Environment and the King of No-Form

In whatever spare moments I can muster, I’ve been reading Christopher Alexander’s brilliant book, The Timeless Way of Building. I find it overwhelming. Brilliant. Most of all, it has raised my appreciation of environments and how they affect interactions.

Needless to say, then, I have had Alexander’s words ringing in the back of my head lately, and I have been considering things through the lens of his ‘patterns’. That relational elements of any environment form patterns which, taken together, can be taken as a language; that this language forms the basis of our interaction with the space around us, both in how we exist within it and work to create, modify and relate to that environment…I find this profound.

I understand now, more than ever, that the spaces created to support our methodology are not intended as cookie-cutter franchise facilities. They are meant to express the patterns which are core to the language of cooperation and collaboration. To enter a place where the physical space strongly expresses a way is a powerful idea.

But this week I had a conversation regarding a client which got the gears turning for me, especially as it is such a recurring theme; how necessary is the environment? How much can you compromise?

In this particular case, the question was around holding a large session at the client site. We could use separate conference rooms for breakouts, maybe some offices as well.

It got me thinking. On a basic level, thinking of the patterns of the environment, and how we use those patterns to encourage participants at the most primal, subconscious level to work differently with each other; on that level, it struck me immediately as wrong.

But could you say that the solution they came out with would be quantifiably inferior to one created in our environment? Would there be 17% less alignment in the group? Would their solution roadmap be 21% less rigorous in its design?

It’s impossible to say. Even in Alexander’s book, as meticulous as he is in spelling out the way in which patterns develop, the difference between a place and a pattern that is “alive” and one that is “dead” is profoundly subjective.

How do you sell the subtlety of a space which facilitates you? And even when you have the good fortune of having a great space to begin with, how do you sustain the argument that its many elements cannot be chipped away? If there are not windows on two walls, to what degree will our natural photophilia begin to make us uncomfortable? If we must work in offices, how much will we feel we must conform to the space, versus the feeling that the space will conform to our changing needs? In a world of cost-per-square-foot, what price can be put on the psychological freedom of walking into a space that is far larger than is strictly “necessary”?

As I started thinking this over, I was brought back to my touchstone – Chuang Tzu – with whose writings I am certain Christopher Alexander must have been familiar. The poem which came to mind was “Two Kings and No-Form”…

The South Sea King was Act-on-Your-Hunch.
The North Sea King was Act-in-a-Flash.
The King of the place between them was

Now South Sea King
And North Sea King
Used to go together often
To the land of No-Form:
He treated them well.

So they consulted together
They thought up a good turn,
A pleasant surprise, for No-Form
In token of appreciation.

“Men,” they said, “have seven openings
For seeing, hearing, eating, breathing,
And so on. But No-Form
Has no openings. Let’s make him
A few holes.”
So after that
They put holes in No-Form,
One a day, for seven days.
And when they finished the seventh opening,
Their friend lay dead.

So the question, I suppose, would be this…how many holes can the space have put in it, before it is dead? When does a space cease to serve in the way we think of a space serving the people in it?

The promise I see in Alexander’s book, however, is the way he spells out how to express the patterns and their language to begin to put a finger on the nameless quality of a space that makes it alive. And so I can see the beginnings of the answer; if you can first articulate the patterns which make up the space, you can begin to paint the picture of No-Form. And it is only when you have that picture, and it is one that you can share, that you can urge others…

not to poke holes in him!

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