Farewell to Christopher Alexander, Edgar Cahn, and Gustavo Esteva
In recent weeks, we commoners have lost three great visionaries. Each spawned robust institutions and movements to carry their visions forward; the continuing vitality of their projects confirm that their spirits remain very much with us. We should pause to reflect on and celebrate their towering contributions.
I'm talking about the British architect/philosopher Christopher Alexander, who invented the "pattern language" approach to urban design and building; Edgar Cahn, the creative American legal activist who invented timebanking and cofounded Antioch School of Law; and Gustavo Esteva, the post-development thinker and founder of the Universidad de la Tierra in Oaxaca.
Christopher Alexander's Fearless Exploration into Aliveness and Design
I remember encountering Christopher Alexander's seminal book, A Pattern Language, in the late 1970s, a cultural moment that was erupting with all sorts of mind-blowing ideas. Alexander wanted to know why certain designs in architecture and urban spaces were consistently used across cultures and history. These include the proportions of space in rooms....the placement of windows....the design of public squares... the popularity of cafes in cities....among dozens of other forms. What accounts for their timeless appeal?
Alexander and his coauthors came to see that beauty, grace, and spiritual satisfaction actually play vital roles in the design of everyday life and buildings. Certain designs embody aliveness! But that quality can only be seen through a certain prism, which is what Alexander set out to name and analyze. He called his method a pattern language.
A pattern, in Alexander's view, describes "a problem that occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice."
Each solution is unique because the context of the problem -- the geography, culture, values, and history of the designers -- is always different. Yet there are regularities -- or patterns -- to be identified and studied. In A Pattern Language, Alexander identified 253 interrelated patterns in urban and building design.
As my late colleague Silke Helfrich and I began to think about the nature of commons as social systems, we saw how the pattern language methodology could help us explain how commons actually work -- because commons, like buildings, are not primarily about physical things. They are about the interactive social dynamics of humans as they engage with each other and the Earth.