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Christopher Alexander

I’m not a scholarly man and I have no vision to come up with any new theories, what I hope is to get a glimpse of the understanding of the world held by many greater thinkers. But why is it so important for me to get this understanding when I’m just a simple man? It started a few years ago when I wanted to build a nest for myself and my beloved wife. Unfortunately, what should have become an expression of our lives and our unification with the universe, became like being sucked into a black hole, losing all energy and trust in society.

The developer would of course say that it was something wrong with me; as would the people of the bureaucracy. But could it be a problem somewhere else? Could it be that what happened with me was a healthy reaction against sick structures in society? After I came to know Christopher Alexander I see this as a possibility:

The mechanistic idea of order can be traced to Descartes, around 1640. His idea was: if you want to know how something works, you can find it out by pretending that it is a machine. You completely isolate the thing you are interested in – the rolling of a ball, the falling of an apple, the flowing of the blood in the human body – from everything else, and you invent a mechanical model, a mental toy, which obeys certain rules, and which will then replicate the behavior of the thing. It was because of this kind of Cartesian thought that one was able to find out how things work in a modern sense.

However, the crucial thing which Descartes understood very well, but which we most often forget, is that this process is only a method. This business of isolating things, breaking them into fragments, and of making machinelike pictures (or models) of how things work, is not how reality actually is. It is a convenient mental exercise, something we do to reality, in order to understand it.

Descartes himself clearly understood his procedure as a mental trick. He was a religious person who would have been terrified to find out that people in the 20th century began to think that reality itself is actually like this. But in the years since Descartes lived, as his idea gathered momentum, and people found out that you really could find out how the bloodstream works, or how the stars are born, by seeing them as machines – and after people had used the idea to find out almost everything mechanical about the world from the 17th century to the 20th century, people shifted into a new mental state that began treating reality as if this mechanical picture really were the nature of things, as if everything really were a machine.

For the purpose of discussion, in what follows, I shall refer to this as the 20th century mechanistic viewpoint. The appearance of this 20th century mechanistic view had tremendous consequences, both devastating for artists. The first was that the “I” went out of world picture. The picture of the world as a machine doesn’t have an “I” in it. The “I”, what it means to be a person, the inner experience of being a person, just isn’t part of this picture. Of course it is still there in our experience. But it isn’t part of the picture we have of how things are. So what happens? How can you make something which have no “I” in it, when the whole process of making anything comes from the “I”? The process of trying to be an artist in a world which has no sensible notion of “I” and no natural way that the personal inner life can be part of the picture of things – leaves the art of building as a vacuum. You just cannot make sense of it.

The second devastating thing that happened with the onset of the 20th century mechanistic world-picture was that clear understanding of value went out of the world. The picture of the world we have from physics, because it is built only out of mental machines, no longer has any definite feeling of value in it: value has become sidelined as a matter of opinion, not intrinsic to the nature of the world at all.

And with these two developments, the idea of order fell apart. The mechanistic idea tells us very little about the deep order we feel intuitively to be in the world. Yet it is this deep order which is our main concern. – The Phenomenon of Life, by Christopher Alexander, page 16.

I should like to say; the whole goal is to make the world whole. The ancient Greek word hamartia is rooted in the notion of missing the mark, and is in our culture better known as the word ‘sin’. The whole goal with our existence, our time on the Earth, is to make the world whole, a living whole. I cannot imagine a greater sin than not making the world whole, because not doing so we completely miss the mark, the goal, and doing this we lose ourselves as well. To see the world as fragmented, as parts – machinelike, according to the mechanistic idea of order – we are creating the framework for the biggest sin ever committed by mankind. This is why we should now enter the post-Cartesian era!

The huge difficulties in architecture were reflected in the ugliness and soul-destroying chaos of the cities and environments we were building during the 20th century – and in the mixed feelings of dismay caused by these developments at one time or another in nearly every thinking person, indeed – I would guess – in a very large fraction of all people on Earth . - New Concepts in Complexity Theory (PDF), Christopher Alexander

But how is it possible to make something whole? Isn’t such a big task better left to God? No, this could not be more wrong! It is our mechanistic idea of order that robs us from what is natural for us to do. And worst of all, this false idea of order has now become so massively pervasive and organised in our society that even if you want to and know how to make something whole, you will be opposed and oppressed by the system. The system doesn’t allow you to become whole, by making your world whole. Our current systems are not whole, not at all.

What is then needed to make something whole? According to my still very small and limited understanding of Alexander’s work I see four key points:

  1. It reflects the beauty of the universe, which means it’s bound together by the fifteen structure-preserving properties you find in nature.
  2. Always create centers, which together help create stronger centers, to make a coherent and living whole.
    “At the root of these fifteen properties, there appears to be a recursive structure based on repeated appearances of a single type of entity — the primitive element of all wholeness. These entities are what I call “centers”. All wholeness is built from centers, and centers are recursively defined in terms of other centers. Centers have life, or not, in different degree, according to the degree that the centers are built from other centers using the fifteen geometric relationships which I have identified.” (source)
  3. It must be generated; it means it must be made up by small steps that at every step adapt to forces or structures in its surroundings.
  4. It has its origin in a pattern language. This pattern language should always seek to be in harmony with forces in and between humans and nature, by making meaningful connections between everything, animate and inanimate.

To be honest, the entrepreneurs that built my house were doing the opposite of all this in every way. The only interests they had were, in the following priority: to make money (use the simplest materials implemented in the simplest way), to follow the drawings (a drawing or design made a long time ago by a person far away, used a hundred times at very different places) and to follow the laws (doing the minimum that the building laws require). I cannot see that this entrepreneur, a huge entrepreneur, had any interests for the whole at all.

And this way there could not be any “I” in what they were making for me and my wife, because they didn’t give a damn about me or my wife. A thing, a house, a place, can only be whole if there is an “I” in it, if you feel to be one with the world and the universe when you see it, or live in it.

Another devastating introduction in the early phases of industrial society was the “the invisible hand”, by Adam Smith.

But, by contrast, in the early phases of industrial society which we have experienced recently, the pattern languages die. Instead of being widely shared, the pattern languages which determine how a town gets made become specialized and private. Roads are built by highway engineers; buildings by architects; parks by planners; hospitals by hospital consultants; schools by educational specialists; gardens by gardeners; tract housing by developers.

The people of the town themselves know hardly any of the languages which these specialists use. And if they want to find out what these languages contain, they can’t, because it is considered professional expertise. The professionals guard their language jealously to make themselves indispensable.

Even within any profession, professional jealousy keeps people from sharing their pattern languages. Architects, like chefs, jealously guard their recipes, so that they can maintain a unique style to sell.

The languages start out being specialized and hidden from the people; and then within the specialties, the languages become more private still, and hidden from another, and fragmented. – The Timeless Way of Building, by Christopher Alexander, page 231 – 232.

This is the work of “the invisible hand”; this is what happens when cooperation is replaced with competition, the beautiful pattern languages of our communities die.

To believe in “the invisible hand” is like believing in the emperor’s new clothes; it makes no sense. What we should do is dress up with real clothes decorated with beautiful patterns of eternal truth.

What we need now is to replace “the invisible hand” with “the visible hand”. But where is this visible hand? Actually, it could be your hand, because a true pattern language is generated by the actions made by the hands of millions.

Still, the most visible hand I see in the world today carries the name permaculture, and this hand holds a big pencil, a pencil which creates the most beautiful patterns upon the surface of our Earth – a beautiful pattern language.

How can we know that something is whole? What would it feel like if our world were whole? In a timeless world, with a timeless way of living!

When we are as ordinary as that, with nothing left in any of our actions, except what is required – then we can make towns and buildings which are as infinitely various, and peaceful, and as wild and living, as the fields of windblown grass.

Almost everybody feels at peace with nature: listening to the ocean waves against the shore, by a still lake, in a field of grass, on a windblown heath. One day, when we have learned the timeless way again, we shall feel the same about our towns, and we shall feel as much at peace in them, as we do today walking by the ocean, or stretched out in the long grass of a meadow. – The Timeless Way of Building, by Christopher Alexander, page 549.

Further reading:

8 Responses to “Let’s Make Our World Whole!”

  1. Nick Huggins

    Borrowing from the movie The Matrix, the terms blue pill and red pill have become a popular metaphor for the choice between the blissful ignorance of illusion (blue) and embracing the sometimes painful truth of reality (red).

    Reply
  2. Paco Fernandez

    What an AMAZING article! Thank you so much for posting this. This is SO thought provoking. It helped clarify my own beliefs and views about our World.

    Reply
  3. Percy & Violeta Cabrera

    It’s such a nice article! Well, yes, against our every effort to make something whole, it’s just that the current system willingly or otherwise, do the opposite. So that, in every endeavor whether methodical or “with intrinsic value system”, mankind needs to invoke divine intervention for wisdom and guidance above anything else.

    Reply
  4. Federico

    Thanks for posting this, Øyvind.

    I’ve been studying Alexander’s work and Permaculture for some time. It is great to realize that both things are essentially the same, but they both approach the world-at-large from different angles.

    Permaculture is immensely practical: it teaches you to learn how the natural world functions, and to apply this knowledge to your own ecosystem – the area where you live.

    Alexander’s work is about learning how the natural world “unfolds” itself, or how it gradually evolves over time, and to apply this knowledge to human-designed artifacts – buildings, cities, software.

    In a sense, you could say that Alexander’s work is the theoretical foundation for Permaculture. The latter would be the practical application of Alexander’s concepts.

    For example, two of Alexander’s fifteen properties of life are Gradients and Strong Centers. Now, Permaculture teaches us to make use of the energy flows in our house and living environment – for example, to divert water as much as possible from the most direct route to the sea, by creating rainwater catchments, swales, ponds, aereation patterns, etc. What you are then doing is to create a huge series of Gradients (water’s downward flow), interspersed with Strong Centers – each swale is a center, as is each pond and each aereation structure. Another of Alexander’s properties is Alternating Repetition. And in the water flow that we create, there is just that – alternated catchment and flow, catchment and flow.

    In book two of The Nature of Order, “The process of creating life”, Alexander goes into some length in describing a pond that really works – one with clean water, with fish, plants to oxygenate the water, rocks, etc. He describes it in terms of the structural properties of the pond and the processes that generated it – and all of that is *exactly* what Permaculture teaches us to do to make a really good pond. So your pond, as a Strong Center itself, is intensified when you surround it with the many things that contribute to a pond’s little ecosystem.

    It is very heartening to see that Permaculture’s practical teachings are not just “things that happen to work”, but also fundamental aspects of how the Universe works itself.

    Permaculture and Jane Jacobs would both teach you that you as a person are not an independent being, but you are completely part of the environment in which you live. Alexander would teach you exactly the same – you yourself are a peripatetic Strong Center, always in contact with your surroundings, and therefore what you do good for your surroundings will benefit you as a center.

    Here is an excellent extended summary of Alexander’s work:

    http://www.dreamsongs.com/Files/AlexanderPresentation.pdf
    http://www.dreamsongs.com/Files/NatureOfOrder.pdf

    And for ongoing work based on Alexander’s own, you may want to read about Peer-to-peer Architecture:

    http://p2pfoundation.net/Peer-to-Peer_Themes_and_Urban_Priorities_for_the_Self-organizing_Society

    And a link to one of Nikos Salingaros’s books (he’s Alexander’s right-hand man):

    http://people.gnome.org/~federico/news-2010-06.html#28

    Reply
  5. Øyvind Holmstad

    Thank you for very interesting thoughts and links Federico!

    I think I’ll start with a sub link of one of the links you gave me, from some of Alexander’s latest work:

    Harmony-Seeking Computations: a Science of Non-Classical Dynamics based on the Progressive Evolution of the Larger Whole: http://www.livingneighborhoods.org/library/harmony-seeking-computations.pdf

    Especially I’ll study the part from page 19, about how wind mills can be structure destroying on the landscape. This is very important for me now, as somebody wants to pepper our coast and our hills, even the hills here where I live, with structure destroying wind mills.

    Also we have a big debate for the time about building huge electricity lines in our most valuable fjord landscapes, proclaimed to the world’s best travel destination for two times by National Geographic Magazine.

    It is so sad, our towns are already completely destroyed by modernism and modernistic planning structures, and now we’re also about to destroy our nature.

    How can we be whole as human beings if our world is not whole?

    Reply
  6. Warwick Rowell

    Oyvind

    I see here that my comment on a small part of your previous article (objecting to your comment that PL is not concerned with beauty) is probably something you would now agree with!

    Reply

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