The Interstices

A Reading Note

How do you approach a problem?

This is the crucial question in any design process, for countless different views of the problem are possible. The most fruitful aspects to consider, can we but identify them, are those most deeply related to the structure of the problem. The sense in which the structure given by the grouping of parts can help us solve a problem is illustrated beautifully in the words of Chuangtzu, who lived at the time of Plato, put into the mouth of a Taoist butcher:

“A good cook changes his chopper once a year—because he cuts. An ordinary cook, once a month, because he hacks. But I have had this chopper nineteen years, and although I have cut up many thousand bullocks, its edge is as if fresh from the whetstone. For at the joints there are always interstices, and the edge of a chopper being without thickness, it remains only to insert that which is without thickness into such an interstice. By this means the interstice will be enlarged, and the blade will find plenty of room.”

Chermayeff & Alexander, Community and Privacy, page 159

I love this. Think about the problems you are trying to solve. Look closely—look at how all the pieces fit together, and then see where there is room for you to insert your blade.

Related books

Community and Privacy

Serge Chermayeff & Christopher Alexander

A precursor to Alexander’s A Pattern Language, in which he and Chermayeff define what’s wrong with the design of the suburbs, and outline the principles behind a more human (and urban) environment.