Tolkien and the Timeless Way of Building

Before you read the rest of this post, go look at these pictures of a Hobbit Pub and a Hobbit House. And recall the lovely Bag End sets from Peter Jackson’s LOTR movies.

I have a very powerful reaction to these buildings that, I believe, has nothing to do with having been a Tolkien fan for most of my life. In fact, some of the most Tolkien-specific details – the round doors, the dragon motifs in the pub – could be removed without attenuating that reaction a bit.

To me, they feel right. They feel like home. And I’m not entirely sure why, because I’ve never lived in such antique architecture. But I think it may have something to do with Christopher Alexander’s “Timeless Way of Building”.

Alexander’s ideas are not easy to summarize. He believes that there is a timeless set of generative ur-patterns which are continuously rediscovered in the world’s most beautiful buildings – patterns which derive from an interplay among mathematical harmonies, the psychological/social needs of human beings, and the properties of the materials we build in.

Alexander celebrates folk architecture adapted to local needs and materials. He loves organic forms and buildings that merge naturally with their surroundings. He respects architectural tradition, finding harmony and beauty even in its accidents.

When I look at these buildings, and the Tolkien sketches from which they derive, that’s what I see. The timelessness, the organic quality, the rootedness in place. When I look inside them, I see a kind of humane warmth that is all too rare in any building I actually visit. (Curiously, one of the few exceptions is a Wegmans supermarket near me which, for all that it’s a gigantic commercial hulk, makes clever use of stucco and Romanesque stonework to evoke a sense of balance, groundedness, and warmth.)

I want to live in a thing like the Hobbit House – a hummocky fieldstone pile with a red-tiled roof and a chimney, and white plaster and wainscoting and hardwood floors. I want it to look like it grew where it is, half-set in a hillside. I want the mullions and the butterfly windows and the massive roof-beams and the eyebrow gables. Want, want, want!

I don’t feel like this desire is nostalgia or a turn away from the modern; there’s room in my dream for central heating and Ethernet cable in the walls, not to mention electricity. I feel like it’s a turn towards truths from the past but for the future – that, in our busy cleverness, we have almost forgotten what kind of design makes a building not just physically adequate but psychologically nourishing. We need to rediscover that, and these buildings feel to me like clues.

I think it might be that Tolkien, an eccentric genius nostalgic for the English countryside of his pre-World-War-I youth, abstracted and distilled out of its vernacular architecture exactly those elements which are timeless in Christopher Alexander’s sense. There is a pattern language, a harmony, here. These buildings make sense as wholes. They are restful and welcoming.

They’re also rugged. You can tell by looking at the Hobbit House, or that inn in New Zealand, that you’d have to work pretty hard to do more than superficial damage to either. They’ll age well; scratches and scars will become patina. And a century from now or two, long after this year’s version of “modern” looks absurdly dated, they’ll still look like they belong exactly where they are.

One mathematical possibility I find plausible for explaining their appeal: these buildings exhibit something like fractal self-similarity. The rooflines resemble 1/f noise. Small details echo large ones; similar forms and proportions show up at multiple scales. These are features by which the human eye recognizes natural forms. Perhaps this is why they seem so restful.

I wish we could learn to build like this again – not as a movie set or a stunt, but as a living idiom. Factories and offices don’t need what these buildings have, but homes – the places where people actually live – do. I think we’d all be saner and happier for it.

77 thoughts on “Tolkien and the Timeless Way of Building

  1. Since at least the 1970’s, there’s been a smallish but never-dying movement of housing hackers who have been trying to pull this sort of thing off. Unfortunately, housing takes far more capital than computer programming, has decidedly non-zero replication costs, and in most places is constrained by zoning and conservative building codes.

    I was part of a group that spent a decade or so trying to get a Danish-style Cohousing development project going, but the barriers to accomplishing it proved to be too big.

  2. “One mathematical possibility I find plausible for explaining their appeal: these buildings exhibit something like fractal self-similarity. The rooflines resemble 1/f noise. Small details echo large ones; similar forms and proportions show up at multiple scales. These are features by which the human eye recognizes natural forms. Perhaps this is why they seem so restful.”

    Interestingly, the mentions of “fractal” and “noise” in this paragraph brought up images that triggered the reaction “diseased, unclean, dangerous, avoid”. Might have something to do with the moldy loaf of bread I encountered earlier this week. I think the explanation for the two different types of reaction to fractal structures is the pervasive presence of fractal structures in living things, on the one hand you have “alive, likely to nourish”, and on the other “alive, likely to poison”, although in the second case I think the brain’s instinctive reaction is just “likely to poison”, and the recognition of the “alive” part is simply due to modern education.

    But then there’s another weird thing: The fractal structures of mold and moss are similar, but a moldy loaf of bread triggers revulsion, whereas a mossy boulder does not.

  3. Your basement is half-buried, which suggests some hobbitish possibilities.

    Buildings can fail to be fractal in two directions– one is not enough variety of at the small scale, which makes the place look sterile, and the other is a lot of small scale variety without enough unifying large structure, which looks busy and distracting.

    This essay might be tied to your previous essay about the failures of some kinds of literary fiction– there’s a cultural mistrust of pleasure which causes a variety of damage.

  4. @esr
    “I wish we could learn to build like this again – not as a movie set or a stunt, but as a living idiom. Factories and offices don’t need what these buildings have, but homes – the places where people actually live – do. I think we’d all be saner and happier for it.”

    As I understand it, Chris Alexander claims to have succeeded. I don’t know much about it but in 1996 he wrote the Foreword to RPG’s “Patterns of Software”, in which he claimed to have obtained results that satisfied him and were to be published in his then future book “The Nature of Order” which was to be in 3 volumes.

  5. Nice, but I’d rather have a fort dug into a mountain/sheer cliff any day. Basalt would be nice.

  6. > To me, they feel right.

    I’d be curious to know if you had the same reaction to Hogwarts architecture in the Harry Potter movies.

  7. Fractal, or at least self-similar, makes sense. We’re evolved to think that plants and animals and hills and coastlines look “right”. This could very much be a future look with a technology that (a) uses self-replication (b) makes us rich enough that we aren’t forced to use the cheapest, thinnest, mass-produced stuff to build with.

  8. Hogwarts was actually filmed for the movies using a 1:24 scale model, complete with lights in the windows. The film studios have been turned into a tourist attraction where you can see it.

  9. >I’d be curious to know if you had the same reaction to Hogwarts architecture in the Harry Potter movies.

    Yes, though not as strongly.

  10. Worth noting (though I’m not certain why): the cadet mess hall at West Point is known these days as “Hogwarts”; a quick google will suggest the reason. As a matter of public law (West point is an Army post, but it is also a national historic site), all major buildings in the academy area must be of granite Gothic construction. Since West Point is built on the slope of a colossal lump of granite, the place has the look of Minas Tirith about it. (My old quarters in Lee Area had more of a Bag End look.)

    NOTE: everybody will now have an excuse to buy my 1979 book “The Individuated Hobbit.”

  11. >all major buildings in the academy area must be of granite Gothic construction.

    Some University Gothic, though not all, has the timeless/Alexandrian nature. Sounds like you’re implying the cadet mess hall does.

  12. > J Storrs Hall
    > This could very much be a future look with a technology

    Hmmh, I’d rather have my buildings and rooms adapt to my particular needs and moods — kind of like the Room of Requirement, since we are talking Harry Potter here.

    After all, sometimes I am in a warm and cozy Hobbit sort of a mood, and sometimes I am in a “I want to watch a movie in my home movie” theater kind of mood, and sometimes I am in a “my friends are coming over for hors d’ouveres and dancing, so no furniture please” kind of a mood.

    > (a) uses self-replication

    Unless you can get that utility fog stuff done. C’mon Josh, we’ve been waiting decades for you to get it done? Aren’t you finished yet? :-)

  13. @esr: I can’t be absolutely sure, but I’ll bet that if you actually moved into one of those hobbit-style houses you find so attractive now, before too long you’d find it becoming too cloying and your entire attitude would change. Those sorts of things look great only when they are owned by other people.

  14. > Your basement is half-buried, which suggests some hobbitish possibilities.

    The buildings linked to look like they have, or could have, large thermal masses and high levels of insulation; things that moderate the temperature and reduce the need for large imputs of fuel and/or electricity for heating and/or AC. Even though I’m inclined to give the large middle finger to hairshirt-peddling eco-nazies, I do consider it a feature when a building doesn’t turn into a solar-oven-heated or freezing-tomb deathtrap when the power goes out.

  15. The devil advocating here. Looked a bit small, and no outhouse to go with the fireplace. The door is not suitable for old people and keeping it clean might be a hassle with all the corners in the woodwork. The price/sqft might be higher than most could afford. Maybe you should go with a yurt instead.

  16. >The buildings linked to look like they have, or could have, large thermal masses and high levels of insulation;

    I think that’s true. And, for people raised in temperate to cold climates, is part of what reads as “comfortable”.

  17. >I can’t be absolutely sure, but I’ll bet that if you actually moved into one of those hobbit-style houses you find so attractive now, before too long you’d find it becoming too cloying and your entire attitude would change.

    It is possible. On the other hand, I still have fond memories of the Queen-Anne-style Victorian my family lived in in England, and I enjoyed my one night at Durham Castle. I’m not blind to their deficits (dodgy plumbing and wiring, weak to nonexistent climate control), but those old buildings had a character modern ones lack.

  18. >Ha, I didn’t spend the night [at Durham University], but I’ve been to formal dinner in the great hall

    Ah, that brings back memories. I was there as an honored guest, so they sat me at the high table and overnighted me in the master suite of the Bishops of Durham – tapestries on the wall twice as old as the country I was born in.

    This was a few years before the Harry Potter phenomenon, but probably as close to Hogwarts as you can get in the real world. I bet they joke about it, these days.

  19. > so they sat me at the high table

    Well you and I probably sat in the same chair. :-)

    I’ve taken special interest in this thread because I’m also an admirer of Christopher Alexander, and because I’ve used some of his ideas in arguing for a decentralized organizational structure in universities — the “collegiate” model of Oxbridge and also Durham, which is of course the higher-ed counterpart of the “house” model you find at Hogwarts and elsewhere. In such an arrangement, a university or large school isn’t thought of as a centralized institution so much, but rather as a federation of smaller societies of a few hundred members each (the colleges or houses). Each of these smaller units has the appealing human scale and style that you were aiming at in your initial post, and as I recall they map onto Alexander’s “local neighborhood” pattern pretty well.

    I’m also quite interested in how these ideas might be deployed in online educational communities. Yes, there’s a lot of interest in online ed these days, but thus far it’s mainly about curriculum delivery. I’m more interested in the development of permanent educational societies — online houses if you will.

    Here are some notes on applying Alexander’s ideas to the creation of house-style units in face-to-face communities, and then on applying the house model in future online environments (where I make a conjecture about Dunbar’s Number):

    http://collegiateway.org/howto/sequence/
    http://collegiateway.org/house-system/online-houses

  20. The cadet mess hall is composed of five branching halls with vaulted ceilings and in most cases mullioned or stained glass windows. At the center is the old façade of the mess hall before it was expanded in the 1960’s, known as the “poop deck” because the adjutant publishes information (“poop”) during the meal from that perch. It looks like the great hall at Hogwarts; even with magic, however, I doubt Hogwart’s could serve 4400 students in 20 minutes. Better, perhaps, but not as fast.

  21. the “art – ke – tech – sure” ideas and mr. jacksons movie art are stolen lock stock and beer barrel from the art of the brothers hildebrandt; they produced several calendars in the early 70’s which captured the “truthy” feel of tolkien’s visions. take a look at those calendars sometime- the brothers hildebrandt were “ripped off” big time – oh- just like most artists are these days… so everbody ooos and aaahhs over all the derivatives – real creative architecture- stolen from someone else? so now the rich adult children get to wander around in another fantasyland. no messages about good vs evil, though, i suppose.

  22. Just a guess, but I think part of the appeal of this style of architecture is that it appears demonstratively safe and secure (strong walls, solid doors, etc.). It’s a nice mix of cozy and safe haven.

  23. Of the sample pictures from the beginning of the article, the exterior of the hobbit pub hits the spot for me– the house and the interiors are merely very nice.

  24. Having lived in and underground house for my first few years here in Texas, I can tell you that it is very easy to get the architecture/construction wrong. The inability to circulate air through the house without infrastructure to force that to occur (this doesn’t require machinery, as such, but does have to be engineered into the design – you can’t just open a window to air out an interior room) was a serious problem. Also, despite the 2 – 3 feet of sod on the roof, the building would shadow the exterior ambient temperature regardless of time of day – a big contributor was the lack of double glazing on the windows, but I am convinced the lack of a covered porch along the front of the house was the biggest cause of the problem.

    Perhaps if the front wall had been a foot or two thicker this would have reduced the problem, but I’m not entirely convinced of that. I’d like to see some comparative temperature records of other underground style houses. I’m certain the poor construction technique of the builder was a major factor, but I grew to the conviction that a proper design ought to include a modified pier-and-beam design for the house flooring so as to better permit proper ventilation and temperature stability throughout the entire house – and a covered porch to insulate the front (exposed) wall/windows from the outside conditions. Also (very important this :)), the plumbing should not be any part of the structural slab or load-bearing walls.

  25. The Hobbit Pub felt fake and uncanny-valley wrong to me, which baffled me for a bit until I realized the roof was flatter in some areas than would be practical in the heavy-snows climate I’ve lived all my life in. It’s really amazing how such considerations end up being aesthetically coded, so even someone with no training in house building can take one look and think “wrong”.

  26. esr:
    “I wish we could learn to build like this again – not as a movie set or a stunt, but as a living idiom. Factories and offices don’t need what these buildings have, but homes – the places where people actually live – do.”

    While I like the idea, I am not convinced it can be done in a cost-effective way. One of the side effects of the mass affluence we have in America is that mainstream housing has to be very affordable. Those lovely pre-WWI homes that helped define the idiom for Tolkien were generally for the upper-middle class to upper-class.

    Many homes from that era will still be standing 100 years from now, assuming proper maintenance. Most American homes built 1960 – 2007 will have long since been torn down and replaced since their build quality did not make them worth keeping up. (I’ve even seen one article claiming that the future of many McMansions built pre-2008 will be as multi-family slum housing, though I think that’s an exaggeration given their typical locations.)

    The differences between Europe and America are interesting. While we call both areas developed, first-world nations, living standards are simply not as high in Western Europe as in the U.S. Middle-class there does not equate to middle-class here. One German recently told me, “We have a good quality of life in Germany, but our living standards are lower than in America.” And that was Germany, one of the wealthiest nations in Europe.

    Housing costs in most of the UK and much of Germany approach 50% of household income. There are regional markets in the U.S. where that is true (much of California, New York City, etc.), but it’s not the norm on this side of the Atlantic.

  27. >The Hobbit Pub felt fake and uncanny-valley wrong to me, which baffled me for a bit until I realized the roof was flatter in some areas than would be practical in the heavy-snows climate I’ve lived all my life in.

    Completely legitimate to fix that – and I don’t just mean functionally, I mean Christopher Alexander would take it as a matter of course that the aesthetically right thing to do is change the roof pitch for local conditions.

  28. @Cathy

    Many homes from that era [pre-WW1] will still be standing 100 years from now, assuming proper maintenance. Most American homes built 1960 – 2007 will have long since been torn down and replaced since their build quality did not make them worth keeping up.

    I have spent the last 27 years of my life living in, and helping maintain and rehab, houses in an Victorian neighborhood in Toledo, OH. I agree with your estimate, with the important caveat that one of my rehab partners pointed out – that those that have survived over the last century-plus were the best-built (i.e., most expensive) of these houses. The houses of the lower classes are already gone.

    I concur that the McMansions of the run-up to the ‘housing crisis’ will be mostly gone in the next hundred years. Whether or not the Victorian mansions will remain standing will rely upon dedicated, well-heeled fanatics like my wife and I keeping them going. (It is probably more worth it for them than for the McMansions.)

  29. “Many homes from that era will still be standing 100 years from now, assuming proper maintenance. Most American homes built 1960 – 2007 will have long since been torn down and replaced since their build quality did not make them worth keeping up.”

    Yes, I believe that the now standard plywood sheathing used in home construction has an expected lifetime of only 40 years.

  30. > McMansions built pre-2008 will be as multi-family … locations

    I’ve seen some neighborhoods of them on minimum lots, eight feet to the property line, racked up like miniature Soviet apartment blocks.

    Yes, I can totally see them being rezoned for multifamily… if the credit situation becomes such that it’s cheaper to repurpose them than to knock them down and build over.

    Here, there are ones built in the ’80s that are visibly off-level now; I’ve wondered about how much structural integrity there is under the fancy siding. There’s only so much you can do with pine 2x3s and randomly stapled plywood, after all.

  31. What a delightful conversation to discover! Getting it back to A Timeless Way of Being, I live in a Timeless house, designed by Chris Alexander. It’s his only work in the US PNW and it took years of talking and working to accomplish. I’m writing a book about the process, Building with Christopher Alexander. There’s one photo of the finished house on my Facebook page–https://www.facebook.com/ann.medlock. The house isn’t Hobbitish but it’s very PNW–all made of cedar, standing in a cedar and alder forest, way down a dirt road. It’s very likely that the book will be a website long before it’s printed; there are sooo many photos of the process, and of Chris at work. If you’d like to be among the first kids on your block to see this stuff when it goes up, let me know. I work slow, but I’m gettin there.

  32. I forgot to check the notification boxes–now I have, so I’ll be sure to know if you want to see the photos.

  33. >I forgot to check the notification boxes–now I have, so I’ll be sure to know if you want to see the photos.

    I would very much like to.

  34. I wonder how much of what we associate with “hobbit architecture” was the creation of Tolkien, and how much was the creation of Jackson.

  35. I’d like to see the photos, too.

    Will Brown, Cathy, and TRX, thanks for adding some detail to the discussion.

    No doubt, there are good reasons for why people mostly don’t build underground. It makes a little more sense for hobbits– they’re shorter, so they don’t have to go as deep. It’s to Tolkien’s credit that he was thinking about the limited sites available for hobbit holes, and the way they kept some architectural features even when they started building above ground.

    I can believe that McMansions would eventually be repurposed for higher density dwellings– and possibly commercial space as well. The living rooms could work as small malls. They wouldn’t have to be slums.

    More generally, I’ve wondered what the culture would look like if people generally wanted to own small amounts of very good stuff rather than large amounts of fair to middling stuff.

  36. > If you’d like to be among the first kids on your block to see this stuff when it goes up, let me know.

    Yes, Ann, I think there are number of Eric’s readers who would be interested. I have made a lot of use of Alexander’s ideas in my educational work and often return to it for new insights. Because our host (Eric Raymond) is also interested in these ideas, perhaps he would be willing to post a notice of your book or website when they become available.

  37. I scored a copy of Alexander’s “Pattern Language” book at a store that was clearing out stock, which is good because I couldn’t have afforded it at cover price. He has some excellent ideas, although a few of them look like personal preferences transformed into universal laws. Certainly any architect working on making buildings attractive and livable is light-years ahead of the rest of the profession.

    One thing which he touches on repeatedly is how well-intentioned ideas like zoning rules and building codes work against good architecture. Zoning, especially, is one of the western world’s dumbest collective ideas. Cities, by their nature, are dynamic and constantly changing. Zoning is an attempt to lock them into a particular form by law. It’s worth noting that Houston has notoriously loose and minimal zoning, yet isn’t any less attractive than other Sun Belt cities with tighter rules.

  38. Cambias–Wish I’d known about that close-out–yeah, Chris’s books are mega-expensive. “Bout did me in to buy 4-volume The Nature of Order but they certainly are beautiful.
    As to zoning, yeah it can be mega-stupid. I was on the Planning Board of a village here on Whidbey Island and they had made it illegal to live upstairs in the business district. Living upstairs over the store is a really cool thing, keeps more eyes on the street, keeps the business district alive after the shops close… I got the zoning law changed. There are great apartments now, filled with happy tenants.

  39. RJO–Yes, it seems reasonable to let this list know, rather than to chase each of you individually with the news when stuff starts going live.
    The experience of working with Chris has affected every single thing I’ve created since then and the house itself is so deeply “right” it has changed our lives.
    Here’s part of a poem called “Clergy” that I wrote about the power of artists who can hear the muse instead of efforting along on ego and technology…

    Alexander sculpts a building
    out of air and wisdom,
    waving his hands,
    squinting his eyes
    to see what only he and God can see
    in this clearing on the bluff.
    Listening to something
    we cannot hear, he brings into being
    a house so solid, silent and calm,
    so embracing, consoling and inevitable,
    that it draws in and restores
    every open soul that finds its way here.
    And many do.
    Pilgrims who have heard,
    who’ve seen a photograph,
    who sense that here there is something
    mysterious, rare, perhaps even inspired.

    On a clear blue afternoon
    we sit at a long table in the sun,
    the house embracing this garden
    and all of us who bask here
    amid the calendulas and ferns.
    Feasting on tabouli and cold birds,
    we talk of poetry and paintings,
    of terraces in Tuscany and homemade wine,
    of our work, our passions, our quests.
    We are friends, gathered here
    by the grace that emanates from this holy place.

    At Christmas, the clan assembles.
    The tree, dressed in familiar ornaments,
    touches the coffered ceiling
    and sends the scent of balsam to mingle
    with fire, roast and cakes.
    Thick walls hold out the cold, the wind,
    and every danger of the world we know.
    Comets cut across the high windows
    as we are drawn in and held fast, together,
    blessed by the house that Alexander made,
    while listening to God.

  40. @Ann Medlock

    Out of curiosity; was there any attempt to justify the law?

  41. Sure. “Mixed use” used to be a zoning no-no. Some “tidy” thinker wanted each part of people’s lives to be geographically separate. Probably had been one of those kids who don’t want their mashed potatoes to touch the meat on their dinner plates.

  42. I don’t think a fractal(-ish) building would feel ‘ right’ . Fractals by definition have no natural length scale, while the human body provides the architecture of living spaces with its natural scale. Places built with a human scale in mind can feel confortable and ‘ right’, while places designed around abstract broad strokes feel artificial and opressive, even if they are otherwise aesthtetically pleasing (e.g. Brasilia).

    The hobbit places above are a case in point. They play with scale, but subtly (i.e., no throne rooms or doll-houses), and the overall effect is very pleasing. These places may have detail at many scales, but they most surely are are not self-similar.

  43. >The hobbit places above are a case in point. They play with scale, but subtly (i.e., no throne rooms or doll-houses), and the overall effect is very pleasing. These places may have detail at many scales, but they most surely are are not self-similar.

    I don’t think we’re actually disagreeing. Please reread the relevant paragraph in the OP.

  44. [esr]>> I don’t think we’re actually disagreeing.

    I think we are, but just sligthly on a matter of degree. While you see “similar forms and proportions show up at multiple scales”, I see most forms (we are in full agreement re: proportions) appearing on a narrow range around their typical scale, and different forms being typical for different scales.

  45. > I wonder how much of what we associate with “hobbit architecture” was the creation of Tolkien, and how much was the creation of Jackson.

    Maybe. But when I see Jackson’s “hobbit architecture” I get the sense that he was channeling Tolkien. With a lot of his other stuff, I get the sense that he was at best ignoring Tolkien and at worst giving Tolkien the large middle finger.

  46. Wow, ESR, I didn’t know you have a romantic side – you are more like the type who tends to mock romantic notions, at least when they cloud people’s judgement. So I am very positively surprised, especially that from the hobbit house it is not too hard to get and respect the romantic, emotional appeal of communitarian conservatism, distributism, and similar notions, even while disagreeing with them. (“The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.”)

    The point is, rootedness requires that people really live in the same spot for generations. This also means that they are not required to move because the good jobs are elsewhere, or at least they can earn enough money there that the appeal of even more money elsewhere is small – has a low marginal utility, like dessert after a huge dinner.

    This means moving jobs where people want to live, not moving people where the businesses are – which probably would require some kind of change in the economic structure, away from large businesses, towards more self-employment.

    Ultimately the problem is that the model of society is still the factory and not the marketplace.

    Given that today people live where the work is, architecture moves towards the cheap, temporary, more and more prefabricated, or the kind of lumber stuff that is popular in the warmer parts of America. Or a combination of both.

  47. My in-laws live in a thick stone house, the thermal mass thing is quite nice in the first hot days and in the first cold days. But in a continental climate, later, like in August, and without A/C, it is not a feature at all, as even with all the windows open and the temperature being comfortable and balmy outside, inside the walls are heating up the air. I have seriously considered pitching a tent in their garden once.

    In an oceanic climate, they would be great. In a warmer one, and without A/C, I would build a separate summer cottage out of thin lumber at the other end of the garden and sleep there. Or, follow the old Hungarian folk tradition of building a separate summer kitchen, that way the cooking does not heat up the house even more. But a sleeping cottage seems easier.

    I try living without A/C in general. The last thing I need is yet another excuse to not go outside. Making a home too comfortable increases the danger of shutting yourself and your loved ones in. The last two summers in in Vienna were OK, but in 2011 we had 31C (88F) nights, that was pretty much unsleepable. Yet, I think the correct solution would have been a prompt holiday or telecommute agreement and go up the mountains, not A/C.

  48. @Will Brown

    > but I am convinced the lack of a covered porch along the front of the house was the biggest cause of the problem

    Indeed, that sounds like a classic rookie mistake. When we were apartment shopping, when I saw the whole front is a loggia / covered balcony, I knew the architect was smart. When they showed us how it was sized precisely so that it lets in the winter sun but not the summer sun, I was pretty much sold.

  49. @Cathy

    >Housing costs in most of the UK and much of Germany approach 50% of household income.

    I’d be surprised by that. In Vienna a two-income average household would make €40K a year and easily rent and pay utilities around €10K a year for a typical two-bedroom, 85 m2 apartment. In fact I have always thought going above 30% is dangerous, as one cannot really save up then, and thus would be pretty much screwed if the 6-month unemployment runs out as the welfare after that would not support the middle class standard of living. (I don’t want to fork the topic, but generally speaking these welfare states tend to focus on services, they don’t really put a lot of cash in the hands of people, so savings are still essential for having a peace of mind.)

    I think the real difference is not % of income, but in housing sizes, and the whole apartment vs. house thing. An apartment is never really a home, and the idea of buying a house two villages away would mean a 40-50 minute commute and paying about 5 years of combined income for it, which means being enslaved to a mortgage for 15-20 years, which simply does not worth it.

    The economics of population density are pretty much cast in stone, and there is just one thing that could be done about them, which city mayors over here are reluctant to do: allow high-rises. This would be comfortable for those who are OK to live in apartments as they could have a gym in-house, and reduce the cost of land for everybody else. Then again, high-rises would pretty much destroy a traditional, old cityscape. The trick would be to make new city centers farther away, I guess.

  50. Nancy:
    “I’ve wondered what the culture would look like if people generally wanted to own small amounts of very good stuff rather than large amounts of fair to middling stuff.”

    Visit Europe. I believe that’s the norm there.

  51. It has always struck me that the architecture we might want to think about imitating would be Elvish. If you’re going to live for a thousand years, and stay in the same place, you’d better be building a home that you really, really (really!) love. I think, perhaps, that our forefathers (or some of them, anyway) used to build houses that they knew would be lived in for generations to come. Nowadays, most “modern” city buildings (unless designed by really thoughtful architect, constructed of expensive-but-long-lasting materials, and built by the most-careful-builder-you-know) almost seemed to be designed with the latest fad in mind, and not to be actually lived in for more than a few years.

  52. >Wow, ESR, I didn’t know you have a romantic side – you are more like the type who tends to mock romantic notions, at least when they cloud people’s judgement.

    Well, yeah. I, in turn, don’t think liking the thought of living in a house with timeless architecture is any more ‘romantic’ than preferring comfortable furniture to uncomfortable. In both cases the driver is not sentimentalism, it is paying attention to what actually works.

  53. I got here because of the Alexander reference, not the Hobbit thing. I have to say that Chris is disdainful of “cute” and Hobbit houses are pretty damn cute. They also look like there wouldn’t be much light inside, and light is paramount in his work. As to permanence, Elvishness, Chris won’t build for people who intend to sell. It has to be YOUR house, with no plans to leave it, ever. He’d build with stone if it were local–he likes thick walls, the feeling of safety within, the silence it fosters, the sense of permanence, the beauty of deep window reveals. There’s no stone in this area but lots of wood. Our framing is 2 by 10s–code goes down to 2 by 4s so the building inspector was completely puzzled. With interior and exterior surfaces, our walls are a foot thick and it works–we have all the effects Chris writes about. The 10-inch hollows are filled with insulation, of course. We’ve added serious draft fans to keep the air circulating, and as of last week, heat pumps. We’re still experimenting with those but it seems you can tell them the range and timing of temperatures you want and they comply, while filtering out dust and mold, at the same time drawing minimal electricity. Puget Sound has never had much of a summer until Climate Change and all that–these heat pumps are automatically switching on these rare hot days to air conditioning. I think we’ve solved the heat/cooling/fresh air thing.

  54. @Cathy

    >Visit Europe. I believe that’s the norm there.

    Europe is not one country nor culture, and this attitude is less and less noticable the further one gets from the Paris-Rome “fashion capital” kinds of places. Bavaria already has a noticable big-is-beautiful ethos, and this gets wilder and wilder in the East. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/poland/8070947/Poland-to-build-worlds-largest-Jesus-Christ-statue.html meanwhile, Scandinavia is kind of famous for liking neither big things nor pretty things, but more like well functioning things that look kinda boring and puritan. IKEA is not just a company but a whole culture, and I personally don’t like it that much. Vienna, Austria where I currently live, is actually on the big things rather than nice things side as well, schnitzel houses competing on serving size (400g and up), but virtually nobody uses the expensive, traditional veal recipe, opting for pork instead.

  55. @ESR

    But what is the difference between stuff that works in the sense of having positive psychological and emotional effects, and sentimentalism? Nothing really, it is just that sentimentalism is an unconscious, unreflected-upon way of looking for the same emotional effects, while your way is more conscious and aware way of doing it. Just like your approach to experimental mysticism, you do it consciously with clearly defined intent, while a lot of accidental mystics in history were just doing things their beliefs and culture told them to do unconsciously, and then experiences just happened. Things that work in the psychological sense simply mean being sentimental in a way that is fully conscious and intentional and aware – and I don’t see anything wrong in that. The conscious, intentional romantic is the best romantic, as he always knows when to stop taking things seriously.

  56. @Derek yes, but how much did Tolkien write about Elvish architecture? Not that much. In fact their whole lifestyle is sort of hard to understand, just how would people live in thick forests where there is not enough sunlight for architecture or even for gathering/foraging, basically their only way to live would be to hunt all the time, and are we supposed to think that a hunting based economy makes a culture highly civilized, delicate, artistic and kind of feminine, when in reality it is supposed to make an economy barbaric, crude, and warlike? Either Tolkien did not think the Elvish lifestyle and economy through or I am missing something seriously important. The whole live in forests thing is bogus, forests are lovely places to walk around, but not an economical place at all, unless your economy is based on logging, charcoal making, maybe fur trapping or suchlike. Too bad, I totally love the idea, I love the calmness and smell of forests, but it is just way, way to unrealistic to build an economy there.

  57. Prince Charles is an idiot in many respects but he absolutely nailed the unattractiveness of modern architecture in his book on the subject. It boils down to “Attractive buildings have interesting features visible at every scale from close-up to distance”. Unattractive ones are unattractive because they omit the details at closer scales.

    “Those lovely pre-WWI homes that helped define the idiom for Tolkien were generally for the upper-middle class to upper-class.”

    That is not how I see it, the hobbit buildings are clearly based on the British thatched cottage, which is what farm laborers lived in. I had a (great) aunt who lived in one that had been converted from a 2 family dwelling to a single one for her. It was magnificent and (coincidentally) I first read her copy of the hobbit one time when we went to stay there. Not only was it a thatched cottage it had a view of a white horse and iron age fort on the hill to the south. The shire IS effectively that part of Wiltshire/Oxfordshire you just have to go there to see how it fits.

    (For example take a look at Google Maps/Streetview around here: 1 Hill View, Kingston Lisle, Wantage OX12 9QN, UK )

    ” When we were apartment shopping, when I saw the whole front is a loggia / covered balcony, I knew the architect was smart. When they showed us how it was sized precisely so that it lets in the winter sun but not the summer sun, I was pretty much sold.”

    Speaking from experience, semi buried houses work well in climates that do not have too great extremes of climate – Southern France for example – and overhangs that block the midday sun in summer but not the winter one are a great way to assist that along with thought about the direction of the roof/windows. You want the house to be buried at the North end (in the Northern hemisphere) and be mostly roof on the south side with the larger windows E&W. This also turns out to make the house pretty much ideal for solar panels which is a good thing for energy independence no matter its effect on glowball worming.

    I’ve no idea how a totally buried house works but I can say that semi buried houses have a persistent damp problem which is almost impossible to eliminate short of seamless concrete with much rebar because the surrounding soil (which provides the excellent cooling) will tend to be filled with tree roots and they tend to penetrate any wall you may have. See also clay, arid summer, subsidence etc. That means that a traditional house built with individual stone will be damp.

  58. @esr and Ann Medlock: Another one of the most beautiful timeless ways of building (to my eye) is Shaker architecture. And if I understand correctly, it was indeed timeless for them, as they expected some version of the Millennium to arrive in the near future, and they built buildings that they expected to live in for a thousand years.

    I’d be curious to know if Christopher Alexander has written anything about Shaker design. I don’t recall seeing anything, but I certainly haven’t read his complete works.

  59. Walking through Nara from the train station to the pagodas and Shinto shrines back in 2011, I passed by homes and storefronts of an architectural type that was completely foreign to me yet I viscerally recognized it as “rustic” — and despite their small size I internally estimated them to be rather cozy in practice. I will need to do more investigating of traditional and modern Japanese architecture to be sure, but I suspect that much the same forces were at work.

  60. RJO Must confess I haven’t read every word of the Nature of Order but I’m betting Shaker’s in there somewhere. CA has opinions about EVERYthing.

  61. I just looked again at the pix of houses on Chris’s site–“user-designed” really isn’t accurate for our place, nor I bet for the others shown here. If Chris hadn’t been involved, the houses could have gone awry, by his standards, and he wouldn’t be showing them to you. Also, some of the shots marked Austin are actually of the Sala House in Berkeley.

  62. “Chris won’t build for people who intend to sell. It has to be YOUR house, with no plans to leave it, ever. ”

    Chris can afford to do that as he’s one guy and can only take a few commissions. But most homes in America will always be built with resale and turnover in mind. It has to be that way, because Americans move so frequently. My typical time living at one location is only 2 to 4 years.

    I cannot even imagine the permanence of those who live in the same community, much less the same house, for 20 years plus. My whole adult life has been as something of a spectator in many communities, always transient. I own my current home and like it there, but that doesn’t mean my career won’t carry me a thousand miles away a year or two from now.

  63. >The economics of population density are pretty much cast in stone, and there is just one thing that could be done about them, which city mayors over here are reluctant to do: allow high-rises. This would be comfortable for those who are OK to live in apartments as they could have a gym in-house, and reduce the cost of land for everybody else. Then again, high-rises would pretty much destroy a traditional, old cityscape. The trick would be to make new city centers farther away, I guess.

    Isn’t that already done? Almost 30 years ago when I visited my sister in Germany, she lived in a midrise new-construction apartment building. The ‘suburb’ she lived in consisted of a cluster of such buildings, and a commuter rail station. All surrounded by working, active farm fields.

  64. That would describe most of my life too, Cathy. Grew up on Navy bases, went to 17 schools, then as an adult, worked on three continents. I’m blessed to have been able to decide, in my 50s, where The Place would be that I would keep doing the job I invented–so nobody can tell me I gotta move. (www.giraffe.org). Modern communications make it possible.

  65. Chris could also refuse to do turnover houses because he was an academic and an author, not an independent architect dependent on commissions. It’s clearly a whole other world, and not the prevailing one, to build something solely for beauty and permanence rather than focusing on what will sell profitably. I’m writing about the process and the results in hopes that I can help more people use his ideas in the real world, where most of us do have to move on. My model is a book written by a reporter who asked Frank Lloyd Wright if he could build a house for a not-rich family–Wright’s response was the first Usonian house, and the reporter wrote Building with Frank Lloyd Wright.

  66. Nancy, He’s actually designed some apartments–I saw the model in his office. A LOT of the Patterns could be used, but harder to do them in apartments–like light on at least two sides of the rooms…

  67. Anne
    ” I’m blessed to have been able to decide, in my 50s, where The Place would be that I would keep doing the job I invented–so nobody can tell me I gotta move. (www.giraffe.org). Modern communications make it possible.”

    That would be nice, but most of Corporate America isn’t ready for that, and my career has me tightly to Corporate America. We all make our choices within the constraints that exist. I report to a supervisor a couple of hundred miles away and do a lot of my meeting via WebEx, but the company isn’t ready for employees who don’t live within commuting distance of the office.

  68. Cathy–Understood. We may never reach the predicted Electronic Cottages for everybody, although here in the NW there seem to be more and more people collaborating over long distances. I’m working on a project now with team members in CA, PA, NY and here. It’s definitely not something most corporations are comfortable with.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>