“You don't see something until you have the right metaphor to let you perceive it.”
Robert Shaw

Chaos: Making a New Science

Christopher Alexander on Tears, Sadness and Unity

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This resonates deeply with me. A pursuit of happiness has never appealed or worked out for me. If what Alexander is true, then the oh-so-popular notion of “pursuit of happiness” is bound to hit a wall. My experiences of happiness seem to expire quickly, while my experiences of sadness seem resonate deeper and longer … as if they carry more information, guidance, direction … a deeper sensibility.

“Unity ties everything together – including joy, happiness and laughter, but also including loss, death and betrayal. A thing which truly has unity partakes of everything. And through that everything, there must be sadness. The making of this sadness, then, must come through a process where land, details, rooms, form an indivisible whole. Always trying to tie it together, to unify it, to make it disappear.

To set the stage further for understanding unity in a building, I go back to the emotional underpinning of the living structure, its personal character, its rootedness in feeling … The I, the blazing one, is something which I reach only to the extent that I experience, and make manifest, my feeling. What feeling, exactly? What exactly am I aiming for in a building, in a column, in a room? How do I define it for myself, so that I feel it early, so that it stands as a beacon to steer me in what I do every day?

What I aim for is, most concretely, sadness. I try to make the volume of the building so that it carries in it all feeling. To reach this feeling, I try to make the building so that it carries my eternal sadness. It comes, as nearly as I can in a building, to the point of tears.

… I cannot do it in a trivial way. I cannot literally make the building laugh and cry. And it is not gloomy either. This sadness of tears, when I reach it is also joy … What makes it sad is that it comes closest, in the physical concrete beams and columns and walls, as close as possible, to the fact of my existence on this earth. It reminds me of it, it makes me take part in it. So when it happens, it is also a kind of joy, a happiness.

But to recognize it, I concentrate most on my sadness, and my tears.

Although social pressure – the desire to please others – sometimes makes it hard to reach the I, the difficulty is not mainly a social difficulty. It is mainly an artistic difficulty.The difficulty arises simply because it is so hard to find that shape, that substance, which actually makes tears well up in me. … To many people a roof is just a roof. A column is just a column. It takes great effort ot perception, conscious work, and concentration, to see that the subtle changes of the column makes a difference to its sadness, or to its capacity to hold,and reflect sadness.

I look at the shafts of the columns … I move them, change them, cut cardboard, modify the shape. At first they seem merely nice … I stand back in the room, a few times, to check it, also looking at the base. Simpler seems better. Gradually, as I achieve a more harmonious shape, … I begin to see something which nearly works … I begin to be aware that this column which I am making can be more austere – and that, as I strip away every bit which is too sweet, that I slowly eave the bare bone of something which can affect me, can make me – almost choke tears in my throat. Of course, it is just a sensation, not actual tears. It is so slight, I have to watch the growing thing in the room very intensely to notice it all.

But if I pay very careful attention to the feeling which is welling up in me, I do notice tiny differences, small sensations, and I do notice that threat of tears, that harshness in the back of my throat which moves me towards the shape of the column which will ultimately have a more serious meaning which will enlarge life in that room, which will then, through its austerity, make more likely the experience of joy.

… A thing does not get its unity from being ‘beautiful’. The unity comes from the fact that the various centers are harmoniously connected, and that every center helps every other center … But above all, it comes from the fact that in the thing, throughout the thing, we see the I in every part, at eery scale. We see only one I, the same I, shining out from every part.

In some cases this results in something which we may call beautiful in the ordinary sense of the word. In another case, the result of the helping between centers is beautiful only in the sense that it fills us up with life, reminds us of ordinary everyday things, reminds us of the messiness and goodness of everyday life – but is not beautiful in the sense that it would make a great picture in an architectural magazine.

… it is a unity of the most fundamental kind, which goes to the raw reality and which has, when it occurs, a highly unexpected, sometimes rambling, sometimes ferocious, sometimes friendly, even sometimes absurdly crude or comfortable character.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 4: The Luminous Ground

 

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