Sunday, September 1, 2013

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Twenty-five years ago, almost to the exact month and date, I was settling into office space freshly deemed the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate Development, having leapt from  law and the nuts-and-bolts of real estate development to trying my hand at university administration.  I received a warm welcome from my new officemates, an already-esteemed collection of urban planning professors with specialties in transportation, economics, history, geography, finance, and demography, just to name a few.  I still recall fondly many a fascinating hallway conversation from those embryonic Lusk Center days, as I delighted in learning about the multidisciplinarity of urban planning. 

As the faculty shared with me what they taught and researched, I made note of the works they included in their course syllabi and the publications they produced.  Thus started one of my favorite parts of working in a university:  getting to be the perpetual student.  Some books I borrowed; some I checked out of the library.  Some I own, and treasure, because they were given to me by these colleagues as their books were published, with nice inscriptions inside.   

Some books I bought because my friends stressed to me that these are books I must read, and re-read.  I figured if a book came with such strong recommendations, it must be worth the shelf space.  One such highly recommended book, though, was so outrageously expensive (by Oxford University Press, needless to say), I remember hesitating in the USC Bookstore – could it really be worth it?

I bit the bullet (and don’t think I told Bing how much it was), and that book – A Pattern Language by Alexander, Ishikawa, and Silverstein – changed my life.  That is to say, it has formed the basis of how I understand space and have articulated my surroundings.  Published in 1977, by 1984 it already was, and apparently continues to be, a bestseller in architecture, the built environment, and planning. 

A Pattern Language identifies concepts and elements that are the characteristics of “good” design.  Its authors list features that make towns, buildings, rooms, and even nooks, “feel” good.  The book works like a handbook, one which they designed for the reader to use in planning any kind of spatial project. 

Chewing my way through this book, I realized it was explicating the features we already knew we liked about our house: its northern exposure, the big common room, windows on two sides of every room.  Like kids in a candy store, Bing and I went through the pattern language checklist, identifying the elements we wanted to incorporate into our landscaping plan.  We knew we wanted an “intimacy gradient” buffering the space between the street and our house, a sitting wall, climbing plants, a garden seat, a kitchen garden.  We wanted a courtyard path with “discovery vistas” and “half-open walls,” meaning a fence design that was not completely solid.  We wanted an urban orchard of fruit trees and spaces for play.  

Our friend Steve, a highly-regarded landscape architect in his own right, skillfully incorporated all these elements in our yard, and more, for which our home received a “Golden Arrow” award from the Pasadena Beautiful Foundation honoring garden beautification. 

I’ve kept the pattern language in my head whenever I’ve had the chance to design a space.  Whether a balcony or my office, I try to create “sitting spaces,” pool the light, soften the edges, make personal items useful.  My new office in the Spatial Sciences Institute is about one-third the size of my associate dean office, but I think I will like it just as much.  I re-arranged the furniture to create a “living room” flow, and my ginger jar now is a small table.  My grandmother’s box now will house the accoutrements for my herb tea, and there’s still even room for the bookcase which my dad made on their farm. 

So put finishing touches on my new office space, the books which have gathered dust at home from my earlier urban planning days have reborn in relevance.  This afternoon I’ve thumbed back through A Pattern Language, and have been reminded how much I appreciate works by my friends and colleagues such as Eden By Design by Greg Hise and Bill Deverell, Cities on the Rebound by Bill Hudnut, and Material Dreams by Kevin Starr.  

I’ve rebounded well from Wednesday’s chemo, reassured by the continued drop in the IgM number, and undeterred in my preparation to hit the ground running in this new job on Tuesday.  I’ve been on the Spatial Sciences Institute home page already in this photo taken on Commencement Day.  On Tuesday I’m going to fill in Dad’s bookcase with A Pattern Language and these other favorite planning books, at home again in the office.

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