Tuesday, December 16, 2008


A Buddhist periodical interviews Christopher Alexander, the iconoclastic architect and architecture theorist. His ideas about building and beauty, derived, as he describes it, from empirical observation, have had an interesting side-effect: he has formulated a theology. (Some have said his magnum opus, The Nature of Order, culminates in a new proof of the existence of God. I can't afford the $300 investment in the 4-volume work, so I can't vouch for how convincing it is, beyond what's in this interview.)

In the prologue to Nature of Order, Alexander talks about his starting point:

Then someone asked me, How did you come up with the pattern language [his first book, a list of aesthetic principles]? How did you get the actual material?

I said, "Well, it was not very different from any other kind of science. My colleagues and I made observations, looked to see what worked, studied it, tried to distill out the essentials, and wrote them down."

"But," I went on, "we did do one thing differently. We assumed from the beginning that everything was based on the real nature of human feeling and -- this is the unusual part -- that human feeling is mostly the same, mostly the same in every person... So from the very beginning, when we made the pattern language, we concentrated on that fact, and concentrated on that part of human experience and feeling where out feeling is all the same. That is what the pattern language is -- a record of that stuff in us, which belongs to the ninety percent of our feeling, where our feelings are all the same."

Alexander's core principle at that time, from what I can tell, was "life"--a property that he said can be found and felt in artworks and buildings and inanimate nature. The pattern language was a delineation of elements that contribute to the property of "life" in architecture and design. In the interview, Alexander maps out his next step, when he realized the concept of the pattern language needed more:
I made my first full-blown pattern language about 1967. For a long time, I was of the opinion that if you just could embed these patterns in a building, then most of this would come out right. But quite a lot of people starting using A Pattern Language, and some of them sent me pictures of what they had done. I realized that there was something fairly drastic wrong. It was almost like a sort of variant of hippie architecture that had these various clumpy bits and pieces. They corresponded to patterns in the book, indeed. But very often the whole thing was quite graceless and lacked tranquility entirely. So I thought, Well, good heavens, if that’s the best we can get with the pattern language, I really better think again about what’s going on.

So what was missing?

It had to do with the Whole and whether things can be aligned with the Whole and unfolded from it. At Harvard, when I was doing research for my Ph.D., I spent a lot of time in the anthropology department, simply trying to find out what it was that people in all the so-called primitive societies had been doing when they built their buildings. Most of these buildings were, at their best, beautiful, and at the very least, harmless. They were building in a way that helped what I call unfolding—that was almost a given. People wanted to revere the earth, revere God, and maintain the Whole. And that is not the motive now.

Yet it is the Wholeness that binds things together. My own experience as a builder is that you cannot do this unfolding unless you do it as an act of worship. Craftspeople, ancient and modern, know a tremendous amount about this. If you’re not steeped in that entity, if you really don’t think about it or don’t believe in a version of it, then when somebody says, Okay, now build me this motel, you’ve got absolutely nothing to go on.

If people think something ought to be a certain shape and then they start making it that shape instead of doing what the unfolding tells them to do, they will royally screw it up.

I find this angle of thought fascinating, because it sounds theoretical, but is actually very practical. I suspect a lot of Zen and other Buddhist thinking contains this quality. In fact, this is all very much akin to the thrust of ideas in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (which I reread recently), despite the fact that the book admits to having nothing to do with Zen, really. In ZAMM, Robert Pirsig attempts to solve modern (1970s) man's ambivalent relationship to technology. People recognize the benefit of technology, but they can't help but feel trapped by it, or feel like enemies of it. They take a trip to the wilderness to "escape" their technological world. They don't want to understand technology--they want it to work flawlessly and invisibly and then get out of their way. At the same time, they'd never give it up.

Pirsig cuts this Gordian knot with a concept of "Quality"--something pretty much indefinable (a weakness of his argument; he equates it with the "Tao," which is similar), except in that it precedes the whole structure of subject and object. That is, perceiving Quality ("experiencing" is probably a better word) is not a matter of a person observing the goodness of an object. Rather, the goodness occurs at the point of intersection of the person and the thing. The goodness or wholeness of the thing is shared by the state of mind of the person.

Yes, very theoretical-sounding. But Pirsig is pretty good about explaining the practical side of this. With motorcycle maintenance as his model, he shows how bringing a thing to a state of Quality--fixing a motorcycle--requires not just certain physical motions, or even certain intellectual steps, but requires the mechanic to inhabit the machine, to think about the purposes and conceptual structure of the motorcycle, and to allow the machine's state of fixed-ness to coincide with his peace of mind.

Alexander started with the question of What is Beauty? Pirsig started with What is Quality? There really is no difference. Alexander wanted to know what gave a building simultaneous vitality and comfort. Pirsig wanted to know how we know something is good even though we can't really define what "good" is. Both arrived at a kind of organic science. Pirsig calls it a melding--or transcendence--of "classical" knowledge (logic) and "romantic" knowledge (feeling). Both Pirsig and Alexander refer to their Ultimate Things (Quality and Wholeness) as equivalent to God, and I don't think from a more traditional Judeo-Christian perspective this is too inappropriate.

Regardless, in my limited experience with the "creative process" (ugh, a terrible term), there's a lot of extremely practical advice here. And it's refreshing to see some practical advice that also has some solid metaphysical underpinning. To me, that's pretty much the opposite of an ideology, and ideology is what's ruining politics and art in equal measures for the last century or so. It's what I find so satisfying about the Catholic Church's doctrine at its best, as well. Alexander's thought has influenced the discipline of software design--a highly practical field--and he's got some big interdisciplinary endeavors on his plate:

I’m part of a mathematical and computer science group at the University of York that is attempting to write algorithms for morphogenesis, or what in this interview we have been calling unfolding [the development, through growth and differentiation of form and structure]. I am concerned with trying to find a way where morphogenesis can find its way into the working world. I really have as my long-distance target the desire to create a basis from which humankind can build and rebuild a beautiful world.

Godspeed and good luck, sir!

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