[permaculture] Christopher Alexander’s Neglected Challenge to Permaculture – Making Permaculture Stronger | Posted on May 8, 2016 by Dan Palmer
g.parlow at gmx.at
Thu Jun 30 10:31:59 EDT 2016
This has apparently been written by someone who has never done a pc system design process. The way I myself and all pc designers that I have observed in their design processes go about it exactly as Alexander describes it: we start out with vague shapes (he calles them 'clouds'), sectors, approximate zone boundaries, etc - refine the patterns etc more and more - and to actually choose specific elements (this tree or that one, a fence here etc) are steps right at the end of the process. It is simply wrong to think of pc design as 'assembling parts into a whole', even if this might be written as Mollison’s definition of the abstract term 'design'. What he did and taught was different.
> Am 30.06.2016 um 03:49 schrieb Lawrence London <lfljvenaura at gmail.com>:
> Making Permaculture Stronger <http://makingpermaculturestronger.net/>
> by collaboratively identifying and addressing its weaknesses.
> Christopher Alexander’s Neglected Challenge to Permaculture
> Posted on May 8, 2016
> Dan Palmer <http://makingpermaculturestronger.net/author/dan/> / 23 Comments
> Consider the opening statements of what are possibly the two most prominent
> definitions of permaculture:
> Permaculture (*perma*nent agri*culture*) is the conscious design and
> maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the
> diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems (Bill Mollison,
> 1988, p. ix)
> A more current definition of permaculture, which reflects the expansion of
> focus implicit in *Permaculture One*, is “Consciously designed landscapes,
> which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding
> an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs” (cited
> by David Holmgren, 2002, p. xix)1
> These two statements share three key parts. One is the goal of systems or
> landscapes that have the character of nature in the sense they replicate,
> mimic, and in a very real sense actually are natural ecosystems. The second
> is that these target systems produce for human needs. The third is moving
> toward this goal via conscious design.2
> Let us focus in on this last part – *conscious design*. As the key method
> or process given for approaching its desired destination, you would expect
> permaculture to contain a clear definition of what *conscious design* is.
> By and large the permaculture design literature defines design as a process
> of combining elements into systems. The wording changes, but the core idea
> remains that:
> 1. the elements exist prior to their connection, and
> 2. the crux of design is joining, assembling, or integrating these
> elements (into systems, patterns or wholes delivering on the permaculture
> Perusing the seminal literature, I first find this core idea clearly in
> Mollison’s *Permaculture:* A *Designers’ Manual* (1988, note that I have
> added all bold text in this entire post to emphasis
> particularly relevant words and phrases):
> “*Permaculture, as a design system, attempts to* *integrate* fabricated,
> natural, spatial, temporal, social and ethical *parts* (components) *to
> achieve a whole.*“ (p. 36)
> “It is in the *arrangement of parts *that design has its being and
> function…” (p. 36)
> “Permaculture design is a system of *assembling* conceptual, material, and
> strategic *components in a pattern* which seeks to benefit life in all its
> forms.” (p. 36)
> “The design [is] ‘*a beneficial assembly of components…*” (p. 37)
> “For the final act of the designer, *once components have been assembled*,
> is to *make a sensible pattern assembly of the whole.*” (p. 70)3
> This core idea has been accepted and repeated right up to the most recent
> books on permaculture design. In their *Practical* *Permaculture* (2015),
> Jessi Bloom and Dave Boehnlein share prevailing permaculture understandings
> of the words *element* and *system*. In defining these words and their
> relations, they explain:
> “In its simplest form, a system is a *bunch of parts (elements) arranged*
> such that their relationship to one another (their function) allows some
> sort of job to get done or goal to be accomplished (purpose). For instance,
> a bicycle is a simple system composed of a *bunch of elements* (handlebars,
> chain, wheels and so forth) *put together* in such a way (handlebars
> connected to frame, frame connected to wheels) that they function to
> accomplish the purpose of transportation. We can see the same concept when
> looking at the parts of the human body. A pile of organs sitting on a table
> does not make a person. However, when those organs relate to each other in
> just the right way and each performs its functions, *we* are the result.
> When all the *elements of a system come together* in the right way, the
> whole becomes more than the sum of its parts and emergent properties
> appear” (p. 18)
> Later in the book, they apply this interpretation of systems thinking to
> permaculture design process:
> “The *permaculture design process* *is about* *assembling components… into
> mutually beneficial relationships. **Elements* can be *placed* in a number
> of different *arrangements*, but *the* *connections *made* between them *is
> what* builds systems* that work effectively” (p. 59)
> “Every *element* in your design should be analysed in order to figure out
> the best relative location to *create beneficial relationships with other
> elements*” (p. 92)
> “The *placement* of *elements* in *relationship* to each other is critical
> to creating a functional permaculture design” (p. 99)
> Let us consider one more example. In *The Permaculture City* (2015),
> acclaimed permaculture author Toby Hemenway explains that permaculture
> “offers a set of design principles for *creating useful relationships* that
> guide us in formulating our plans, and a host of *connection-building
> design methods* that help us decide which techniques to use to implement
> those plans” (p. 23). As he explains, “permaculture, not surprisingly,
> leans heavily on methods that focus on *creating relationships among the
> parts of a design*” (p. 31). He then fleshes out four of these methods,
> “each a powerful method for doing what is at the heart of permaculture
> design: *creating connections and relationships among the parts* *of a
> design*…” (p. 31). Here are his one-sentence summaries of these four
> methods (pp. 33-44):
> “Highest use tells us how to *connect design elements* or activities in
> time by linking their functions or uses in a sequence. It tells us what to
> do first.”
> “Needs and resources analysis tells us how to *connect the parts of a
> design to one another*.”
> “The zone system *organizes the parts of the design* in relation to the
> user or center of use.”
> “Sector analysis *organizes design elements into useful relationships* with
> outside influences that we cannot directly affect.”
> The above quotes are representative of almost all published treatments of
> permaculture design. I think it is fair to say, then, that they are
> therefore representative of how permaculture designers in general talk
> about (and thus think, teach, and practice) design.
> We can put this core understanding into a table. We have just seen evidence
> that the permaculture design literature generates sentences about what
> design is via the formula of selecting an item from each of these three
> columns and stringing them together:
> *start with* *then* *them to form a*
> elements assemble whole
> parts connect system
> components integrate pattern
> things relate assembly
> join plan
> arrange design
> place relationship
> create relationships between
> *Integrating elements* into *patterns*, *connecting components* into *whole
> systems*, *organising parts* into *relationship*, and so on, are all
> different expressions of permaculture’s unambiguously
> dominant understanding of what permaculture design *is*.
> Christopher Alexander’s Challenge
> Christopher Alexander is a radical architect, builder and writer widely
> known and respected by permaculture practitioners. Indeed, Alexander’s work
> is referenced in high esteem by the authors of the three books just cited.
> A core theme in the 14 plus books Alexander has published over the last
> half-century is a critique of the idea of design as element assembly. Here
> are two representative excerpts from earlier and later in his career:
> *“Design is often thought of as a process of synthesis, a process of
> putting together things, a process of combination.*
> According to this view, a whole is created by putting together parts. The
> parts come first: and the form of the whole comes second.
> *But it is impossible to form anything which has the character of nature by
> adding preformed parts” (*Alexander*,* 1979, p. 368*)*
> …then, 33 years later:
> “To grasp the nature of the subtle structure [of wholeness] fully, we must
> learn to avoid the danger of trying to see [wholes]4
> made up of parts. Present-day conventional wisdom (perhaps Cartesian and
> mechanistic in origin) tells us that everything is made of parts. In
> particular, people believe today that every whole is made of parts. The key
> aspect of this belief is the idea that the parts come ‘before’ the whole,
> in short, the parts exist as elements of some kind, which are then brought
> into relationship with one another, or combined, and a [whole] is ‘created’
> out of these parts and their combinations as a result.
> I believe accurate understanding of wholeness is quite different.”
> (Alexander, 2002a, p. 86)
> Now consider this statement, which starts to clarify what he means by *quite
> *“This [approach to design] is a differentiating process.*
> It views design as a sequence of acts of complexification; structure is
> injected into the whole by operating on the whole and crinkling it, not by
> adding little parts to one another. In the process of differentiation, the
> whole gives birth to its parts: the parts appear as folds in a cloth of
> three dimensional space which is gradually crinkled. The form of the whole,
> and the parts, come into being simultaneously.
> *The image of the differentiating process is the growth of an embryo.*
> It starts as a single cell. The cell grows into a ball of cells. Then,
> through a series of differentiations, each building on the last, the
> structure becomes more and more complex, until a finished human being is
> The first thing that happens is that this ball gets an inside, a middle
> layer, and an outside: the endoderm, mesoderm, and ectoderm, which will
> later turn into skeleton, flesh, and skin, respectively.
> [image: 1]
> Then this ball of cells with three layers gets an axis. The axis is laid
> down in the endoderm, and will become the spine of the finished person.
> [image: 2]
> Then this ball, with an axis, gets a head at one end.
> [image: 3]
> Later, the secondary structures, eyes, limbs, develop in relation to the
> spinal axis and the head.
> [image: 4]
> And so on. At every stage of development, new structure is laid down, on
> the basis of the structure which has been laid down so far. The process of
> development is, in essence, a sequence of operations, each one of which
> differentiates the structure which has been laid down by the previous
> operations” *(*Alexander*,* 1979, p. 370-371*)*
> So how might this apply in practice to a given design process? As Alexander
> then explains:
> “At the beginning of a design process, you may have an idea that the open
> space should be ‘more or less over here,’ and the building ‘more or less
> over there.’ Neither the pattern for ‘open space’ nor the pattern for
> ‘building’ is very precisely defined at this stage. They are like two
> clouds, whose size is imprecise, and with imprecise edges. It is not even
> perfectly certain, at this stage, that the cloud called ‘open space’ will
> be entirely open—nor that the cloud called building will be entirely
> roofed. What is happening, is that you place these two clouds, roughly, at
> this stage of the design, with the full understanding that the design is
> accurate only to within the order of magnitude of the clouds themselves,
> and that all kinds of details which are smaller in scale, may be changed
> Later in the process, you may be placing the ‘entrance’ to the building.
> Again, the pattern which you call the entrance is a cloudy volume, about
> the right size, clear enough so that you can pin point its location, with
> respect to other larger clouds, and to show its relations to the things
> next to it, but no more exact than that.
> And, yet another stage in the design process, you may place a column. This
> column has a height, and a rough size—but again, at the time you place it
> first, it has little more. Later, you make the column more exact, by
> placing the edges of the column, its reinforcing bars, its foundation, and
> so on.
> Whenever we want to make one of these vague cloudy patterns more precise,
> we do it by placing other smaller patterns, which define its edge and
> *Each pattern is an operator which differentiates space: that is it creates
> distinctions where no distinction was before *(Alexander, 1979, p. 372-373)
> I find it curious that permaculture authors (including those cited above)
> don’t acknowledge Alexander’s critique of their core understanding of
> to mention his extensively documented and detailed attempts to flesh out
> and apply his alternative understanding.6
> Don’t these seem like worthwhile ideas to explore and try out? The idea of
> design as a differentiating process? The idea of design as a program or
> sequence of injecting structure into a whole, moving from larger wholes
> toward smaller wholes? The idea that each smaller whole is placed, shaped,
> oriented and sized according to its relation to the wholes it sits within,
> and the wholes that surround it and overlap with it? Indeed, how else are
> we supposed to *design from patterns to details?*7
> Same End, Different Means
> As it happens, Alexander’s approach and the permaculture approach agree on
> the end they are aiming for. Compare Alexander’s…
> “…it is important that we, as a people on Earth, learn to create our towns,
> buildings and landscapes so that they too – like nature – are living
> structures, and that so our artificial world is then a nature-like system”
> (Alexander, 2002b, p. xvi)
> …with the two definitions of permaculture this article started with.
> While permaculture focuses more on the agricultural productivity of such
> systems and Alexander more on the built environment8
> there is a common striving toward landscapes or systems with deep natural
> character (i.e., that “mimic the patterns and relationships found in
> nature” in the statement from Holmgren, or that are “living structures” in
> Going further, both Alexander and permaculture share the contention that we
> can only approach such systems through a process of conscious design.
> The two approaches part company, however, when it comes to specifying the
> essence of this process – the means to the end.
> For permaculture, systems and landscapes with the character of nature are
> to be achieved by a process of assembling or combining parts or elements
> into whole systems:9
> [image: PermacultureDefaultDesignApproach]
> For Alexander, systems and landscapes with the character of nature are
> achieved by a process of differentiating wholes into parts, as inspired by
> the process by which an organism comes into existence:10
> [image: ChristopherAlexanderDefaultDesignApproach]
> Summary & Conclusion
> Permaculturalists have formulated principles and patterns intended to
> capture key aspects of healthy natural ecosystems. They have then attempted
> to mimic these principles and patterns in the systems they design.
> Details aside, a common theme to how design is defined in the permaculture
> literature is as a process of element assembly.
> This is a process of starting with parts then creating wholes by *addition*.
> Christopher Alexander argues that if we want to mimic the patterns and
> relationships found in nature, we *must* understand and copy the patterns
> and relationships *inside the process* by which nature produces these
> patterns. We need to mimic the means as well as the ends.
> He then proposes that the key to nature-mimicking design process is
> “The key to complex adaptation… lies in the concept of differentiation.
> This is a process of dividing and differentiating a whole to get the parts,
> rather than adding parts together to *get* a whole” (Alexander, 2002b, p.
> This is a process of starting with wholes then creating parts by
> This radically different understanding of what sound design process *is*
> challenges a core idea in permaculture.
> I encourage permaculturalists (including myself) to wholeheartedly *accept*
> this challenge. Let us engage with it, understand it, discuss it, try it
> out, reach some sort of clarity on what we make of it, and whether we see
> any value in it.
> Further, let us not forget that this challenge comes not from someone
> totally outside or foreign to permaculture. A small portion of Alexander’s
> thought and writing has already infused and enriched permaculture. Yet
> somehow we have missed perhaps the most important thing he has to offer us.
> In other words, we have *barely started* the important work of exploring
> and assimilating the riches he has to offer. I for one *can’t wait* to see
> where his thinking takes us next.
> In conclusion, permaculture is defined as a process of *consciously*
> designing agriculturally productive, nature-mimicking landscapes.
> *Conscious* design implies *consciously* questioning our understandings of
> what design is, and where necessary, making improvements. In Alexander’s
> work, we find somebody we already like showing us a way forward.
> Alexander, C., Ishikawa, S., Silverstein, M., Jacobson, M., Fiksdahl-King,
> I., & Angel, S. (1977). *A Pattern Language*. Oxford University Press.
> Alexander, C. (1979). *The Timeless Way of Building*. Oxford University
> Alexander, C. (2002a). *The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of
> Building and the Nature of the Universe: Book One: The Phenomenon of Life*
> (Vol. 1). The Center for Environmental Structure.
> Alexander, C. (2002b). *The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of
> Building and the Nature of the Universe: Book Two: The Process of Creating
> Life* (Vol. 2). The Center for Environmental Structure.
> Bloom, J., & Boehnlein, D. (2015). *Practical Permaculture*. Timberpress.
> Hemenway, T. (2015). *The Permaculture City*. Chelsea Green.
> Holmgren, D. (2002). *Permaculture: Patterns and Pathways Beyond
> Sustainability*. Melliodora.
> Mollison, B. (1988). *Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual*. Tagari.
> I thank David Holmgren
> Dave Jacke <http://www.edibleforestgardens.com/>, Rosemary Morrow, and James
> Andrews <http://www.thrivepermaculture.co.nz/> for their supportive and
> insightful feedback on an earlier draft of this post.
> 1. Shortly after this statement, which is Holmgren’s summary of a
> definition in wide use by permaculture teachers in the 1990s, he goes on to
> explain that “For many people, myself included, the above conception of
> permaculture is so global in its scope that its usefulness is reduced. More
> precisely, I see permaculture as *the use of systems thinking and design
> principles that provide the organising framework for implementing the above
> 2. Mollison adds mention of maintaining the system once designed and
> 3. The sequence here is unambiguous – 1. components, 2. their assembly
> 3. pattern assembly of the whole. Start with details and move toward
> 4. Here I have replaced Alexander’s preferred word “center” with the
> more familiar word “whole” which comes closest to his meaning – but see
> Alexander (2002a) pp. 83-85 for an explanation as to why he prefers the
> word “center”
> 5. See for example *The Timeless Way of Building *(1979), *A Pattern
> Language *(1977), *The Nature of Order* – *Book One – The Phenomenon of
> Life *(2002a)
> 6. Which is the common thread of his entire written corpus
> 7. Interestingly in the chapter exploring his *design from patterns to
> details* principle Holmgren (2002) cites Christopher Alexander’s (1977)
> work on pattern languages as an inspiration for focusing the chapter on
> steps toward a pattern language for permaculture site design. Yet as is the
> case with all other permaculture references to Alexander I am aware of,
> Alexander’s underlying concern with healthy design process as itself a
> patterns-to-details or whole-to-parts sequence of differentiations is not
> 8. Though keep in mind that in the very next sentence after the
> definition of permaculture Holmgren cites (see the start of this post) he
> continues to say “People, their buildings and the ways they organize
> themselves are central to permaculture” (2002, p. xix).
> 9. I haven’t found mention of an inspiration for this approach in the
> permaculture literature, as in an indication as to *why* this particular
> approach was chosen as the dominant or default approach. As best I can tell
> this approach was plucked out of the cultural milieu by Bill Mollison,
> equated with permaculture design, and subsequently accepted and propagated
> throughout the permaculture literature ever since
> 10. While my focus here is to clarify the distinction between these two
> approaches to design, which are at first glance mutually exclusive, in a
> future post I’ll flesh out the fact that working from parts towards wholes
> via addition *has its place*. It becomes problematic when
> we (unconsciously or otherwise) let it *dominate* our approach to
> design. Like Alexander, I believe that if anything its place should be
> secondary and subordinate to working from wholes towards parts via
> differentiation, if, that is, we desire to mimic the way natural processes
> generate natural systems. But my main point is that it is not a case of
> *either-or* but (yet again) a case of *both-and*. In a healthy, holistic
> design process the two approaches exist in a complementary dance (where the
> whole-to-parts approach leads the dance).
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