I came across this quote from one of my favourite authors on architecture and design, Christopher Alexander, author of A Pattern Language in a book about software design – ‘Patterns of Software – Tales from the Software Community’ by Richard P. Gabriel (‘Patterns of Software’ is worth a read in its own right if you’ve any interest in software and is available free on the linked page.)
We have become used to almost fanatical precision in the construction of buildings. Tile work, for instance, must be perfectly aligned, perfectly square, every tile perfectly cut, and the whole thing accurate on a grid to a tolerance of a sixteenth of an inch. But our tilework is dead and ugly, without soul.
In this Mexican house* the tiles are roughly cut, the wall is not perfectly plumb, and the tiles don’t even line up properly. Sometimes one tile is as much as half an inch behind the next one in the vertical plane.
And why? Is it because these Mexican craftsmen didn’t know how to do precise work? I don’t think so. I believe they simply knew what is important and what is not, and they took good care to pay attention only to what is important: to the color, the design, the feeling of one tile and its relationship to the next—the important things that create the harmony and feeling of the wall. The plumb and the alignment can be quite rough without making any difference, so they didn’t bother to spend too much effort on these things. They spent their effort in the way that made the most difference. And so they produced this wonderful quality, this harmony … simply because that is what they paid attention to, and what they tried to produce.
* The house referred to is the House of Tiles in Mexico City.
So now when I look at my less-than-perfect lines and consider my easy-on-the-eye approach to tiling I can put a name to that previously unidentified factor that let me get away with it all … my tiling has soul…