“The world doesn’t yield to us directly, the description of the world stands in between. So, properly speaking, we are always one step removed and our experiences of the world is always a recollection of the experience. We are perennially recollecting the instant that has just happened, just passed.”
Carlos Castaneda

Tales of Power

Milford Graves

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this delightful creature came to me via Fred Wilson

I just went swimmig through these two albums:

reminded me of my encounters with Ariel Shibolet in Israel … right around my time with Shahar

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Christopher Alexander – 15 Fundamental Properties

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There is a bit of an anxiety in me as I arrive at this excerpt. It is rooted in knowing that in publishing it I am making a kind of commitment about the next 15 excerpts. And since this is my second reading, I know how daunting a task this can be. So I am curious how this is going to unfold.

“… I began to notice that objects and buildings which have life all have certain identifiable structural characteristics. The same geometric features keep showing up in them, again and again. Initially I began writing these characteristics down informally, and I began to ‘keep watch’ on them.

What I did was straightforward and empirical. I simply looked at thousands and thousands of example, comparing those which had more life with those that had less life. Whenever I looked at two examples, I could determine which one had greater ‘life’ or greater wholeness, by asking which of them generated a greater wholeness in me. Thus I did not impose on myself the modesty of judgement typical in a pluralistic society …

I asked myself this question: Can we find any structural features which tend to be present in the examples which have more life. and tend to be missing in the ones which have less life?

… This is what I did. For twenty years, I spent two or three hours a day looking at pairs of things – building, tiles, stones, windows, carpets, figures, carvings of flowers, paths, seats, furniture, streets, paintings, fountains, doorways, arches …

I managed to identify fifteen structural features which appear again and again in things which do have life. These are:

  1. Levels of scale
  2. Strong centers
  3. Boundaries
  4. Alternating repetition
  5. Positive space
  6. Good shape
  7. Local symmetries
  8. Deep interlock and ambiguity
  9. Contrast
  10. Gradients
  11. Roughness
  12. Echoes
  13. The void
  14. Simplicity and inner calm
  15. Not-separateness

At first, I observed  these features without understanding what they were. That is, I understood each of them … as something which was present, often or very often, in a living system – to such an extent that one might almost say that each one was a predictor of whether a thing would have life or not … [but] I did not understand why …

I came to understand that they work, they make things have life, because they are the ways in which centers can help each other in space.

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

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Christopher Alexander – Centers & Life … and Robert Pirsig

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This excerpt has, for me, a unique flavor. It is brief. I originally intended to skip it, but decided to come back to it. It will probably come across as abstract. I did not find a way to capture the essence of the next few sections which contain examples that illustrate the point Alexander is trying to make (which is why I was leaning towards skipping it).

This point is also special for me because in it (details below) Alexander references the work of Robert Pirsig. This is the only work that I’ve encountered that acknowledges Pirsig’s work which has inspired me so much.

“Armed with the ideas that each center is a multi-levelled field-like phenomenon made of other centers, let us now come back to the idea that each center has its degree of life[*footnote referencing Pirsig].

… I want to now extend this idea and apply it separately and individually to every distinct center in the wholeness of a thing …

… the degree of life of each center in a given wholeness depends on the degree of life of all the other centers in the wholeness.”

Robert Pirsig footnote:

“The idea that every center has its life make the ‘life’ of the centers teh ultimate primitive of this theory. This is perhaps comparable to Robert Pirsig’s idea that Quality, not Substance, is the ultimate primitive. As Pirsig puts it, ‘Quality is supposed to be just a vague fringe word that tells what we think about objects … The idea that quality can create objects seems very wrong … but the idea that values create objects gets less and less weird as you get used to it.’ … I am saying something similar about that which animates the living centers.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

The following section includes an image (though not this one) of this space in the Alhambra:

… followed by a detailed inquiry into the pattern that is un the lower half of the picture – the texture beneath the arched openings. I attempted to play around with recreating in sketching one of the elements that make up the pattern and was blown away by 1) allowing myself to sketch, shifting my attention away from precision and towards centers and 2) the seeing and subtlety that are required to recreate it, even when it already exists before my eyes as a reference. It is amazing how very small variations project so strongly into the wholeness that is created. The more time I spent with it the more I realized how much more there it to see … my “success” or “failure” was not so much a function of my drawing abilities (close to none) but of my ability to perceive.

I am now playing with sketching a more elaborate pattern from one of a Turkish rug mentioned in one of the next sections.

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Christopher Alexander – Recursive Centers

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“What exactly is a center? …

The crux of the matter is this: a center is a kind of entity which can only be defined in terms of other centers. The idea of a center cannot be defined in terms of any other primitive entities except centers.

We are used to a view where we try to explain one kind of entity by showing it to be constructed of other different kinds of entities. An organism is made of cells, an atom of electrons, and so on … If we ask what the centers are made of, we come up against a brick wall. Here we have a question so fundamental that it cannot be explained or understood, as a composite of any other more fundamental kind of entity … centers are only made of other centers.

… In mathematics, such a concept is called recursive. Grasping this idea, and grasping the fact that this bit of understanding is a positive step forward, and not problematic is key to understanding wholeness.

… What then is a center? A center is not a primitive element. Centers are already composite. Yet they are the most primitive element available. They are bits of wholeness which appear as structures within the wholeness … It is … a field of organized force in an object or part of an object which makes that object or part exhibit centrality.

… This circularity … is the essential feature of the situation.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

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Christopher Alexander – Living Structure created by Centers

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Once again, the illustration is my attemp to replicate an illustration from the book.

“mutual helping among the centers … causes … life

… the terrace is made of structural bays – each made by four columns – each roughly square … Each of these bays it itself a center … The columns are centers too. And on each column, on each of its corners, there is a chamfer. The chamfer is once again a center in its own right.

Each of the four-column bays is helped to be alive by these tiny chamfers on the columns at the corners of the bay … each bay becomes more of a center, and is more alive, because of the chamfer. Suppose, for example, that the column had been square, without the little octagonal chamfer on the corners. Then … each column would slightly eat into the space of the bay, thus disturbing the wholeness of the bay. Instead, the four chamfers help, geometrically, to increase the unity and wholeness of the space in the bay … chamfers … two or three inches across, strengthen and intensify the structural bay …13 feet across.

… this helping relation … does not occur automatically … the columns could have been given a shape which does not help … “

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

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Christopher Alexander – Wholeness as a Fundamental Structure

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At one point after ending my career, I reflected back on my systems analysis experience and realized that I could do an excellent, full coverage, detailes analysis of a domain, have software built to the specifications in my analysis … and still the software would not get the job done. I experiences some relief and resolution around that when I shifted to product design where an emphasis was placed on narrative and story-telling in software design  … and now this from Alexander:

“In any given region of space, some subregions have higher intensity as centers, other have less. Many subregions have weak intensity or none at al. The overall configuration of the nested centers, together with their relative intensities, comprise a single structure. I define this structure as ‘the’ wholeness of that region.

This structure exists everywhere in the world …

..A crucial feature of the wholeness is that it is neutral: it simply exists … the relative harmony or ‘life’ of a given building may be understood directly from the internal cohesion of the structure. Thus, the relative life or beauty or goodness of a given part of the world may be understood, I shall argue, without reference to opinion, prejudice or philosophy, merely as a consequence of the wholeness which exists.

… This structure catches the overall character in a way which is almost mysterious, but goes to the heart of many things not easily explained. This happens because it is an overall field-like structure, a global, overall effect. It is distinct, completely distinct, from the elements or ‘parts’ which appear in that wholeness; it is unusual in our experience, yet catches what we have often thought of as the artistic intuition about the whole.

… Matisse … talks about the fact the the character of a human face is something which is deep in the person, deep in the face, and may not be captured by the local features in the normal sense at all. To make his point, he shows four drawings he made of his own face … The features, in the normal sense, are different in each drawing … And yet, in each of the four faces, we see the unmistakable face and character of Henri Matisse. As Matisse says, the character … is something deeper than features: it is an inner thing which exists over and above the features, and is not even dependent on these features.

… this ‘character’ is the wholeness … the wholeness is a global thing – easy to feel, perhaps, but hard to define … Drawing the features correctly does not necessarily achieve a resemblance … If you want to draw a person, you have to draw the wholeness. Nothing else will get the likeness.

In portraiture, as in architecture, it is the wholeness which is the real thing that lies beneath the surface, and determines everything.

… even the behavior of subatomic particles … wholeness is a truly pervasive structure, which acts at all scales.

… And the wholeness always exists in soe form, whether that place is good or bad, lifeless or alive. But we shall see next that the degree of life which exists at the place ad time also comes from the wholeness. The neutral wholeness spawns characteristics which are far from neutral – characteristics which indeed go to the very origin of right and wrong.

… this neutral wholeness ,,, is the natural origin of life. Life comes from it. Life comes from the particular details of he ways the centers in the wholeness cohere to form a unity, the way they interact, and interlock, and influence each other. The academic and difficult task of grasping the nature of this wholeness will pay us back by giving us the origin of life.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

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Christopher Alexander – Seeing Wholeness

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“Learning to see … wholeness … not muddled or contaminated by words and concepts, is extremely difficult, but it is possible to learn …

When we see wholeness as it is, we recognize that [its] seeming parts … are merely arbitrary fragments which our minds have been directed to, because we happen to have words for them. If we open our eyes wide, and look at the scene without cognitive prejudice, we see something quite different …

Although one may be misled into thinking about design, the features which design seems to deal with are minor, have less importance. The centers – the coherent entities which form the whole – are life affirming, massive in their effect, and tremendously concrete, so that minor changes in a design could not sway them, or upset them, or change them.

… What does it mean to see all this from the point of view of wholeness? I notice the sunny part of the garden itself as a space. The place where the roses are climbing near the kitchen catches my eye. The path to the front door, and the steps from the back porch, and the door itself … of the house … all work as a unit, as a continuous center about 40 feet log. The sunshine and the roof edge, with the rafters repeating under the eve, together form a pattern of light and shadow which leads my eye, and forms a boundary of the house against the sky …

All this is much more like a pulsating unity than the ‘conceptual’ or intellectual image of the house. In our conceptual picture of the house we have things called street, garden, roof, front door, and so on. But the centers or entities which hit my eye when I take it all in as a whole are slightly different …

The difference is deeply functional, not just a matter of visual perception. The centers we see when we look at the thing in its wholeness are the ones which are responsible for its real behavior.

… the centers …. control the real behavior of the thing, the life which develops there, the real human events which happen, and the feelings people have about living there. The house-garden complex seen in its wholeness is truer perceptually and more accurate functionally than any analytic vision of the house or lot or garden taken by themselves.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

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Christopher Alexander – Wholeness is Subtle and Fluid

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“The wholeness in any given part of space is highly fluid, and easily affected by very small changes of geometry. Indeed wholeness changes continuously through time … [and] changes in the configuration in it and around it.

… wholeness … is induced in the whole. It cannot easily be predicted from the parts, and it is useless to think of it as a relationship ‘among the parts’ …

… we must learn to avoid the danger of trying to see centers made up of parts … The key aspect of this belief is the idea that the parts come ‘before’ the whole … the parts exist as elements of some kind, which are then brought into relationship with one another, or combined, and a center is ‘created’ out of these parts and their combinations as a result.

I believe accurate understanding of wholeness is quite different … The center is not made from parts. Rather, it would be more true to say that most of the parts are created by the wholeness … This is analogous to the way a whirlpool is created in a stream. The stream whirls, and the centers we see as the whirling (vortex, stream-lines, etc.) are created by the larger configuration of banks, rocks and so forth. So, within this whirling, we observe a whirlpool which has formed.

… centers … are induced within the wholeness, and come from the wholeness. And because of this, the parts are adapted and modified, in shape and size, by their positions within the whole.

… The flower is not made from petals. The petals are made from their role and position in the flower.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

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Christopher Alexander – Centers

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“We may consider any configuration in the world, a building, a street, a room full of people, a forest. Each has its wholeness. By that I mean that there are visible within that thing, a huge number of entities, at different scales … and that the totality of these entities with the way they are nested constitute the wholeness of the thing. We may think of these entities as parts (as they may sometimes seem to us) or as local wholes or sub-wholes. But, as I have illustrated in the case of the sheet of paper and the dot, these parts and entities are rarely pre-existing. They are more often themselves created by the wholeness. This apparent paradox is a fundamental issue in the nature of wholeness: the wholeness is made of parts, the parts are created by the wholeness. To understand wholeness we must have a conception in which ‘parts’ and wholes work in this holistic way.

… I have learned to call them … ‘centers.’ What this means is that each one of these entities has, as its defining mark, the fact that it appears to exist as a local center within a larger whole.

There is a mathematical reason for thinking of the coherent entities in the world as centers not as wholes. If I want to be accurate about a whole it is natural for me to ask where that whole starts and stops. Suppose, for example, I am talking about a fishpond, and want to call it a whole. To be accurate about it in a mathematical theory, I want to be able to draw a precious boundary around this whole, and say for each point in space whether it is part of this set of points or not. But this is very hard to do. Obviously the water is part of the fishpond. What about the concrete it is made of ..? the air which is just about the pond? … the pipes bringing in the water? These are uncomfortable questions … The pond does exist. Our trouble is that we don’t know how to define it exactly. But the trouble comes from referring to it as a ‘whole.’ That kind of terminology seems to make it necessary for me to draw an exact boundary … That is the mistake.

When I call a pond a center, the situation changes … the fuzziness of edges becomes less problematic. The reason is that the pond, as an entity, is focused towards its center. It creates a field of centeredness. But, obviously, this effect falls off … the organization of the pond is caused by a field effect in which the various elements work together to produce this phenomenon of a center. This is true physically … and it is also true mentally in my perception of that pond … The same is true for window, door, walls, or arch. None of them can be exactly bounded. They are all entities which have a fuzzy edge, and whose existence lies in the fact that they exist as centers in the portion of the world which they inhabit.

… if I call it a center, it already tells me something extra … it makes me aware of the larger pattern of things, and the way this particular element … fits into that pattern.

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

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Christopher Alexander – The Idea of Wholeness

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The pictures embedded in this excerpt (and their locations in it) were drawn (and placed) by me in an attempt to replicate those that are presented in the book (and should therefore not be considered as belonging to the original work).

“Intuitively we may guess that the beauty of a building, its life, and its capacity to support life all come from the fact that it is working as a whole. A view of the building as a whole means that we see it as part of an extended and undivided continuum. It is not an isolated fragment in itself, but part of the world which includes the gardens, walls, trees, streets beyond its boundaries, and other buildings beyond those. And it contains many wholes within it – also unbounded and continuous in their connections.

… wholeness has been widely discussed by many writers in the 20th century: it is one of the main themes of contemporary thought …

… local parts exist chiefly in relation to the whole, and their behavior and character and structure are also determined by the larger whole in which they exist and which they create.

… no one has yet formulated a way of understanding just what this wholeness is …

The general idea is that the wholeness in any part of space is the structure defined by all the various coherent entities that exist in that part of space, and the way these entities are nested in and overlap each other.

To come to grips with this idea, I start by considering a very simple structure, and examining it from the point of view of its wholeness. On the right is a sketch of a blank sheet of paper. Then I place one dot on it. Although the dot is tiny, its impact on the sheet of paper is very great.

… As a whole, an entirely new configuration has come into being, and this configuration extends across the sheet of paper as a whole.

Any reasonable description of wholeness must capture this subtle and pervasive effect. But how does it work?

What is the configuration which exists after I place the dot? It may be described like this: around the dot there is a kind of halo

… Also, on each side of the dot … rectangles of  white space become  visible, as further ‘latent’ entities

There are four of these rectangles, and where they cross four other rectangles are formed in the four corners of the sheet … These corner rectangles are formed by the overlap of the other rectangles, but are also induced by the presence of the dot. In addition there are rays visible: four white rays going out from the dot parallel to the sides and forming a cross

and four other rays going from the dot to the four corners. These four rays are not all equally strong. Their relative strength depends on where the dot is on the paper.

… Therefore, including the main entity of the sheet itself, there are at least twenty entities created in the space of the paper by the dot.

… The basic idea of the wholeness, ad I define it, is that these stronger zones or entities, together, define the structure which we recognize as the wholeness of the sheet of paper with the dot.

The entities that come into existence in a configuration are not merely cognitive. They have a real mathematical existence, and are actually occurring features of the space itself … And they have different degrees of strength.

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

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Christopher Alexander – An Enormous Fact

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The following excerpt mentions and relates to two images that are presented in the book and are helpful in relating to the excerpt. After some searching I found these two images which I feel carry a spirit similar the images shown in the book:

“I was lecturing to architecture students … and put on the screen the Bangkok slum house and the post-modern octagonal tower … I asked the students to choose which of the two, for them, seemed to have more life.

For some people the answer was obvious. For others, it was at first not a comfortable question. Some asked ‘What do you mean? … What is your definition of life?” … I made it clear I was not asking them to make a factual judgement, but just to decide which of the two, according to their own feeling, appeared to have more life …

Eighty-nine said that the Bangkok slum house has more life.
Twenty-one chose to say that the question didn’t make sense to them, or that they couldn’t make a choice.
No one said that the octagonal tower has more life.

To repeat, out of those 110 people, not a single one of them wanted to say (or was willing to say) that the postmodern building had more life than the Bangkok house. This shows an extraordinarily high level of agreement.

… Several of the architecture students among the twenty-one who said they could not judge the issue later came to me and told me that they had felt that the slum had more life, but did not feel comfortable saying so.

… I believe that these students were embarrassed by a conflict between the value they were being taught in architecture school, and a truth they perceived and could not deny.

… Indeed, I think there is no doubt that the students – many of them anyway – found the question disturbing, almost as if a secret, a hidden truth, were being dragged from them in spite of themselves.

… Simple though it is, the question has the power to bring perverted values into doubt.

… It would almost appear, then, that the present fashion in architecture is so hollow that its adherents need to prop it up by refusing to see the life in things, or by refusing to apply this criterion to decide what is good, bad, better.

…students sometime become uncomfortable when facing this question, because the moment it is asked, they already sense that most people will answer it the same way …

… if this life i things really exists as I am claiming, that fact along has enormous ramifications, it implies that many things in our society and way of life may have to change. Fear or a natural reluctance to consider these changes makes us intellectually timid, and less open to the fact itself.

… If typical examples of good design by 20th-century standards have less life than a slum in Bangkok … [then] any architect who wishes to defend modern and postmodern architecture will almost have to say, ‘This questions doesn’t make sense,’ just to defend his profession and his own self-worth as a professional.

Of course, the question ‘Which one makes you feel that it is more alive?’ is at root simply empirical. But that is exactly why it is so disturbing. Whatever the question means, it seems to probe an area of though which may have devastating results for the image-based style of architecture current toward the end of the 20th century.

… It is strange that a phenomenon of such power and of such generality – if true – should be missing from our general way of understanding the world. … We seem to have a fundamental observation – so far unexplained – that among pairs of events, bits of space, places, and particles of existence, we can usually judge that one has a greater degree of life and the other less, at least according to our feeling. And we have the observation that our experience of this life in things is roughly consistent from person to person.

… It is had to see how society could form a proper conception of its own existence without being cognizant of this fact. Yet, for the last hundred years, modern society has existed almost without this knowledge – and has even built institutions, organizations, and procedures on the basis of conceptions which are absolutely at odds with it.

… hypothesis: What we call ‘life’ is a general condition which exists, to some degree or other, in every part of space: brick, stone, grass, river, painting, building, daffodil, human being, forest, city. And further: The key to this ideas is that every part of space … has some degree of life, and that this degree of life is well defined, objectively existing, and measurable.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

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Power and Love

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“Power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anemic.”

Martin Luther King via Adam Kahane

 

…  ha-tha yoga

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Christopher Alexander – Degrees of Life

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“In the 20th-century scientific conception, what we meant by life was defined chiefly by the life or an individual organism. We consider as an organism any carbon-oxygen-hydrogen-nitrogen system which is capable of reproducing itself, healing itself, and remaining stable for some particular lifetime … There are plenty of uncomfortable boundary problems: For example, is a fertilized egg alive during its first few minutes? Is a virus alive? Is a forest alive (as a whole …) …

… We have have, it is true, begun some extrapolations of this idea of life … For example, we have somehow managed to extend the mechanistical concept of life to cover ecological systems (even though strictly speaking an ecological system is no alive, because it does not meet the definition of a self-replicating organism). We consider an ecological system … though not alive itself,certainly associated with biological life.

… But this extrapolation will not do to help us understand truly complex systems as living things. The mixture of natural and man-made … raises complicated questions of definition, which we have hardly begun to answer.

… Throughout this book, I shall be looking for a broad conception of life, in which each thing – regardless of what it is – has some degree of life. Each stone, rafter, and piece of concrete has some degree of life. The particular degree of life which occurs in organisms will then be seen as merely a special case of a broader conception of life.

… In the present scientific world-view, a scientist would not be willing to consider a wave breaking on the short as a living system. If I say to her that this breaking wave does have some life, the biologist will admonish me and say, ‘I suppose you mean that the wave contains many micro-organisms, and perhaps a couple of crabs, and that therefore it is a living system.’ But that is not what I mean at all. What I mean is that the wave itself – the system which in present-day science we have considered as a purely mechanical hydrodynamical system of moving water – has some degree of life. And what I mean, in general, is that every single part of the matter-space continuum has life in some degree, with some parts having very much less, and others having very much more.

… If the conception of life is completely general, we shall then be able to extend it from the purely natural (such as conservation of a beautiful stand of trees), to the cooperation between natural and man-made (roads, streets, gardens, fields) and then also to the building themselves (roofs, walls, windows, rooms) … we can then simply proceed with the general idea that all of our work has to do with the creation of life and that the task, in any particular project, is to make the building come to life as much as possible.

… I shall … try to persuade you, by example, that we do feel that there are different degrees of life in things – and that this feeling is rather strongly shared by almost everyone.

… it is undeniable – at least as far as our feeling is concerned, that a … breaking wave feels as it if has more life as system of water than an industrial pool stinking with chemicals. So does the ripple of a tranquil pond.

… A fire, which is not organically alive, feels alive. And a blazing bonfire may feel more alive than a smoldering ember …

Gold feels alive. The peculiar yellow color of naturally occurring gold, so different from pyrites, or from the gold in the jeweller’s shop, has an eerie magical essence that feels alive. This is not because of its monetary value. It got its monetary value originally because it had this profound feeling attached to it. Naturally occurring platinum, comparable in value … [does] not have the same feeling of life at all.

… We often see a piece of wood and marvel at its life; another piece of wood feels more dead ….

… We shall see later that this feeling that there is more life in one case than the other is correlated with a structural difference in the things themselves – a difference which can be made precise, and measured.

… One person may be glowing with life, which transmits to everyone around. Another person is drooping … different organisms, all alive in the strictly mechanical sense, impress us as having more life or less life.

… it is this feeling of life and love of nature which stimulated the young discipline of ecology … we recognize degrees of life, or degrees of health, in different ecological systems … one meadow is more alive than another, one stream more alive … one forest more tranquil, more vigorous, more alive, than another dying forest … we experience degree of life as an essential concept which goes to the heart of our feelings about the natural world, and which nourishes us fundamentally, as a fact about the world.

… The ‘Life’ which I am talking about also includes the living essence of ordinary events in our everyday worlds … a back-street Japanese restaurant … an Italian town square  … an amusement park  … a bunch of cushions thrown into a corner window-seat … This quality includes an overall sense of functional liberation and free inner spirit. It makes us feel comfortable. Above all it makes us feel alive when we experience it.

… It has nothing to do with images. It occurs most deeply when things are simply going well, when we are having a good time, or when we are experiencing joy or sorrow – when we experience the real.

Under these circumstances, we are free of our concepts, able to react directly to the circumstance we encounter, and least constrained by affectations, concepts, and ideas. This is the central teaching of Zen and all mystical religions. It is also the condition in which we are able to see the wholeness which exists around us, feel it directly, and respond to it.

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

 

 

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Christopher Alexander – What Kind of Thing is Order?

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” … to make buildings which have life and profound order – it is necessary to be rescued from the mechanistic trap by concentrating on life and order of a building as something in itself. I believe such a formulation can only come from a new view of the world which intentionally sees things in their wholeness, not as parts or fragments – and which recognizes ‘life,’ even in an apparently inanimate thing like a building as something real.

… Such a new view of order will create a new relationship between ideas of ornament and function. In present views of architectural order, function is something we can understand intellectually … Ornament, on the other hand, is something we may like but cannot understand intellectually. One is serious, the other frivolous … There is no conception of order which lets us see buildings as both functional and ornamented at the same time.

The view of order which I describe in this book is very different. It is even handed with regard to ornament and function … they are really only different aspects of a single kind of order.

… the structure I identify as the foundation of all order is also personal. As we learn to understand it, we shall see that our own feeling, the feeling of what it is to be a person, rooted, happy, alive in oneself, straightforward, and ordinary is itself inextricably connected with order.

… The theory which I shall lay out is in no sense against science; it is simply an extension of science …

… it is not only the detail of what ‘order is which needs to be questioned, but also the very nature of order. So long as we have a confused or inaccurate conception of what kind of thing order is, we shall inevitably make buildings which are ugly, houses which do not support ordinary human well-being, gardens and streets which are at odds with nature, and a world which destroys our souls.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

reference: Could bad buildings damage your mental health?

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Inside Grand Seiko

n

“This is the minimum requirement in making a beautiful watch: First, each individual part must be beautiful.”

 

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Christopher Alexander – Mechanistic: A Mental Toy

n

“The mechanistic idea of order can be traced to Descartes, around 1640. He ideas was: if you want to know how something works, you can find out by pretending that it is a machine. You completely isolate the thing you are interested in … from everything else, and you invent a mechanistic model, a mental toy, which obeys certain rules, and which will then replicate the behavior of the thing …

However, the crucial thing which Descartes understood very well, but which we most often forget, is that this process is only a method … [it] is not how reality actually is. It is a convenient mental exercise, something we do to reality, in order to understand it …

Descartes … was a religious person who would have been horrified to find out that people in the 20th century began to think that reality itself is actually like this … treating reality as if this mechanical picture really were the nature of things, as if everything really were a machine.

… [this] had two tremendous consequences, both devastating for artists. The first was that ‘I’ went out of our world … Of course, it is still there in our experience. But it isn’t part of the picture we have of how things are. So what happens? How can you make something which has no ‘I’ in it, when the whole process of making anything comes from the ‘I’? The process of trying to be an artist in a world which has no sensible notion of ‘I’ … leaves the art of building in a vacuum. You just cannot make sense of it.

The second devastating thing that happened … was that clear understanding about value went out of the world. The picture of the world we have from physics, because it is built only out of mental machines, no longer has any definite feeling of value in it: value has become sidelined as a matter of opinion, not intrinsic to the nature of the world at all.

And with these two developments, the idea of order fell apart. The mechanistic idea tells us very little about the deep order we feel intuitively to be in the world. Yet it is just this deeper order which is our main concern.

… In the world-view initiated by Descartes … it is believed that the only statements which can be true or false are statements about mechanisms. These are the so-called ‘facts’ familiar to everyone in the 20th century.

In the world-view I am presenting, a second kind of statement is also considered capable of being trye or false. These are statements about relative degree of life, degree of harmony, or degree of wholeness – in short, statements about value. In the view I hold, these statements about relative wholeness are also factual … They play a more fundamental role than statements about mechanisms.

… Suppose I am trying to place a door in a certain wall. While I try to decide where to put it, I can make various mechanical statements of fact … it is wide enough to allow a refrigerator through it … it will resist a standard fire for one hour … it weighs 25 kilograms … people can see through [it] … All these statements are, potentially, statements of fact in the 20th-century mode.

… But if I am trying to put the door in the wall, there is also a second kind of statement … when the door is in a certain range of positions, the result is more harmonious than other positions … a pale yellow on this door has more life than a dark gray … They are thought of as statements of opinion. As a matter of principle within the 20th-century mechanistic view, statements of this kind may to be considered potentially true or false.

… As architects, builders, and artists, we are called upon constantly … to make judgements about relative harmony. If the only statements considered potentially true or false mechanistic statements of fact … then, in principle, rational discussion about building should be impossible.

… The devastating impact of this state of affairs on the progress of architecture has not, I think, been sufficiently discussed in recent decades … If we accept the 20th century idea that statements of value are … merely statements of opinion, it is in principle impossible to reach any sensible shared conclusion in the process of making the environment – only arbitrary and private conclusions. The chaos with which are familiar in the built world, must then follow as an inevitable conclusion – as indeed it has.

… Consciously or unconsciously, the architect assumes that only ‘factual’ statements (in the mechanistic sense) can be true, and therefore has it as a further (unconscious) assumption that the idea of what is good is something that you add to the factual statements – something that is … only a matter of opinion.

… Architects make different idiosyncratic choices because within the mechanistic world view it is not possible to function mentally without making some private choices of this kind.

… It … makes cooperative work, collaboration, and social agreement very difficult in principle. It has a superficial permissiveness which seems to encourage different opinions. But what is encouraged, really, is only the essential arbitrariness of ideas rooted in a mechanical view of how the world is made.

What we need is a sharable point of view, in which the many factors influencing the environment can coexist coherently, so that we can work together – not by confrontation and argument – but because we share a single holistic view of the unitary goal of life.”

 

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

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Graduality and Edges in Practice

n

Breathing Formula

A prerequisite for following the example in this post is an understanding of an expression such as:

4x 8-0-12-0

It is a formula for breathing, where the breath is made up of four parts: an inhale, a pause, an exhale and a pause. This particular formula indicates 4 breaths each of 8 second inhale, no pause, 12 second exhale, no pause.

Approaching An Edge

In my practice I am exploring going from one breath ratio to another in a particular asana. It is a journey and its map may look something like this:

If I try (I did) to simply jump to my destination I encounter an edge. A tension appears in my breath, If I want to overcome the tension I need to use force which generates more tension and my breath breaks. I am unable to go directly to my destination. The map now looks something like this:

My breath gives me access to part of the range, but not to all of it. So I look for a step that I can do. I start by increasing the number of breaths from 2 to 4:

When I am settled in this new capacity I can then break up those 4 breaths into 2 sets of 2 and add a short 2 second pause after the exhale in the 2nd set of breaths.

I can then introduce an additional pause after the inhale.

I can then bring all 4 breaths into my new capacity, which now includes pauses both after the inhale and exhale:

I can then again split the 4 breaths up into 2 pairs and extend the breath by extending the pauses … again starting from the pause after the exhale:

… and then extending also the pause after the inhale

… and the next step … is my destination … gradual steps brought me to what was previously an edge beyond my capacity.

I am never on the edge. I am always approaching an edge that is always moving away from me. In a way, in good practice I am always surrounded by capacities that once seemed beyond me.

… On the Way

There are also unknown gems I encounter on the way:

Skipping forward in the journey also means skipping over these gems of experience. Gradual steps bring me to them. I may not even be aware of these until I encounter them. They hold both realizations ans unasked questions. They hold wisdom that may never crystallize as understanding in my mind, they may resonate somewhere in my body or my heart. They may change for my perspective and inform my path. Like seeds, they may reside in me until the conditions are ripe for them to sprout and grow.

Taking Steps

Some steps take a short time (a few days), some take weeks, months, years … and maybe even lifetimes. It depends very much on the balance and integration of life and practice. If life throws me too often “into the red”, progress in practice may take longer. For example, I was already well established in 12-4-12-4 last year, but then life happened … and I am only now catching up with where I already was.

The key conscious indicator I have to making a step is breath itself. When I am well established in a practice there is a feeling of strength and spaciousness in the breath. There is a feeling of cofidence that I the breath is able to carry me another step forward in my exploration. I can push my body, I can push my mind, but if I try to push the breath the breath pushes back and teaches me to stop pushing.

One Posture

Things are actually much more colorful in reality where my real exploration was more like this:

In the journey I described above I chose, for the sake of simplicity, to focus on the last two breathes in the sequence. This means that in reality there is room for even more variation and gradually … there is more range of exploration … there can be different paths to explore on the way to my destination.

And there are other dimensions. Consider that in this example I’ve focused just on breath. There are dimensions of physical form (the posture itself), in attention (where focus is placed) and in recent months I’ve been learning about introducing sound. Each of these dimensions have their own gradual path of development and they are in constant interplay with each other.

What more, if I zoom out even more, this so called “destination” is just another step on a much longer exploration.

My destination is really 12 breaths of 12 second inhale, 12 second hold, 12 second exhale and a 12 second hold. That comes to a 48 second breath, repeated 12 times, that comes to an almost 10 minute stay … which is on one side of the posture which is asymmetrical which is therefore repeated on both sides … which comes to an almost 20 minute stay in one posture. That can be quite a space for exploration!

When years ago, I was first introduced to this “destination” the map I saw looked like the map above … it seemed impossible, out of my reach. Today, after years of gradual development I see a different map:

Perception itself changes during this exploration. What once seemed impossible now seems approachable.

A Practice Sequence

But even that is not the whole picture. This entire demonstration has addressed breath in one posture. But I never do a posture. My practice is a caringly assembled sequence of postures. Each posture has numerous dimensions of exploration. The sequence itself is intended as a gradual process of refinement, one posture preparing for the next … each opening doors to different potentials … gradually moving from gross to subtle.

A practice sequence can look something like this:

In a practice there are many opportunities to meet edges. Each edge can be met gradually or as a confrontation that generates tension. A practice can become a generator of tensions. Or it can be refined:

… and further refined:

The potentially wild energies of edges can be harnessed into a directed and limitless exploration.

If there is a downside to this approach it is a lack of superficial satisfactions. It can seem unexciting, even boring. There are no heroic achievements, no exhilarating drama. It requires long term, patient engagement.

Life

… and life is a sequence of practices … and endless stream of edges, often out of our control. Practice is a good space to explore edges. It gives me an opportunity to become familiar with edges, to establish habits that can serve me when life’s edges crash into me.

This post began to resonate in me a couple of months go when Eric posed a question (I’m paraphrasing): how can we design something we cannot even comprehend yet? This post is a first piece of my reflection on this question. It hints at a direction I am exploring: a living process (of unfolding wholeness) that does not require comprehension.

 

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Christopher Alexander – A World Picture

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“I believe that we have in us a residue of a world-picture which is essentially mechanical in nature – what we might call the mechanist-rationalist world picture … Like an infection is has entered us, it affects our actions, it affects our morals, it affects our sense of beauty.

… This is a picture of a world made of atoms which whirl around in a mechanical fashion: a world in which it is assumed that all the universe is a blind mechanism, whirling on its way, under the impact of the ‘laws of nature.’ These laws are, essentially, those mechanistic laws which explain how the atoms and the structures made of these atoms proceed on their way … Even tough we would admit that the precise laws and mechanisms may not be known, we assume that underlying our ignorance there are some laws, not quite formulated, which do account for how things work …

I have reached the conclusion that the strange fantasies, the private in-house language about architecture, the strange nature of 20th-century gallery art, deconstructionism, postmodernism, modernism and a host of other ‘isms’, all of which affect our physical world hugely, are created because of an entanglement between the nature of architecture, the practice of architecture, and the mechanical conception of the universe.

… More precisely, I believe that the mistake and confusion in our picture of the the art of building has come from our conception of what matter is.

The present conception of matter, and the opposing one which I shall try to put in its place, may both be summarized by the nature of order. Our idea of matter is essentially governed by our idea of order … So it is the nature of order which lies at the root of the problem of architecture …

When we understand what order is,  I believe we shall better understand what matter is and then what the universe itself is.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

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Christopher Alexander – Human Feelings

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“Of course there is that part of human feeling where we are all different. Each of us has our idiosyncrasies, our unique individual human character. That is the part people most often concentrate on when they are talking about feelings, and comparing feelings. But that idiosyncratic part is really only about ten percent of the feelings which we feel. Ninety percent of our feelings is stuff in which we are all the same and we feel the same things. So, from the very beginning, when we made the pattern language, we concentrated on that … part of human experience …”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

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So Much dis-Love: sports, police, sex, marriage

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I saw this first video a couple of days ago … my initial thought was: my god how much resources we invest, as a society, into institutionalized, competitive anger and hatred (ie. “the business of sports”). The second video painted in a startling correlation (that I am insinuating!) … a continuum of expressions indicating an absence of love … so many broken hearts? I am holding this as a reminder to myself that whatever future we create and inhabit, we are going there together.

personally … I think marriage itself is one of the root causes for all this confusion.

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