The Detail and the Devil. (Part 3 of 3)

(check out part 1 and part 2 first)

….And now to the detail, which has been a sticking point for me for some years, only now I have extra ammunition from Christopher Alexander to solidify my concerns. I would like to suggest that we don’t need detail until we need it, at which time we delve into it with fervour, never forgetting the wholes within which that detail sits. Premature detail is simply an imposition of pre-formed ideas onto a thing or a space. This imposition is essentially our cultures default version of design. We see something we like from the other side of the world; from a book, magazine, website or just from our own head, and we take that thing and impose it on our own situation. The details in such cases are always prematurely formed and necessarily disregard the reality of the situation at hand. This phenomenon is commonplace, it’s all around us; it is the norm in fact and it creates many problems.

I need to say here that there does seem to be something seducing about a beautifully drawn and rendered landscape design that has every detail, every tree, shrub, cobblestone and pergola drawn there in precise detail, with every plant labelled and coloured beautifully. We like it. It looks good. It is complete. We can imbibe it through our eyes, mentally imprint and then physically create this image on the landscape in question. It also makes for a tidy transaction between designer and client, with a big chunk of the perception of value (though more than people realise) lying in the presentation of the design. Which would all be very lovely, but the trouble is… that it doesn’t really work. When I say that it doesn’t work, what I mean is that it doesn’t result in the creation of things, spaces and places that are truly, deeply functional and beautiful and in tune with the physical and social reality of the setting. It could conceivably be said to have “worked” if all we are wanting to do is to copy the plan, but that is a shallow measure of success and it is from where monstrosities come.

The reason why imprinting pre-constituted designs doesn’t work is that the devil is there, lurking in every detail that is created straight from the plan without proper consideration on the ground. He is there with his spanner in the works at every missed opportunity for improvement, as layer upon layer of modifications that could have occurred to make the thing more deeply beautiful and practical are missed. The angle of the step is awkward to stand on, the seat is not in quite the right spot to catch the sun, the orchard layout is a bit forced and isn’t entirely sympathetic to the lay of the land, these opportunities for improvement exist at every level of scale, from the broadacre layout of a farm, to the trim on a window, or clasp on a necklace. In a landscape, or a building there are thousands of decisions being made, all of these decisions, large and small, combine to create one feeling in us when we are in that place. It’s up to us as makers of things to decide how we want to feel in the presence of those things that we bring into existence.

For a successful outcome to occur, the people bringing the thing into existence (or supervising it at least) need to be responsive, have a keen awareness of what they are doing and how it fits into the bigger picture. I have had a few discussions along these lines recently, and on several occasions people have said of a detailed plan – “yeah well, it might not be perfect, but it’s a start”. To which I usually say “A start!?”… Detailed design drawings are definitely intended as an endpoint (of the design process), which is then to be implemented more or less as they are drawn, otherwise what is the point of going to all that trouble? Detailed design is a very expensive and a very clumsy way to make a start, even if you do it yourself, you have expended energy and time that will turn out to be wasted. Here is a fairly blunt quote from Christopher Alexander addressing exactly this point and how to achieve the best possible outcome (what he calls wholeness here):

“The condition of wholeness, let’s say in a particular street or building means that every little spot, every garden wall is worked out to be just right. You cannot figure that out on a drawing, it’s impossible. Anyone that tells you they know how to do it on a drawing is just lying or they are ignorant and they don’t understand it, because it’s not possible.”

In the below example of premature detail, this is an artists impression of a courtyard garden for an appartment block that wasn’t even built at the time the image was created.
melbourne prem detail

A start (and a process to move forward with and fall back on), I think is exactly what people do need, but detail too early in the process is a terrible way to do it. A start that is genuinely helpful would look very different to the typical design drawings we are used to seeing – and would be far more likely to generate deep function and beauty.



Great blog James. Not only do I now understand some of your concerns about the design process, but I also feel a lot less like a naughty schoolboy for not starting with a detailed plan on paper.

Jason Ross

Thanks for the great blog, found via Making Permaculture Stronger. It would be great to see what you consider to be the ” start that is genuinely helpful would look very different to the typical design drawings we are used to seeing”.

For me I think we place a lot of emphasis on the drawn image, as you say it is seducing, and power given to its labels such as “Project Masterplan”. When in reality a plan is a fraction of the relationship and hopefully learning journey between client and ‘designer’. There is also conversation, time spent on the land together, shared resources, shared examples and inspiration, project descriptions in writing, management plans etc.


Hi Jason, thanks for reading and great to hear from you. What a genuinely helpful start might look like for me is most definitely still evolving. I am clear on a few things though, and as you suggested in your comment a big part of what we can do is broaden our idea (and that of clients) of what is valuable in the design process to take the emphasis off that single drawing as a blueprint for implementation. That can happen in the ways you suggest above, and in many more I am sure. I am putting an increasing emphasis on words rather than images, where I might draw a shape or an outline of an area, label it and then describe that space in words that capture as best I can what is happening there, how it relates to the spaces around it and what could happen there in the future in order for that particular place to really come alive and in turn enliven the broader area. Like a site specific pattern language, but I prefer to call them word pictures – it sounds a little less lofty, and easier to do (which it is). Then we get into questions of scale and sequence, and I am feeling another post coming on! – its been a while since I’ve written anything here, so thanks for the prompt, it might be time to dust off the keyboard and have another go. One more quick thing for now though, is that I see the typical permaculture approach of doing a thorough site analysis and increasingly thorough people analysis as a really valuable starting point and something that I like to offer people as both a foundational starting point to refer back to, and a work in progress – a first pass on them and their land, their understanding of which can only deepen with time, ideally using the experience and information that you or I might provide as a catalyst for exploration.


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