Unconcerned simplicity

/ 28 May 2008

The folks at 37signals point to an interesting lesson from the building of physical objects. How does this relate to the building of code or the building of lives? They quote architect Christopher Alexander’s book A Pattern Language:

The difference between the novice and the master is simply that the novice has not learnt, yet, how to do things in such a way that he can afford to make small mistakes. The master knows that the sequence of his actions will always allow him to cover his mistakes a little further down the line. It is this simple but essential knowledge which gives the work of a master carpenter its wonderful, smooth, relaxed, and almost unconcerned simplicity.

How to live life with a faith that the mistakes can work their way out with continued attention and care. They can’t be avoided, and living life to avoid mistakes only stiffens life. But in a master’s hand, they can be resolved into a beautiful whole.

This novice-like and panic-stricken attention to detail has two very serious results. First, like the novice, the architects spend a great deal of time trying to work things out ahead of time, not smoothly building. Obviously, this costs money; and. helps create these machine-like “perfect” buildings. Second, a vastly more serious consequence: the details control the whole. The beauty and subtlety of the plan in which patterns have held free sway over the design suddenly becomes tightened and destroyed because, in fear that details won’t work out, the details of connections, and components, are allowed to control the plan. As a result, rooms get to be slightly the wrong shape, windows go out of position, spaces between doors and walls get altered just enough to make them useless. In a word, the whole character of modern architecture, namely the control of larger space by piddling details of construction, takes over.

And is this the way of modern life? Planned out. The right resume. The right career. The right salary. The right family. Who creates this plan? Who has time to develop their own perfect plan? Would our time be better spent weaving a life?

Recognize that you are not assembling a building from components like an erector set, but that you are instead weaving a structure which starts out globally complete, but flimsy; then gradually making it stiffer but still rather flimsy; and only finally making it completely stiff and strong.

I often wonder if one can construct a self from flimsy sheets of hope and desire. Maybe if I scaffold my desired shape in flimsy material, it would be enough to see if that self is who I want to be, is who I want others to see. The material would be flimsy enough to shift, and only as I fall in love with myself as I am growing me need I stiffen it up a bit, lend it strength, make it part of my core.

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