Order Gets Physical
Traditionalists and others complain about present-day architecture, but few of them are in a position to put forward a definite response. Christopher Alexander has no commitment to traditionalism as such, but he is a gifted architectural theorist who loves beauty, hates inhumanity and ugliness, recognizes the superiority of traditional built form, and has spent his professional life looking for ways architects can do better.
His best-known work is the underground classic A Pattern Language (Oxford University Press, 1977), which he wrote with several collaborators. That book emphasizes the specific. It sets forth a system of some 250 patterns (e.g., balconies should be at least six feet deep) that crystallize practical wisdom today’s architects and planners ignore or have forgotten. They are similar to those followed by traditional builders throughout the world and are intended to make buildings, neighborhoods, cities, and regions more livable and beautiful.
They turn out to fall short of what is needed for good architecture. Patterns are needed, it seems, but vision and higher principles are necessary to guide their use. The Nature of Order, a four-volume work almost thirty years in the making, tries to supply what is missing by calling for vision and exploring the most basic principles that govern whether a built environment becomes a place in which one would want to live.
To deal with the problems of architecture today Alexander must deal with the impossibility of rationally discussing value in today’s public discourse. Better building requires an understanding of good design that is integrated with what is good in human life generally. His discussion therefore tries to go to the roots of the modern way of thinking, and becomes metaphysical and even cosmological.
He attributes our current inability to discuss good design intelligently to Cartesian epistemology and its resulting ontology, which radically distinguish fact from value and reduce reality to elementary particles acting locally. On such an understanding, “value” is simply personal opinion, and architecture can only be a matter of technology, ideology, or arbitrary will. The necessary result, as Russell Kirk observed, is an architecture of servitude and boredom: servitude, because order is based purely on the will of the stronger, and boredom, because arbitrary order presents nothing of human interest.
So what to do? Alexander wants to extricate architects and planners, as well as their clients and victims, from an intellectual and practical dead end. He was trained as a physicist and mathematician as well as an architect. He has no particular inclination to traditionalism as such, and he values modern life and the solidity and usefulness of scientific reasoning. His strategy, therefore, is to extend scientific reasoning so it can deal with questions of good design while remaining objective and verifiable.
To do so he needs a feature of good design that is basic to any setting we would want to inhabit, that observers from very different backgrounds define consistently, and that scientists treat as real. The feature he chooses is life. Life is good as well as scientifically respectable, and it turns out that if you show people images and ask which seems more alive they give similar answers and their tendency to do so increases with practice. Life is a basic, objective, and determinable good, and Alexander has spent years analyzing the structural features that increase it.
The first volume of The Nature of Order is therefore called—and deals with—“The Phenomenon of Life.” It proposes that life is a matter of wholeness defined by “centers” that contribute to each other in complex 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. While they are separately identifiable physically and functionally, which is why it makes sense to call them centers, it is 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.
The proof of a theory that is so comprehensive and abstract lies in its application, and Alexander’s specific discussion bears out the value of his approach. His exploration of the features that make the various centers what they are and enable them to work as part of a living whole successfully elucidates basic aspects of the living, beautiful, and real. He identifies fifteen features that make for life, for example:
Levels of scale: A structure engages us more if it is made of smaller structures perhaps a third or quarter its size, which in turn are made of components that are similarly scaled-down, and so on down to the level of fine detail and up to the level of the whole world.
Boundaries: Something is more noticeable if it is framed, and the whole of which it is part is more integrated if something connects one component to another. Well-articulated boundary regions serve both purposes and help make built objects comprehensible.
Positive space: We will not like the shape of something, at least in the long run, unless we like the shape of the surrounding space it creates through its presence.
Modern constructions routinely lack the features that make a system alive, and that lack is what makes them deadening. Alexander’s examples on the point are quite persuasive.
To support the applicability of his theory, he shows how his fifteen features order the natural world as well as a good built environment and even contribute to the functionality of hand tools and other objects of daily use. He also connects good design to inner experience. “Which design is more alive” generally calls forth the same answer as “which better reflects what you are,” and the answers of ordinary people to the latter question most often correspond to the judgment of experts on aesthetic value. Further, because center contributes to center in an overall living system, a built environment that is full of life makes those who inhabit it more alive. The world is redeemed, or at least life is deeply enhanced, by beauty.
His final point, which he believes he needs to establish the full authority of his theory, is that reality forms a single integrated system. If certain arrangements of space are objectively more alive than others then space itself must somehow be alive. His views on architecture, he says, 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.” His aesthetics thus imply an ontology.
This is a brilliantly illuminating book that persuasively connects objective goods to properties that are natural, functional, and concretely identifiable. As such, it is a major contribution to aesthetic and architectural theory. It gives those who generally accept modern thought but are willing to expand it to accommodate reality a solid way to view goods as more than personal preference, social convention, and ideology. My main criticism, which is perhaps inevitable in the case of a work that opens new territory, is that the analysis needs to be taken farther.
Alexander wants the benefits of tradition: the emergence of functional and satisfying forms from experience and winnowing guided by a distinct conception of ultimate spiritual reality. He wants to get them, however, in a radically antitraditional age by extending the modes of thought characteristic of that age. He proposes to do so by (1) presenting an analysis of the qualities of natural and traditional forms that make them living and therefore good, (2) suggesting procedures for developing living forms, and (3) proposing a generic spiritual understanding of ultimate reality to guide the process. (He develops the second and third points in later volumes.)
The problem is that the benefits of traditional ways cannot be restored by understanding what they are and determining the minimal changes to existing procedures and understandings that will be sufficient to bring them back. You get the good by giving it your all. It seems to follow that a transformation of life and thought will be needed to get us out of the hole into which we have fallen. Alexander pushes his analysis far enough to recognize the need for an ultimate standard that is concretely real and also transcends rules and concepts. His approach makes that standard—in effect, God—a minimal add-on to modern scientific thought. Will that be enough?
James Kalb is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism, forthcoming from ISI.
Posted: September 7, 2008