The Leader is Good, The Leader is Great

Yesterday I visited Arcosanti, Paolo Soleri’s experimental design for living located about an hour north of Phoenix. An ambitious attempt to fulfill the promise of Soleri’s thoughts on arcology (architecture + ecology), It’s a must-see for anyone interested in architecture and urban planning. (If you’re interested in what it looks like and what it’s about, go to the Arcosanti website and click around for a little, then come back here.)

Arcosanti attempts to create a sustainable living environment. It explores new forms and new methods of construction that allow for a more efficient use of the environment. Though such ideals aren’t new, one can’t help but be impressed by the progress Soleri and his team have made, with a set of structures that can support 100 residents and an additional number of guests.

I participated in a guided tour through the compound, lead by the rainbow-knit-hatted Jeff.
Jeff from Arcosanti

I didn’t take a lot of pictures on the tour — most of what’s interesting is on the Arcosanti site. And while the architecture is remarkably compellilng, I found myself more intrigued by some meta-elements to the whole experience.

While rattling off the site’s history and leading us through the buildings, Jeff couldn’t get a sentence out without some verb phrase about Paolo: “Paolo says,” “Paolo believes,” “Paolo designed,” etc. etc. I couldn’t get out of my head that episode of The Simpsons where the family joins the Movementarians, and all utterances refer to The Leader.

Paolo’s arcology theory is filled with notions about building and urban planning. But when I asked Jeff about Paolo’s involvement in Arcosanti as a society, he revealed that Paolo isn’t really interested in the community aspects. Paolo, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, is really only interested in the buildings. In the design of things. Even when it comes to urban planning, his view is an economic one — his statements always refer to materials, efficiencies, practicalities, and resources. He seems to see people as economic units in this larger organism, not as, well, people living their lives. This definitely smacked of visionary architect arrogance, classically exhibited by Wright or Le Corbusier, who believed they knew better about how people SHOULD live, in the process ignoring how people actually live.

I was also surprised that Paolo doesn’t really cite influences (at least, not according to Jeff). Apart from the classic Romans, who built a remarkably society with simple materials, Paolo’s ideas are all his own. Which seems needlessly original — there’s a history of ecologically sound architecture all throughout the planet. And, in fact, it seems that Saleri is in some ways rediscovering these vernacular forms. Not far from Arcosanti one can find centuries-old pueblos built by a variety of peoples, utilizing simple materials and providing for its inhabitants for generations on end. The most famous of these being cliff dwellings such as those found in Mesa Verde or Canyon de Chelly.

Arcosanti housing structure:

(from the Arcosanti website)

Cliff dwelling at Canyon de Chelly:
White House at Canyon de Chelly
(Picture by me)

And some of the residences I saw (here are their rooftops):
Rooftops at Arcosanti
(Photo by me)

were reminiscent of Navajo hogans:

(Photo from here.)

Jeff himself was something of an icon of the Arcosanti experience. Like many, if not most, attempts at new forms of utopian living, Arcosanti is filled with idealistic young white folks. One fears that such a make-up is not really sustainable.

I don’t mean to be down on Arcosanti — it’s a remarkable place with some valuable ideals. But I’m skeptical of its longevity. From what I have learned living with a woman who studies intentional communities and utopias, it was clear that Arcosanti classically fit this mold — an older male with visionary ideas and a desire for total control gets around him a flock of wide-eyed well-meaning acolytes. These communities survive as long as their leader is around to provide the spark, the catalyst for action. Paolo is 84 years old. It’s clearly a very open question as to what will happen when he passes on.

I asked Jeff about this. He mentioned how Arcosanti has a leadership council of residents who had been on-site for over 10 years, and that they will carry on when Paolo is gone. Of course, with this, only time will tell.

Oh, and I dig these ceramic panels I saw lying around in the ceramics apse:
Ceramic Panels

Why We Love The Internet, #348 in a series

I’m planning a tour of the American Southwest over the next two weeks. Itinerary includes Death Valley, Las Vegas, Grand Canyon, Monument Valley Mesa Verde, Canyon de Chelly, Petrified Forest, among others.

So I’m doing searches on that there world wide internet, and come across http://www.americansouthwest.net/, a rich site filled with commentary, photography (1950 images!), maps, and all sorts of resources on the area. And it’s well-written, and the pictures are beautiful, as shown here:

And, clicking around, I realize it’s the work of one guy.

I love the internet.

As an information architect, I also have to give it up for his categorization scheme. Arches! Red Rocks!

Political Machines

Among the most interesting election processes I’ve ever witnessed is currently taking place across the bay in San Francisco. Gavin Newsom and Matt Gonzalez are vying for the mayoralty in a hotly contested run-off.

Sure, it’s a relatively minor election (compared to, say, the recent California gubernatorial recall), but it’s smallish size has allowed a depth of coverage that has revealed a number of fascinating aspects.

It’s important to understand that the latest polls, for what they’re worth, show the run-off to be a dead heat. This surprises locals, as Gavin had a resounding lead in the initial election (41% to Gonzalez’ 20%). Gonzalez has been able to gain support from people who originally voted for others.

Perhaps the crux of the matter is political party affiliation. Gavin Newsom is the Democratic Party Candidate. Matt Gonzalez, represents the only other viable party in San Francisco– the Green Party. (Political Fun Fact: currently president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Gonzalez might currently be the highest ranking Green in the U.S. Another Political Fun Fact: In the 2002 Gubernatorial Election, the Green candidate, Peter Camejo, outpolled the Republican candidate in San Francisco.)

With Matt’s current poll standing and his party affiliation, a fascinating result emerged — the Democratic Party is campaigning scared in San Francisco. Democrats have pretty much owned the city since, I don’t know, probably the 50s. Their dominance has never been seriously threatened in this liberal union town.

But as the Democratic Party drifted toward the center, a dissatisfied electorate emerged. It first came to light in the last mayoral election, when Tom Ammiano got incumbent and presumed shoo-in Wille Brown into a run-off. It came into sharper focus with the 2000 Board of Supervisor elections, where far-left candidates prevailed over Willie-backed ones. The presence of this dissatisfied electorate is now firmly felt by the city’s politicos, and, clearly, it’s caught them off-guard.

So, now the Democratic Party is closing ranks around its own. The SF Democratic Party officially endorsed Newsom, meaning the California Democratic Party can now throw money behind his campaign. And the standard Democratic racial and ethnic groups are endorsing Newman — black leaders backed him earlier in November, and last week Chinese American leaders followed suit.

In one of the more bizarre expressions of Democratic Party machinations, Angela Alioto, who attacked Newsom’s politics in the initial election, ended up endorsing him in the runoff. This move was in exchange for a promise that Alioto would be given a “vice mayor” role in Newsom’s administration (no such position actually exists). But also, Alioto, who had served as vice chair of the state Democratic Party for eight years, feared Gonzalez attempts at building the Green Party.

These are the outcomes of the gears turning in machine politics. Alioto and the leaders of minority groups have acted not on principles based on policies (which are more closely aligned with Gonzalez), but on devotion to the Democratic Party, their organized religion of choice. Even though the Democratic Party isn’t really doing right by it’s fundamental principlines — it’s doing right by whatever political favoritism and cronyism that has enabled it to thrive over the last forty years. It’s calling in favors from trusted special interests, special interests that are now backing the candidate less truly interested in supporting their cause.

On this point, one thing that I haven’t seen in the news is the stance of another classic Democrat special interest – labor. I wonder if they’re being quiet, because labor realizes that their best candidate isn’t the Democrat.

Before this election, Newsom wasn’t really a machine politician. He was just a handsome guy, Kennedy-esque, successful local businessman, representing one of the city’s toniest neighborhoods, who promoted policies that tended towards business-friendliness. However, in order to become mayor, he gave himself over to the machine, obviously assuming that it would guarantee election. The surprising outcome is that this allegiance might be doing him more harm than good. A perceived independent candidate with his ideals would likely be farther ahead in the polls — the residue left by his glad-handing with the machine has engendered a lot of suspicion from San Franciscans (particularly the race-baiting driven by Willie, and the explicit politics of endorsement with Angela).

Such that, even though Newsom has outraised Gonzalez by a factor of 10 ($3.8 million to $391,000), the polls have the two in a dead heat. San Franciscans grew increasingly tired of Willie Brown’s back-room shenanigans, his greased-palms political appointees, his handing of contracts over to people with “juice.” Many are tired of this cronyist politics, and see Gavin simply as Willie’s successor. After their success in the 2000 Board of Supervisors election, this mayoral campaign feels like a culmination of the far left’s insurgence, and San Francisco has a remarkable opportunity to make municipal political history.

Smegma? Oh, Six “Sigma”!

Spurred by Jakob’s latest column on Six Sigma and usability, and my own experience with financial services organizations trying to introduce Six Sigma methods into their design processes, I asked the CHI-Web mailing list if Six Sigma applies to user experience work.

There have been some great responses (more informative than Jakob’s original essay). I call your attention to two:

Julie Jensen talking about utilizing Six Sigma in the usability processes at USAA.

Robin Jeffries discussing how it really does enable smart user centered design (at Sun, at least.)

This is great stuff, and I hope to hear more!

(I originally thought of titling this post something like “I don’t know if I like all this discussion around “Sex Smegma”, oh wait, it’s “Six Sigma”? Never mind” in some Emily Litella-like fashion, but that seemed too confusing.)