I spent some time digging into Christopher Alexander, one of the more influential architects of the 20th century.
I don’t have a natural interest in architecture, but I found his thinking to have wide ranging application – from software to biology to creativity. I later learned that his seminal book, A Pattern Language set the foundation for the first wiki (the tech behind Wikipedia), as well as the agile software development movement.
His thinking around value, quality, life, evolution, wholeness, and simplicity will stay with me for a long time to come. If you get some fraction of the value and joy out of reading this teacher’s reference guide as I did reading the books, I trust it to be a worthwhile use of your time
Architecture becomes living when non-mechanical, fluid, unique to its circumstances, responds to what is there rather than impose on what is there (similar to aikido), grow with nature, arise out of nature, looseness and symmetry. Deep feeling appears in these buildings, as it does in nature, because they emerge through subtle adaptation from the whole, and because at each stage of their unfolding they support the whole
A proper environment makes you feel like you belong to it – a feeling of joy and connectedness that hinges on the sensation that we have the right to be there, that we belong to the world and it belongs to us. Only living process can generate belonging. When living processes are working well, our belonging comes about naturally
Buildings should enliven the land they’re on
Seek an interlocking of positive and negative space. What is most remarkable of all, is that the structure which is created by a feeling for centers and by a conscious and deliberate aim towards the feeling of the whole, will often turn out to be an efficient structure…Apparently good engineering structure follows, directly or indirectly, from the use of living process
Save 20% of building cost towards gardens and outside structures
Shared vision not gotten through a meeting, but from talking to each person quietly, one at a time, drawing from each individual his, her, their most important feelings, and their most authentic visions
In each case, the forms, because they are generated in time, not designed at the drawing board, display qualities of life, and do have life…One of the most fundamental aspects of a living world is that every part of it will be unique. If we learn to use a living process well, its most essential nature will be to create structures which are unique, because they are perfectly adapted to their local unique conditions
In general, the geometry will be created by differentiation, not by addition or accretion, the parts given their dimensions by differentiating operations within the space of the land, or within the space of the room where the thing is being made
City planning comes about as a sequence of adaptive acts, a result of unfolding in time. It unfolds directly from people’s ordinary instincts
Close your eyes and dream up your idyllic space – ideal working conditions, natural centers, windows, entrance, main work surface, daylight, working chairs, computer setup, reclining chair, different chairs, thick walls, filing, desk lights, comfortable sofa
Fine structure – every element has to have a living center, details that make it come to life. The field of centers is a convenient way of representing the substance of our minds. It is the substance itself which actually creates the field. Life will not exist in a building unless it exists in the actual physical fabric of the building, in all the details of the way the thing is made. The actual physical geometry of the foundation, walls, windows, roof edge, boards, tiles, plaster, paint work, moldings is itself crucial to the existence of life. The sensuous quality of the building comes from its detail; substance is fundamental to beauty. Wholeness will not exist in the large unless it also exists in the small…and for it to exist in the small, it must be made. The large scale order is absolutely interwoven and dependent on the tiniest details of the microstructure. The large scale order depends for its existence on the most subtle ordering of details at the smallest subatomic scale. And the same is true, and must be true, in architecture. If we are trying to construct a field of centers in a building, we must realize the field will not be whole, cannot even sustain itself as a structure, unless it is carried through from the larger scale structure to the fine structure. The macrostructure of the field is dependent on the microstructure of the field. If it is ignored or treated without respect, the larger field will fail
Unfolding vs. construction / production – this must happen in the actual construction of the building, not only on paper. This is incredibly difficult to do in practise. Same is true for the details, the colors you use. If it is living, it will have its own, luminous, inner light
In a building which has life, whatever is made is always the simplest thing consistent with its necessities of feeling and with the close and continuous attention to feeling while it evolves into form. This, I think, is the closest I can come to describing the core of architecture. When everything is going right, when the fundamental process is used well, what comes out is not only natural, not only simple, not only living structure. It has, too, an archetypal quality – something savage (wild, untamed)
Each living structure has the minimal structure for its situation that carries weight of feeling, leading to a structure in which local symmetries are so densely packed that the highest possible density of local symmetries occurs, but without having an overall symmetry
In the best cases, in the cases which have the most life, the building form will most often by interwoven in some fashion with nature itself. In the best cases, it will seem, almost indistinguishably, to be part of nature, thus forming a seamless whole. The clearest way I can say this, is to point out that it will – in this case – seem extremely ordinary. It will appear normal, and be normal
What I got out of it
Pragmatic implications of Alexander’s ideas as it relates specifically to architecture and construction
In book 2, the author defines conditions for a process to be living, capable of generating living structure rather than life destroying. It is all about the process – poor process, poor result. This awareness of continuous becoming is the most essential portion of the building process. It must unfold in such a way to allow wholeness to spring forth.
Real kindness is something quite different, something valuable in itself. It is a true process, not guided by the grasp for a goal, but guided by the minute to minute necessity of caring, dynamically, for the feelings and well-being of another. This is not trivial, but deep; sincerely related to human feeling; and not predictable in its end result, because the end result is not the goal. Unlike the goal-oriented picture, which is imposed intellectually on our substance as persons, real kindness is a process true to our essential human instinct and to our knowledge of what it means to be a person. But the machine-age view showed a process like kindness as being oriented toward a goal, just as every machine too has its purpose – its goal, what it is intended to produce.
Not just goal oriented, but process oriented
The wholeness is essentially preserved at each step, and the new structure is introduced in such a way that it maintains and extends – but almost never violates – the existing structure. It is globally structure-preserving. That is why the unfolding seems smooth
All about process – not just what we do, but how we do it. 9/10 of the beauty is from the process itself
Living process to be guided by feeling – adherence to the whole. If this were to be truly understood and followed, it would change nearly everything we know about modern society. This is a gargantuan shift, but humans and human nature are more in tune with feelings than with mathematics…The idea that feeling itself can become criterion and instrument – that what is done, no matter how large or how small, can become personal, connected to the personal self of all human beings – and that this process then opens the door to a new form of society. That is truly revolutionary. That can shake the world
You might say that this is all just common sense. I believe you would be right. But this common sense flies in the face of many processes which 20th century architecture and construction practice set in place. When we try to make a building in such a way that it gets its life, what we have done here is the most natural way to do it: we get one thing right at a time. We do what we know. We get things right as we come to understand them. That gets good results. Expressed in the language of this book, it is a process of unfolding in which centers are established, modified, improved, one at a time
This is a startling and new conception of ethics and aesthetics. It describes good structure as a structure which has unfolded “well,” through these transformations without violating the structure that exists. The structure we know as living structure, is just that kind of structure which has unfolded smoothly and naturally, arising step by step from what exists, preserving the structure of what exists, and allowing the “new” to grow in the most natural ways as a development from the structure of “what is.” This startling view provides us with a view of ethics and aesthetics that dignifies our respect for what exists and treasures that which grows from this respect. It views with disfavor only that which emerges arbitrarily, without respect for what exists, and provides a vision of the world as a horn of shimmering plenty in which the “new” ‘grows unceasingly from the structure that exists around us already. That this horn of plenty is inexhaustible, and that we may conceive an everlasting fountain of novelty without ever having to beat ourselves over the head for the sake of novelty per se – that may perhaps be one of the greatest potential legacies of this new view of the world
What is natural, of value, is that which unfolds naturally from the whole that exists
Do one small, good thing, then another, and another…
Growing bone adds material at the point where stress is greatest
Paying attention to the wholeness = love of life
By preserving structure, one always gets surprising results. The creative work is to illuminate, to reveal what is already there…but this takes depth of perception and love…certainly profound knowledge of the nature of space and its structure. To do it, successfully, we are called upon to make another crucial revision in our views about the nature of things: we have always assumed that the process of creation is a process which somehow inserts entirely new structure into the world…in the form of inventions, creations, and so on. Living process teaches us that wholeness is always formed by a special process in which new structure emerges directly out of existing structure, in a way which preserves the old structure, and therefore makes the new whole harmonious. Thus the process of making wholeness is not merely a process which forms centers or the field of centers in space…it is a process which gives special weight to the structure of things as they are. The enigma is that something new, unique, previously unseen – even innovative and astonishing – arises from the extent to which we are able to attend to what is there, and able to derive what is required from what is already there…and that all this, then, will lead to astonishing surprises. It is a process in which we most deeply express our reverence for what exists
When we published The Pattern Language for the Peruvian houses, people in Peru said that our pattern language and our houses we designed from the pattern language were a more accurate reflection of Peruvian reality than even the Peruvian architects had managed…The essential technique in the observation of centers, in any social situation, and in any culture, is to allow the feelings to generate themselves inside you. You have to say, “What would I do if I were one of the people living here, what would it be like for me?” thus inserting yourself into the situation and then using your own common sense and feelings as a measuring instrument
In these books, I have tried to show that there are shareable areas of human experience which lie beyond the areas presently touched by science. I have set myself the task of trying to raise these new matters – the deeper issues which mechanistic science has not so far dealt with – to the level of knowledge we are used to, from having a culture based on science…This is valuable because it is based on the same high standard as science, but in a new realm of social existence. We only allow ourselves to claim we know something if that “something” is shareable – in principle – even if it is in the realm we call feeling or experienced wholeness. That is the breakthrough I may perhaps have made. If I am right, the world of science has been extended. I have simply found a way of taking the scientific standard of shared knowledge based on common observation, and extended this idea so that it covers inner realities, not only outer ones
In what follows I shall try to show that there is a way of understanding order which is general and does do justice to the nature of building and of architecture. It is a view which, I hope, is adequate to understanding the intuitions we have about beauty and the life of buildings. It is a view which tells us what it means for a building to be a great building, and when a building is working properly. It is, I believe, a common-sense and powerful view, with practical results. The life which appears is an attribute of space itself, life is structural
One of my key claims is that all space and matter, organic or inorganic, has some degree of life in it, and that matter/space is more alive or less alive according to its structure and arrangement. Another claim is that all matter/space has some degree of “self” in it, and that this self, or anyway some aspect of the personal, is something which infuses all matter/space, and everything we know as matter but now think to be mechanical. If either of these claims comes, in future, to be considered true, that would radically change our picture of the universe. Indeed, one might then say that the universe as we have known it for the last 400 years, even in the exciting and fascinating versions of physics and cosmology which have come under discussion in recent decades, would then have to be replaced by a fundamentally different and more personal view of matter.
I managed to identify 15 structural features which appear again and again in things which do have life…The 15 ways in which centers can help each other come to life. In effect, the 15 properties are the glue, through which space is able to be unified. The 15 properties provide the ways that centers can intensify each other. Through the intensity of centers, space becomes coherent. As it becomes coherent, it becomes alive. The 15 properties are the “ways” it comes to life
Levels of scale
Boundaries – help product and maintain the core (stability and coherence)
Deep interlock and ambiguity
Echoes – designs which are deeply familiar, fractal, but we’re not quite sure why
The void – at the heart of perfect wholeness is a void, like water, infinite in depth, surrounded by and contrasted with the clutter of the stuff and fabric all around it…The calm is needed to alleviate the buzz
Simplicity and inner calm – Wholeness, life, has a way of being simple. In most cases, this simplicity shows itself in a geometrical simplicity and purity, which has a tangible geometrical form. It is a quality which is essential to the completion of the whole. It has to do with a certain slowness, majesty, quietness, which I think of as inner calm…The quality comes about when everything unnecessary is removed. All centers that are not actively supporting other centers are stripped out, cut out, excised. Wheat is left, when boiled away, is the structure in a state of inner calm. It is essential that the great beauty and intricacy of ornament go only just far enough to bring this calm into being, and not so far that it destroys it…Simplicity and inner calm is the Occam’s razor of any natural system: each configuration occurring in nature is the simplest one consistent with its conditions. The surface of a boiling fluid takes the shape which has least energy per unit mass. Many naturally occurring forms are given by minimum principles of this kind
Life occurs to the degree that centers help each other and cement their wholeness: the helping between centers is caused by 15 properties, and on the recursive appearance of these properties among the centers from which wholeness is made
90% of what all humans feel are all the same, 10% is different
Wholeness = local parts exist chiefly in the relation to the whole, and their behavior and character and structure are determined by the larger whole in which they exist and which they create…The whole, the wholeness as a structure, always comes first. Everything else follows from this wholeness, and from the centers and sub-centers which are induced within it. The wholeness is entirely distinct from the parts which appear in that wholeness. It is a field-like structure, a global, overall effect.
My argument is that the existence of wholeness is something real in the world, whether we choose to see it or pay attention to it, or not. It is a mathematical structure which exists in space. I believe that a holistic view of space – which shows how structure appears in space as a whole, as a result of local symmetries and centers – follows from careful observation of what exists
The danger of over-education is that it tends to lead to a mechanistic mindset which diminishes the ability to see wholeness.
You don’t search for wholeness, it comes to you. The ability to see wholeness requires an unfocused view in which we do not select what we pay attention to or force attention in a certain mental direction. Instead we see, watch, drink in the configuration of the wholeness which we can see before us. Words, concepts, and knowledge all interfere with our ability to see wholeness as it is. To see wholeness accurately, we must not pick out those artificially highlighted centers which happen to have words as names, since these are often not the most salient wholes in the real wholeness. What we must do instead is to watch, quietly, receptively and in an unfocused state, for those centers which are most salient in the real configuration as it is
which we meet in the world, the more deeply it affects our own personal feeling
The right kind of physical environment, when it has living structure, nourishes freedom of the spirit in human beings. In the wrong kind, lacking living structure, freedom of the spirit can be destroyed or weakened. If I am right, this will suggest that the character of the physical world has impact on possibly the most precious attribute of human existence. It is precisely life – the living structure of the environment – which has this effect. The best environment is one in which each person can become as alive as possible – that is as vibrant intellectually, physically, morally, and in which people can reach, as far as possible, their own potential as human beings. One may assume, too, that each person naturally does everything possible, to be alive. Freedom lies in the ability a person has to react appropriately to any given circumstance. The perfectly free human being is a person who, no matter what she or he encounters, can act appropriately
There is, in effect, a stress reservoir in the body. The amount of stress being coped with fills this reservoir, to different levels at different times. But as the stress reaches the top of this reservoir, the organism’s ability to deal effectively with the stress decreases. This then gives rise to the “stress” as used in its popular meaning. The organism is overloaded…Perhaps the most important finding of modern research on stress is that this stress is cumulative, because it is all in one currency, so each seemingly disparate stress effects fills the same stress reservoir. Almost any unresolved problem, even when small, adds to the reservoir of stress, and can reduce a person’s ability to function well. So long as challenges faced are within the limits of the stress reservoir, a person is actively solving problems, and becomes more alive, more capable, more rewarded in the process of meeting the challenges.
Thus life itself is a recursive effect which occurs in space. It can only be understood recursively as the mutual intensification of life by life. The field of centers, which intensifies centers by virtue of their pure geometry, then creates life through this helping action in the geometric field
Mach’s Principle – behavior of any one particle is affected by the whole universe
Dostoevsky had a similar belief where every human was responsible for every other human and their actions. It’s insane, but to me there also seems to be something disturbingly true about it
Thus the bootstrap effect – the way that centers affect one another, and mutually intensify each other, conceived as the basic property of space and matter – may give us a coherent understanding of the way that life, a new and non-mechanical phenomenon, can be created within only so-called dead matter – the “awakening” of space
Things tend to be “equal” unless there are particular forces making them unequal. In addition, the existence of local symmetries corresponds to the existence of minimum energy and least-action principles. Many – perhaps all – natural systems obtain their organization and energy from the interaction of opposites. We see this in a fundamental way with elementary particles and on a biological level we see it in the contrast of male and female which exists in almost every kind of organism. It appears in the cycle of day and night. It appears in the contrast of solid and liquid phase which provides the action and catalysis in chemical reactions. More informally, it exists in the contrast of dark and light in the surface of a butterfly, which attracts the mate
What I got out of it
A beautiful and quite radical book discussing truth, value, quality, beauty, design. If he is correct in his ideas, it would change how we’d have to think about nearly everything, from architecture to philosophy