Yesterday I wrote about Christopher Alexander's two books, The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language. I discussed why I think these two books are important both for the Pattern Language as a framework for organizing and applying the accumulated experience of a certain field of study or craft, and for its contributions to my thinking about the general design process and the design process of human spaces in particular.
Today, I want to talk about one particular pattern that Alexander discusses, the Zen View (pattern 134). I thought about this pattern a lot on my recent trip to Hood River, Oregon, for the wedding of one of my sisters.
Says Christopher Alexander, p.642:
The archetypal zen view occurs in a famous Japanese house, which gives this pattern its name.
Alexander's solution is to mimic the monk's house in the story: put these glimpses to a beautiful view in places of transition, where one gets a hopeful peek at it, or must go out of their way specifically to enjoy it.
It was at the (not quite) Lost Lake in the shadow of Mt. Hood that my thinking about this pattern became increasingly clear. To put it simply, Lost Lake is in a beautiful area! Crystal clear lake water, surrounded by verdant green vegetation and towering redwoods, all within close view of the mountain. You can rent a canoe or kayak to play around on the water, and there's a 4 mile hiking trail that loops around the shore of the lake.
As you follow this trail around the lake, you can't actually see the mountain for the most part. The tall trees block the view.
At certain points along the trail, however, there's a slight clearing in the trees. At perhaps no more than 3 points along the trail, this clearing opens right onto a view of Mt. Hood.
This struck me as a perfect example of the Zen View pattern.
The beauty of this view was precisely proportional to its rarity. When the mountain does emerge, framed by towering redwoods, the effect is breathtaking. A view like this has the power to break our typical self-centeredness, and for a few precious moments we cease to exist purely within ourselves. A Zen View spellbinds us and externalizes our consciousness, and we forget our worries and anxieties. We experience a moment of personal transcendence. These moments of exaltation are, or at least seem, intensely spiritual as a result.
Had we been able to see the mountain all along the hiking trail, the view of the mountain would have been spoiled. The effect is similar to eating, say, way too much chocolate. After the umpteenth or so bar of chocolate, no matter how tasty or high quality, you no longer are really tasting it. You keep eating it out of habit, and you've ceased to enjoy its flavor and richness because you've become accustomed to it. So we know we can't constantly be surrounded by something that we love, or we take it for granted and our love spoils. This is the essence of the Zen View.
Easy to recognize, this pattern also strikes me as one of the hardest to implement in a design. Zen View asks us to to consciously and purposefully limit our engagement with something beautiful, inspiring, or meaningful. For beauty and meaning are fleet of foot, and the more voraciously we pursue them the more they draw us into thickets of dissatisfaction and despair. Unfortunately, as humans we tend to not be very good at delaying gratification!
Good design and good architecture, as mentioned in yesterday's post, empower us to step into our ideal or to reconnect with something fundamental. The pattern Zen View codifies the relationship that we might strive for with the things we love and enjoy, so that engaging with them becomes the creation of a meaningful experience rather than a mundane normalcy.
As an aside, this is also a good example of how designers can balance what are often two competing objectives: giving the user what they think they want (constant exposure to a beautiful view), and giving the user what they should want (limited access to preserve a view's potency). Good design resolves these opposing forces by giving the user access, while ensuring that there is a degree of intentionality and fleetness in that access. Fleetness in that is a brief glimpse in a moment of transition, and intentionality in that to enjoy it beyond that brief moment, the user must intentionally linger in that transition spot to enjoy it further. And by definition, we don't typically linger in points of transition.
That last point is key to experiencing such a view consciously. At the site pictured above, in order to fully see the view, it required one to make a conscious decision to momentarily step off the path and contemplate the view for a moment.
It is also to give the subject of our endearment both space and time to grow fonder. This is not just to avoid spoiling the beauty of the view, or the beauty of a personal relationship or the taste of a chocolate bar.
The point is also to give yourself time and space to imagine.
Robert Greene describes this effect in The Art of Seduction (p.282):
Soon after we fall under a person's spell, we form an image in our minds of who they are... Thinking of them when we are alone, we tend to make this image more and more idealized. The novelist Stendhal, in his book On Love, calls this phenomenon crystallization, telling the story of how, in Salzburg, Austria, they used to throw a leafless branch into the abandoned depths of a salt mine in the middle of winter. When the branch was pulled out months later, it would be covered with spectacular crystals. That is what happens to a loved one in our minds.
There's a reason that "absence makes the heart grow fonder", as the memorable saying goes. By creating psychological distance, we can imagine and thus idealize the object of desire. A zen view gives us the distance we need to idealize a beautiful view, and in it, find a moment of personal transcendence.
At the risk of revealing too much, lets say that there's a girl that I've fallen for. We've set a "date" (don't ask, its complicated) for two weeks from when we texted about it. I know, you shouldn't ask girls out via text, but desperate times call for desperate measures. As I plan what I hope will be a very romantic dinner, I've had plenty of time to imagine: how the dinner will go, her reactions, if it might lead to a real date; on and on. As I think about it, this has only heightened my enjoyment of the proto-relationship. Rather than having an instant answer, I can idealize the eventual encounter and enjoy the buildup.
Rainer Maria Rilke puts it well, in his Letters to a Young Poet. Forgive my impromptu translation of a translation: it's made an arduous journey from German, to Spanish, to repose here in English:
Try to love the questions in and of themselves, like closed rooms or books written in a strange and unknown language. Don't look for the answers now: they can't be given, because you can't yet live them. And the point is to live them all. Live now the questions.
So, my friend: Live, and love, the questions worth asking.
Until next time,
Dillon Dakota Carroll
...sees much and knows much