“It takes all the time and all the energy we have to conquer the idiocy in us.”
Carlos Castaneda

The Second Ring of Power

Christopher Alexander on Architecture in Democracy


This is from the opening text of the third section of book 2 … looking forward to diving into it 🙂

“Processes which are living ones, are step-by-step structure-preserving adaptive processes whose main characteristics is their ability to focus on the whole, and to improve and deepen the whole … And the sequence in which the steps occur is always vital to their ability to be effective …

In order to work these living processes – especially when applied to the large urban areas … require freedom of action, freedom within the process …. each process must allow every step of each adaptive sequence sufficient latitude to go wherever it needs to go, IN THE CONTEXT OF THE WHOLE, to make the whole more alive …

For the most part, the necessary freedom of action cannot be provided within the context we came to know in the 20th century as totalitarian democracy  … the system of thought and action which is prescribed by the rules, procedures, lock-step processes of the modern democratic state … freedom of the kind necessary to create profound wholeness is hampered by our institutional norms and by the normal processes of our society …

… our own democracy, though originating in the ideal of freedom, has nevertheless created a system of thought and action, [in the sphere of architecture], which makes living structure all but unattainable – at best BARELY attainable.

… To create living structures, we need a kind of freedom which the founding fathers of the American constitution (for example) did not dream of, because the issues involved in the creation of life in the environment simply were not visible to them .. we must now find ways of turning society beyond its too-regimented path, and towards paths of design and planing and construction which allow the life of every whole and the life of every part to emerge freely from the process by which we make the world.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 2: The Process of Creating Life

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Christopher Alexander – First Hint of the Ground


hmmm ….

“For the time being, you may think of the Ground as the substrate of everything …

… Within the structure of nothingness there is an endless system of repeating centers, all rather weak, but all equally weak, overlapping continuously … We may … call it simply emptiness. In any case, emptiness or nothingness is not without structure … A natural thing is a transform of nothingness. A beautiful thing is a transform of nothingness …

If we imagine a mountain stream crashing and rumbling and then reaching a still pool, we may see the water in that pool as dark, and slightly turbulent. As the surface of the pool becomes quieter and quieter, we see further and further into the darkness of the water. In the same way, as the steps which make a building let it become simpler and simpler, we see further and further into the Void. Our connection with the Ground becomes more tangible. Our glimpse of the Self which is the Ground becomes more definite.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 2: The Process of Creating Life

… to be elaborated in Book 4

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Christopher Alexander – Material and Light


When I collected this quote, the words “ultimately material and light” shimmered for me. Yet I decided to skip them, I felt that they may not be nourishing for a reader who is not as involved with the text as I am. Yet as I continued collecting the quote the words came back to me. I realized that they have a striking similarity to another structural teaching I have received … in Yoga. How can you tell if an asana (a physical posture) is good for you and that you have done it well? The answer, from (I believe) the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, is that it makes you feel “steady and light”.

“… nature teaches us that what is truly simply – a waterfall say – is vastly complex – as a structure – and yet vastly simple in its essence. Thus we must strive for something which is utterly simple, in the sense that there is nothing unwanted there, nothing extra …

In architecture … Although the real content is there all the time, in the background – and although it is real human life, ecological life, and social and spiritual life which is at stake – still too careful … a regard for these practical problems will always produce trivial results. What matters is … the geometric organization – and the ability of this geometric organization to penetrate to the core of being human.

… My effort, in making the building, must constantly be to create, and activate, a pure pattern of physical geometry – ultimately material and light – and the depth of the impact which this pure pattern of organization has on me, on my self, on my soul – to what extent it mobilizes my feeling.

Even knowing this, as I do, it is such a struggle to keep on with the geometry. In painting, I try to make a realistic scene … I try to paint what I see. But I have to shout at myself, all the time, play, play, play, stop worrying about realism. Just make sure the actual shapes are beautiful, and that the geometry works, that the arrangement of the shapes is beautiful. This means all the shapes, the space between things, and the things, and the shadows … Each shape must be beautiful, supporting the other shapes … This is why the idea that the spirit and life , in the end, lie only in the geometry, has to be repeated every day, every morning, every afternoon.

In building, the same thing … I try to make the building right. I pay attention to the passage, the width, the length, the feeling, the light … Always I am trying to make it comfortable. But again, what I have to do, to make it live, every shape must be beautiful. The window sill. The top of the column. The door. The window over the door. The wall between the windows. The edge of the roof. Is it the most beautiful I can make it? Just don’t forget. Just don’t forget. Keep doing it. It is only when I do that, have joyful fun, do nothing else, just keep on doing that, to make each shape beautiful, that the thing begins to gain its life. It ought to be easy. But it is so hard.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 2: The Process of Creating Life


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Christopher Alexander on Simplicity and Symmetry


“… Complexity (in the bad sense) consists of distinctions which unnecessarily complicate structure. To get simplicity, on the other hand, we need a process which questions every distinction. Any distinction which is not necessary is removed. To remove a distinction we replace it by a symmetry … Gradually we get just that syncopated system of local symmetries … that is typical of all real life.

… This means that the geometry of a wholesome living structure will be almost entirely made up of LOCAL symmetries, while yet being mainly asymmetrical in the large.

Very often, when we look at something, we have an immediate, intuitive sense of its rightness or wrongness. This … comes directly from the symmetries we see and our sense about these symmetries.

The essence of this rightness or wrongness hinges on the issue of necessity … Everything in nature is symmetrical unless there is a reason for it not to be. When this law is violated, we feel that something is unnatural, and that is the way in which symmetry plays such a fundamental role.

… Imagine you are looking at the sky … see a cloud which is perfectly square. Without even thinking, you would that is was not a natural cloud.

the symmetry structures in the world are very close to us. We perceive them instantly and subconsciously, without even knowing it. This mode of perception gives us an intuitive sense of which symmetry structures are appropriate or not appropriate in various situations.

… Each thing in the world is subject to various influences. It has various degrees of similarity and difference compared with other things, according to its situation. And in itself it also has various degrees of similarity and difference. This is what we call its symmetry structure. Symmetry is a precise way of talking about similarities.

We observe that in any thing, there must be just the right amount of similarity and difference …

When we make something which is just right, we have hit the degree of similarities ad differences … just right. On the other hand, when we are wrong we can also analyze the wrongness … Either the symmetries are less than the situation requires … or … more. To understand the idea that the symmetries in a structure are “just right”, consider for example the flow of electricity in two parallel wires. Other things being equal, the current will flow equally in the two wires. Why is this? If we want to, we can invoke some rule like Ohm’s law or the principle of least action … But the deepest explanation, the most profound one, is simply this: There is no reason for the two wires to carry different currents, because the situation is symmetrical … Asymmetries occur only where there are reasons powerful enough to generate them.

things which are similar must be similar, and things which are different must be different

Successful life which creates unity in a building and hold it together is generated by the balanced, syncopated, off-beat quality that the natural system of symmetries creates…”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 2: The Process of Creating Life


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Christopher Alexander on Simplicity


“Our modern conception of simplicity has gone wrong. Simplicity as depth has been replaced by a mechanical idea of simplicity as the geometrically banal…

The things we call simple in design – cubes, spheres – appear simple conceptually because they can be represented by simple mathematical schemes. But they are not, in any real sense, the simplest thing which can be created at a given place and time. The simplest thing which can be created, in real terms, is that thing which goes furthest to resolve, complete, hence to elaborate and underpin the structure of the world, its wholeness, which exists at that place. In this sense a volcano, a cobweb, an oak tree are truly more simple … because as nearly as we can judge, they perfectly resolve the forces, processes and conditions at that place, with the greatest economy of means and the greatest economy of form.

… ‘doing the simplest thing,’ only the thing which is required and nothing beyond what is required, is a practical and efficient necessity. When an unfolding process has succeeded – when a living process has succeeded – we may always recognize its results by a visible simplicity in the geometry and character of what is produced …

Any good example of living structure always has a very high density of sustaining relations among its parts. These … occupy a great deal of ‘space’ … there is room for all of them when they are extremely compressed, when their density is great. This kind of compression … can only be attained in a thing when that thing is extremely simple …

The geometry of living structure … is the result of a process in which a complex system becomes at one and the same time both richer and simpler. Each new bit of structure, each new center, adds new differentiations. But each time, as soon as we get the new differentiations, we at once try to boil the garbage away so that the structure is simplified and concentrated. We try to keep it continuously simple, even while we fill it with more and more structure.

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 2: The Process of Creating Life

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