The Importance of being an Amateur

Just recently I have been preparing a talk that I shall be giving at ACCU 2013 in Bristol. Luckily the Bath & Bristol chapter of the ACCU asked me to come and give a dry run of the talk recently and thanks to their many constructive comments I have just finished tweaking and finishing the talk for the main conference.

In preparation for the talk my main texts have been a combination of Henri Bortoft with his “Taking Appearance Seriously”, Iain McGilchrist and his magnum opus “The Master and His Emissary”, and finally- of more import for the techies among us – another magnum opus from Christopher Alexander, his “The Nature of Order” series (which I shall refer to as NoO!).

During the preparation I have been reading these works primarily in “reference” mode, making notes and actually trying to “study” them more. However, now that the main prep is over, I decided to jump forward to the last of the four books from Alexander. So far I had only got to half way through the second one.

Given the slides I had prepared for the talk, some of which included the titles “The Importance of Energy” and “The Foundation in Play”, I was surprised to see just how well they meshed with Alexander’s approach in his Book 4 of the NoO series.

I was particularly struck by his comments about Chartres cathedral and was desperately trying to relate it to software development when a particular thought struck me between the eyes. Although Alexander never mentioned the word, one of the main drivers that the artisans making cathedrals would have used would have been the LOVE of the job, particularly given the religious context so prevalent at that time.

I then reflected upon the background history of software development and realized that it has usually been the polar opposite of this approach, since its main roots are in the military and past war efforts, particularly WW2 and the work at Los Alamos on the atomic bomb. So I then realized that a major reason why I am interested in this more human approach is in order to counteract the lack of humanity that is prevalent in software development, an easy trap to fall into given the focus on technology, and its associated roots in the military.

I then remembered the root within the word amateur – i.e. doing it for the love of it – and realized that this is an important driver for taking the time to make software development truly become a craft and an art. Thus, in order to ‘heal the Cartesian split’, as I mention in the talk, we need to bring more of this feeling of doing it for the love of it, and this is exactly what Christopher Alexander is driving at. He has a great story about getting his students to paint Easter eggs in order for them to learn how to create buildings with good centres or beings as he is also calling them.

I have included the section entitled ‘Innocence’ here as I feel it says a lot about what is needed to truly be an ‘architect’, whether of a building or of software. But unfortunately I am not usually given the time for such exercises and have had to develop this perspective in the background throughout my career. I suspect this is a common experience. But maybe I am just too much of a dreamer…

Extracted from Book 4 of “The Nature of Order : The Luminous Ground” by Christopher Alexander. pp99-100.

12 / INNOCENCE

It may help for me to describe a class I once conducted, in an effort to improve the students’ ability to form buildings from beings. I first asked each student to give an example of an innocent process of drawing or making an ornament which they had most enjoyed. I was looking for something which had been truly joyful for them, not part of their student training. They gave various answers. As I listened, I noticed that the smaller the examples were the more true – that is, the more innocent they were, the less contaminated. Then one student said, in a very soft voice, that he had enjoyed painting Easter eggs in his childhood. That was something that was pure joy, unaffected by guilt, or by a feeling that he must “do well.” At first I could not hear him. He was shy about it, didn’t want to repeat what he said. I persuaded him to speak a little more loudly, and finally we all heard him say, embarrassed, that he had loved painting Easter eggs.

I felt at once that this love, of all those which had been mentioned, was one of the most pure. It was simple. In that work, there is nothing except the egg and the pattern on its surface, no mental constraints of what one “ought” to do – only the thing itself. No one really judges or censors the outcome – so it is easy and alright, not festering with complicated concepts about architecture when you do it.

So I asked each student to make holes in the ends of a raw egg, blow out the yolk and white, and then paint the egg, decorate it like an Easter egg. I made it clear that they did not have to use the fifteen properties. All I wanted them to do was to make the egg beautiful, to enjoy what they were doing. Here are some of the eggs they painted. The shapes and spaces in the ornaments took their shape, and became what they are, just to be beautiful and to have the maker’s depth of feeling visible and shining in them. That was the only principle which governed them. And this, I believe is what one has to do to make a serious work. Naive as it sounds, it is this, too – I believe – that the great traditional builders did.

The students’ other architectural work improved greatly once they understood that making a good building is more like the joyous work of painting an Easter egg than like the practical task of being an “architect.”

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