We are equally mistaken to believe that all things sustainable are universal as to believe that all things sustainable are local. Sustainability is more often a function of the region, but that’s not always true, either. We must have some strategies that work all over the world, while we need the nimbleness of other strategies developed for a particular place. What follows is a framework for how these strategies can interact with each other to form a sustainable whole:
Six Realms of Patterns
A pattern is simply something that happens again and again. Towns and buildings are made of languages of many patterns, from the ways that eaves are built in a particular place, to the region’s most favorite ways of building a square. This book organizes patterns into six Realms, from the smallest extent (the work of one person) to the largest (the universal.) Each Realm has important and unique sustainability implications.
First Realm ~ Personal Patterns
Every great idea begins with the single person who first conceives it. If it’s an idea about a better way of building a building or a town, and if the person is convinced the idea is good enough, then they attempt to build it. If successful, they build it again. Because anything that is repeated again and again becomes a pattern, and because it is associated with the person who conceived the idea, it is a Personal Pattern. Anyone familiar with architecture should have no doubt that the image above is from a Frank Gehry building. Those are his patterns. Without the First Realm, we could not advance. But there is a problem with the Personal Patterns of the First Realm: they have no life of their own. This is because the patterns die with their originator, since nobody else is designing or building that way.
Second Realm ~ Local Particulars
Sometimes, a Personal Pattern will resonate with others who see it, and they say “I want that on my (house, shop, or town, according to the scale of the pattern.)”
And so they repeat it nearby, and it becomes a local pattern. Once a pattern spreads beyond its originator, a curious thing happens: it takes on a life of its own and can persist for decades, centuries, or occasionally millennia after its originator is dead and maybe even forgotten. In this way, it can be considered to be a living thing. This is where Living Traditions begin; we will discuss them in more detail later. So while great ideas must begin in the first realm, they must also graduate to the second realm to have any chance of delivering sustainability.
Third Realm ~ Regional Dialect
Often, local patterns of the Second Realm catch the eye of travelers who are residents of the same region. If the pattern is well-tuned to the regional conditions, climate, and culture, then they are likely to say “we love this... and we want to adopt it into our family of regional traditions.” The process of adoption of patterns into the Third Realm illustrates the fact that a Living Tradition is not made up of historical artifacts as some would suppose, but rather, of things that are worthy of love. Historical artifacts no longer commonly produced are the products of traditions that were once alive, but are now dead.
Fourth Realm ~ National Language
Occasionally, patterns are so resonant that they are adopted by an entire nation. While Third Realm patterns can be considered to make up the Regional Dialect of architecture and place-making, Fourth Realm patterns make up the National Language of architecture and place-making. These languages are not the same as spoken languages, but there are certain striking similarities that are very helpful in understanding them. For example, individual patterns can be thought of as words. And just as there are words in many languages for “apple,” with variations of regional dialects, so too are there patterns in many architectural languages for “eave,” complete with countless Third Realm variations of the Regional Dialects.
Because Fourth Realm patterns are broader than any particular region’s conditions, climate, or culture, they are most likely to express national aspirations or self-image, and contain within them traces of the history of the culture. Put another way, they often hold the memory of the culture.
Fifth Realm ~ Continental Heritage
The Fifth Realm is the highest level of refinement to which anyone can elevate any pattern. Because of this, the Fifth Realm is the home of most of the patterns of each continent’s classical tradition. In the case of Western Classicism, these patterns actually spread from Europe and now form the primary classical traditions of Europe, North America, and South America.
The myth of origins of the Corinthian order, related by Vitruvius, illustrates the rare instance where a single trained hand, in one brilliant stroke, can elevate a simple vernacular expression all the way to the Fifth Realm. Vitruvius tells of the sculptor Callimachus walking through the outskirts of Corinth about 2,500 years ago, where he happened across a tomb of a young girl. Her nurse had taken a few of the precious things of her life and put them in a basket, then put a roofing tile over the basket to shield them from the rain. Over time, acanthus plants sprouted at the base of the basket, their leaves curling out as they grew up to meet the tile. Callimachus, the story goes, was so moved that he refined the nurse’s simple expression into the Corinthian capital, which has persisted across the millennia.
Sixth Realm ~ Universal
Just like a smile or a laugh need no explanation to any human on earth, the allure of hot coals of fire on a cool evening, the soothing breath of a cool ocean breeze in the tropics, or the assurance of an obviously durably-built beam need no expounding, either... they simply feel right... to any human. We know it’s what we need.
What are Sixth Realm patterns? First of all, they are the patterns that do not change. Some call this the Eternal Realm because of their permanence. They are things like the habitational comforts hardwired into all humans, our resonance with the natural laws of gravity and thermodynamics, and our resonance with rational proportions like 1:1, 4:3, and 3:2, and irrational proportions like the square root of 2 and the Golden Mean. Most people cannot explain proper proportions; rather, they have a simple comfort that all is right.
the Six Realms and Sustainability
So maybe this Six Realm stuff might be entertaining, but what does it have to do with sustainability? The answer might not be immediately obvious, but each Realm produces certain attributes that we can’t get along without. Here’s what they are:
Green of the First Realm
The First Realm is where invention occurs. We cannot live sustainably without invention, because conditions on earth change, and what will we do if we don’t yet have an answer to a new condition? Some feel like we should simply go back to the 15th century, because people lived sustainably back then.
But we’re not 15th century people anymore, so that clearly would not work. We must have a 21st century sustainability solution, because we can’t simply forget everything we’ve learned since medieval times. So invention is essential. And it’s essential (as we’ll see later) that millions of people participate in the invention. Only then can we have real sustainability: when everyone is thinking about how to live better, creating a bubbling stew of innovation by millions of minds.
Green of the Second Realm
Where do we go from there? The Second Realm is the testing ground of all that First Realm innovation, because patterns graduate to the Second Realm only when other people find them resonant or worthwhile. First Realm patterns only need an inventor; Second Realm patterns require a community to test the ideas.
The Second Realm is essential to sustainability because without this filter, there would simply be too many ideas; it would be information overload. We would choke on too many green possibilities.
Green of the Third Realm
The Third Realm is where most of the patterns of sustainability occur, but some make the mistake of believing that they all occur here. They do not. Third Realm patterns respond to regional conditions, climate, and culture. Some Second Realm patterns are only appropriate to the locality where they were developed, but many have a broader application.
A great example is the Charleston Single House, known everywhere except Charleston as the Charleston Sideyard. It is a house that turns its short face to the street, and its long face to a side garden. The front streets in Charleston run generally north to south because of the shape of the peninsula the city is built upon. Because most lots are slender and deep rather than wide and shallow, this means that the short street face of the lot usually faces East or West.
The long South face usually has long verandahs to shade the wall in summer when the sun is high in the sky, but let in the low winter sun.
The North face has few if any windows, so as to not intrude upon the goings-on in your neighbor’s side garden. This practice is known as “North Side Manners” in Charleston, meaning that if you have any manners, your house won’t violate the privacy of your neighbor’s garden.
The prevailing Southwest summer breezes cool the verandahs, while the cold northwest winter wind is shielded by the mass of the house, extending the usable season of the verandah.
This pattern developed in Charleston, but has spread in recent decades all over the South because conditions are not so different in other parts of the region. Much like a healthy species will spread to adjacent compatible habitat, a Second Realm pattern that is applicable beyond the confines of the locality of the locality where it developed will spread to the region, becoming a Third Realm pattern and carrying its green intelligence with it.
Green of the Fourth Realm
The sustainability of the Fourth Realm is hardest to understand. This is because Fourth Realm patterns don’t yet span continents like patterns do in the Fifth Realm, nor do they have the obvious green benefits of many Third Realm patterns. So does this Realm really have anything to do with sustainability? Yes. Here’s two ways that Fourth Realm patterns can help make a nation sustainable:
Efficiency occurs when people don’t have to stop and think about what they’re doing. Fourth Realm patterns tell people how to use the town. They don’t have to read the signs because they can literally read the town, if it’s full of Fourth Realm patterns.
But the greenest aspect of Fourth Realm patterns is the fact that they carry with them the hopes, aspirations, and national identity of a culture. What does this have to do with sustainability? Today, all except the most hopeless and impoverished cultures must aspire to be green. Why is this?
Many green advocates don’t want to publicize this, but the best indicator of a green lifestyle is extreme poverty. If you’re barely scraping out an existence on a tiny piece of land, then you’re probably not generating a lot of garbage, or having other big impacts on the planet. But for the rest of us, it’s not so easy being green. We have to want to... with great vigor. That’s where the Fourth Realm patterns come in. If our Fourth Realm patterns express our aspirations to be green, then we actually have a chance. As we’ll see later, sustainability only happens when everyone is involved; it’s not something that a few specialists can deliver. So deciding to be green individually isn’t enough; we must also decide to be green as a nation. And Fourth Realm patterns can help create that national self-image.
Green of the Fifth Realm
Fifth Realm patterns change less frequently than all the others in the preceding realms. Many of these patterns have persisted for more than two thousand years. How is it possible for a pattern to contribute to sustainability if it doesn’t change?
This question leads to a dilemma I call the Novelty Paradox: Sustainability requires things that can be kept going in a healthy way long into an uncertain future. Keeping something going for centuries implies that it doesn’t change very much. But we can’t be sustainable if we’re not adaptable. And adaptation requires new things. Herein lies the Novelty Paradox: How can we, at the same time, keep something going for centuries and also adapt to new conditions?
Fifth Realm patterns clearly accomplish the former; Western Classicism has existed for more than 2,500 years. But Fifth Realm patterns, if understood as a language rather than a completed novel or textbook, can also be used to say things that have never been said before, whereas a novel or textbook is fixed in time the instant the ink dries. This, I believe, is the key to unlocking the Novelty Paradox: a process can do it; a product is completely impotent to do so.
This means that if Classicism (or more broadly, the most refined expressions of each continent) are understood as inalterable canons, fixed in time, then they are completely incapable of having any beneficial impact on the problem of sustainability because they cannot change. If, however, they are understood as languages that can say innumerable things, then they instantly morph from fixed-in-stone portraits of antiquity to highly-adaptable tools that should be central to sustainability, because they last so long.
Green of the Sixth Realm
The Sixth Realm is the second-largest home of the patterns of sustainability, just behind the Third Realm. The Sixth Realm is where our humanity is most evident because this is where we are all like one another. What human doesn’t gravitate to a crackling fire on a winter evening, or to the cooling murmur of a fountain of water on a scorching late-summer afternoon? These things aren’t particular to any culture; rather, they’re the things our species does when confronted with these conditions. These are things that we call “human habitational comforts.”
And who doesn’t gravitate to forms that reflect our own human form in some way? What’s the first thing you do when you look at a photograph that includes you? You look at yourself, of course! We’re hard-wired to look for things that reflect us... and this includes things that reflect the shape of the human body. Architects may pooh-pooh symmetry, for example, but almost everyone else sees in it a reflection of the basic horizontal arrangement of the human face and body. We also resonate with forms that are arranged vertically like we are, with a top (head, or capital) a body (shaft) and bottom (base, or feet.) The most-loved buildings are almost always arranged in this way, from the shape of the entire building all the way down to the smallest detail, such as the baseboards.
These things are extremely important to sustainability because they allow us to stack the deck in our favor by designing places and buildings humans are hard-wired to love. If we understand architecture as nothing more than fashion and style, then it’s not possible to even anticipate the next fashion cycle, so sustainable buildings are impossible. But the Sixth Realm patterns empower us to design places and buildings that, even in an unimaginable future several centuries from now, people will still be predisposed to resonate with and sustain further and further into the future.
This post is part of the serialization of the second chapter of the Original Green [Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability]. The chapter is entitled “What Can We Do?” It describes principles upon which real sustainability can be based. This post is #9 in the top 10 items we can do.