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Wholistic Design [Permaculture
Posted on June 10, 2016 @ 03:30:00 AM by Paul Meagher

The architect Christopher Alexander wrote many influential books on architecture and landscape design. He is especially known for the concept of a "pattern language". Christopher was lead author of the book A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction in which 253 design patterns are discussed. An example of a design pattern is the Street Cafe design pattern:

The street cafe provides a unique setting, special to cities: a place where people can sit lazily, legitimately, be on view, and watch the world go by... Encourage local cafes to spring up in each neighborhood. Make them intimate places, with several rooms, open to a busy path, where people can sit with coffee or a drink and watch the world go by. Build the front of the cafe so that a set of tables stretch out of the cafe, right into the street. ~ Christopher Alexander et al., A Pattern Language, p. 437,439

So the idea is that you would learn all these design patterns and together they would create a design language that could be used to inform the design of towns, buildings and construction.

Christopher Alexander wrote 13 books, many of them thick books, so it is not easy to access the totality of his thinking. Recently, Dan Palmer wrote a useful and provocative article called Christopher Alexander’s Neglected Challenge to Permaculture in which he points out that Alexander had a very different idea of what wholistic design consists of than Permaculture appears to. This is a bit embarrassing because Permaculture often claims to draw inspiration from Christoper but seems to have missed how radically different his approach to wholistic design is.

In a nutshell, Christopher views wholistic design as evolving from a vague pattern into differentiated parts, where Permaculture often advocates a view of design as consisting of the assembly of parts into an integrated functional whole. Dan Palmer created a nice diagram to illustrate the difference:

Dan's article has sparked some interesting discussions with leading Permaculture thinkers, David Holmgren and David Jacke, and you can follow these discussions and Dan's progress at Making Permaculture Stronger.

So is wholistic design a process of parts assembly, or is it a process of differentiating a whole into more defined parts, or both? It is both, but the view of wholistic design as a differentiation process has been revitalized by this discussion and it is worth evaluating as it has implications for how you approach design problems.

Today, I was browsing an influential article I read many years ago from Steven J. Gould and Richard Lewonton called Evolution The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme (1979, PDF) that seemed relevant to this debate.

Here is part of the first paragraph from that article:

An adaptationist programme has dominated evolutionary thought in England and the United States during the past forty years. It is based on faith in the power of natural selection as an optimizing agent. It proceeds by breaking an organism into unitary "traits" and proposing an adaptive story for each considered separately. Trade-offs among competing selective demands exert the only brake upon perfection; nonoptimality is thereby rendered as a result of adaptation as well. We criticize this approach and attempt to reassert a competing notion (long popular in continental Europe) that organisms must be analyzed as integrated wholes, with baupläne so constrained by phyletic heritage, pathways of development, and general architecture that the constraints themselves become more interesting and more important in delimiting pathways of change than the selective force that may mediate change when it occurs.

The issue of wholistic design arises in evolution when we try to figure out how integrated systems such as humans have come to be. The wholistic design process that nature uses is generally one of parts differentiation at the level of embryonic development (cylindrical blob morphs into a being with arms and leg, then toes and fingers, etc...) and Gould & Lewonton are arguing that it may also be one of parts differentiation (from a "baupläne" or "body plan") over evolutionary time. Gould and Lewonton also mention the term "constraints" which is necessary to introduce when discussing design and the role that it might play in the process. The "constraints" recognized and used in a version of wholistic design as a parts-assembly process is probably different that the constraints recognized and used in a version of wholistic design as a parts-differentiation process (e.g., what you currently have is probably recognized as more of a constaint).

The purpose of today's blog is to introduce you to an interesting discussion about the nature of design that happening in Permaculture circles and to explore a bit whether Steven J. Gould and Richard Lewonton were trending in the same way as Christopher Alexander in their thinking about what wholistic design consists of.

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