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Tea House

Paul Ollswang, Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language, Tea Houses, Greg Bryant, etc.

For those of you who don't know about Christopher Alexander, suffice it to say that he wrote a ground-breaking work on design and problem-solving called Notes on the Synthesis of Form, which was widely read in the early 1960's. Paul had a copy, and was a student at the University of Oregon campus when Alexander's The Oregon Experiment in participatory planning began. It included some participatory construction as well, in the spirit of the 1960's and early 1970's, and I think Paul described the student-built experiments as "committing acts of architecture in public". Some of which he "liked a lot", like the metal foundry, and the art building's café, all built by students using Alexander's approach..

Well, Alexander eventually published A Pattern Language. Which became the best-selling book on architecture of all time.[Check out the website at] It inspired many movements, for example in computer science, but its approach, and spirited defense of architecture for people, is still spurned within the rarefied [that is, oxygen-deprived] elitism guiding most professional architects. Most. A minority make great use of this material. As do many non-professionals.

Paul's brother Jeff Ollswang is an architecture professor, at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, and a close friend and colleague with one of Alexander's star students, Harry Van Oudenallen. So Paul'd heard a lot about A Pattern Language over the years. Finally, over fifteen years after it was published, he started reading it. While skimming it, Paul had this to say. Then, as he got deeper into it, he told me "it's like he's describing a great symphony that I've never heard." After reading about half the book, he produced some phenomenal cartoons, based on patterns, for my West End proposal.

Then I started working with Alexander on design "sequences": a series of steps, which allows any person, to design a profound and personal building or place. A good sequence allows this to unfold smoothly and naturally. A truly good sequence can be used to design anything, and give it real life. Alexander and I created a computer program to help a person through a sequence, in this case, to create a gate, and we still call this program Gatemaker. Alexander had been working with sequences for decades: and he had published "The Unfolding of a Japanese Tea Garden" as part of a circulating manuscript for his magnum opus, The Nature of Order.

I gave this sequence to Paul, and this 17 page cartoon is what he made of it. His construction site: his house in Monroe, Oregon. On the supposition that, since it's always best to build on the worst part of a site, and preserve the good parts, then his land was perfect for building, because it was really in terrible shape. [Read these pages in order. For full effect, do the teahouse sequence yourself.]

  1. Title page
  2. Secluded teahouse
  3. Chimney cap
  4. Garden wall
  5. Growing a fence #1
  6. Growing a fence #2
  7. Inner and outer garden
  8. Paths
  9. Outer Gate overview
  10. Outer Gate
  11. Middle Gate
  12. Branching Paths & Guideposts
  13. Waiting Bench
  14. Other Waiting Bench
  15. Approach & Details
  16. Kneeling-in Entrance
  17. Resulting plan

Originally, of course, Paul was thinking of making a sequence to unfold a japanese doghouse. But he decided to play it relatively straight. Alexander read Paul's cartoon mini-book the morning of his famous 1996 speech in San Jose, marking his public debut to a computer industry that had admired him from afar since the sixties. "It's quite charming," Alexander admitted.

However, Paul's cartoon is almost completely unrelated to the point of Alexander's generative sequences, such as the tea garden sequence. The process of the sequence is to unfold the design from the most important structures to the least important. By "most important" I mean placing and designing those elements that will effect the place and design of all the subsequent elements. The "chimney cap" above is out-of-sequence, because it is an ornamental detail, and only affects ornamental details in the ensuing steps ... it doesn't influence larger structures ... say, the placement of the fences or the gates.

I told this to Paul when he first handed me these pages -- he squinted at me sideways from behind his glasses and said, hesitantly, "So, at each step, you want me not to draw any actual thing?" Over the next year, while Chris and I worked on gatemaker, I used Paul's cartoon as the extreme case: where the user does too much at each step. Chris and I even did experiments at the other extreme: we tried to give the user only a few seconds to make a few strokes at each step, in order to attract attention towards the holistic aspects of the process. You can try gatemaker yourself: it is a drawing tool at Urbanology.

Greg Bryant