The Landscape Guide

5.4 The birth of the layerer

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The argument of the preceding section is based on Roland Barthes' celebrated essay, "The death of the author'.

We know now that a text consists not of a line of words, releasing a single "theological' meaning (the "message' of the Author-God), but of a multi-dimensional space in which are married and contested several writings, none of which is original: the text is a fabric of quotations, resulting from a thousand sources of culture. (Barthes, 1977)

Barthes, who moved from structuralism to post-structuralism, supports his argument with a telling historical point:

The author is a modern character, no doubt produced by our society as it emerged from the Middle Ages, inflected by English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, thereby discovering the prestige of the individual, or, as we say more nobly, of the "human person'. (Barthes, 1977)

The "author', the "designer' and the "planner' are modern inventions, the products of an individualist age. In tribal societies, in pre-Homeric Greece and in medieval Europe, the names of artists were not recorded. The great European cathedrals were "built in heaven with living stones'. Only God had the power of creation. Even the authors of Beowulf are unknown to us. The modern Artist-God, the Author-God and the Planner-God are products of individualism and romanticism.

The literary metaphor can be resumed, again with Barthes: .. if up until now we have looked at the text as a species of fruit with a kernel (an apricot, for example), the flesh being the form and the pit being the content, it would be better to see it as an onion, a construction of layers (or levels, or systems) whose body contains, finally, no heart, no kernel, no secret, no irreducible principle, nothing except the infinity of its own envelopes -- which envelop nothing other than the unity of its own surfaces. (Barthes, 1971)

Similarly with town plans. If, until now, we have looked at the plan as an entity with a unitary structure, it would be better to see it as a construction of layers with, finally, no heart, no kernel, no secret, no irreducible principle. Planning and design in the post-Postmodern world may become more like planning and design in the Pre-modern world. Medieval cities did not have unitary town plans. Medieval cathedrals did not have master plans. Each craftsman had an area of responsibility, and the church authorities were intimately involved with all the important decisions. When the cathedral was built, it could be drawn. Mr Pecksniff, in Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit, trained his pupils by drawing Salisbury Cathedral "from the north. From the south. From the east. From the south-east. From the nor'west' (Dickens, 1843). This account gave a misleading conception of design and planning procedures.

If a large number of drawings are produced for a project, then one drawing will be more general than all the others. It is a key plan, which "masters' the others by showing how they fit together. A machine, for example, may require separate drawings for each component, and an assembly drawing, which acts as a "master' plan. This mechanistic analogy implies a need for masters. In the seventeenth century, it was argued that as the world resembles a watch, but with infinite complexity, there must be a grand watchmaker: God. The built environment equivalent of this argument may be described as "the watchmaker argument for the existence of planners': as towns and landscapes are complicated structures, they must have master plans. Significantly, theorists of evolution now speak of a "blind watchmaker'.

Karl Popper launched a fundamental attack on the notion of master planning. Living in Vienna during the 1930s, he was horrified at the deaths of those who fell victim to fascist and communist theories of historical destiny. As these tendencies grew into Nazism, Popper concluded that neither science nor politics can establish general laws about what is right for society. He therefore rejected "blueprint' planning in favour of a "piecemeal' approach in which there is no defined end-state (Faludi, 1986). Many social and natural scientists, reflecting on the twentieth century's ghastly experience with totalitarianism, have supported Popper's line. Christopher Alexander, who also lived in Vienna during the 1930s, extended the argument to environmental design. He developed a powerful case for incrementalism (Figure 6) and for having a planning process instead of a master plan. With master plans, "The totality is too precise: the details are not precise enough' (Alexander, 1975). It becomes like filling in the blanks in a child's colouring book. Master plans make each user feel like "a cog in someone else's machine'. They tell us what will be right in the future, instead of what is right now. This results in expensive projects, riddled with mistakes. As master plans tend to be obsolete before they are complete, society is better off without them.

The Death of the Master Plan can release an outpouring of creativity. It is like moving from a centrally planned organization to one that fosters individual creativity. IBM would like to have retained control of the computer industry. A few bright young men working in garages in California upset their plans by inventing the personal computer. The next development may arise from a monastery in Tibet. Designs can begin at different points and proceed by different paths. The Crystal Palace is an interesting example. It began not with an architect's master plan but with the development, by two gardeners, of the ridge-and-furrow glazing system. Loudon's and Paxton's inventions made it possible to build glazed roofs and walls. A barrel vault was added when the building moved from Kensington to Sydenham. This unconventional procedure resulted in the most brilliantly original building of the nineteenth century. But the details came before the plan.

Roland Barthes' notion of the death of the author has encouraged novelists to be explicit in their use of incidents, characters and quotations from other writers. News, geography, biography and images have joined with conventional writing. Poetry and photography have moved towards each other. Comparable developments have taken place in architecture, planning and gardens. An enthusiasm for planning-by-layers is breathing new life into urban design and planning. It is a development of great significance, and it is older than one might think

Until now, the world has been conceived as an apricot

Roland Barthes, philosopher, thinking about onions

[FIG 5.6 ] Each new pattern, represented by dotted rectangles, must link with existing patterns, represented by solid rectangles, and provide for the implantation of future patterns