
However, the most virulent and thankless zoning battles fought today are over any attempt to build new housing at such densities. Most people don't think they will be charming. They think they will be concrete towers or ill-named cinder-block "garden" apartments. They hate the very idea of living packed together, cheek by jowl, in such constructions. They view them as antihuman and antihumane. They don't even like the idea of living next to such structures. Under no circumstances is crowding like that associated with integration into nature. And yet without such densities, land-eating sprawl is a certainty.
Still, the creation of new enterprises—increasing jobs and wealth—is viewed as a good. Such activities take place, by definition, in commercial buildings. And most people put a premium on living close to their jobs. But if a residential neighborhood does become established as having life and spirit and a center and a wholeness, its partisans view the building of a modern office center close by as the end of the world. And Heaven forfend somebody should suggest a mall.
Thus, the contradictions between life and growth. Residential development is seen as incompatible with the preservation of nature; the residential neighborhoods that are associated in a magical way with the idea of civilization, like the Hyde Park-Kensington area of London or the Montmartre area of Paris, are seen as threatened by the twentieth-century structures that accommodate the creation of prosperity and abundance that pay for those homes. All this, while design professionals worship at the altar of mixed use, the notion that a "good" place is one that has jobs and homes and shops, as was common in Benjamin Franklin's Philadelphia.
This, in a nutshell, is the dilemma of the San Francisco Bay Area, the place that has always prided itself on livability and civilization. San Francisco has demonstrated that it has few if any acceptable mechanisms to bring new people and new jobs into its existing structure, other than by trying to crush the opposition. Instead, it forces growth out into the desert, into the area's most nether regions. There, in what businessmen love to refer to as "the real world," economic forces are more readily dealt with. But the price is high. Any sense of civilization or soul—the very commodity that distinguished San Francisco from old East Berlin—is scant.
Is this any way to build cities? Are home and nature and work forever cloven in the late twentieth century? Are they antithetical, doomed to remain in conflict, as every zoning board hearing seems to suggest? Does it have to be this way?
The evidence suggests the answer is—probably yes. But there is one man who does not think s0 His name is Christopher Alexander.
Depending on whom you listen to, Alexander is the most innovative thinker of the last hundred years on the way we design and build our lives; or he is a dangerous radical who threatens the fabric of the building, banking, real estate, and architecture industries; or he is a delusional flake. Or some combination of the above.
He thinks we can build all of our buildings, all of our Edge Cities, with "life." That is to say, he thinks we can fix our world. The views of this fifty-three-year-old professor at the University of California at Berkeley are the focus of deep respect and thorough disdain. This is why: Alexander, for the last twenty years, has been laying out a foundation for a new way of thinking about what we build. It is so sweeping, and so at odds with the existing order, that it is important to understand why he thinks its adoption inevitable.
Alexander believes that the way we have been designing buildings and cities, and our very lives, is so screwed up that the whole rickety system is soon going to collapse of its own weight. Even England's Prince Charles has taken up the cudgel. He has denounced Britain's architects as worse than the Nazis: "You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe: when it knocked down our buildings, it didn't replace them with anything more offensive than rubble," Charles said. "We did that."
Even the architects who are designing our world know there's something very wrong, Alexander would argue. Otherwise, why do they desperately tart up their Bauhaus skyscrapers with Postmodern neon lights along the edges, and Chippendale curves along the top? Even that last resort of bad architecture—ivy—is newly popular, cascading in every Edge City direction, shielding office buildings so harsh and disturbing that they are specifically built to be covered with the stuff.
Little wonder Alexander thinks he sees evidence in all directions that our current means of doing things—from the neighborhood-destroying skyscrapers of downtown San Francisco to the sprawling office parks of I-680—cannot hold. The collapse of this structure, Alexander figures, will occur as surely as did the collapse of the Iron Curtain.
When that happens, Alexander wants to be there with a declaration of independence. It starts by holding this truth to be self-evident. When people walk around a village that was built two or three centuries ago—whether that village be in Virginia or France—they feel better than they do on an asphalt strip of gas stations and fast-food outlets. Similarly, there are great cathedrals and mosques in which we feel an awe or a peace that is not present when we stand in the atrium of a new insurance company tower. "Everyone knows that there is something spe
cial there . . . something which does not appear, almost at all, in our own time—something palpable and definite," he writes.
He calls this something "life."
And, he says, the idea that some buildings and neighborhoods have it, and others do not, is a fact.
Not an opinion. A fact. As incontrovertible as the idea. that, with a tape measure, you can discover whether a door is wide enough to get a refrigerator through.
If you buy the idea, as a fact, that some places have wholeness and others do not, then, he maintains, you have set yourself up to buy his idea that a lot of twentieth-century architects' and developers' mumbo jumbo is headed for a fall.
Alexander and his Berkeley associates are attempting, in the most empirical way they can, to discover patterns in the ways some buildings and cities and nooks and crannies in our world have life, and others are sterile and dead—and shunned.
This led, in 1977, to the publication by the Oxford University Press of A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. It was the second of what are now six books Oxford has published in Alexander's search for a "timeless way of building."
In A Pattern Language are no fewer than 253 rules of thumb that Alexander's team believes capture what it is that environments with life have in common, no matter in what century the environment was built or by which culture. What's more, the book outlines ways in which laymen can build more places of a satisfying nature, despite the burdens of our modern age.
For example, pattern number 159 is "Light on Two Sides of Every Room." As with all the other patterns, it starts by stating a proposition: "When they have a choice, people will always gravitate to those rooms which have light on two sides, and leave the rooms which are lit only from one side unused and empty."
A discussion of the logic of the pattern follows: "Please try these observations yourself. Examine all the buildings you come across in your daily life. We believe that you will find, as we have done, that those rooms you intuitively recognize as pleasant, friendly rooms have the pattern; and those you intuitively reject as unfriendly, unpleasant, are the ones which do not have the pattern."
An explanation is proffered: "Rooms lit on two sides, with natural light, create less glare around people and objects; this lets us see things more intricately; and most important, it allows us to read in detail the minute expressions that flash across people's faces, the motion of their hands . . . and thereby understand, more clearly, the meaning they are after. The light on two sides allows people to understand each other."
The narrative then takes a shot at one of the Great White Gods whose architectural dicta have produced the slabs that make our world what it is today: "A supreme example of the complete neglect of this pattern is Le Corbusier's Marseilles Block apartments."
A Pattern Language discusses how to handle the pattern practically. In this case, it suggests that it pays to get as many corners into a building as possible—"wrinkling" the exterior design of the building.
(Digression: The ultimate symbol of a promotion in our culture is that we get moved to "the corner office." That has replaced "getting a key to the executive john." That is, if we do well, we are rewarded with an office that has light on two sides. Not coincidentally, developers have responded by building office centers with as many crinkles and jukes on the outside as possible, thus creating the largest possible number of corner offices, for which they can charge high rent. Remember Bishop Ranch 8? Its brochure brags ten "executive corner" office locations per floor, not four. How? Twenty-eight right-angle exterior corners and wrinkles per building. Whether inadvertent or not, this produces as many offices as possible with "light on two sides.")
The patterns are meant to identify the ideas that underlie pleasing places all over the world. At the same time, the book encourages the expression of this order in as many million different ways as individual imaginations can conjure up. The patterns progress from the largest scale to the smallest. Number 1 is "Independent Regions." My personal favorite is Pattern 90, "Beer Hall," which asks that screamingly important question, not often addressed in theoretical works, "Where can people sing, and drink, and shout and drink, and let. go of their sorrows?"
Being relentlessly practical, the patterns also address such unromantic issues as 213, "How should the spacing of the secondary columns which stiffen the walls, vary with ceiling height, number of stories, and the size of rooms?" A Pattern Language thus shows people how to design and build to great and beautiful effect themselves, demystifying the priesthood of a lot of the professions—none more than those of architects and planners.
Although Alexander's ideas have rattled the teacups in more than one intellectual cupboard, some design professions have come to recognize the book as a benchmark. You can barely pick up a shelter magazine like Fine Homebuilding without finding yet another person who has worked out his new house or restoration on the precepts of A Pattern Language. The American Institute of Architects published a 1974 survey in which the pattern language ranked number one among methodologies considered essential for architects to know. More than a decade after it was published, as many as ten thousand copies are snapped up each year, at the daunting price of $5o a copy.
Alexander's critics, however, sniff that his output of actual buildings is modest. Even Alexander has expressed reservations about some of those. One project, he said, came out "still a bit more funky than I would have liked." Indeed, Reynar Banham in the Times Literary Supplement succinctly stated what can be described as the Establishment position on Alexander: " 'Arts and Crafts' seems an appropriate description of Alexander's activity." This deftly suggested both that Alexander was about as important as macramé and was merely derivative of the nineteenth-century design movement of that name.
Those who consider him a threat, meanwhile, agree with Progressive Architecture, the bible of the trendy in the profession, which wrote, "What really irks many people about Alexander is his rejection of basic precepts of the architectural and building professions involving the allocation of money, timetables, levels of finish and tolerances, etc., that are now deeply engrained in the system." MIT's Technology Review observed, "Like Thoreau, Alexander marches to a different drummer with a kind of open-shirted, holy-man persona that can be irritating."
This is because Alexander couldn't let go of the idea that "thousands of people came to the conclusion that the statements in the pattern language are not statements of opinion but are in some sense true," as he later wrote. "To these people . . . the patterns represent a triumph of common sense."
This triumph of common sense was not trivial, he perceived. In fact, it attacked the logical foundations of the building of cities as we know it. Indeed, it attacked the western world's view of science and logic. The key thing to understand about Alexander is just how basic his ideas are. He dates what he views as our current inability to build with common sense to the early twentieth century. But the origins of that, he says, go right back to the 1600s, the foundation of our modern world—the generation, not coincidentally, in which the Cavaliers first landed in Virginia, and the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock.
It was in those decades that the French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes forged a revolution in the way we in the western world think. Descartes's idea was essentially that if you want to know how something works, you can find out by pretending that it's a machine.
Suppose, for example, you want to understand how your arm works. The essence of Cartesian thought was to stop worrying about the hocus-pocus of the Middle Ages and to try to imagine the arm as an isolated mechanism. Can you invent in your mind a system of pulleys and levers that does this and this and this, and has certain rules, and will match the behavior of your arm?
If so, you have now got a model of reality with which you can beat back the superstitions of the previous thousand years' long dark night of the human mind. You can break down that model into its constituent parts and adhere to strict principles of observation. Examine your arm. Does the way it works match your mental model of it as a machine? If not, you must reject your model as false. Strive to view your arm more purely as a complex mechanism; completely remove your self and your emotions from the equation. Seek a higher, better, and more detailed understanding of how this thing works when you imagine it as made up of rubber and steel, not flesh and blood.
This method of Cartesian thought is the foundation of the Industrial Age. It has power almost beyond belief. It led our civilization to fragment the atom and stand on the stark, (lusty plains of the moon. It has made us the world we have today. According to Alexander, there is one hitch:
The crucial thing, which Descartes understood very well but which we most often forget, is that this process is only a method. This business of isolating things into fragments, and of making little machinelike pictures (or models) of how things work, is not how reality actually is. It is a convenient mental thing we do to reality in order to understand it.
Descartes himself clearly understood his procedure as a mental trick. He was a religious person who would have been horrified to find out that we in the twentieth century have begun to think that reality itself is actually like this. But in the years since Descartes lived . . . after people had used the idea to find out almost everything mechanical about the world during the seventeenth to twentieth centuries—then, some time in the twentieth century, people shifted into a new mental state that began treating reality as if this mechanical picture really was the nature of things: as if everything really was a machine.
This, Alexander feels, has had a devastating impact on our lives. It limits our discernment of what is true or false to those aspects of life which can be thought of as like a machine.
Somewhere, Alexander says, we got to the point where any concern that did not fit into the machine model was tossed aside as not relevant. If it was not quantifiable in that fashion, it was not real. Even those who studied human behavior, such as psychologists and sociologists, felt compelled to ape the methods of physics, attempting to reduce the realities they observed to equations. Considerations that could not be so rendered came to be viewed as ephemeral, tangential, unimportant—even embarrassing. At best, they were relegated to the realm of the "artsy." Let those wild and crazy creative types whom we tolerate as adornments to our civilization deal with it. Whether a building has "life" is certainly not of central importance to serious people as they routinely and soberly make important decisions about business and high finance.
Alexander wants nothing less than to bring that world view to its knees.
He thinks it's going to happen.
Alexander thinks that this mechanistic world view is beginning to collapse of its own weight and contradictions. If you really believe, like Louis Sullivan, that "form ever follows function," you can get some splendidly functional shiny new gas-and-go marts. But does anyone find them a comforting addition to the neighborhood, like an old stable? Or even like an old gas station? If you really think, like Le Corbusier, that "a house is a machine for living in," you may be able to mass-produce apartment slabs, but are they even as interesting as the engine block of a V-8?
This mechanistic view of the buildings with which we surround ourselves, Alexander feels, is imploding in a fashion not dissimilar to that of world communism, and for identical reasons. It is just not describing reality very well. It is producing lousy results.
If and when we come to the collapse of this belief—that if it can't be thought of as like a machine, it isn't factual—Alexander intends to be there with a more commonsense, functional model of reality. He intends no less than to define, systematically and empirically, what brings life into buildings, and to develop a how-to system that will integrate those elements into everything from our garages to our office parks. If he were to succeed, it would change how we build everything.
Alexander wants to come up with an empirical system producing replicable results that will allow people to view as a matter of fact whether a design is good or bad, true or false.
In the current understanding of the Cartesian method, that idea is preposterous. But that is one of the gravest flaws of the current method, Alexander feels. It goes a long way toward explaining why we have been building cities in the twentieth century that do not feel as good as the ones we left behind.
If facts—notions that can be logically demonstrated to be true or false—are thought to be exclusively mechanistic ones, consider the implications. If you were trying to figure out what kind of a door to put into a room, you could establish the mechanistic fact that a given one was tall enough to walk through. But any ideas about what kind of door would work best in terms of making the room feel right—whether it should be wood, or glass, or steel—could be expressed only as an opinion.
Here's the problem with that. If it is sheerly a matter of opinion that one kind of door works better than another in terms of how it makes the room feel, then it is in principle impossible to discuss the matter. You've got as much right to your opinion as I to mine. If you think it's one thing, and I think it's another: end of discussion. How do we measure who is closer to the truth?
The corollary is, if you think that a strip shopping center is ugly, and the guy who built it did not, that's your problem He's got his opinion, you've got yours. How can there be an appeal to higher reason?
Here's what's so potent about the direction Alexander is taking. He thinks it is possible to establish that one kind of place will be a good place, and another a sterile, inhumane one, as a matter of fact.
He thinks it is possible to re-establish qualitative comparisons on a basis of yes or no, good or bad, beautiful or ugly—beyond opinion. True or false. What color the door should be can be determined as definitively as how wide it should be.
Like all grand theories, Alexander's can lead to some very strange places. His principle, though, is simple.
He describes different aspects of a place by calling them centers. To pick a tiny example—a doorknob. To discuss how big it should be, of what materials, what shape, what color—that is a discussion of one center.
Alexander then establishes that there are orders of magnitude to centers. If the doorknob is one center, then the door itself is one order greater. The room in which the door is placed, in turn, is one order greater than that.
Thus, the whole of any given place can be described as the sum of many different centers, and they of different magnitudes.
Alexander then says, simply, that every design decision will be valid as long as the following three principles are observed:
- That whatever is picked for each center is that which feels most comfortable and whole to you.
- Plus it must help the center that is one order higher feel most comfortable and whole to you.
- Plus it must also be supported by the wholeness of the centers below it.
That is to say, if the doorknob feels right and it helps the door feel right, it is right. If the door works and it helps the room work right, it is right.
This can be reliably established, he says, by an application of common sense that is so representative of the works of earlier ages as to make one wonder how we ever got into our modern fix.
When you have to make a design decision, he says, for the color of a wall or the size of a parking lot, ask yourself a few simple questions. For that matter, debate it with other people who will be using the space. Of all the possible ways you could handle any given relationship between centers, which feels best? Which of these possibilities contributes the best feeling to the whole of which this center will be a part?
If you phrase it that way, he claims, you'll discover that humans have amazingly more in common than you may think. You'll be struck by the unanimity of responses you get from a broad group of people. What's more, you will have a basis for logical debate. It won't be a matter of one person considering the mechanistic issue of a shade of red and saying, "I like this," and another saying, "Well, I like that." That conversation goes nowhere.
The point is this: you are not debating whether one person or another likes this particular object—a door, say. You are debating the relative merits of relationships: which choice for the design of one center feels best in the service of another.
You can then tack up models, splash on colors, pace off areas. You can experience how the alternatives feel and, he thinks, convince each other, as a fact, which answer works best relative to both the larger and smaller wholes.
This goes back to the overwhelming responses his crew got to A Pattern Language from readers buying the notion that they had hit on underlying principles. Alexander writes:
What are we to make of this? Since the prevailing canon of mechanistic science says these statements in the patterns cannot be true in any sense, we may consider two possible conclusions:
- Those people who believe or feel that the material in A Pattern Language is true, are deluding themselves. Only the cartesian [sic] idea of what can be true can be correct.
- There is some other way (not covered by mechanistic thought) in which statements can be true. The cartesian idea of what kind of statement can be true is too limited.
The second of these conclusions is less arrogant than the first. It is also much more useful. It is the main philosophical assumption which underlies [these] arguments.
The revolutionary aspect is that there is no limit to how high this process goes.
In other words, if you get to the point where you've got a whole building on the design boards, but it does not help the Edge City in which it is located feel right, then the design is wrong and must be rejected. Unless the building helps Edge City feel right, it will not have life. People will not feel comfortable in it. They will not like it. They will refer to it as sterile, antiseptic, chaotic.
Which, of course, is exactly the slam made at Edge Cities. Alexander's focus on feelings is not necessarily as flaky as it sounds. The marketing and advertising industries, for example, are nothing but systems to perceive and alter feelings, yet they are recognized as about as hard-nosed as business gets. Everyday business language recognizes that instinctual facts exist beyond rigid Cartesian logic: "I feel comfortable with that decision"; "I have a gut feeling about that." "Hunches," "instincts," and a "nose" for opportunities are ineffable but crucial keys to success.
Alexander is not talking some loopy definition of feelings—"like hot tubs in the rain," he says. "It's a more rational process. The actual bedrock is what's real out there. There is a wholeness in the material universe. Feeling happens to be a very accurate indicator of it."
Developers may have less of a problem than designers in dealing with "feelings" as a serious idea. Mall operators—who are rarely burdened with abstract theories of human behavior or political ideologies—deal with feelings all the time. That's why they are constantly sticking skylights and trees and atria all over their buildings—to make people feel like staying longer.
Prince Charles, meanwhile, has independently come to many of the same conclusions as Alexander. (Alexander was pleasantly stunned to get reinforcement from such an unexpected quarter. He was getting tired of people trying to label him a "communist" in zoning hearings because he believes people and designs have to work together.)
In fact, the Prince of Wales, in his 1989 book A Vision of Britain, sounds like a bomb-throwing Louisiana populist, compared with Alexander. Charles writes:
As a result of thirty years of . . . burning all the rule books and purveying the theory that man is a machine, we have ended up with Frankenstein monsters, devoid of character, alien and largely unloved, except by the professors who have been concocting these horrors in their laboratories—and even they find their creations a bit hard to take after a while. The rest of us are constantly obliged to endure the results of their experiments and . . . very few people are pleased with the situation.
Charles rails against the
Wanton destruction which has taken place in this country in the name of progress; about the sheer, unadulterated ugliness and mediocrity of public and commercial buildings, not to mention the dreariness and heartlessness of so much urban planning.
I believe that when a man loses contact with the past he loses his soul. Likewise, if we deny the architectural past—and the lessons to be learnt from our ancestors—then our buildings also lose their souls.
Deep down in our subconscious an uneasy feeling persists that there is something missing if we sacrifice ourselves on the altar of progress, and live and work in buildings which only reflect the technology of the moment.
One place that began to feel as if it were being sacrificed on the altar of progress in the 1980s was Pasadena, California. That is why it invited Alexander to rewrite its zoning code for multiple-family housing.
Pasadena stands at the foot of the impressive San Gabriel Mountains east of downtown Los Angeles. Originally a haven for the wealthy, and later something of an artists colony, it has been marked by beautiful plantings and cottage-style architecture since the turn of the century.
Twenty years ago, it began to become an Edge City when downtown Los Angeles corporations started moving their back-shop clerical workers out to Pasadena's less expensive environs. As a result, there was a tremendous demand for apartment buildings to house these workers. Unfortunately, the apartments have often obliterated or disfigured the charming single-family neighborhoods in which they were placed.
That, Alexander said, did not have to be. As is demonstrated in every older village in the world, you can fit hundreds of people together into very small land areas and still have a warm, inviting place. What you can't do, he says, is what had been going on in Pasadena: plunking down outsized, cookie-cutter apartment cubes in a nice neighborhood, hoping the result will have life and feel whole.
Alexander's approach in Pasadena was instructive. In his proposed zoning ordinance, for example, he started by describing the key to Pasadena's grace as its gardens; after all, this is the home of the Rose Bowl. He then proposed to write into law the following: any Pasadena apartment builder, when figuring; out where on his lot to locate his building, would first have to determine where he was going to put the apartment's garden of such-and-such a specified size. Then his building could take its shape from whatever space was left.
The garden had to come first.
The developers did not know whether to laugh or lose lunch. This man must be mad! He is not in touch with how the world works.
But how far away from common sense was this? A successful garden is a lot harder to site than a building. With enough reinforced concrete, you can locate a building just about anywhere. But a garden has to pay attention to the slope of the land, the direction of the sun, the existence of old-growth trees that can be adapted to use—the dictates of the earth itself. Moreover, when the garden is planned first, the building that is placed on whatever land is left tends to be less boxy. It almost has to be more narrow and long. Which automatically floods its interior with sunlight. Which would seem to be a gift.
But that wasn't the end for Alexander. He then said, Okay, this is your maximum FAR—the floor-to-area ratio, the total amount of building that would be allowed on a given piece of land. That is, you can bring this many units in, with this many square feet, and this many people.
There was much groaning, but since the density was not vastly different from that achieved in current practice, it was not the end of the world.
The end of the world came when Alexander said, There's one more thing. When you are surrounded by beautiful two-story cottages, you are not going to put all that density into depressing three-story monsters, jutting up above the bungalow roofs. Your apartment buildings also must be no more than two stories to preserve the feeling of the landscape.
That was, as Alexander remembers it, the precise moment when the developers "split their gut."
"They said, 'You cretin, we can't build that FAR with that height. It's impossible.' So I said, 'Well, here are some drawings to show exactly how it can be done in a million and six ways.' I swear, to this day, they think that I'm a cretin for having pointed this out. But, I mean, if you're working at two stories in a situation where they would typically have been working with three, same FAR, here's how it goes:
"When you're at three you can place a bunch of identical boxes. You don't have to fuck around with the plan. You just put them in there, box, box, box, box, box. Finish drawing. Take to planning department. End of story.
"In order to do it at two stories, what happens is you end up with one apartment a little bit squeezed, and longer than the others, and thinner. And another one has an odd situation because it's on a corner or it's in the middle. It becomes slightly funkier, right.
"Now to me that's a plus because that of course is what happens when you pay attention to life. That's what always happens. Things tend to get more complex.
"The developers don't want it to be like that. They want it to be like a grid. Here is the plan. Finish operation."
The builders don't want to hear that in order to conserve ground, they might have to construct the apartment building's driveway at something other than interstate standards. Maybe they would not have room for two lanes of asphalt. Perhaps the drive might be one lane, with a cutout to let another car pass. Or two separately owned apartment buildings might have to share one driveway! (That proposal was the one that had people trying to brand Alexander a communist.)
"I'm talking about the trivial stuff," says Alexander. "You know, the parking aisle has to be twenty-six feet wide. Really and truly, limit yourself to major safety questions. You can certainly make do with twenty-two. You can in fact make do with eighteen. All kinds of stuff like this. It just mounts and mounts and mounts. I mean, if you're going to fuck up hundreds of square miles of land just to deal with that kind of thing, you're well on the road to insanity. It's just silly."
In other words, in order to get life, you, the builder, might have to be careful not to waste space, waste land. You might have to bring more sophistication to your design and manufacturing processes. You might not be able to crank your product out in Soviet tractor-factory bulk.
But it can be done, Alexander claimed, on time and within budget. And, he claims, there is a huge penalty if this condition is not met. If the development does not have life, people will hate it; they will not take care of it; there will be high turnover. It will not help the property values in the neighborhood. It will not best serve the purposes of the investor or the owner. And if you don't do it right, somebody else, someday soon, will, and you will be driven out of business.
Well, in Pasadena, Alexander did not prevail.
The developers organized politically. They made the case that Alexander's zoning law would attack their methods of construction, financing, and design so radically as to make it impossible to do business in the fashion to which they were accustomed. The zoning law as adopted has perhaps 60 percent of Alexander's ideas incorporated into it, but in such a legalistic and sterile fashion that he views it as a defeat.
Not the first or the last, Alexander notes. For the one point on which he agrees with the builders is that his ideas, if adopted, would explode their current methods of operating.
That's the point. Alexander is not trying to shore up or tinker with our existing ways of building our cities. Alexander feels that the goal of every building today should be to "heal" the neighborhood in which it is located. And that, he feels, is the revolution.
What would a Bishop Ranch 8-style 200,000-square-foot office center look like if it were built to Alexander's standards?
Well, for one thing, it might not be one building. Alexander believes it is perfectly possible to build a good building that huge. But in this case, he points out, distributing the office space might be less of a headache than trying to figure out how to park the cars around the edges of such an immense cube and still end up with a place that felt human. The structure might also wind up with more or fewer than 200,000 square feet. If the structure ended up with life, a lot of space and money might be saved by not having to tack on atria and indoor trees and ivy. The space and money thus saved might go into making people's actual work space larger—more like the kind of workplace they've always imagined building for themselves someday. Or it could simply mean that the building never had to be so many square feet at all.
Also, is it not possible that some of the 250 square feet per worker is wasted because of the rigid way it is now allocated? The major corporate furniture design firm of Herman Miller, Incorporated, thinks so. It has retained Alexander to design a line of office furniture.
Suppose that line of furniture included as many as fifty components, in many sizes. Suppose those shapes could be configured and reconfigured by the office workers themselves in tens of thousands of different ways. Might be tricky. Might cost a little more up front. But suppose people no longer felt trapped in a slick and image-ridden workplace full of industrial gray and burnt orange. Suppose, instead, that office felt normal—felt as comfortable as home. Suppose that it also avoided wasting a few square feet of office space worth dozens of dollars each. Might that not be worth it?
The building also might not look like it came off a Henry Ford-era assembly line. If you posit that the only way you can create a building cheaply is with identical precast-concrete wall pieces and identical curtain windows and identical steel beams and a building site bulldozed flat . . . Well, then, Alexander points out, you've got a problem. You're going to end up, like the Modernist architects of the early twentieth century, with endless cubes; with things that look and feel like boxes, like machines.
Building a building that feels whole—that relates down to the land on which it sits, and up to the neighborhood in which it resides—requires thousands of individual decisions, Alexander feels. It could be that if you have an assembly-line building technology that cannot adapt to that reality, you will be at a competitive disadvantage.
Alexander does not think this makes him antitechnology. Quite the opposite. The systems he's talking about require considerable innovation. "The answer is not to go back to silly things like brickwork and stonework, which are completely impossible from the point of view of labor costs, but to use highly advanced, more flexible technologies and production."
Of course, the entire trend in world manufacturing today is headed toward increased customization, extremely short product runs, computer-aided design, and quick turnaround. Therefore, if the building trades insist on an inflexibility that even an American automobile manufacturer would no longer put up with, they might be threatening their own survival.
But what about the costs? Won't all this drive up the cost of your design? The cost of construction? Isn't this elitist? Won't you price yourself out of the market?
That line of attack makes Alexander crazy. He is devoted to the idea of budgets. He has no idea how you make rational trade-offs without them. He has built housing in Mexico and Colombia for under $10,000 a unit. He knows from cheap. Beautiful buildings of traditional societies are not all Notre-Dame and Chartres, he points out. They were built by ordinary people, using ordinary tools and ordinary design standards. Architects did not exist as a licensed, certified species until the late nineteenth century. Which, come to think of it, is about the time things started going wrong.
Okay, he says. Suppose that we were to pay more money for constructing walls with interesting nooks and crannies rather than sheer blank planes. Could we not make that up somewhere else? Suppose we make the driveway out of crushed stone. Doesn't take much. A couple of dump trucks with their tailgates cracked open can lay it down in a morning.
Would you have to rake the stones to get them flat? Sure. Would you have to add more stones every few years as these sank into the ground? Of course. Will that force people to drive more slowly than they might on asphalt? Yes. Will it be cheap? You bet. Will it have a nice crunch that announces cars as they arrive? Yes. Will grass grow up in the crown between the Wheels? Yes. Will that look interesting over time? Yes. Is it possible under the zoning laws of most jurisdictions today?
Instead, a driveway is required to have so much excavation and concrete that it will not crack under any foreseeable earthquake.
Was that well intentioned?
Perhaps. But, Alexander says, don't tell him he is the one being irrational about costs. Not when zoning requirements force people to spend $30,000 on an impregnable driveway that gets an occasional five-mile-per-hour use.
"We're talking about real life here. We're not talking about some fantasy. Something that's going to be in a magazine. Real life has linoleum. It has cracks. It has diapers. Real life is just different from Architectural Digest. If you try to create an environment that's not like real life, you're in deep trouble."
Here is the issue. Here is where the rubber hits the road on Alexander's theories, politically and economically.
Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that Alexander's foes are correct. Let us say that if developers followed the precepts that Alexander claims are necessary to produce Edge Cities with life, they would have to alter everything they do Let's say they'd have to rethink how they use land, the technologies they use to build buildings, the zoning methods, the "safety" standards that waste resources, the financing, the priesthood of planning and architecture.
Let's say that's all true. Here's the key question.
Does this hoot Alexander's commonsense patterns out the door? Or is this just another example of an apparently impervious twentieth-century system that is heading for a collapse once its contradictions are acknowledged? All it takes is for a system—no matter how seemingly unassailable—to have flaws that consistently outweigh its benefits.
Stephen Grabow, former director of architecture at the University of Kansas, thinks this raises Alexander's ideas to august company, indeed.
People used to think that the earth was the center of the universe, around which all else revolved, Grabow points out. The logical corollary of this was that man was the most important thing in the universe, the prime thing on God's mind. Then along came Copernicus. His model of reality fit the observable facts better, with the earth revolving around the sun, a not particularly distinguished star on the outer edge of a not terry, space and time—were different aspects of the same thing. We began to realize that everything really is relative.
Grabow thinks we may be on the verge of such a paradigm shift in our cities. In his 1983 book, Christopher Alexander. The Search for a New Paradigm in Architecture, he says: "Modern architecture no longer produces buildings that satisfy people's needs . . . Modern buildings are dysfunctional . . . They do not look and feel pleasing to an increasing number of architects themselves."
What heralds a paradigm shift? A period in which "the existing or current paradigm starts to break down in the face of novel events that it cannot explain or deal with," he says.
Could such a paradigm-shifting event be the rise of Edge City, the first urban agglomerations of the values and attitudes of the late twentieth century?
Alexander, Grabow notes, was a scientist (trained in mathematics, physics, and chemistry) as well as an architect, and he approached the dehumanizing qualities of the concrete, steel, and glass boxes of our era with a scientific rationalism not usually associated with architecture.
This is how Alexander ended up examining cities as if they were spiderwebs or snowflakes or humans. They can be beautiful, and never the same twice. But could not each one be the result of some simple, basic rules that are there for the discovery?
Indeed. "Like H. G. Wells, Julian Huxley, or Teilhard de Chardin . . . Alexander is convinced that the deep sense of human purpose and meaning previously provided by religion can be objectively rediscovered," Grabow writes.
This too puts Alexander in august, if disconcerting, company. Many physicists now seriously believe that in order for quantum mechanics to mesh with general relativity in a "theory of everything," the universe must be thought of as having at least eleven dimensions.
If you do not find that sufficiently unnerving, on the frontier of "chaos theory," other physicists state that only about 1 percent of reality can be described by direct, mechanistic, linear equations. Life itself, they say, is most especially the kind of thing that can not be modeled by Cartesian reduction.
Thus, what should perhaps come as no surprise is the direction that cosmologists are taking as they look at the first trillionth of a trillionth of a second of the birth of the universe. "There appeared a singularity, a dimensionless point containing all there was to be," they write about the moment of quantum fluctuation in which everything was created out of nothing. Sober reviewers read this stuff, shake their heads, and mutter, "This sounds an awful lot like 'And God said, "Let there be Light." ' " Cosmologists shrug their shoulders. They do not disagree.
It is into similarly spooky terrain that Alexander has headed as he searches to uncover his rules for what creates "life."
ALEXANDER: One of the things you haven't asked me very much about is God, and spirit and soul.
GARREAU: I knew we had to get to that.
A: The only thing I want to say is we've been talking about these amiable little things—is death visible in everyday life, is the window painted, et cetera. You might think, well, those are practical matters; now let's talk about spirit and soul. And my statement to you is we have been talking about spirit and soul.
What I am saying is, that is God and spirit and soul. All of that. All of that. The discussion we've been having for the last hour has been about that. The "life" which really exists in space and in the world is not a separate issue from the issue of God and soul. You've got to take it as seriously as the question of "What is 'life'?" or "What is 'Wholeness'?"
It isn't enough to say: Well, yes, the developers are looking for wholeness just because they happen to want to throw a bunch of shops in. That's not wholeness. I mean, that may be an intelligent idea. But it's not wholeness. And just because they want to mix workplace with housing, that's also very intelligent, a good idea. G: Is the logic that somehow this is an affront to God?
A: You mean in what they do? I think the answer to it is yes, it is. It's a somewhat quaint and old-fashioned way of talking about it, but if I take it at face value, the answer is yes.
G: This is the core of my question. These places lack soul. How then do you get soul into 580 and 680? Your position would be essentially that there does exist a sense of spirituality and God-ness? What we are trying to do is no less than create places that are as spiritual and as whole as the old villages and cities of Britain and France that everybody loves when they go there?
A: Right. And churches. In a nutshell.
G: Not trying to re-create those villages per se. But how do we do our vernacular version of that?
A: Exactly. That's the whole thing in a nutshell. Good statement.
G: It's not just that we're talking good architecture or good dollars, but if this works you are aiming at a reconnection between humans and their world and by implication the universe and a Godhead?
A: Yes, and the ultimate stuff the universe is really made of. Yes, it's a godlike stuff, yes. And may be God. I'm not sure.
G: You think there are principles out there which you are discovering and stating?
A: Yes. Right. Absolutely. Discovering is the operative word. Actually, I view myself almost as a physicist. You know, a lot has been written about these so-called paradigm shifts. And the main test is not—does this experiment work or does that experiment work? The main test is—afterward so many more things all make sense. You just gradually abandon the other thing. I think that one of the things people are beginning to say about what I've done is that, apart from appearing to be true in the small, somehow the whole picture just seems incredibly more similar to what we actually believe deep down but haven't had a model for. It conforms to human experience as she is, more.
The curious thing is, you still have stars in your eyes that money is the driving force. That it's backstopping American freedom and freedom of thought and freedom of action and the best of all possible worlds. G: I have a very healthy regard for greed as a social motivator.
A: Right. I think that's where you and I differ. I believe that motive will not produce what you are looking for. That seems to me a very serious matter. I'm not sure I've faced it ever quite that straightforwardly. I suspect it's fundamentally incompatible.
Let me just tell you the extreme. I don't know that it's correct. But one extreme version is: The only way to produce life is—to be religiously inspired. That's definitely what happened in the Middle Ages for sure. It's what happened in Buddhist constructions in Japan and so on and so forth. We know that. People were trying to make something as a gift to God. One possibility is you can't get life unless that's the only thing you're trying to do.
G: The only thing you're trying to do?
A: Well, okay, let's try a couple of versions. That's number one. That's the extreme. And the second one is—you can't get life unless this is what you're trying to do That's the second possibility.
Now the third one is that there's some mixed motive.
G: If you build life into your building, it pays off, therefore you do it?
A: My guess is that that is complete foolishness. That it just simply isn't like that.
G: There is one place in Walnut Creek that's 100 percent full. I plan on going to look at it.
A: Very interesting. Anyway, I'm just telling you that on the one hand you're concerned about spirit and soul; I think it's fair to say—in some sense you'd like to see it there. Exactly. I think you believe at the moment that by some minor modification in the Adam Smith thing you're going to get it. Or at least that's the hypothesis that you've been putting to me. If this thing could be quantified and if it pays off, then it's just going to happen, right?
G: If true, the millennium would be at hand.
A: Yes, and what I'm saying to you is that I assume that it is not true. It's not like money plays no role. That is just nonsense. I think money plays a fundamental role in this thing. You have to decide exactly how much to spend on what. You can't be trivial about that. Money plays a fundamental role even in the most extreme version.
G: But your getting a lot of it is not part of it? A: You understand the difference?
G: Budgets are tremendously important, but that doesn't necessarily mean that you get rich?
A: Exactly. Right. It has never occurred to me that life would quote "pay off" in the way that you're talking about. Honestly, it seems a bit crass to me. The formulation you gave of quantifying life—the Adam Smith version, exactly. That one I don't believe in just from a practical point of view. I don't think it pays off in monetary terms. It pays off in other terms. It may not translate easily into money.
I know you don't like that.
G: Edge Cities are monuments to maximization of the individual ego and monuments to profit.
A: Right. So anyway my middle ground, which I'm sort of trying to figure out right now, is some kind of mechanics where there is some sort of profit motive for people who want to spend their lives doing development. Whether such a model is possible, I don't know. I mean I don't know that it's humanly possible to have those two things in your mind in such a balance.
G: Are you saying it is as utterly desirable and utterly unlikely as the Greek ideal of the philosopher king?
A: It's like that, yes. It's something like that.
My last evening in Walnut Creek I decided to spend searching for walnuts or the Creek.
The walnuts were easily dispensed with. Little of their legacy is left. Jim Kennedy, Contra Costa County's redevelopment director, had shown me one small grove that still stood, jutting into Oak Road. It was perhaps four acres, guarded by a wire fence, and obviously threatened. Oak Road had been widened to four lanes as it approached this grove and as it left. So the trees that had once been beside the road were now out of place, intruding into the new road. The little piece of land had been bought for a park, but the trees in the middle of the road's new path were obviously an anomaly, their days numbered. A thousand yards beyond them, tower cranes were busy, erecting the precast concrete of the brand-new Pleasant Hill BART Edge City.
While I was at it I asked Kennedy if there was in fact a hill in Pleasant Hill. Scanning the near horizon, all I saw were bulldozers.
He said there were several hills, actually. I asked if they were pleasant.
The creek was harder. Studying maps, I found no water-course. Just two little roads called Creekside Drive and Cross Creek Road. They turned out to be right where I-680 dumps down into Main Street. I got in the car and did in fact discover the Creekside Terrace "garden apartments." But the only thing I found that looked like a creek was this muddy little thing that was basically a channelized ditch. It had been lined with vertical concrete walls laid out straight as an arrow. Flood control. It had a little water at its bottom. But this couldn't be the Walnut Creek creek.
The old Southern Pacific line to town was built on one side of this ditch, parallel to it. Main Street was on the other.
I kept driving.
The channel disappeared from view as the parking lots and stores that lined South Main Street came between it and the road. It reappeared suddenly behind the Broadway East Chinese Restaurant. I made a U-turn, came back. Went in, asked the nice young Asian people in the restaurant if they knew where I might be able to find the creek of Walnut Creek. Right up the road, they said, Walnut Creek. No, I said, not the city. The creek. Gee, they said. Sorry. What's that water thing, I asked, ten yards from the back of the restaurant? Everyone was very mystified.
I got back into the car.
As I was coming back into town, the creek disappeared completely. It seemed to vanish beneath a store called Emporium Capwell, near Broadway. I kept driving, past Nordstrom's, Victoria's Secret, and The Nature Company, and came out the other end of the city center. A cop off to the side of Mount Diablo Boulevard was aiming a radar gun at the citizenry. I stopped and asked him if he knew where the creek was. Sorry, he said. I'm new here myself.
I drove back through town and stopped in the parking lot of the Devil Mountain Brewery Restaurant to take another look at the channel. It was maybe twenty feet deep and the same across. A square concrete trough with an open top. "Property of the Central Costa County Sanitary District," said the sign on the mean-looking fence. In case of emergency call 1-415-933-0955.
I retraced my trail, back through town.
Passing a Mexican restaurant called The Cantina, at Broadway and Lincoln, through the car's open windows, I finally heard what I'd been listening for. Rushing water. I stopped.
The evening was fragrant with live oak trees. Abundant bamboo edged a very steep rocky gorge. A pleasant wooden walkway stretched along it, with soft lighting. A hole had been cut in the pathway to spare a big tree. Nearby had been placed heavy bronze silhouettes of a man and a woman and a dog, playing. Abundant water splashed over natural rocks.
The screened-in porch of the Cantina overlooked the edge of the water sound. With the soft autumn lights, and the Mediterranean air, it was, in fact, full of life.
Yes, said The Cantina's manager, dressed in a kelly green sweater, with a mariachi band playing behind him. You have found Walnut Creek.
Prince Charles comes to this conclusion:
It was Edmund Burke who wrote that a healthy civilisation exists with three relationships intact. It has a relationship with the present, a relationship with the future, and a relationship with the past. When the past feeds and sustains the present and the future, you have a civilised society. It was only in this century that we broke that pact with the past and tried to obliterate its meanings and its messages.
So writes the prince at the end of his book.
What is the point, for example, of being the most technologically advanced society if, at the same time, we lose our soul, and forfeit the right to be considered civilised? For this is what we have allowed to happen by deluding ourselves that we are somehow immortal; by losing our faith in eternity; by believing that this Earth was made for our dominion, and by losing that proper sense of humility that enables us to live in gentle harmony with our surroundings and with God's creation. Why else is it that we now find ourselves confronted by such complex and disturbing environmental problems threatening, as they do, the very survival of this planet and all of its living inhabitants?
Everything cries out for a reappraisal of our values and attitudes.
Don't be intimidated by those who deride such views. They have had their day.
Look at the soulless mess in which they have left us all!