The Timeless Way of Building

When you first pick up “The Timeless Way of Building” by Christopher Alexander, the book feels uncharacteristically comfortable in your hands. The cover is soft in an unusually nice way. And the book itself is structured distinctively as well — as a series of alternating bullet points with paragraphs of more detailed explanations. Each chapter begins with black and white photographs that capture elegant buildings or patterns. In this way, the book manifests the same design principles that its pages express.

While on its surface it’s a book about architecture and building physical things, The Timeless Way is also of interest to anyone interested in building anything, whether concrete or abstract. It’s of particular interest to me because I want to create systems that are themselves creative.

The essential message of the book is that design is best when each detail serves a greater unified purpose. It is a treatise against cookie-cutter design or design simply for abstract aesthetics — each detail should serve a functional role, and be specially adapted to best serve that functional role.

In particular, when designing buildings you can imagine that there are patterns that a building can implement. From “intimacy gradient” (that going deeper into the house should transition from the public outside to the privacy of a bedroom), to “window place” where a window exists to display a beautiful view of the outside. The idea is that there are abstract patterns that have certain requirements and effects on design, and that good design makes so that these abstract patterns are implemented so that all of the resulting forces are in balance.

Alexander argues that each part should almost be alive in its own, and continually co-evolve with the other parts of the design so that eventually all the “forces” in the design equalize. It’s an interesting idea, almost as if as humans when designing we must breathe life into every part simultaneously and keep asking for each part, how they can be better adapted to live with each other in harmony.

There are obvious parallels to evolutionary computation and biology in the book — he argues for what is in effect “mimetic” evolution of languages of patterns that describe buildings. In other words, that there are memes for building design that can subtly spread and interact. For example, when you build something, it subtly influences the buildings around it, and the character of a neighborhood. And the character of the neighborhood can influence the character of a city, and so forth. The development of a building he compares to the development of an organism — the progressive differentiation of space and iterative unfolding of patterns through space and time.

This is the kind of book I read because it is thought-provoking and interesting. I agree with parts of it (that each part should be specially designed for its particular circumstance) and disagree with others (that good design requires a “zen-like” attitude of egolessness). But in all, it’s a fascinating read that I’d recommend for anyone who strives to creating new beautiful things — whether they be computer programs, websites, or buildings.

Book Review: Breakthrough

I just finished reading Breakthrough: Stories and Strategies of Radical Innovation by Mark and Barbara Stefik, which is built from many interviews of successful innovators at famous research labs like Bell, PARC, and MIT’s Media Lab.

The book provides some interesting stories about how innovation works. However, rather than the author’s synthesis of the material (although it is sometimes insightful), what I found most interesting was just good quotes from really smart people on the nature of innovation.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Chuck Thacker was quoted as saying:

You can’t build railroads before it is railroad time.

What a cool sound-bite! My interpretation is that sometimes the pieces you need to get somewhere don’t yet exist, and you can’t force it to come together without it. Railroads needed a steam engine to be feasible. If the algorithm or market necessary for your super-cool idea to flourish doesn’t yet exist, it may not yet be railroad time no matter how hard you try.

Allan Newell:

People think that science is riskier than it actually is. If you take a group of smart people and send them down some path, they generally come back with something interesting.

In the context of start-up culture, this could imply that it may be more important just to collect a group of inspired hackers and set them loose rather than have some kind of methodical plan for what you want them to do. You may know that no matter what project Hacker X works on, it will end up being cool.

Walter Bishop Jr. (a jazz musician):

Once you’ve created your own sound and you have agood sense of the history of the music, then you think of where the music hasn’t gone and where it can go — and that’s innovation.

This is exactly what start-ups do, they are typically exploring the fringe of what is possible. To do so, you have to understand what has been possible in the past, and what the emerging tools of new technology are making feasible that wasn’t before. And among those things that are newly feasible, which are the most compelling or interesting that could potentially create monetary value?