“I start from one point and go as far as possible. But unfortunately, I never lose my way. I say unfortunately, because what would interest me greatly is to discover paths that I'm perhaps not aware of ... The harmonies have become for me a kind of obsession, which gives me the feeling of looking at music from the wrong end of a telescope.”
John Coltrane

Coltrane: The Story of a Sound

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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