The single overriding rule
In his book A New Theory of Urban Design, which was published thirty years ago, the architect Christopher Alexander opens with a consideration of the basic problem confronting all city planners. He draws an analogy between the process of urban design and that of creating a work of art or studying a biological organism, but he also points out their fundamental differences:
With a city, we don’t have the luxury of either of these cases. We don’t have the luxury of a single artist whose unconscious process will produce wholeness spontaneously, without having to understand it—there are simply too many people involved. And we don’t have the luxury of the patient biologist, who may still have to wait a few more decades to overcome his ignorance.
What happens in the city, happens to us. If the process fails to produce wholeness, we suffer right away. So, somehow, we must overcome our ignorance, and learn to understand the city as a product of a huge network of processes, and learn just what features might make the cooperation of these processes produce a whole.
And wherever he writes “city,” you can replace it with any complicated system—a nation, a government, an environmental crisis—that seems too daunting for any individual to affect on his or her own, and toward which it’s easy to despair over our own helplessness, especially, as Alexander notes, when it’s happening to us.
Alexander continues: “We must therefore learn to understand the laws which produce wholeness in the city. Since thousands of people must cooperate to produce even a small part of a city, wholeness in the city will only be created to the extent that we can make these laws explicit, and can then introduce them, openly, explicitly, into the normal process of urban development.” We can pause here to note that this is as good an explanation as any of why rules play a role in all forms of human activity. It’s easy to fetishize or dismiss the rules to the point where we overlook why they exist in the first place, but you could say that they emerge whenever we’re dealing with a process that is too complicated for us to wing it. Some degree of improvisation enters into much of what we do, and in many cases—when we’re performing a small task for the first time with minimal stakes—it’s fine to make it up as we go along. The larger, more important, or more complex the task, however, the more useful it becomes to have a few guidelines on which we can fall back whenever our intuition or conscience fails us. Rules are nice because they mean that we don’t constantly have to reason from first principles whenever we’re faced with a choice. They often need to be amended, supplemented, or repealed, and we should never stop interrogating them, but they’re unavoidable. Every time we discard a rule, we implicitly replace it with another. And it can be hard to strike the right balance between a reasonable skepticism of the existing rules and an understanding of why they’re pragmatically good to have around.
Before we can develop a set of rules for any endeavor, however, it helps to formulate what Alexander calls “a single, overriding rule” that governs the rest. It’s worth quoting him at length here, because the challenge of figuring out a rule for urban design is much the same as that for any meaningful project that involves a lot of stakeholders:
The growth of a town is made up of many processes—processes of construction of new buildings, architectural competitions, developers trying to make a living, people building additions to their houses, gardening, industrial production, the activities of the department of public works, street cleaning and maintenance…But these many activities are confusing and hard to integrate, because they are not only different in their concrete aspects—they are also guided by entirely different motives…One might say that this hodgepodge is highly democratic, and that it is precisely this hodgepodge which most beautifully reflects the richness and multiplicity of human aspirations.
But the trouble is that within this view, there is no sense of balance, no reasonable way of deciding how much weight to give the different aims within the hodgepodge…For this reason, we propose to begin entirely differently. We propose to imagine a single process…one which works at many levels, in many different ways…but still essentially a single process, in virtue of the fact that it has a single goal.
And Alexander arrives at a single, overriding rule that is so memorable that I seem to think about it all the time: “Every increment of construction must be made in such a way as to heal the city.”
But it isn’t hard to understand why this rule isn’t more widely known. It’s difficult to imagine invoking it at a city planning meeting, and it has a mystical ring to it that I suspect makes many people uncomfortable. Yet this is less a shortcoming in the rule itself than a reflection of the kind of language that we need to develop an intuition about what other rules to follow. Alexander argues that most of us have a “a rather good intuitive sense” of what this rule means, and he points out: “It is, therefore, a very useful kind of inner voice, which forces people to pay attention to the balance between different goals, and to put things together in a balanced fashion.” The italics are mine. Human beings have trouble keeping all of their own rules in their heads at once, much less those that apply to others, so our best bet is to develop an inner voice that will guide us when we don’t have ready access to the rules for a specific situation. (As David Mamet says of writing: “Keep it simple, stupid, and don’t violate the rules that you do know. If you don’t know which rule applies, just don’t muck up the more general rules.”) Most belief systems amount to an attempt to cultivate that voice, and if Alexander’s advice has a religious overtone, it’s because we tend to associate such admonitions with the contexts in which they’ve historically arisen. “Love your enemies” is one example. “Desire is suffering” is another. Such precepts naturally give rise to other rules, which lead in turn to others, and one of the shared dangers in city planning and religion is the failure to remember the underlying purpose when faced with a mass of regulations. Ideally, they serve as a system of best practices, but they often have no greater goal than to perpetuate themselves. And as Alexander points out, it isn’t until you’ve taken the time to articulate the one rule that governs the rest that you can begin to tell the difference.