I’m pursuing that architectural rite of passage – designing a house for one’s parents. [Note: usually its “a house for his mother” by the male of the architectural species but I’m aiming for something a tad less unhealthily Oedipal]. I pulled my copy of A Pattern Language off the shelf and gave it another thumb through whilst thinking about site issues.
[I should note that I am by no means a Christopher Alexander purist. There have been a lot of new developments and ideas in architecture and even natural building since he first published his seminal work in 1977. I also resent the fact that it still retails for $65 which makes the book (which can also serve as a doorstop) pretty hard for the average person to justify. Alexander can be both sanctimonious and bossy. And the pictures are in black and white (a horrible crime for an architecture book). That said, there are a lot of really good ideas in it and my copy is well marked with dog-ears and post-its in various colors. If you’re thinking of building a green something, or just thinking about design at all, visit your local library and check this one out.]
Pattern 4: Agricultural Valleys
“The land which is best for agriculture happens to be best for building too. But it is limited – and once destroyed, it cannot be regained for centuries.”
Alexander goes on to talk about how suburban growth has been “spreading over all land, agricultural or not.” Too well I know it. I grew up in suburban Chicago in a town called Libertyville. It had once been an actual town, a way station on the road between Chicago and Milwaukee and it had a few historic buildings and a bit of civic infrastructure left. But it and the surrounding communities were also growing like cancer out into the surrounding farmland. At that time (its been 5 years since I was there) Lake County was the northern most edge of Chicago’s continuous development and still contained a fair amount of farm land and open country. I could drive 15 minutes northwest from my parent’s home and come be out in the among the fields at an almost un-trafficked county forest preserve. But the development was steadily creeping along that route at the rate of a few new strip mall parking lots per year.
When I was in college I learned that 90 percent of the remaining farm land in Lake County was already owned by developers just waiting for the opportune moment to turn it into subdivisions. I can only hope that their moment didn’t arrive before the housing market collapsed and that such valuable rich farm country may be preserved a little longer. As Alexander puts it:
“Preserve all agricultural valleys as farmland and protect this land from any development which would destroy or lock up the unique fertility of the soil. Even when valleys are not cultivated now, protect them: keep them for farms and parks and wilds.”
Pattern 104: Site Repair
“Buildings must always be built on those parts of the land which are in the worst condition, not the best”
Later he deals with the concept of not building on the best land in a more local context. He notes that it is human nature to put a building “in the best possible spot.” But what happens when this is repeated over and over – all the “best spots” get filled up with buildings and the average best-ness of spots is drawn sharply downward over time. This is also, it should be noted, a Frank Lloyd Wright concept. Loath as I am to give him credit for a great idea his notion of building along the brow of the hill rather than on ridge tops is inspired. This works from the owners perspective and also from that of everyone else. How frustrating is it to look out over a beautiful vista and see the top of every hill blotted with a sprawling edifice? Likewise, as the occupant of a building wouldn’t you rather look at your favorite view rather than spoil it with a building. Wright did this with his famous Falling Water. The family asked him to build them a house on their favorite picnic spot but he demurred saying that it would be better to build the house to one side and leave them a view of that place. The result is an undeniable architectural masterwork. Need I say more? I will.
“On no account place buildings in the places which are most beautiful. In fact, do the opposite. Consider the site and its buildings as a single living eco-system. Leave those areas that are the most precious, beautiful, comfortable and healthy as they are, and build new structures in those parts of the site which are least pleasant now.”