“Technology is anything that was invented after you were born.”
Alan Kay

Palpable Organic Tension


When I witnessed patterns that I felt “could be improved” I used to go right at the pattern and try “to make it better”. That approach didn’t seem to work very well for me. I now try to look beyond the surface pattern that caught my attention.

I have come to prefer a different approach. I try to identify underlying patterns that create the conditions for the larger pattern. I find that working at more basic patterns is more practical and more likely to have an effect on higher-order patterns.

Instead of struggling to pull weeds can I do something about the soil conditions that invite those weeds to grow? Instead of struggling to contort my body to a yoga posture can I do something about the breath that will invite change in my experience of and relationship with my body?

I find myself wondering what this would mean for groups of people trying to collaborate. How to strike a balance between giving energy to the “what” a group is trying to do and giving energy to “how” a group is – to fundamental patterns of communication and co-existence that give the group its underlying forms and processes? In most of my past experiences, the latter was neglected.

This excerpt from Christopher highlights how subtle underlying forces and patterns can shape our experience and how important it is to properly tend to them:

Part1: Forces Acting

“When you are in a living room for any length of time, two of the many forces acting on you are the following:

1. You have a tendency to go towards the light …

2. If you are in the room for any length of time, you probably want to sit down …

In a room which has at least one window taht is a “place” a window seat, a bay window, a window with a wide low windowsill … in this room you can give in to both forces: you can resolve the conflict for yourself.

In short, you can be comfortable.

If the windows are just holes in the wall … one force pulls me towards the window; but another force pulls me towards the natural “places” in the room … I am pushed and pulled by these two forces; there is nothing I can do to prevent the inner conflict they create in me.

The instinctive knowledge that a room is beautiful when it has a window place in it is thus not an aesthetic whim. It is an instinctive expression of the fact that a room without a window place is filled with actual, palpable organic tension; and that a room which has one lacks this tension and is, from a simple organic point of view, a better place to live.”

Christopher Alexander – The Timeless Way of Building

Part 2: Stress

“We constantly meet conflicts or problems, during the course of a day: and each time, the body goes into a state of “stress” to mobilize itself, to deal with the conflict, to resolve the conflict.

This effect is physiological … Under normal conditions, when we solve the difficulty, cope with the threat, resolve the conflict, the stress then disappears.

… But a pattern which prevents us from resolving our conflicting forces, leaves us almost perpetually in a state of tension.

… The build-up of stress, however minor, stays with is. We live in a state of heightened alertness, higher stress, more adrenalin, all the time.

This stress is no longer functional. It becomes a huge drain on the system … undermines us … cuts us down, reduces our ability to meet new challenges, reduces our capacity to live, and helps to make us dead … [the corresponding “good” patterns … help us to be alive, because they allow us to resolve our conflicts for ourselves]”

Christopher Alexander – The Timeless Way of Building

Part3: System

“… Consider the “architecture” of a system in which patterns co-exist. … each of them is relatively more alive, or more dead … relatively stable, and self-sustaining – or it is relatively stable and self-destroying.

Each of these “dead” patterns is incapable of containing its own forces and keeping them in balance. What happens then, is that these forces leak out, beyond the confines of the pattern where they occur, and start to infect other patterns.

… once the configuration is put out of balance, these forces remain in the system, unresolved, wild, out of balance, until in the end, the whole system must collapse.

… The individual configurations of ay one pattern requires other patterns to keep itself alive.

For instance, a Window Place, is stable, and alive, only of many other pattern which go with it, and are needed to support it, are alive themselves: for instance: Low Windowsill, to solve the problem of the view and the relation to the ground; Casement Window to … allow people to lean out and breathe the outside air; Small Panes to let the window generate a strong connection between the inside and the outside.

If these smaller patterns, which resolve smaller systems of forces in the window place, are missing from the window place itself, then the pattern doesn’t work.

… Now we begin to see what happens when the patterns in the world collaborate.”

Christopher Alexander – The Timeless Way of Building

This entry was posted in A Timeless Way Of Building, AltEco, Expanding, inside, outside, Quality and tagged . You are welcome to read 1 comment and to add yours

One Trackback

  • By Consequences on November 30, 2019 at 9:25 pm

    […] space I see choices and actions rippling out over time … realizing that such dynamics and forces are constantly at play (whether or not we are aware of them) and that there is no stopping this […]

Leave a Reply