Note: This post is a follow-on from Christopher Alexander’s Neglected Challenge to Permaculture
Chapters Three and Four of Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier’s Edible Forest Gardens Volume Two (2005) contain what is likely the permaculture literature’s most systematic and comprehensive presentation of sound design process.
Interestingly, the design process described therein (which Jacke prefers to call ecological rather than permaculture design process) almost completely avoids permaculture’s dominant view of design as a process of element assembly.
Not only is the presentation light on talk of element-assembly, it is remarkably consistent with Christopher Alexander’s differentiation-based approach to design.
While this is rare in the permaculture design literature, it shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. For one, earlier in the volume Jacke1 develops the beginnings of an impressive “pattern-language-in-process” for edible forest garden design. This effort is inspired directly by his reading of Alexander’s books The Timeless Way of Building (1979) and A Pattern Language (1977). For another, he writes:
[Christopher] Alexander expresses a deep philosophical viewpoint and a specific method of design we find compelling. Our task is not to explain that viewpoint or those methods here” (Edible Forest Gardens, Volume Two, p. 63)
Finally, he recently shared (in private conversation) that Alexander’s Notes on the Synthesis of Form (1964) was a pivotal influence on the development of his thinking around what he calls the goals articulation phase of sound design process.2
So it is not surprising, therefore, that you will struggle to find Jacke discussing design in the sense of element assembly. Consider some typical wordings:
The first stage of the design phase is the formation of the design concept. The design concept is the ‘big idea’ or organizing notion of the whole design for our site. Our goals statement tells us our mission, and our base map and site analysis and assessment tell us the context within which we will achieve that mission. The design concept defines our vision for achieving that mission in that specific context in its most essential or fundamental aspect. Ideally, all the design details flow from this vision and harmonise with it, support it, and manifest it” (p. 233)
“Schematic design expands the seed of the design concept to see how it manifests in somewhat greater detail…” (p. 233)
Once we have a solid scheme that resolves all the basic design issues, we work at a more detailed level. The detailed-design phase is where we take our chosen scheme and make it more exact, specifying the physical details in harmony with the big picture” (p. 233,)
“Resolve the basic patterns and large-scale issues first” (p. 249)
“…plant placement is one of the last kinds of design choices we make, because it is one of the most detailed decisions” (p. 249)
“Get the big picture right, then work into the more detailed issues” (p. 249)
“…don’t get caught up in detailed design until you’ve settled on the best scheme at a larger scale” (p. 250)
These statements contrast with the quotations previously shared from Bill Mollison’s The Permaculture Designer’s Manual (1988), Jessi Bloom and Dave Boehnlein’s Practical Permaculture (2015) and Toby Hemenway’s The Permaculture City (2015). There any talk about design process is dominated by a diversity of ways of saying that design is a process of starting with elements then assembling them into wholes.
Jacke is clearly coming from a different place with respect to what what sound design actually is. A place resonating effortlessly with statements from Alexander such as:
The form will grow gradually as you go through the sequence, beginning as something very loose and amorphous, gradually becoming more and more complicated, more refined and more differentiated. (A Pattern Language, 1977, p. 463)
In effect, as you build each pattern into the design, you will experience a single gestalt that is gradually becoming more and more coherent (A Pattern Language, 1977, p. 464)
Or, using the words pattern and details:
At every level, certain broad patterns get laid down: and the details are squeezed into position to conform to the structure of these broader patterns. Of course, under these circumstances, the details are always slightly different, since they get distorted as they are squeezed into the larger structure already laid down. In a design of this type, one naturally senses that the global patterns are more important than the details, because they dominate the design. Each pattern is given the importance and control over the whole which it deserves in the hierarchy of patterns (A Timeless Way of Building, 1979, p. 384)
Interestingly, Jacke doesn’t talk explicitly about design as a process of sequential differentiation as does Alexander. Nonetheless, his approach is fully consistent with this viewpoint. Jacke is consciously moving from wholes-to-parts, from patterns to details.
You can see this visually in the following three progressively more detailed design examples from Edible Forest Gardens (all sketched by Dave Jacke and appearing on pages 261, 263, & 270, respectively):
These diagrams are adapted from Edible Forest Gardens, Volume II by Dave Jacke with Eric Toensmeier (October 2005) and are reprinted with permission from Chelsea Green Publishing.
These diagrams exemplify design when practiced as a process of successively more detailed differentiation. Of starting with wholes and working toward parts. There is no feeling of bringing in and connecting together elements. There is a feeling of the progressive unfolding or discovery of the design.
Dave Jacke has contributed the most comprehensive, conscious and clear treatment of sound design process yet seen in the permaculture literature. His ecological design process moves primarily from patterns towards details via the sequential differentiation of wholes into parts. This resonates with and indeed was to some degree inspired by the writings of Christopher Alexander (among other influences – see the postscript below).
In a recent conversation, David Holmgren emphasised the importance of creating design processes that respect and mimic the way in which nature works from patterns to details. To date (as previously discussed) most writing about permaculture design has been hindered by the culturally dominant, problematic, and self-contradictory belief that conscious design starts with details (or parts) and works toward patterns (or wholes).
A notable exception, Dave Jacke’s work deserves respect and attention as an example of a genuinely ecological design process, and almost certainly the deepest application of Christopher Alexander’s ideas within the permaculture literature to date.
Thanks to Dave for his permission to share some of his own (privately emailed) words arising firstly from his response to the post this post follows on from…
I have to say, though, that upon reading the latest post I wonder how much I actually do inhabit the paradigm of Alexander. I have bought into the typical PC design paradigm significantly, too. I don’t think I am immune to that perspective. I actually think I combine both. Not sure what I think about that—is that an advantage or not?
When I design polycultures I most often use the “guild build” process where I am literally assembling plants that may never have grown together before and trying to create functional wholes. … However, the architectural design process of identifying a habitat bubble and differentiating it into patches and then articulating that into patch designs is very clearly aligned with Alexander’s approach. And goals articulation is itself a process of acknowledging and attempting to articulate and differentiate the structure of the clients as a whole, in a way, as is site A&A. I think of the design phase as relating those two streams (client and site) to see what patterns emerge from the relationship, which feels aligned with Alexander’s approach also. So it’s all an interesting reflection process to hear how you see it and how I fit into it.
and secondly from his response to a draft of today’s post (where I asked if he was happy with my presentation of his approach before publishing):
You are convincing me that I am more embedded in Alexander’s perspective than I thought I was!