“Fright is something one can never get over. When a warrior is caught in such a tight spot he would simply turn his back to the ally without thinking twice. A warrior cannot indulge thus he cannot die of fright. A warrior allows the ally to come only when he is good and ready. When he is strong enough to grapple with the ally he opens up his gap and lurches out, grabs the ally, keeps him pinned down and maintains his stare on him for exactly the time he has to, then he moves his eyes away and releases the ally and lets him go. A warrior, my little friend, is the master at all times.”
Carlos Castaneda

A Separate Reality

Christopher Alexander on Mass Situations


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


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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Small glimpse into human nature


I parked next to the village post-office. As I got out of the car a ragged old man passed by me and started talking … in Romanian … I though he was talking to himself. We passed each other and I was on my way to the post office when I realized he was talking to me. He moved very slowly, so it took him time to turn around and face me.

With my basic Romanian I was trying to understand what he was saying. He assumed I spoke Romanian so he wasn’t being considerate and speaking slowly or clearly for me. When I looked confused he took out his ragged wallet and from it a small piece of folded paper. He unfolded the paper which had a phone number on it. With that clue I was able to piece together that he was asking for a phone to call his wife so that she could come and pick him up. I asked him, would you like to use my telephone … holding my telephone out to him to compensate for my Romanian. He said yes.

I dialed the phone number on the paper for him and gave it to him. He immediately started talking … assuming the connection had already been made. I told him to wait a second. I am guessing he then heard the phone ringing and waited. During that short interval I had a chance to look at him more closely. His eyes were partly closed. He was wearing ragged clothes. The zipper on his pants looked broken … his pants were tied on and one of his sweaters was sticking out where there should have been a zipper. His hand was shaking nervously (some kind of illness I am guessing). A woman’s voice answered and he asked to come and get him. He then switched to speaking Hungarian and spoke for another half a minute. Then he handed me the phone back.

I wished him a good day and started to resume my journey to the post office. He asked me to wait. He fumbled with his wallet again and his fingers opened the slot that holds bills. There was only one bill of only one lei. He pulled it out and handed it to me. I replied: no thank you, I was glad to help have a nice day. He insisted. I insisted too. He held his arms out and embraced me softly, thanking me and wishing me health.


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Christopher Alexander on Doing Work Together


One beneficial side effect, I believe, to a process as described in this quote, would be that group decision-making would probably take more time (then is typically allocated for it) … as it should. This kind of process unveils the illusion of quick-feel-good-superficial-consensus. It takes time, engagement, care, patience, attention to detail … if a group does not have time and space for this kind of engagement the process will make it known … it has potential to keep a group from escaping to superficial agreement … it may bring a group’s attention back to itself … to its own ability to function … instead of allowing a disability to be overlooked and generating disabling decisions.

When people work together, in small groups, how then does the unfolding process work?

No one quite knows where to start. They want to express themselves, they want to express their own individual ideas; yet they want to work together. How to curb the bounds of individualism, when to give in, when to insist? It is extremely hard …

If, for example, we are to place a bench i a neighborhood, and say there are quite a number of people involved in it. And suppose, for the sake of example, that two alternatives are placed before us. Choice is (in theory) the classic tool of democracy. So let us – together, perhaps thirty or forty of us – try to decide which of the two benches is better for this place, bench A or bench B.

The problem is that bench A and bench B differ in so many different ways, on so many dimensions. One bench is wood, one bench is metal. One is blue, or is black; one has a more comfortable profile than the other does, perhaps A is comfortable, B is more formal. On the other hand, A, which is more comfortable, is perhaps made with a shape not entirely pleasing to the eye; while B, less comfortable to sit on, is very delightful in its shape.

So as we, the thirty of us who want to decide this thing, set out to work together, how can we decided whether A or B is better Of course we cannot … The difficulty comes from the size and extent of the decisions we are trying to agree on. Choice among alternatives, as a strategy, does not work realistically.

The answer, the solution to the difficulty, lies in the use of the fundamental process, applied over and again, focusing on very limited, tiny decisions taken one at a time, in sequence … the steps can be made so small and so particular that for each step the thirty of us will find it possible to succeed in deciding among the possibilities, what is best by checking versions, testing them, trying things out …

Even when the whole is as big as a building, or even a portion of a neighborhood, the complex of answers optimizing a group consensus can be arrived at by arranging the whole evolution of the form, as a sequence of smaller questions. Provided the smaller questions are taken in the right order, step by step, resolving one step at a time, in a manageable way, we shall be able to reach agreement even as a group. But the end result of these limited agreements will not be a single choice among half a dozen alternatives (inevitably a phone choice). It will be a unique thing which has been generated, truthfully, as a product of twenty or fifty or a hundred true answers to unique questions … because the questions were small enough and reasonable enough, not arbitrary, so that people could discuss them, feel them the same wat, settle them, move on to the next, and thus gradually approach consensus on the emergent whole.”

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

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Christopher Alexander on Static & Dynamic


dynamic and static indeed … and also … how to juggle these two qualities

“Think about the time dependent process by which an unplanned human settlement grows naturally. Someone starts with the idea of building or living on a certain site. A few people build their houses there. In the natural order of things, perhaps an office or workshop is built there. Then a small cafe is built. That happens in response to people’s needs and the press of their activities. As a result of the cafe and the office, and their interaction with the terrain, people start driving to that place in a certain way, parking their cars in a certain way.

Those parking places and that dirt road set up in relation to the terrain, take on a certain natural form. Then, if another person wants to build a workshop there, or an office, it goes in a certain place which is related to the existing directly aligned dirt road, to its parking, to the office, to the cafe and its view.

The position for the second workshop is a natural outcome of the answer ‘Where would I like to locate in relation to all these other things that are there already?’ It is, almost certainly, a very different spot from the spot that would have been marked on an original master plan, if one existed. That si because on the master plan, someone was trying to arrange everything at the same time … So if the second workshop wer built according to a master-plan it would inevitably be unrelated to the terrain, cafe, road.

… Even in this first very small increment of construction, the dynamic time-dependent process creates and maintains relatedness. The static master plan does not. It a community growing over time, such increments will happen hundreds – more likely thousands – of times. It a dynamic process is followed, so that each time the next step follows existing things – preserves the structure, and creates and maintain relationships – we get a harmonious living community.

If, instead, a static master-plan based process if followed, and the 20 or 100 things are built according to the original drawing or plan, then they will exist, for the most part, without real functional relationships: the whole is unrelated in its internal elements; there has been no structure preserving going on, step after step, and the whole remains dead.

Thus, the main problem of community development, of growing a neighborhood, is to do it in the dynamic wat not in the static way.”

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



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