direct management

The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree. How else to view the osmosis-like manner in which we learn from our surroundings? When I studied at UC Berkeley so many years ago, I was aware of the presence (or absence to be precise) from campus of one of our more renown professors Christopher Alexander. His cult like society of anti-architects were hidden away somewhere off campus but I was very intrigued by the integrity and beauty of the few projects he had created in Berkeley. Little did I know that as I sat in the concrete bunker that was our architecture school, he was in Japan, fighting what he calls, “The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth,” an unabashed claim (and the title of his book) that, upon further examination, may not be so far from the truth.

Strangely, no doubt as a result of the convoluted course of my life, I lost track of his work and his life, although his seminal book The Pattern Language remained at the front of my internal bookshelf insofar as how I thought about my design work. It was only recently, of course thanks to the internet, that I caught up with his work, and had the opportunity to read for the first time about the project in Japan which consumed 10 years of his life, the Eishin school, a project of such astonishing beauty and harmony that one feels petty by comparison with one’s own undertakings.

But the reason I bring this up is because of my utter astonishment to see that the subtext of his story about building the school was his insistence on building it himself using a method which he calls Direct Management. As I read his lengthy description of this approach, I felt like he was articulating the method that I have always and only used for my own work, a method that for me is a necessity for architecture,  one which I, like Alexander, see as being a sine qua non of great building and effective cost control. I have written about this variously on a house for youthe smartest home and handmade architecture but never summarized as succinctly as Alexander does in his book. So here is what he says.

The essential purpose of Direct Management, as we understand the term, is to create buildings which are whole. This means that each part of the building is right in relation to the other parts, and part of the land that makes the buildings and the land more beautiful.
1. THE DESIGN EVOLVES DURING CONSTRUCTION. This means that the form of control, over designs, does not stop when drawings are finished, but goes on, continuously, before, during and after construction. This cannot be done if architect and contractor are separate, or consider their jobs separately. It will only happen if the person who controls the design at the beginning actually controls the construction too.
2. FLEXIBLE COST CONTROL. As we have already seen, cost control requires continuous changing of ideas about what is built, in relation to money that is available, and in relation to what has been done already. This means that the architect must deeply control the most minute aspects of costs and must continuously modify the construction allocations of cost, in order to get a result that is within the budget.
3. EXPERIENCE WITH ONE’S HANDS. It is also impossible for an architect to have enough knowledge to control the process successfully, unless he has experienced almost every phase of construction with his own hands. This means that the direct management method can only work to the extent that the architect who wishes to control it, has experience as a craftsman, and has himself managed actual construction, not as a supervising architect, but as chief craftsman, or chief builder. This is fundamental. This control by the architect over the construction process, is meaningless, unless this condition is satisfied.
4. LOVE OF CRAFT AND JOY IN THE PHYSICAL PROCESS OF MAKING. The fourth condition is a mental one. In the old days, making a building was clearly understood as a work of making. In this word, designing and physically building are inseparable. However, in the modern world, design has become separated from construction. So, today, architects think of their work as designing, on paper … with the idea that the building process is a separate process. This is not what I call making at all. In fact, within this mental framework, good buildings can hardly be produced at all. A good building can only be created, when it is deeply understood as something which is made, by a direct connection of the act of making, and the act of feeling, with your hands.
If you do not feel anything, during your work, you will get nowhere. The direct management method is only happening, when all the people involved in it deeply understand that design and making both come about as an act of feeling, in your hands. So long as design and construction are considered to be separate, the direct management method is meaningless, and is not being followed.

Christopher Alexander, The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth, 2012