The architecture of reality

Alexander says his views on architecture are based on “a conception of the world in which the air we breathe, the stones and concrete our city streets are made of—all have life in them … This is not merely a poetic way of talking. It is a new physical conception of how the world is made.” (p. 425)

He means that literally. A problem with the view is that his theory of value and his 15 properties apply, maybe with some adaptations, to any sort of structure, not just structures in space. A structure of sound or language is non-spatial, and it too can be more or less alive. Music and poetry no less than buildings draw life from levels of scale, strong centers, boundaries (a.k.a. transitions), alternating repetition and so on. The same could be said of human relationships, which do have spatial elements—otherwise architecture wouldn’t matter as much as it does—but also other elements that are perhaps more essential. So it’s not clear that the objectivity of value regarding architecture and the connection between value and life shows that life is a property of space as such, any more than the objectivity of value regarding music and poetry shows that life is a property of time or sound as such.

Why does Alexander believe that life is a property of space as such? A more traditional view would be that the soul, which is a kind of form, gives life by informing prime matter, which is pure potentiality and would include what is now understood as space. One would expect the view that it is form that gives life to space, which in itself has life only potentially, to be acceptable to an architect.

Here are a few possible explanations for his view that space itself has life:

  • When Michelangelo sculpted he thought he was freeing the statue already in the marble. It would be natural for an architect to feel the same way about space. Architects like space, just as poets like words and painters like line and color, because they work with it and naturally feel they are trying to bring out something implicit in it. Beyond that, an architect would like to give space value and dignity, which it seems to lack on a view that gives it only numerical properties. The simplest way to do so, on a view that identifies value with degree of life, is to say it’s alive.
  • Mastery is the point of modern technological concepts, and in general the modern tendency is to think of form as something we make up and impose on reality. (Kant said something a bit like that.) Such tendencies make it difficult for Alexander to think of life as something real and independent of our classifications, and so as a source of objective value, unless it is inherent not in form but in ultimate substance—that is, in prime matter. It’s worth noting that he criticizes contemporary architecture as based too much on concept and image, and otherwise shows that he doesn’t trust ideas. They’re not Zen enough. Maybe in order to accept the life-giving qualities of form and for that matter the limited but real objective validity of our ideas you need the notion of a personal God, whose divine ideas, which our ideas can imitate, become the forms that together with prime matter constitute living reality.
  • He’s trying to be scientific and he’s writing in an academic and professional setting, so he wants to achieve his goals with the minimum extension possible to the modern scientific view of knowledge and reality. So instead of bringing in lifegiving forms—that is, souls—and no doubt a personal God he simply if perhaps somewhat arbitrarily asserts that life is a property of space as such. That’s the solution Diderot suggested (p. 425), and if Diderot liked it it must be respectable from an Enlightenment perspective.

I suppose another possibility is that Alexander is trying to get “life” to do the work that “good” used to do before objective goods lost official respectability. So on that interpretation to say that space is intrinsically alive would be as much as to say that being, even inchoate being, is intrinsically good, which is certainly the traditional view in the Christian West.

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