A Vision of a Living World

by Questing Beast

by Ben Milton

1 / INTRODUCTION

As physical beings, we are closely attuned to spacial relationships. This goes down to very deep levels, levels that we are sometimes not consciously aware of. Most of us have had the experience of being disturbed by structural arrangements, but we may not have been able to say why. Most commonly, this occurs in building or cities, elements of the built environment erected by humans for humans. It rarely, if ever, occurs in areas shaped by purely natural forces.

This experience can be puzzling. Oftentimes we cannot pin down what feels “right” about one place and “wrong” about another, but the feelings are definitely present, and are usually agreed upon by the majority of the people there. Often the feelings can be quite strong. Chartres Cathedral or the Alhambra, for example, provide deeply moving experiences in their own right, and smaller works of architecture provide this as well; we all know of a house we’ve visited, a road we’ve walked, or even a garden someone planted that evoked a deep sense of rightness.

The opposite experience can be just as strong, and is often more prevalent in the modern world. Most commercial buildings and even some residences give off the sense of being somehow dead, suffused with alienation and disharmony. If one pays attention, it becomes clear that people are not welcome in such places, in some intangible but definite way. We sense that we are discouraged from lingering; these are places to use and move through but they are not places to stay. We have all experienced walking through a part of a city where we do not want to pause even for a moment, and not just because we fear the people there. Some places feel distinctly antagonistic and domineering. We cannot feel comfortable in them. They seem not to have been built for people.

A common objection to all of this is that these feelings are simply subjective, and that they must surely vary widely among people of difference cultures and backgrounds. Research, however, shows that this is not the case. Christopher Alexander, an architect, builder, and author of the four-volume essay The Nature of Order, has performed experiments over the last few decades which show a truly remarkable level of consistency in the feelings that diverse people experience about a given structure. In order to discuss Alexander’s findings, some discussion of his terminology and worldview is necessary.

2 / THE PHENOMENON OF LIFE

To Alexander, buildings, spaces, and physical objects can have different degrees of a quality called “life”, and it is to this that people are responding.

“The quality I call life in these buildings exists as a quality. It is clearly not the biological life we recognize in organisms. It is a larger idea, and a more general one. Indeed, what we intuitively feel as “life” in these objects happens just as much in a purely abstract thing like a painting as it does in a functioning thing like a building, or in a biologically living system like a tree. It is this very general life – formal, geometrical, structural, biological, and holistic – which is my main target.

“What we call “life” is a general condition which exists, to some degree or another, in every part of space: brick, stone, grass, river, painting, building, daffodil, human being, forest, city. And further: The key to this idea is that every part of space – every connected region of space, small or large – has some degree of life, and that this degree of life is well defined, objectively existing, and measureable.”

This life can be described as a particular type of structure, one which provides us with a sense of relationship between ourselves and the thing, a feeling of resemblance between it and our inner self. Things with a great deal of life feel richer, more real, and more personal. These kinds of statements tend to irritate those accustomed to the Cartesian worldview, which sees the universe as basically impersonal and mechanistic. Such people would respond to Alexander by saying that this perception of something personal and living in the structure of matter is an illusion, and caused by the projection of our own feelings. Alexander is not so sure.

Experiencing the world around us as personal is intuitive to us as children. A particular tree, for example, does not feel like “just” a tree, but is very much “this” tree. It has a character of its own that one can have a kind of relationship with. As we get older, however, we are taught that trees are “just” trees: piles of atoms acting out prescribed laws. This Cartesian mechanization of the natural world begins to dominate our perception, turning houses into conglomerations of brick and mortar, and people into sacs of chemicals. In this worldview, the perception of a thing as really distinct from everything else is, at best, a useful trick of the mind, but one which has no basis in reality. Alexander’s driving point is that although the mechanization of nature has enabled us to achieve some remarkable things in the realm of technology, it does not actually describe the world as it is. It does not do away with our basic and pervasive intuitions about the personal nature of the material world and the existence of structures as distinct entities, greater than the sum of their parts. In this, he is remarkably close to an Aristotelian view of nature, although never cites the Philosopher.

Where Alexander differs most fundamentally from the modernist worldview is in his basic faith that the human senses and intuition are able to tell us what the world is really like. For this reason, he insists that the relative degrees of life that people feel in things are objective in nature. Structures designed with a great deal of life feel more personal and real because they actually are more personal and real. They are higher in the order of being. Organic structures, especially people, feel the most personal and real because they are at the extreme end of the scale of life. They embody the properties of living structure (as discussed below) most completely.

Alexander’s experiments over the years have involved him presenting two images to a person: sometimes very different images, such as a postmodern museum and an ancient Scandinavian farmhouse, and sometimes similar ones, such as two images of old fences in a field. In each case, he asks the viewer, “Which one of these makes you feel more like yourself? Which one most closely resembles your inner life?” Even in the case of two images that are very similar, the viewers always gravitate towards one over another. During recent decades, Alexander has devoted his time to studying what exactly it is about certain physical structures that gives them this attraction, this intense life. The conclusion he has come to is that this life comes from the relationship of coherent entities within the thing.

3 / THE THEORY OF CENTERS

“The entities which come into existence in a configuration are not merely cognitive. They have a real mathematical existence, and are actually occurring features of the space itself. They may be established mathematically according to the relative hierarchies of differentiation in the space. They are mathematically and physically real. And they have different degrees of strength.

“To have a consistent way of talking about these entities, during recent years, I have learned to call them all (whether parts or local wholes or hardly visible coherent entities), “centers.” What this means is that each one of these entities has, as its defining mark, the fact that it appears to exist as a local center within a larger whole. It is a phenomenon of centeredness in space. Thus a human head, or ear, or finger is a discernable whole. It is also, both visually and functionally, a center. We experience it as a center. And it is, in the end, its centeredness which is its most clear, defining mark.

“When I use the word center, I am always referring to a physical set, a distinct physical pattern, which occupies a certain volume in space, and has a special marked coherence.”

In Aristotelian terms, a center might be thought of as a thing with a distinct form. However, one good reason for the use of the term center (rather than, for example, “whole,” which Alexander had used previously) is because it avoids certain problems.

“There is a mathematical reason for thinking of the coherent entities in the world as centers, not as wholes. If I want to be accurate about a whole, it is natural for me to ask where that whole starts and stops. Suppose, for example, I am talking about a fishpond, and want to call it a whole. To be accurate about it in a mathematical theory, I want to be able to draw a precise boundary around this whole, and say for each point in space whether it is part of this set of points or not. But this is very hard to do…There is no natural way to draw a boundary around the pond which gets just the right things. In a very rigid way of thinking, this would make it seem that the pond does not really exist as a whole. Obviously this is the wrong conclusion. The pond does exist.

“When I call the pond a center, the situation changes. I do not need to make a definite commitment about the edge, and what is in and what is out, because that is not the point. What matters in the existence of the pond as a coherent entity is that the organization of the pond is caused by a field effect in which the various elements work together to produce this phenomenon of a center.”

Once one begins to think in terms of centers, one begins to see them everywhere. In Alexander’s terms, they are more than the building blocks of reality, but elements in a whole field of centers that define and reinforce each other simultaneously. The face cannot exist without its features, and the features cannot exist without the face; they define and exist for each other. This recursive pattern continues up and down through every level of scale in the universe. Every region of space is and contains a field of centers, but these regions of space can be relatively strong or weak depending on how the centers are arranged, nested and overlap each other. This is the key to understanding why some things have greater life than others.

4 / THE FIFTEEN PROPERTIES

Through careful observation of thousands of examples in art, architecture, and the natural world, Alexander has concluded that there seem to be fifteen ways in which centers can support one another in a region of space, increasing its degree of life. They are:

1 Levels of Scale: The juxtaposition of beautiful and contrasting sizes, without jumps in scale that are too large or too small. Ratios of 2:1 or 3:1 seem ideal. A leaf to a twig to a branch to a limb to a tree.
2 Strong Centers: The centers that the object is defined by have great strength in themselves; they use the fifteen properties effectively. The eye in the human face.
3 Boundaries: Strong boundaries which help define and point to other centers. Good boundaries are often thicker than one would expect. A colonnade around a courtyard.
4 Alternating Repetition: The repetition of sets of centers, in counterpoint to one another. Waves in the ocean. Clay tiles on a roof.
5 Positive Space: The area between centers has a coherent shape. The space under an arch.
6 Good Shape: The center is defined by centers with beautiful shapes, often elementary figures, which give the whole a beautiful shape. A Japanese shrine.
7 Local Symmetries: Rather than having a perfect, overall symmetry, which is often brutal and discomforting, the object exhibits a multitude of symmetries on a local scale. The floor plan of the Alhambra. The anatomy of the human body.
8 Deep Interlock and Ambiguity: Centers are “hooked” into others, and are difficult to disentangle from each other. A dovetail joint. Celtic scrollwork. A game of Go.
9 Contrast: The reinforcing of centers through the juxtaposition of opposites. Soft-hard, loud-silent, low-tall, light-dark and so on. The white and black space in great calligraphy.
10 Gradients: The shift from one quality or shape to another by means of intermediary steps, which point to and reinforce the new entity.
11 Roughness: Variations and irregularities in a thing that are the result of the careful maintenance of strong centers. A series of hand-painted tiles. Hand-set cobblestones. A fingerprint.
12 Echoes: Common families of angles in a thing which cause its elements to feel related to one another.
13 The Void: A center that evokes a profound sense of the infinite, of emptiness, of stillness. The space at the crossing of a church. Vermeer’s A Woman in Blue Reading a Letter.
14 Simplicity and Inner Calm: A kind of slowness, majesty, and quietness that arises when all of the centers not supporting each other are stripped away. Shaker furniture.
15 Not-Separateness: The center reinforces and is reinforced by the centers in the world outside it. It is not concerned with standing out, it is humble. Old hillside villages.

One might observe that many of these elements are most clearly found in organic life. In fact, many of their most beautiful expressions are to be found there. However, this does not mean that architecture built according to these principles will look “organic,” or freeform. Quite the reverse. Many Cathedrals, such as Chartres, are ideal examples of these principles in action. The principles can be found there not because its builders were aware of Alexander’s principles, but because they were creating something that felt supremely alive to them. The shape and structure of the building was a direct result of uncountable small choices that the builders made, at each point asking themselves, “What feels right? What height, what thickness, what shape most makes this part of the church feel like it ought to?” The cathedrals were not planned out to the last screw beforehand, as buildings are today. They were designed as they were built, by people focused solely on the emotional and spiritual effect of their labor. This unfolding process, so similar to the unfolding of organic life as it develops and adapts in the womb or in the course of evolution, is the process which bestows these buildings with such power and life.

It is for this reason that environments which disturb us, which feel alien and dead, are almost exclusively man-made in origin. Only we have the power to make dead things. The natural world is so enlivening to our minds because the fifteen principles are rampant throughout it, not only on organic life, but also in the structure of inorganic things. Rock strata, electrical discharges, galactic spirals, and crystal formations all bear this out. In the Nature of Order, particularly the first book, The Phenomenon of Life, Alexander presents a huge number of illustrations of elements of the natural world which have these properties. This, he notes, is an indication of the objective reality of centers, and acts as evidence that strong centers, the parts of the world that we feel to be especially whole and real, have a real effect on the material world, not just on our minds. The “field of centers” view of reality, he claims, is in fact a better description of the nature of the universe, in a functional respect, than the Cartesian mechanistic view.

“The centers we notice when we see the situation in its wholeness are not only more dominant to the eye. They control the real behavior of the thing, the life which happens there, the real human events which happen, and the feelings people have about living there. The house-garden complex seen in its wholeness is truer perceptually and more accurate functionally than any analytic vision of the house or lot taken by themselves.”

One fascinating example of this that he works out in great mathematical detail in one of the appendices is his interpretation of the famous two-slit experiment in quantum physics. He argues that the wholeness of the configuration of the experiment, and the centers observed in it, account for the mysterious actions of the electrons.

5 / THE LUMINOUS GROUND

One of the recommendations that Alexander makes to those who are trying to create something with as much life as possible, is to ask themselves at each step, “How can I make this a gift for God?” Despite not being Christian, Alexander has the unique distinction of developing an argument for the existence of God based in architecture. Recall that one of the ways to discern if a thing has a great deal of life is to ask if the thing feels like your inner self, if you feel connected to it, and can be in relation to it. This personal element which one experiences in intensely living things, Alexander calls the “I.” He describes this “I” as being a small view onto of the ultimate Ground of Existence which lies behind all things. The “I” becomes more evident through a simple experiment. Draw three large rectangles on a sheet of paper. Leave one blank, draw a small random squiggle in one, and draw a small diamond at the center of the other. Which one of these shapes feels more personal? Which one has an “I?” The answer quickly becomes clear.

Imagine a scene: a porch, at evening, surrounded by gardens. You are present with your friends sitting in a circle and talking and eating, and the sunset, laughter, food, gardens and the people themselves produce a profoundly living center in the world around you, with all of these elements as living centers giving each other strength. We have all been in such a place, and felt the rightness and joy that radiates from it. In such centers, Alexander says that one can see not only the Ground of Existence behind all things, but one can really see the face of God. The material around you is not God, but the life you experience in this region of space is. The most intensely living centers reveal the face of the One who is life itself. Our intuitions about the personal nature of matter reveal to us the transcendent source of personhood, the “Blazing One.”

Alexander is at something of a disadvantage, being neither an Aristotelian nor a Thomist (his degrees are in Architecture and Mathematics). It is all the most remarkable, then, that Alexander has been able to formulate the worldview that he has, in which, unaware of the accomplishments of the Philosopher and the Theologian, he reaches similar conclusions, but from a totally different direction and with a different goal.

Alexander’s argument for God appears to have some similarities with Aquinas’s Fourth Way, in that they both deal with degrees of perfection. However, like so much of Alexander’s work, the argument is not an intellectual or syllogistic one, but one based upon the direct and objective experiences of the subject. He invites his readers to contemplate the places where they have felt the most right, the most absolutely themselves. He asks them if, at these places, the world felt impersonal and mute, or if it communicated a glimpse of the divine presence. This presence is not something that has to be proved, for him. It is something that can be seen. That someone with no philosophical or theological training, someone trained in the objective and scientific method, should come to this conclusion purely out of an investigation into how to build better structures, is startling. That he claims that this experience is objectively real, and that it can be clarified and strengthened in the material world through the use of carefully defined building processes is astounding.

6 / A VISION OF A LIVING WORLD

As someone who is essentially pragmatic by nature, Alexander has reiterated time and again that whatever philosophical conclusions he has come to, his goal in studying these things remains steadfastly the same: to build better structures. His goal is one of tremendous idealism: to transform the way that the modern world thinks about structure, and goes about making things. In essence, he believes that architects are bad for humanity. A building designed on paper, in the abstract, (as most architects design them) cannot have great intensity of life, because life can only arise when a center unfolds naturally in its own environment. This explains the tremendous deadness we sense in modern buildings, from totalitarian cookie-cutter residences put up by the thousand, to the vast, cube-like supermarkets and parking lots that dominate much of the cityscape. Nothing about them fits, nor was anything about them intended to.

Alexander’s buildings (which include a homeless shelter, neighborhoods in Mexico and Peru, a high school campus in Japan, and the expansion of the University of Oregon) seems to hum with life, even when there is no people in sight, because they were designed on the spot by the people who were going to use them, and built with their assistance. Everything about them: the spaces between them, the progression of rooms within them, their positions within the landscape, the shape of their silhouettes, the play of color between structure and landscape, feel profoundly right as a result.

Alexander stresses that what he is doing is trying to recapture a building process that was the absolute norm for most of human history, one so commonsensical that no one at the time considered it as a distinct method. It is nothing special, he says. This is how children build. This is how everyone built before the world was convinced that building was for laborers, and architecture was for the thinkers. In The Nature of Order, Christopher Alexander expresses his hope for a world reborn. His work is a hymn to the world as it once was, and as it can be again if only men choose to build it.

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