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The Berkeley Bubble

In the natural world, there are two ways to become an accidental vagrant. The first is to break from a normal migration route and strike off in an entirely new direction. The second is to be blown off course by a storm into strange new territory. In the world of human affairs the same is true. I found myself to be an accidental vagrant after deciding to head in the direction of graduate school—Berkeley in my case—rather than continue on my track as a practicing architect. While at Berkeley I was blown of the course I had set for myself, which was to study with the architect Christopher Alexander, by a squall I encountered in the form of a seminar held every Tuesday on campus and hosted by C. West Churchman, the Director of the Center for Research in Management Science in the Hass School of Business.

At this seminar I experienced the academic version of a perfect storm. It was a combination of great ideas and great thinkers coming together because of their common interest in systems and, indirectly, design thinking. This gathering of thought leaders, including the students who attended the seminar, I have come to call The Berkeley Bubble. When West retired from Berkeley, the binding force for the seminar was broken and the boundary conditions dissolved but the echoes are still heard today. The story of The Berkeley Bubble is one that needs to be shared. There is benefit to be had in making the ideas and idealism from that time better known to a wider and more diverse audience.

This is an open invitation to friends, classmates, colleagues and anyone else to share their seminar experiences and its effects on their lives with the rest of us on this blog. I would invite everyone to share the links they forged with other people or other schools of thought because of the influence of the seminar. What were the emergent ideas that came as a result of the seminars influences and influencers? What careers or life adventures came as a result of an association with the seminar?

For those unfamiliar with the seminar, attendance was open to anyone, student, staff or faculty member, on or off campus and from anywhere in the world. Influential thinkers, academics and professionals, took part in the seminar over its life span. Showing up at the seminar you might find a Nobel Laureate in attendance, a top ranked governmental official or a leading academic from another university, or an interesting person from anywhere in the world. The seminar attracted students who would themselves become successful and influential in their own time. The students from across campus formed the core of an intellectual community over several years of attendance. Seminar attendees introduced the ideas of others—not in attendance—into the ongoing dialogues creating an ever widening entanglement of people, institutions and interests.

I will start the dialogue by saying a little about my own experience. I attended the seminar regularly even after graduation. After completing my M. Arch. at Berkeley, I was accepted into the Ad Hoc Ph.D. program that was created for graduate students whose interests did not fit into any clear disciplinary or professional area. My focus was social systems design and was one of those that didn’t fit into established programs. I was allowed to pick my courses and to choose my faculty. Most of my faculty came from the seminar attendee list, such as Horst Rittel, or were colleagues of those in attendance. It was a dangerous but exciting path for me to choose “that has made all the difference”. My Ph.D. committee was drawn from attendees to the seminar and included:

C. West Churchman: philosopher
Leonard Duhl: psychiatrist
Michael Heyman: attorney and UCB Chancellor
Arnold Schultz: ecosystemologist
Joseph Esherick: architect and Chair of the School of Architecture

Each one deserves an extensive introduction of their own. To begin I would recommend the short introduction to West Churchman by Werner Ulrich at  

My challenge was to connect the ideas from such a diverse group into a coherent thesis. A major part of my learning was the result of dealing with that task alone. The secondary and tertiary connections to people, schools of thought and seminal events that grew out of my connections with the seminar are immense. I will talk about these links more in the future as others begin sharing their own experiences and remembrances.

Maybe this collective dialogue will take the form of an edited publication at some point?


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