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Order gets physical

I’ve just finished reading The Phenomenon of Life, the first volume of Christopher Alexander’s four-volume work The Nature of Order.

It’s really extraordinary. For those who aren’t familiar with him, Alexander’s an architect and theoretician who’s horrified by the inhumanity of contemporary architecture and has spent his life trying to define principles that show how to do better. His first major effort was A Pattern Language (1977), which set forth some 250 mostly rather concrete patterns (e.g., balconies should be at least 6’ deep) that make for more livable homes, neighborhoods, cities and regions, and in fact have always been followed by traditional builders throughout the world.

The Nature of Order, which was published just recently, is far more ambitious and quickly gets metaphysical and even cosmological. The purpose of the book is to lay out the most basic principles that govern whether a built environment is a place anyone would want to live. That requires a conception of good design that is integrated with what makes for a good human life. There is no way to discuss either issue in today’s public discourse: for evidence, consider the exclusion of the good from political theory. Alexander attributes that state of affairs to modern epistemology and its resulting ontology, which radically distinguishes fact from value and makes reality purely a matter of particles acting locally in space. On such an understanding “value” becomes pure personal opinion, and architecture a matter of technology, ideology or arbitrary will and assertion.

So what to do? Alexander wants something solid, and he was originally trained as a physicist and mathematician and so appreciates the power of the modern scientific approach to things. His strategy, then, is to extend scientific method so it can deal with questions of good design while remaining objective and verifiable. To do that he needs a basic feature of good design that intuitively seems like a good thing, that designers from a variety of traditions have quite generally favored, that observers from very different backgrounds recognize rather consistently, and that scientists treat as real and in fact make a major object of study.

That feature is life. Life seems like a good thing, it’s more pleasant to be surrounded by things that are alive than dead, designers and their clients and customers have traditionally favored it, and scientists believe it exists even though it’s rather difficult to define. Furthermore, it turns out that if you show a wide variety of people pairs of images and ask them which image seems more alive they tend to give similar answers and their tendency to do so increases with practice. Degree of life thus seems objective and potentially scientically respectable, and Alexander has spent years comparing images for degree of life and analyzing the structural features that make for that quality.

At bottom, his view is that life is a matter of wholeness made up of “centers” that contribute to each other in various ways as part of an interlocking hierarchy. A human body, for example, is a whole made up of head, arms, legs and so on, each of which is made in turn of smaller components. All the components contribute to each other in various ways, and while they’re separately identifiable physically and functionally, which is why it makes sense to call them centers, it’s a bit artificial to say exactly where one ends and the next begins. Further, man is social, so an individual man is himself a center within larger wholes such as the family and community.

Where Alexander really gets interesting is in his discussion of the features that make the various centers what they are and enable them to work as part of a living whole. He identifies 15 such features. The first five are:

  • Levels of scale. A building looks better if it’s made of smaller structures maybe a third or quarter its size, which in turn are made of things that are similarly scaled-down, and so on down to the level of fine detail (and up to the level of the whole world). Contemporary buildings violate this rule all the time, which is a big reason they’re so off-putting.
  • Strong centers. A thing is more compelling if its components point toward some central region or structure and so integrate it as a whole.
  • Boundaries. Something is more noticeable if it’s framed, and the whole of which it’s part is more integrated if something connects one component to another. Well-articulated boundary regions serve both purposes.
  • Alternating repetition. Repetition intensifies if it’s rhythmic, and if it’s rhythmic it alternates.
  • Positive space. You won’t like the shape of something, at least not in the long run, unless you like the shape of the surrounding space it creates through its presence. Modern design often violates that requirement and so seems imposed and alienating.

The detailed discussion and illustrations regarding these and the 10 other features are extremely illuminating. He carries on the discussion from several different angles. In line with his goal of putting good design on an objective basis, he shows how his 15 points are features of the natural world as well as of a good built environment, and emphasizes that things that are “alive” by the standards he presents are also likely to function better. He also connects the 15 points to inner experience: the answer to “which design is more alive” tends to be the same as the answer to “which design better reflects what you are,” and the answers of ordinary people to the latter question turn out to be a good proxy for the judgment of experts on aesthetic value, for example in the case of oriental rugs. Further, since center contributes to center in an overall living system, it turns out (or so he argues, with the aid of photos of prewar Paris) that a built environment that is full of life makes those who inhabit it more alive. His final point is that reality forms a single integrated system, so if certain arrangements of space are objectively more alive than others that can only be because space itself is somehow implicitly or potentially alive. The modern understanding of physical reality is therefore wrong or at least radically incomplete.

There’s a lot to be said about all this, and I will have further comments in further postings. For now, though, I’d just urge everyone to read the book. I don’t think everything he says is perfect, but the book is an enormous step forward, and I can’t think of another book on any topic published since the Second World War that strikes me as equally valuable.

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