Monday, January 3, 2011

What speaks to you? Sustainability beyond Buildings

Chuck Wolfe’s “gift-wrapping the essence of urbanism,” highlights the vividness of urban form and briefly notes its decay. Wolfe provides one exquisite example of compact, sustainable form, the historic Italian town – Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre consists of “five towns, all self-contained, but symbiotic, micro-economies also connected by footpath, rail and water.” The town’s vivid color palate takes one’s breath away. Benfield at NRDC also reviews the article, examining the use of “fabulously scenic Italian villages … to illustrate the principles of walkability, connectedness, and grounding that make a community's built environment especially hospitable to the human spirit.”

But what is really so special about places like Cinque Terre? Is it their walkability, color palate, or ocean adjacent location? What about the history or clustering of development? Why do places like Cinque Terre speak to us on a completely different level then, say, a strip mall on the corner of Post Modern America and the American Dream? Why do these places evoke a sense of “human spirit” within us?

Je ne sais quoi or more specifically “the quality without a name,” is a concept coined by Christopher Alexander in the Timeless Way of Building. Alexander describes the quality as “… the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building, or a wilderness. This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named.” These places exist all around us, with something lying within them that attract us.

These places exhibit a sustainability that encompasses the age of building stock, requiring historic preservation. They foster communities to enhance diversity, not just among residents, but also among land uses and the timing of activities throughout the day. These places entice us to walk and exist within their realm, to slow down in wonderment. They elicit a feeling of “being alive.” The places can be “as ordinary as a simple act of slicing strawberries” and yet “we shall feel as much at peace in them, as we do today walking by the ocean, or stretched out in the long grass of a meadow.” These auspicious qualities attract us, because like us, these places are entirely human.