“Your flaw is to seek convenient explanations, explanations that fir you and your world…The explanation is not what you would call an explanation; nevertheless, it makes the world and its mysteries, if not clear, at least less awesome. That should be the essence of an explanation, but that is not what you seek. You’re after the reflection of your ideas.”
Carlos Castaneda

Tales of Power

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order

This page is a table-of-contents that links to posts containing excerpts I’ve edited from Christopher Alexander‘s The Nature of Order.

I’ve been studying and experimenting with building energy efficient houses made of natural materials for a few years. At one point I realized that one fundamental subject was still a mystery to me: how to design, shape, give form to a house? What makes one design better than another? How to design a new house (that can take on any shape)? How to choose from seemingly infinite possibilities? I could not find good answers to these questions. Then in my 2nd or 3rd reading of Charles Eisenstein‘s Sacred Economics I came across a quote from Christopher Alexander and the Nature of Order.

I inquired and came across his more famous works A Pattern Language and A Timeless Way of Building, but did not resonate with them. They felt, oddly (given the spirit of his work), very mechanistic. After some hesitation I finally got my hands on a copy of Book 1. Shortly after I started reading it, I got the other three books – I wanted to be able to read through without interruption. I was taken in, I found answers, surprising answers, answers that resonated deeply with other discoveries that excited me, answers that resonated deep with my own feelings and experiences, answers that apply to so much more then creating a  house, answers that potentially turn the world upside down (or maybe finally put it right side up!).

The key take away for me is that creating living structures (houses, software, organizations, societies … that support life) is less about structure and more about process: how structure is created. The (mathematical) odds are not in our favor – there are orders of magntitude more possiblities for creating structures lacking in life than living structures. Good processes help us make choices that increase the odds of creating living structures. Nature surrounds us with examples of good processes of unfolding wholeness: from blooming flowers to maturing embryos – nature never assembles pieces together, it always refines from the inside out … and so should we. We need to move away from design (as in theoretical and pre-emptively forming shapes on paper removed from circumstances) towards gradual, feedback induced, sense-driven making.

My first reading  spanned over almost a year. As I write these words (January 2018) I have embarked on a second reading.

The title of each excerpt was of my choosing, sometimes it is directly informed by a chapter or section title, sometimes by the content of the excerpt, and sometimes with my own words/associations.

PLEASE NOTE: excerpts are currently being added to Book1

Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

  1. Ornament
  2. Human Feelings
  3. A World Picture
  4. Mechanistic: A Mental Toy
  5. What Kind of Thing is Order?
  6. Degrees of Life
  7. An Enormous Fact
  8. The Idea of Wholeness
  9. Centers
  10. Wholeness is Subtle and Fluid
  11. Seeing Wholeness
  12. Wholeness as a Fundamental Structure
  13. Recursive Centers
  14. Centers & Life ... and Robert Pirsig
  15. Drawing Centers
  16. Fundamental Property 1: Levels of Scale
  17. Fundamental Property 2: Strong Centers
  18. Fundamental Property 3: Boundaries
  19. Fundamental Property 4: Repetition
  20. Fundamental Property 5: Positive Space
  21. Fundamental Property 6: Good Shape
    good shape ... comes about when the whole is made of parts that are themselves whole in this rather simple geometric sense ... is not only making things more beautiful; it also makes them work more profoundly, more effectively.
  22. Fundamental Property 7: Local Symmetries
  23. Fundamental Property 8: Deep Interlock and Ambiguity
  24. Fundamental Property 9: Contrast
  25. Fundamental Property 10: Gradients
  26. Fundamental Property 11: Roughness
    The seemingly rough arrangement is more precise because it comes from a much more careful guarding of the essential centers in the design ... Roughness can never be consciously or deliberately created. Then it is merely contrived. To make a thing live, its roughness must be the product of egolessness, the product of no will ... Roughness is always the product of abandon - it is created whenever a person is truly free, and doing only what is essential
  27. Fundamental Property 12: Echoes
    there is a deep underlying similarity - a family resemblance - among the elements, so deep that everything seems to be related, and yet one doesn't quite know why, or what causes it. That is what I mean by 'echoes.'
  28. Fundamental Property 13: The Void
    This emptiness is needed, in some form, by every center ... It is the quiet that draws the center's energy of itself, gives it the basis of its strength
  29. Fundamental Property 14: Simplicity and Inner Calm
    It has to do with a certain slowness, majesty, quietness, which I think of as inner calm ... The quality comes about when everything unnecessary is removed
  30. Fundamental Property 15: Not-Separateness
    The correct connection to the world will only be made if you are conscious, willing, that the thing you make be indistinguishable from its surroundings, that, truly, you cannot tell where one ends and the next begins, and you do not even want to be able to do so
  31. The Family of Living Systems
    the fifteen properties define the enormous family of systems, among all possible systems, which have life in them
  32. The Fifteen Properties in Nature
  33. The Character of Living Structure
    In nature the principle of unfolding wholeness ... creates living structure nearly all the time. Human designers, who are not constrained by this unfolding, can violate the wholeness if they wish to, and can therefore create non-living structure as often as they choose.
  34. Value as a Matter of Fact
    one of the most fundamental tenets of contemporary science - that value is not part of science and tht all matter is, from a scientific point of view, equally value free - can no longer be sustained
  35. A Universal Personal
    ... from the point of view of the world picture in this book, 'personal' is a profound objective quality which inheres in something, It is not idiosyncratic but universal. It refers to something true and fundamental in a thing itself.
  36. Liking from the Heart
    What people like can often not be trusted, because it does not come from the heart.
  37. The Mirror of the Self Test
    it is not so easy to find out what we really like. It is a skill and an art to become sensitive enough to living structure so that we see it accurately
  38. Experience Beyond Descartes
    where Descartes only allowed observation to focus on the outer reality of mechanisms in the world, my method requires that we focus on the inner reality of feeling as well
  39. More of a Person
    At each instant, as I go through the world, because of what happens to me, and because of what I do, my humanity is expanding and diminishing all the time; sometimes for a an instant it is a little greater, sometimes for an instant it is a little smaller.
  40. Freedom of the Spirit
    The capacity to do these many positive things, to do them well, and to do them freely, is natural. It arises by itself. It cannot be created artificially in a person, but it needs to be released, given room ... anything which causes a blockage of this ability ... causes a loss of freedom.
  41. The Stress Reservoir
    Broadly speaking, the reaction to each unsolved problem, or annoyance, or conflict that is encountered creates in the individual some level of stress ... There is, in effect, a stress reservoir in the body ...
  42. A Freedom Inducing World
    ... an environment which goes as far as possible in allowing people's tendencies, their inner forces, to run loose, so that they can take care, by themselves, of their own development ... it depends in part on ... configurations ... which remove energy-wasting conflict from the environment ... release human effort for more challenging tasks, for the freedom to be human.
  43. Ornament and Function
    Function is simply the dynamic aspect of wholeness. A structure, viewed in a static sense, has to do with the system of centers that appear in it. As something lives, acts in the world, interacts with the world, different centers appear and disappear ... The flux of these moving, transitory centers ... is the process we call life.
  44. Blue Dragonfly at Tofuku-ji
    we need to understand space as a material which is capable of awakening

Book 2: The Process of Creating Life

  1. It Is the Process ...
    The design is indeed beautiful, yes. But it can only be made as beautiful as it is within the technique, or process, used to make it. And once one uses this technique, the design ... follows almost without thinking, just as a result of following the process.
  2. Unfolding Wholeness and Structure Preserving Transformations
    Any part of the world we build will have life if it is created by structure preserving transformations [ {where} centers will always tend to form in such a way as to preserve and enhance previous structure – and this means, in such a way as to help sustain other existing and emerging centers ], and will not have life if it is not created by structure preserving transformations.
  3. Christopher Alexander: Fifteen Transformations
    the fifteen properties are not merely observable end-products of structure-preserving transformations. They provide the base transformations from which, in practice, all structure preserving transformations are made
  4. Creativity
  5. One Wholesome Thing at a Time
  6. Generative vs. Descriptive
  7. Vinyasa
  8. Feedback
  9. First Steps and Ripples in Design
  10. Move with Certainty
  11. The Void
  12. Illuminated by Existence
  13. Uniqueness
  14. Deep Feeling and Emotional Substance
  15. Holding the Feeling Constant
  16. Form Language
  17. Simplicity
  18. Simplicity and Symmetry
  19. Material and Light
  20. First Hint of the Ground
  21. Architecture in Democracy
  22. Kitchen Sequence
  23. an Architecture Studio Class
  24. Frederick Taylor
  25. a Pursuit of Wholeness
  26. Gene Snippets
  27. It Must Be Us
  28. Christopher Alexander on Feeling as Criterion and Instrument

Book 3: A Vision of  a Living World

  1. Freshness
  2. Belonging
  3. Concentration (dharana)
  4. Program Budgeting
  5. Feeling of Materials
  6. Eyes of Lovers
  7. Building Volumes
  8. Structural Engineering ... of Space and Solid
  9. One Thing at a Time
  10. Gardens
  11. Unfolding Unanimity
  12. Communal Vision
  13. Unconventional Wisdom
  14. Cars in Neighborhoods
  15. Static & Dynamic
  16. Doing Work Together
  17. Sameness and Uniqueness
  18. Mass Situations
  19. the Most Important Room
  20. Vital Centers of a Room
  21. a Coherent Plan
  22. the Purpose of a Room
  23. Microstructure
  24. Traditional Elements
  25. Making
  26. Working on Wholeness
  27. Wabi to Sabi - Rusty Beauty
  28. Green Materials
  29. Unfolding Ornament
    ‘ornament’ is simply this smaller stuff … Thus it is not something extra or extraneous; it is a continuation of the same process we have followed in creating the field up to this point. It is necessary in order to complete the field
  30. Ornament ... in the Eyes of God
  31. Color
  32. Archetype
  33. Our Birthright

Book 4: The Luminous Ground

  1. Tat Tvam Asi
  2. Inert Matter
  3. Ultra Mechanistic
  4. Devotional Atmosphere
  5. a Real Relatedness
  6. "The I"
  7. Centers as Beings
  8. Persuasion through Experience
  9. Searching for Being
  10. Windows to the Ground
  11. Inner Light
  12. Color Properties of Inner Light
  13. Schrödinger's Yellow
  14. Tears, Sadness and Unity
  15. Making as Healing
  16. Pleasing Yourself
  17. Nolde's Sunset
  18. Gauguin's Cow
  19. Never Truly Beautiful
  20. a Gift to God
  21. A Gift from Art to Science
  22. an Extended Physics
  23. Essential Awe