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Home > Uncategorized > Is conservation the key to innovation?
In our community we talk a lot about vibrancy, about health, about creating communities that have great life. The questions, of course, is: How do we do that? And often our answer is the same. Innovation! Fresh process! Disruption! Creativity! Are we missing something here?
Christopher Alexander, who we’ve looked at several times here before, spent many decades trying to uncover the underlying structural principles of living architecture and design. While doing so he came to realize that, although those principles are hugely important, knowledge of them did not foster the ability to create living structure. That is to say, just knowing the universal principles of a living space does not mean that you can then go out and make one. What he slowly came to realize was that living space always arose out of a particular kind of process, a process of holistic unfolding. Get the process right and the results will almost always succeed.
In the end we shall see that living structure and unfolded structure are equivalent. All living structure is unfolded and all unfolded structure is living. And I believe the concept of an unfolded structure is as important, and should play as essential a role in architecture, as the concept of living structure. Thus we shall end up with two equivalent views – one static, one dynamic – of the same idea. (Book II, 2)
This claim itself requires greater attention for Alexander also states that, from his extensive experience, the opposite is also true: get the process wrong and the results will almost always fail. But here I want to focus on the basic process of unfolding that can lead us to living structure, be it a building or a community. The essence of the unfolding process is, “transformations which occur in the system take whatever wholeness exists at any given instant and continue it and intensify it while, broadly, maintaining its global structure, so that at the next instant that wholeness is pronounced; as time goes forward, the wholeness gets progressively intensified, step by step. It is this process – I maintain – which is responsible for the creation of living structure.” (ibid, 22)
In all of these cases [of unfolded structure], when we look at the sequence of development, we see a sequence which is essentially smooth in character. That means, within the sequence, each state follows, without breaking structure, from the state before. The structure of the state before (its wholeness) develops, evolves, changes – but is still visible in the next state. Even in those important cases where an entirely new structure is introduced – often the most important moments in the sequence –the new structure is still introduced in such a way as to maintain the essence, the underlying structure, of the previous state. (ibid, 23)
So how does this relate to our demand for innovation, fresh process, disruption, etc? Well, what it claims is that the best innovation is always also highly conservative. That is to say, innovation which is the result of an unfolding process and which in turn results in living structure always begins with a view to the whole that is currently in the process of becoming and then finding the one next step that could increase the life of that system. Just as we are finding more and more that opposite worlds are folding onto one another, could it be that the key to innovation is conservation?
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