“The spirit of a warrior is not geared to indulging and complaining, nor is it geared to winning or losing. The spirit of a warrior is geared only to struggle, and every struggle is a warrior’s last battle on earth. Thus the outcome matters very little to him. In his last battle on earth a warrior lets his spirit flow free and clear. And as he wages his battle, knowing that his will is impeccable, a warrior laughs and laughs.”
Carlos Castaneda

A Separate Reality

Christopher Alexander on Ultra Mechanistic

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For more on this dear-to-me subject see Robert Pirsig’s Lila and the work of Rupert Sheldrake … and this is just the opening of the book

“Scientists often like to say that the materialist view of present-day science is potentially consistent with early any view of ethics or religion because it says nothing about these subjects.
Strictly speaking, the logic of this view can be upheld. But what governs people’s view of the world is not only logic, but also what is implied by this logic … Strictly speaking the facts of physics and astrophysics do not imply that the universe is meaningless. But the way these facts are presently drawn, the larger conception of the world which we have formed at the same time we have been forming our physics, does suggest – even strongly imply – that the world is meaningless …

Indeed, tacit assumptions have entered our picture of the world so pervasively that it is from them that we have got the picture of the universe that is distressing us. Though they were originally inspired by mechanistic philosophy, they themselves go far beyond the strict discoveries of science. It is these beyond-mechanistic or ultra-mechanistic assumptions which control much of what we say and think …

These ultra-mechanistic assumptions about matter – not strictly justified by mechanistic science itself, but inspired by it and encouraged by it – have shaped our attitude to art and architecture and society and environment.

TACIT ASSUMPTION 1: What is true, is only those facts which can be represented as lifeless mechanisms.

[As scientists … we focus on models … to … help us understand what is going on. But the careful use of models does not require us, also, to inject gratuitous assumptions about the inertness of the models into our thoughts, or into the aura of thought with which we surround the models. Most scientists will tell you that you are entitled to hold whatever extra beliefs you wish. But the ‘extras’ will be characterized as beliefs, thus excluding them once again from the world-picture, while the material in the scientific journals will be characterized as hypothesis about fact.

As a result, though the use of Cartesian models in science is beautiful, and useful, and powerful, it does not yet provide us with a wholly accurate picture of the way things are.  Its use means that vital aspects of reality, especially those which we can only see accurately through feelings – such as the degree of life in buildings – can be represented only in a crude and distorted fashion.

Our society is corrupted by this approach. The tacit assumption that what is true is only that which can be represented as a mechanical model, almost prohibits us from seeing life around us. Love, feeling, faith, art … have become second class citizens in the world of ideas.]

TACIT ASSUMPTION 2: Matters of value [in architecture] are subjective.

[Before the age of enlightenment there was, in most cultures, some group of values to which one could appeal … In some it was thought to be ‘God’, in others ‘ancestors’, in others ‘tradition’ or ‘law.’ Whatever the source, there was no doubt, at that time, that there was indeed a (partially) uniform source of value widely understood throughout the culture, and of such a kind that early any act might be judged against it, inspired by it.

Today the situation is different indeed … It is socially acceptable to state values publicly – but only so long as they are clearly presented as matters of opinion, hence as matters of private value? Few people today will dare to assert that some value they perceive is in any sense actually true.]

TACIT ASSUMPTION 3: Modern conceptions of human liberty require that all values be viewed as subjective. The subjective nature of value gives the private striving of each individual person … the same weight. Attempts to put value on an objective footing are to be viewed with suspicion.

[During the 18th and 19th centuries, European and American imperialism created a view of the world in which many people on earth were considered ignorant, and in which it was taken for granted that the views of white Victorian gentlemen were correct. At the end of the 19th century the new discipline of anthropology was gradually able to attack this Victorian point of view by establishing the idea that each culture is coherent in its own terms …

In the last decades of the 20th century this movement was extended to protect the rights of many groups … handicapped people, people with various sexual preferences, subcultures of ethnic or religious particularity, groups of particular age … So, by the end of the 20th century, the liberality and freedom of the centuries early years had helped to create an atmosphere of pluralism in which nearly ‘anything goes,’ and in which it had become almost impossible to assert the rightness of any value …

Thus the idiosyncratic and private view of value … has led to the assumption that value, valuation, and judgement and taste, are so deeply embedded in the realms of individual rights that they almost cannot be seen as based on an objective reality.]

TACIT ASSUMPTION 4: The basic matter of the world is neutral with regard to value. Matter is inert. The universe is made of inert material which blindly follows laws of combination and transformation.

[… In the 19th century physicists thought that the world was made of little atoms, like billiard balls … Today we have a conception of ultimate matter which is vastly more interesting, where particles are more like whirlpools of energy …

However, the physicist’s idea that this matter or energy is essentially lifeless and moves blindly according to the laws of its process, has not changed.

Sir James Jeans’s words ‘The universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine,’ written in 1930, have, so far, remained a beautiful and inspiring, but still empty, promise … our cosmology itself … remains unaltered …]

TACIT ASSUMPTION 5:  Matter and mind, the objective outer world and the subjective inner world are taken to be two entirely different realms, different in kind and utterly disconnected.

[… The idea that the outer world can be thought of as a structure which is distinct from ourselves, the divisions of the world into mind and matter, goes back at least to the scholastics of the 14th century … combined with the assumption that we can only reach truth by distinguishing objective (agreed upon) outer reality from individual (and not agreed-upon) inner reality, is the very foundation of modern science.  It is the idea that observations and experiments must be made independent of the observer.

The first 20th century cracks in the iceberg of this assumption arrived within physics itself. They came with Bohr‘s and Heisenberg‘s demonstrations that completely observer-free observations cannot exist at the level of photons and electrons … But today, seventy years after Heisenberg, mind and self still to not have a status in the world-picture that is comparable to the status of the underlying entities of 20th century physics. Even among the scientists who accept the existence of cognitive structures, it is still generally accepted that a cognitive structure is an artefact of neurological activity.

… the self cannot itself be included into the larger view of the universe … Yet self is what we experience of ourselves. How then, could the universe seem comfortable to us?]

TACIT ASSUMPTION 6: Art is an intense and powerful social phenomenon, but one that has no deep importance in the physical scheme of things, and therefore no basic role in the structure of the universe.

[… many would insist that art is important, vital … A mechanistic cosmology makes it difficult to formulate the idea that a building, or a painting, or a piece of music could have ay inherent value. At best … they might be based on social realism (ascribing functional importance to works which help society), or psychological realism (describing the value of works of art in terms which appeal to human emotion).

These ideas are deeply conflicted …]

TACIT ASSUMPTION 7: Ornament and function [in a building] are separate and unrelated categories.

[Why is this a cosmological matter? It had its origin in the 19th century, when ornament became something to be applied, not something arising organically from its context. Adolf Loos, trying to overcome a spurious ad disconnected attitude to ornament, began the early 20th century revolt against irrelevant and decadent ornament … he argued … ‘ornament is a crime‘ … By mid-2oth cetury, later versions of this assumption then said, essentially, that all ornament should be removed from buildings =, and that their geometry should be derived from function. … what is practical is only mechanical … any ornament or form which is not mechanical, is removable, unnecessary …

Mid-century purity lasted until about 1970, when architects started again, like builders of old, bringing in ornament and shape out of sheer enjoyment. But even then … the conceptual split caused by our mechanistic world-picture still exist. There is a functioning part (the practical part), and an image part (the art part). In some of the latest buildings,built during the last three decades of the 20th century, this image part, because of the conceptual context, became truly arbitrary and absurd.]

TACIT ASSUMPTION 8: At a profound level, architecture is irrelevant. The task of building has no special importance, except in so far as it contributed to practical function through engineering, or to material wealth through image.

[Few people would willingly admit that they make this assumption …

Few contemporary architects would reject the use of a building program [that defines different numbers of square feet to different functions]; few lay people would question it either. It is the norm. Yet their acceptance of this norm (and this is only one tiny example) means that real beauty, real life, are pushed into a subsidiary position while the building program, more concerned with efficiency of administration than with life, stays in a higher position.

It is reasonable to conclude that architecture is viewed as irrelevant. A society in which people routinely do something different from that which creates life or beauty, cannot be said to care about life and beauty.]

TACIT ASSUMPTION 9: The intuition that something profound is happening in a great work of art is, in scientific terms, meaningless.

[… By default our cosmology relegates art to the status of a interesting psychological phenomenon. Certainly it does not allow art equal status with the awe-inspiring realities of the atoms, or of the galactic universe.

This it not to say that scientists, like others, do not have instincts which make them feel the deep importance that a work of art can have. But, scientifically speaking, that is only a vague instinct at best. So far, it has no place in the body of thoughts and concepts which make up our fundamental picture of the world.]

TACIT ASSUMPTION 10: The instinct that there is some kind of deeper meaning in the world is scientifically useless. It has to be ignored as a subject of serious scientific discussion.

[That is what our scientific civilization has been telling us for three to four hundred years. Yet it is hard to deny that many of us have instincts about deeper meaning in the world. The experience may come, perhaps, as a result of love, as a result of gazing at the ocean, at a small flower.

The official position of 20-th century scientific philosophy said, explicitly, that science is neutral: it neither confirms nor denies the instinct that this experience is important … However, the actual state of mind encouraged by our current scientific cosmology is not neutral but negative … The assumption therefore exists – nearly always tacit, rarely explicit – that experiences, ideas, which might lead to a feeling of profound meaning in the world are scientifically empty, and best kept at arm’s length, away from the body of precise thought about the world.]

I believe these ten assumptions do exist tacitly throughout our everyday lives today. Although thousands of modern books and poems and paintings have helped people assert and affirm their sense of meaning in the world, the world-picture itself, the scientific world-picture, continues to assert the blind meaninglessness of the physical matter in the world, and of the physical matter we ourselves are made of.

[… Suppose a person tells you that he believes the earth is round, not flat. However, you notice that this person has a surprising reluctance to go far to the east, or far to the west. No matter what he says, you may wonder if after all, this person does not believe the earth is flat.

… No matter what people say, they often continue to behave as if these assumptions are true. There is no practical certainty attached to the other more spiritual views, which lead directly to different behavior; so once again the residue of behavior suggests that the ten assumptions are what is, in fact, controlling our mental picture of ourselves and of the universe.]

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

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Christopher Alexander on Inert Matter

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” … our view of matter is flawed … The substance which the 20th century world was made of remained the inert, mechanical space-time of Descartes, Newton and Einstein, of quantum mechanics and the string theorists. This mechanical substance is our cake. So far, our spiritual views and ethical views are only frosting on this cake, which do not penetrate or affect the way the cake works.

… It is this ongoing rift between the mechanical picture of the world (which we accept as true) and our intuitions about self and spirit (which are intuitively clear but scientifically vague) that has destroyed our architecture. It is destroying us, too. It has destroyed our sense of self-worth. It has destroyed our belief in ourselves. It has destroyed us and our architecture, ultimately,by forcing a collapse of meaning.

… I have finally come to believe that it is just the prevailing views we hold about the mechanical nature of the universe which have led directly to a situation in which great buildings – even buildings of true humility – almost cannot be made [… the infection which comes from our mechanistic cosmology, is mainly one of arbitrariness – and the arbitrariness breeds pretension. In the presence of pretentiousness, true humility is almost impossible.]”

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

 

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Christopher Alexander on Tat Tvam Asi

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I have been looking forward to book 4 … and then this in its preface:

Early in my life as an architect, as first I was confused or deceived by the teaching I received from architectural instructors. I thought that those things which are important – and perhaps the things which I aspired to make – were ‘other’, outside myself, governed by a canon of expertise which lay outside me, but to which I gave due.

Gradually the older I got, I recognized that little of that had value, and that the thing which did have true value was only that thing which lay in my own heart. Then I learned to value only that which truly activates what is in my heart … I sought, more and more, only those experiences which have the capacity, the depth, to activate the feeling that is my real feeling, in my true childish heart. And I learned, slowly, to make things which are of that nature.

This was a strange process, like coming home. As a young man I started with all my fancy ideas … Then from my teachers I learned things even more fantastic … sophisticated taste, cleverness, profundity, seriousness. I tried to make, with my own hands, things of that level of accomplishment. That took me to middle age.

Then, gradually I began to recognize that in the midst of that cleverness, which I never truly understood anyway, the one thing I could trust was a small voice, a tiny soft-and-hard vulnerable feeling, recognizable, which was something I actually knew. Slowly that knowledge grew in me.

Usually the things which embodied this knowledge were very small  … in ordinary discourse they might have seemed insignificant, like the fact that I felt comfortable when my back sank into a pillow arranged in a certain way …

Then in my later years I gradually began to recognize that this realistic voice, breaking through … was my own voice, the voice that had always been in me, since childhood …

But this knowing of myself, and what was in my own true heart, was not only childish … I also began to recognize it in very great things, in works made by artists centuries away from us in time … Somehow I began to realize that the greatest masters of their craft were those who somehow managed to release, in me, that childish heart

I begin to realize that what I come in touch with when I go closer and closer to myself is not just ‘me’. It is something vast, existing outside myself and inside myself, as it if were a contact with the eternal, something everlasting existing before me, in me, and around me.

… Yet even though I am next to nothing in the presence of all this force, I am free there. In such a place, at such a moment, I am crushed to understand my own smallness, and then understand the immensity of what exists …

Actions and objects increase or decrease my connection to this vastness, which is in me, and which is also real. A concrete corridor without windows and with an endless line of doors is less likely to awaken it in me than a small apple tree in bloom …

It is at once enormous in extent and infinitely intimate and personal.

… The essence of the argument which I am putting before you … is that the thing we call ‘the self,’ which lies at the core of our experience, is a real thing, existing in all matter, beyond ourselves, and that in the end we must understand it, in order to make living structure in buildings. But it is also my argument that this is the nature of matter. It is not only necessary to understand it when we wish to make living structure in buildings. It is also necessary if we wish to grasp our place in the universe, our relationship to nature.”

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

 

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Christopher Alexander on Our Birthright

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deep sigh … there’s a book ending to contemplate … architecture!!!

“I should like to make one last comment on the buildings I have shown, the processes, the forms. Throughout, in all this material, we touch on a birthright. Yet this birthright that I speak of, it is in the mind, in people’s minds. And it is almost gone.

… The birthright being lost is not only the beautiful Earth, the lovely buildings people made in ancient times, the possibility of beauty and living structure all around. The birthright I speak of if something far more terrible; it is the fact that people have become inured to ugliness, that they accept the ravages of developers without even knowing that anything is wrong. In short, it is their own minds that have lost, that core of them, from which judgment can be made , the inner knowledge of what it is to be a person, the knowledge of right and wrong, of beautiful and ugliness, of life and deadness.

And since this inner voice is lost, stilled, muffled, there is no possibility – or hardly any possibility – that they can cry out, ‘oh stop this ugliness, stop this deadness which floods like a tide over the land.’ … the source of such a cry has almost been stilled in them.

That process, it seems to me, is nearly irreversible since, at least to an extent, this knowledge is culture-borne.

What has been lost is the inner language which connects you to your own soul, which makes you know, with certainty, which way is likely to be right, and which way is likely to be wrong. To be more clear about it. To feel it , as a real thing. To know, listen to, the voice that is in your own heart.

But that is becoming harder and harder. Even as people are becoming more and more sophisticated, and education is increasing, this inner voice is falling further and further into the background.

That is what I mean by the loss of birthright.

Is there some chance – now that these matters have been brought into the open and that living process has been partly defeined – that this birthrgith may be saved, and that we can come back to what is ours again?”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 3: A Vision of a Living World

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Christopher Alexander on Archetype

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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, original, direct, ‘as it comes forth’ … unweakened by sophisticated thought or culture]

…. It is always the same substance. Technology changes continuously as society changes … the eternal forms are continually refreshed and given new character, new implementation. That is the temporally changing part we know as style. But the core, the unchanging core, is the expression of ancient and eternal truths of unity.

… Every time the fundamental process is used, not matter at what scale, we get 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, when the symmetries come forth unconsciously from adherence to the feeling of the whole, and from the process of symmetry-production in the small, then something almost awe-filled occasionally comes into being. This is a thing which strikes fear into the heart, yet creates a peacefulness and solidity that we can rest upon. It gives us nourishment because it is so strange and so indefinite and well-found in its uniqueness  – which we did not create.

It is possible to use the word archetype in two different ways. On the one hand there is the weak archetype  … really just the whole class of buildings that have living structure. But there is a narrower class … more awe-filled forms which go to the root, forms which affect us so powerfully, which reach, somehow, the core of what it is to be a person.

… This takes more. This does not come about merely from the fundamental process. I believe this second, strong archetypal core comes when the search for living structure is combined with a conscious desire, and a half-conscious search, for the origin of all things. That topic is taken up in Book 4, The Luminous Ground.

… In the best cases, in the cases which have the most life, the building form will most often be interwoven in some fashion with nature itself. In the best cases it will seem, almost indistinguishably, to be a part of nature, this forming a seamless whole.

… It will … seem extremely ordinary … It will, not at all, then, seem like the work of an architect’s hands.

… Thus the morphogenesis of what is truly living, will have a character that, in our present way of thinking, will hardly look like architecture at all … it is achieved through painstaking attention to the ordinary.

… The naturalness, the ordinariness will then place before us, a target, an aim, which is very different from the things that architects have worshipped today and yesterday.

Something truly relaxed, truly made for human comfort, truly arising from an egoless and unencumbered wish to make things right, and nothing more.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 3: A Vision of a Living World

 

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Christopher Alexander on Color

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This is merely an opening for a subject that is covered in more depth in book 4

“I believe that color, like music, holds the key to life as it appears in art; it is, perhaps, the most fundamental way in which things in geometry – that means real physical things in the world – make contact with God. It is the blue of the bell, the deep green of the sea, the yellow of the crocus, the white of the snowdrop, the awesome darkness of the mountains at night, which reveals their wholeness, and lets us reach God.

As a maker of things, I found that it is through color, above all, that one has the chance – however slight – of reaching this domain.

… In the search for color, when you really pay attention and try to find out what produces inner light, step by step, the result is often very surprising.

… Color is a fundamental human experience. It is natural to put color on things, and to make things out of colored material. It is, for many people, the most natural thing …”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 3: A Vision of a Living World

 

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Christopher Alexander on Ornament … in the Eyes of God

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“If the field od centers comes to life when it is endlessly differentiated and extended, then that same field of centers – which is after all a pure structure of geometry in space – will find its most living state when all creation, everything in the word, really is ornament.

… I know that I am using the word ornament in an unusual way as I say this. But sometimes, thinking in this way, seeing the field of centers (living structure) as a pure geometric structure, I think of animals, and plants, and human beings, too, as ornaments in this sense: ornaments which have unfolded out of nature, and which might for this reason then truly be seen, as if in the eyes of god, as ornaments”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 3: A Vision of a Living World

 

 

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Christopher Alexander on Unfolding Ornament

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Ornament arises naturally, when a person is making something and seeks to embellish this ‘something’. The embellishing is spontaneous. It comes from the continuing unfolding of the whole … it arises as a result of the latent centers in the uncompleted thing requiring still more centers, requiring still more structure in order to be complete. That requirement, when followed faithfully, creates ornament.

This is a natural process, whenever the thing is being made. But if a building is ‘produced’  – not made – in a technically divided situation where making is severed from design, the process of ornamentation cannot occur naturally. There, when an architect tries to draw the ornament … within the technical process, what happens becomes awkward, stilted, too stiff, not fundamental – and also not profound – because it does not arise from the joy of the making process itself. It can not be profound because the maker is not reacting to the whole in its state as an unfinished thing, which may then be complete by the ornament.

… At a certain stage in the making of the building we have produced a field of centers there. But the field still contains rough spots. It is not perfectly resolved. Some parts are not intense enough; the centers are not distributed to produce the most perfect field. At this state, some additional ‘smaller’ structure is necessary.

The so called ‘ornament’ is simply this smaller stuff … Thus it is not something extra or extraneous; it is a continuation of the same process we have followed in creating the field up to this point. It is necessary in order to complete the field.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 3: A Vision of a Living World

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Christopher Alexander on Green Materials

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“We need new types of materials and techniques which have the following two functionally necessary attributes fo the construction process:

  1. We need to be able to shape materials rapidly and carefully so that the process of shaping … easily creates living centers …
  2. … We also need the the process of shaping and forming centers to be adaptable, so that subtleties of dimension can be accommodated easily and can be made cheaply.

While preindustrial society often had a labor-material ratio of 5:95 or 10:90  for building construction  (materials being far more expensive than labor), in modern society more than 50% of the cost of building now lies in labor. Labor-material ratios of 50:50, 60:40 and even 70:30 are nowadays common in building construction. Labor is the expensive item. Since we can no longer afford labor-intensive ways of making beautiful details … we need … ways of achieving the two functionally necessary attributes, but by new means which are not labor intensive.

We know from the green movement, and from current thinking about sustainability, that building materials are a matter of major importance in maintaining life on earth. There is, for example, a green index which aims to describe those materials that have long life, least energy drain during production, that use renewable resources ….

Does this mean that using green materials is the secret of life? Absolutely it does not! The assumptions in the “green” analysis are too limited

For example … In its original form, the use of straw bales for walls has wonderful attributes. It is a renewable resource, it is cheap and easy to cut. It has the wonderful quality that you can lay out a house, then get a feel for the room sizes and opening, then move them around and adjust them until the house is really comfortable. Only then, plaster it. All this is hugely positive. But as implemented in its evolved high-tech version, because of earthquake problems, and for various other structural reasons, another way of using straw bales has evolved; this adds an inserted standard timber frame … and ties the frame together with a beam and braces.

In this new form, now widely used throughout the United States … the high-tech straw-bale technique has lost nearly all the adaptive qualities of the original straw bales themselves. They have now become merely infill panels …

The essential thing about a living architecture is not the greenness of its materials but the capacity  of its materials to form living centers … That requires a different kind of thinking, a determination to focus without wavering on this aspect of their adaptive process …

I would argue, that it will require, primarily, process-based methods – methods which use high technology to give us processes, not components, and processes which can create sophisticated  elements and members, fast and cheaply, yet fitting local circumstances and the eye of the person doing the work …

No matter how wonderful a stone wall might once have been, if you cannot afford to build a stone wall now in a house of ordinary price, it is wasteful and foolish to dream too much about stone walls. Stone walls were part of the technology, economic life, and social life of another era, Primitive technologies are unlikely to work for us because, so often, they just don’t work economically.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 3: A Vision of a Living World

I am reading these books with two conscious “agendas”. One is a nourishment for my soul (through which it is touching on many aspects of life). The other is as a practical guide on how to build a future house. It is on this practical aspect that I’ve felt questions and tensions regarding the feasibility of what Alexander writes about in my life (and in the lives of others who are in a situation similar to mine or even less well to-do).

I want to completely embrace Alexander’s centers and fundamental process and so I am constantly asking how to do this in a practical way. I agree with Alexander, that the assumptions of the “green analysis” are indeed limited … and ironically often very mechanistic … however … my exploration of “green” materials has not been ideologically driven. It has been practicality driven. I have an abundant supply of clay-rich soil which can be used to fill earthbags, plaster walls and floors.

I do feel a change, inspired by Alexander in relationship to concrete (which he uses a lot and in very creative ways)  … it is still not a material that appeals to me, but it is a material I would consider using now in a relevant context. However,   I do NOT have an abundant supply of wood to build forms, metal to create reinforcement, cement to mix concrete or tools to apply it. Making it an impractical material.

Alexander’s position (see excerpt below) on “green” materials is based on the increased proportion and cost of labor in construction. That, in my mind, goes to the heart of the matter. Since this text was written and published there has been a major shift in money and labor. Money has become scarce and jobs are disappearing. This means that many more (often skilled) people now have plenty of free time which can be dedicated to labor-intensive construction of private houses.

That is the position I am in. I cannot find a role in society that will provide me with enough money to build a house in processes that Alexander describes. Even the “low cost” examples he describes feel completely out of touch with me and my life. I can however dig up  clay-soils around me and try to use them to build a house.

Granted, this solution does not scale up well. I am not going to become a builder. I would not make this effort for any of my neighbors. And you will not see large scale building being built this way. But that is the exactly the point. I have drifted away from the world of large scale buildings, in a way rejected by it. They are becoming a less significant part of my life, as are the people that inhabit them.

Most people, in the world I know, live in lifeless architecture in cities. They are not content, but they are complicit, doing the best they can within what they have. They are not reading Alexander and wondering about how to create living structures. I am, and increasingly more people like me are. This raises many questions on how Alexander’s precious and inspiring work can be contextualized and applied where it is, for now, welcomed.

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Christopher Alexander on Wabi to Sabi – Rusty Beauty

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I am starting to feel a build up of “missing” excerpts … from the first phase of my reading Alexander (before I started excerpting) and from some things which didn’t feel “excerptable” … in this case roughness.

“… to get the perfect adaptation which is required by the unfolding of a field of centers, you cannot avoid a certain roughness in the results.  That is because, to make each center come to life, there needs to be give and take that permits the needed complex superposition of relationships… It is not possible to get perfection in the field of centers – true life – and also have the shallow mechanical perfection which 20th century people often seemed to demand of buildings.

In present day construction, especially in America, people in general – and contractors too – have become accustomed to buildings with an almost fanatical level of finish. For example, the tiles of a wall must be flat, square, co-planar, and equally spaced – all to within a few hundredths of an inch. They conform to a mechanical ideal of perfection. Why? Not for any practical reason.

Indeed, the attention needed to achieve this mechanical perfection drives out the possibility of paying attention to real perfection or real adaptation in the centers …

I believe this kind of things happened in the 20th century largely because the real meaning of order and beauty had been lost – and craftsmen therefore maintained their pride of workmanship by appealing to a meaningless perfection of detail.

… True spirituality in a building is achieved when there is a balance of perfection and roughness. It is the phenomenon which the Japanese call wabi-to-sabi: rusty beauty.

… What this amounts to is that we must always allow the essential thing to lead the inessential. We concentrate on the essential and let the inessential trail behind.

… The spirit is essential. It is in the nature of spirit to make a beautiful and special thing where a beautiful and special thing is required, and to offset it with a simple inexpensive thing. That is the most humble way to make it, and the beauty then shines out because of it.

… The field of centers cannot be created as a by-product of some existing process. It will come about only when the entire process of making is organized and concentrated on just this one thing: to create a living field. If you concentrate on something else, you get something else. “

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 3: A Vision of a Living World

 

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Christopher Alexander on Working on Wholeness

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“… the operations of making and construction are distinguished by the way they handle the wholes and centers which are being formed …

The essence of a succesful construction process … is that the team working on a given part of a building have the satisfaction of working on a psychological whole and making it complete. When they are finished with a particular phase of work, they have created a visible, palpable whole.

I do not mean by this that the have necessarily reached a completely finished part of a building … what I mean is that at each important step, some new whole has been sufficiently delineated, and sufficiently filled in, so that one feels the new whole and grasps the way in which it contributes to the wholeness of the larger building … That is where the team’s satisfaction and the craftsmen’s satisfaction comes from. They feel satisfaction because they have completed a whole. And they have been able to achieve this because their job description, or craft, gives them the leeway to have impact on the details of what they are doing …

To accomplish this kind of thing, I have had to hire people who understood several disciplines … Often I had to hire teams of people who – from the outside world – looked almost inexperienced, because their ability to integrate these many trades in one holistic operation was more significant to me than their degree of skill in any one operation.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 3: A Vision of a Living World

 

 

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Christopher Alexander on Making

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“Just as one can hardly make a vibrant painting unless the paint and paintbrush are in one’s own hands, so I cannot imagine how to make a concrete component in a building unless the substance of the concrete, the mold, the forming, the conception, the sizing and shaping – and the sheer love of doing it – are in one’s own hands. You can draw something for someone else to build. But the life blood of the material, knowing what it meanss to hold a plane, or how to move a piece of wood through a table saw … unless one has the experience and knowledge of the thing in one’s own fingertips, I do not see that it is possible to transform material into a living center.

… Living centers cannot be created merely by design. For the center (and physical components) of a building to be truly alive, they must be made in a way that draws on deeper emotional resources … we must define a new, modern process that we may call ‘making,’ as opposed to production. What I mean by ‘making’ is the physical process of creatign the building, which does not call for it to be assembled by a mechanized process, but unfolded by a living process.

… It is a nearly biological process where construction elements unfold, take shape, fall into place in a fashion that les them grow out of the whole and enhance the whole.

the whole process of building itself – must – absolutley must – be understood as an act of making.

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 3: A Vision of a Living World

 

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Christopher Alexander on Traditional Elements

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a beautiful illustration of the nature and manifestation of static quality

“In a natural unfolding of the building – the wholeness of that configuration itself – generates centers at various key points …

Consider an imaginary process in which a generalized building is conceived, in outlines, as a hazy volume … even without knowledge of its material substance, [it] already has certain latent centers which exist, just in virtue of the configuration … For instance, if it is a rectangular volume, there are latent centers at the corners. If it has a flat roof, there are latent centers where the roof meets the wall … A wall, in itself, has latent centers, just by virtue of the wall plane …

In most traditional cultures these latent centers become strengthened to form natural ‘traditional elements’. Thus the latent center in the zone of the eave is intensified by construction detailing which strengthens this center and makers it more alive. Some of this development is function-based (gutter, ventilation, change of slope), other is what we would traditionally call ornament-based … But in any case, what is sure, is that in almost every traditional culture, patterns evolved for elaborating the latent center of the eave.

In traditional cultures most building elements exist as traditions because they have been elaborated thousands of times in just this way. The particular way these elements are elaborated is what gives rise to the typical character of any one building style. The “style” is a set of details which have typically evolved at some place in time to deal with the further unfolding of the latent centers in the evolving building.

… These centers which I speak about exist merely because of the configuration. They are there, whether we like it or not, latent in the geometry of any building’s preliminary form. If we now apply the fundamental process to any of these latent centers …. we get a strong base to a column, where the column meets the ground. We get a pronounced ridge where the roof planes meet …

In this fashion, all the typical elements of traditional architecture will get built – must be built – as a direct consequence of the repetitions of the fundamental process which make up every living process.

In a building formed under the impact of living process, we shall therefore find all these elements made beautiful. When I say beautiful, I mean that each of these elements becomes a substantial living entity in its own right – it really does become a living center.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 3: A Vision of a Living World

 

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Christopher Alexander on Microstructure

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so … in mixing cob, even though it looks like we are stomping mud, we are creating life at a molecular level!

“The walls, are they living centers? Is the roof a  living center? Is the roof edge a living center? Are the columns living centers? Are the windows living centers? Is every door a living center? Is the window sill a living center? Are the floors living centers? Is each ceiling a living center? Is the base of the  main wall a living center? Is each beam a living center? Is the space between two beams a living center?

… The building can only amount to something as a living thing when the various physical elements which appear in the building are profoud centers …

It requires that evert part be though of as a beautiful thing in itself, where the physical material of which it is made is shaped and treasured as a thing …

Wholeness will not exist in the large unless it also exists in the small … and for it to exist in the small, it must me made …

The big fields of centers will only be coherent if the microstructure which supports it is coherent too. This means that the field of centers must continue down all the way from the large scale to the scale of the very small, even to the atoms and molecules in the construction materials.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 3: A Vision of a Living World

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Christopher Alexander on the Purpose of a Room

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“In principle, a room is the sanctification and illumination of a life. It is your life made manifest. The room itself, like a cradle or a gathering together of a life is, in its essence, the place of a thousand joys and sorrows, the receptacle of your life and your children’s lives, the embodiment, in physical order, of what your spirit has been and has become.

That is, perhaps, the true purpose of a room. It is comfort, but true comfort, an inner spiritual comfort … It is the real comfort, the comfort of the soul: but also the comfort of pillows, soft light, sounds just right for the ear, birds singing, a solitary vine running up the front door and bearing one, two, then three blossoms …”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 3: A Vision of a Living World

 

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Christopher Alexander on a Coherent Plan

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” … it is more important to get the rooms right, one by one, than it is to have a coherent ‘plan’. Don’t worry about trying to arrange the overall plan – that is not unfolding but manipulation. Instead, start with the most important room. Put it in the most important place, towards the garden, or the sunlight, or the river, or the street … Let it take its own form. Don’t worry about the rooms around it. Then do the same for the next rooms, get them right. When you do thing this way, some places will a little bit of a shambles. There will be left over spaces, funny bits and pieces where you can put closets, toilets, storerooms. Don’t worry about the plan so much. Just make each part really beautiful, in its position, in its quietness … in its light.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 3: A Vision of a Living World

 

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Christopher Alexander on Vital Centers of a Room

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“Now we come to the internal organization of the room. This is the most subtle aspect of room design. It is extremely hard because, in many cases, the centers which to be created, and which define the room, are almost invisible.

… The vital centers which govern the life of the room are nearly invisible pieces of space which exist as centers, yet usually have no clear boundaries, sometimes no obvious defining marks. Like still places in a stream, they are nearly imperceptible in the configuration, yet all-important.

So the secret of making a room with life … depends on our ability to make living centers appear, almost without seeming to, within the very simple structure of a nearly featureless rectangle of space.

… Usually the main center of a room is defined by two things: (1) it is a quiet spot in the pattern of movement and (2) it is a place near the light … a quiet backwater in the flow of moving people, and the intense oriented place towards the light.

… The fundamental process therefore takes these latent centers (to begin with, really just places which seem that they will be foci of light in the room) and makes them into ‘something’ … develop it with detail, sills, bays, glazing bars … the window is not a hole in the wall but a definite volume of space … once the center formed by the light is a coherent space in its own right … the shaping of it then creates the space which animates the room.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 3: A Vision of a Living World

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Christopher Alexander on the Most Important Room

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“At an early stage in a building design process, the rooms are first established in position: usually to start with, by name, size and rough position. At this stage, conceptually, we may say that the rooms are (usually) rough rectangular volumes of space which have yet to be made ‘good’.

In theory, one might argue that once position and dimensions have been established rooms can be given life later on by choosing the material of walls, windows, door, carpets and furnishing. Then the rooms will be complete. Is that the right approach?

It is not. The centers which bring life to a room are larger features which lie beyond the boundary of the room. Rooms are given their life, first of all, by their position in the flow of people’s movement through the building, the light in the room, and their connection with the outer world beyond the windows – those are the three most salient. By the nature of these things, they can only be settled early on, not later – before rooms have their position – before even the building has its overall ground plan fixed.

… each room must be chosen to be a strong center in itself … And that  – once applied to all the rooms – has profound effect on the building envelope – its perimeter …

Once a room is in position, with its size and location fixed, it is too late to give that room real feeling or true meaning if it does not already have it because of its position in the whole …

Start with the most important room (often the biggest, but not always). It seems almost silly to state this so naively, but is really is true: Most buildings have a ‘most important’ room.

… One may say as a general rule that the main room of the building – in size, position, light, volume, character and structure – must be unforgettable. You must not constrain it with other thoughts, you can let everything else go. If you try to make this main room ‘fit in’ or be part of some system, you will almost certainly make it less than it could be. What you have to do is concentrate, concentrate, concentrate on just this one room … let everything else go to hell – for the moment.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 3: A Vision of a Living World

 

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Christopher Alexander on Mass Situations

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There is a section of the text about sequences that I did not quote from because there was no single quote that shimmered for me and I felt that it needed to be kept whole. This quote builds upon that missing subject and yet seems to have an independence. It holds, I believe, a key to a question I have reflected on (and I recall Pietro raising it too): what is the role / position of an expert (in any process). The answer Christopher Alexander seems to give is in creating processes that lead to unfolding of living structures … processes that are clear and simple enough for others to make decisions on their own. An expert creates processes that enable others to create.

Also, I can’t begin to emphasize how valuable to me the idea of differentiation is. In trying to plan things (a woodworking project, a deck, a house) I often feel stuck when trying an approach based on addition of parts. I am embracing this awareness and flagging it with an alternative … how to modify what I am doing into a task of differentiation. This makes me ask different questions. It reminds me to re-seek and reconnect with a sense of a wholeness I am trying to create and to look for that an anchor for what I am trying to do now WITHIN that wholeness (most recently I have attempted to to this with the physical construction of the Arduino powered automated dog-feeder I am building – both in its design AND in the way / order / sequence in which it is constructed / constructed).

“In any mass situation which requires repetition of houses, or repetition of apartment, or repetition of offices, it is good to bear the following in mind. Once generic patterns have been established, it is relatively easy to generate local individual variations in a genuine and practical way. You can do it be inventing processes … which give each individual the power to create the configuration of their individual house or apartment or office. Such a process can easily be constructed so that silly mistakes will not occur, and so that the process virtually guarantees that each person will be able to make a coherent design.

In general the geometry will be created by differentiations, 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.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 3: A Vision of a Living World

 

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Christopher Alexander on Sameness and Uniqueness

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this quote comes after a story of how three different houses individually unfolded in a shared place in nature where three families wanted to create a shared experience:

“The uniqueness of the houses, the sensation that they are like nature, different leaves off the same tree, comes in large part from the way these houses were later built.

All three houses used a common form of construction. All have stem walls of stone, heavy stud walls, open ceiling beams … stones in the courtyards, wooden windows …

One might make the mistake of thinking that if each house had its own unique system of construction … But this is not the way it works.

Imagine an oak tree on which there was a fig leaf, a hazel nut leaf, a willow leaf interspersed among he oak leaves. This would not create a feeling of uniqueness in the different leaves. It would merely be bizarre and chaotic. The quality of uniqueness is a quality of particularity which stems only from necessity … It is because we all have noses – essentially similar in shape and structure 0 that we recognize a certain person’s nose, mouth, eyes. This sameness provides the ground against which we see their uniqueness.

And just so with these houses. They are more particular, more unique, because they are all made within the same process of formation and construction – and the differences that come from place, person and temperament are made more visible, stand out, are there to be loved – because they ‘beat’ against the shared sameness.

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 3: A Vision of a Living World

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