Pattern languages that evolve new aesthetics
Production on TSV 4 continues apace. The majority of the writers received their copy edits and editorial queries this week, and we’ll be moving onto typesetting and then publication in the next few weeks. As many of you know, the issue is organized around the general theme of thinking with environments. In other words, it’s about the many ways we leverage and design affordances in the world that allow us to accomplish maneuvers in thought, perception, and feeling that would be foreclosed to us without the benefit of our cities, towns, buildings, and tools.
The primary figure of influence in this discussion is Christopher Alexander, and a number of the essays come directly from his former students or from people influenced by his philosophy. In his early writings, Alexander scatters his work with allusions to Plato, and in his later books, he offers a sustained engagement with Alfred North Whitehead to forward a new design cosmology that synthesizes the mathematics and geometry of the material sciences with the psychology and phenomenology of feeling. Several of the essays also engage with these dimensions, either with explicit reference to Alexander or in a way that illuminates the philosophical issues at play in a more general register.
The experience of reading these essays has me thinking about the need for a new vocabulary to give shape to this philosophy of design. The vocabulary should describe a combination of traditionalism and localism that is nevertheless neither a nostalgic appeal to the past nor a form of kitsch organic eccentricity for its own sake. It is a highly functional, livable thing; a context-sensitive but forward-looking and futuristic feeling, but it’s a future that a human being can continue to feel at home in. It threads a capricious needle that accepts technology without being anti-human. It’s materially local but also socially distributed. It’s ornate but also functional. The ornamentation isn’t just ornamental; it’s causal. It matters because aesthetics matter.
One phrase that dropped into my mind was vernacular futurism.
I mean vernacular in the sense of vernacular architecture:
Vernacular architecture can be defined as a type of local or regional construction, using traditional materials and resources from the area where the building is located. . . . For this reason, they are unique to different places in the world, becoming even a means of reaffirming an identity.
I mean futurism in a generic sense:
Futurists . . . are people whose specialty or interest is futurology or the attempt to systematically explore predictions and possibilities about the future and how they can emerge from the present, whether that of human society in particular or of life on Earth in general.
This design vocabulary should capture these two poles: a sense for the local and the traditional, as well as a feeling for the futuristic and the new. These days it seems we have to pick one or the other—it’s either the wood and dirt of the hobbit house or the discomforting inhumanism of the machine city. We can do something better.
We can use pattern languages that evolve new aesthetics.