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Book that Changed my Life

Tim Catchpole

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig

I read this book while doing my urban design diploma at the PCL in the late 1970s.

A fundamental issue in urban design is how do you reconcile order with chaos. How can you impose a sense of order based on public health standards, density and plot ratio controls, building and fire regulations, daylighting, car parking standards and pedestrian circulation without creating a potentially sterile environment? The best townscape seems to occur in medieval cities which are noted for their chaotic qualities, their crooked streets and alleys, varied building forms and heights, their elements of surprise and intimacy.

The balance between order and chaos is one of many issues addressed in this book. The author covers the whole panoply of philosophy including aesthetics, ethics, politics and metaphysics whilst sitting on the saddle of his motorcycle driving through the prairies, forests, mountains and deserts of the USA. I love this book because thoughts about the meaning and quality of life are interspersed with concerns about the overheating of the engine and the condition of the piston, plugs and crankshaft.

The book is peppered with quotable passages. Quality, for example, 'is not something you add like tinsel on a Christmas tree; it is in the cone from which the tree must start'. When our firm was shortlisted for the LPAC Urban Quality study two years ago, we began our presentation with an OHP slide of this quote. It didn't win us the job but it made the right impact.

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