Christopher Alexander, the Cambridge-educated mathematician and influential iconoclast of architectural theory and practice, has just begun publication of the four volume "The Nature of Order," a book on which he has been working for over twenty years. Like Steven Wolfram's "A New Kind of Science" -- with which it has been compared -- it is long (almost 2,000 pages), richly illustrated, and suggestive of nothing less than a new scientific world view.
The essence of that view is this: the universe is not made of "things," but of patterns -- of complex, interactive geometries. Furthermore, this way of understanding the world can unlock marvelous secrets of nature, and perhaps even make possible a renaissance of human-scale design and technology.
As to the second assertion, one might understandably be skeptical until more evidence is seen. As to the first, there are echoes of this world view across the sciences, in quantum physics, in biology, in the mathematics of complexity, and elsewhere. Theorists and philosophers throughout the twentieth century have noted the gradual shift of scientific world view away from objects and toward processes, described by Whitehead, Bergson and many others. Alexander, like Wolfram, takes it a step further, arguing that we are on the verge of supplanting the Cartesian model altogether, and embarking on a revolutionary new phase in the understanding of the geometry of nature.
Alexander even goes beyond Wolfram and the other complexity theorists in one crucial respect: he argues that life does not "emerge" from the complex interactions of an essentially dead universe, but rather manifests itself in greater or lesser degrees, in geometric order. For Alexander, the universe is alive in its very geometrical essence, and we ourselves are an inextricable part of that life. This is a "hard" scientific world view which is completely without opposition to questions of "meaning" or "value", "life" or "spirit". For Alexander, such questions are hardly irrelevant: in fact, they are of the essence in the most physical, concrete sense.
There are also echoes of this view in the process philosophers like Whitehead, and in recent scientific work by the likes of Brian Goodwin, David Bohm and others. Though Alexander takes an iconoclastic approach to his subject, his core ideas are not new. Still, for many practicing architects, Alexander might as well be from Mars. They simply do not understand him -- though they understand well enough the assault on conventional practice that his theories represent. The result is an eagerness to dismiss Alexander as a mystic, a romantic, even a solipsist. The truth is quite different -- and far more interesting.
Alexander started his career as a design theorist, and the ideas of this book are its direct if surprising progeny. Early on he was a pioneer of computer-aided design methodology, and his book "Notes on the Synthesis of Form" is a classic in the field. Later on, he sought a method to handle the unwieldy thickets of complex data. He identified design "patterns" that repeatedly occurred in the built environment, and that together formed systems or "languages." Such languages, he argued, were readily observable in traditional design methodologies, and were in large part responsible for their unity and wholeness. Implicit in this phase of work was the belief that the priesthood of architects hardly had an exclusive claim to good design, and that ordinary people could be taught to make quite handsome and satisfying buildings, as they have been known to do throughout history.
A Pattern Language was met with great success, and even at $65 per copy, it is still one of the best-selling books on architecture -- some 25 years after it was first published.
But Alexander and his colleagues were disturbed to find that many of the designers inspired by A Pattern Language produced work that was crude and artless. How, short of returning to the priesthood of trained professionals, could this be corrected? What was missing from the methodology he and his colleagues were offering?
Alexander came to believe what was needed was an essential grasp of good geometry. Coming to terms with the implications of this, and documenting the ideas for his readers, was the task that would occupy him for the next 25 years, and require nothing short of an overhaul of the Cartesian worldview that he believed underlies the conception of the design problem.
...I believe that there is, at the root of our trouble in the sphere of art and architecture, a fundamental mistake caused by a certain conception of the nature of matter, the nature of the universe. More precisely, I believe that the mistake and confusion in our picture of 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. What matter is, is governed by our idea of how space can be arranged; and that in turn is governed by our idea of how orderly arrangement in space creates matter. So it is the nature of order which lies at the root of the problem in architecture. Hence the title of this book.
- The Nature of Order, p. 8
Alexander studied the designs of cultures throughout history and across the world, and formulated some empirical notions about their geometric properties. He distilled these down to 15 recurrent geometric properties, and developed them into a theory of design.
At the core of his theory is the idea that good design is not a matter of elements working properly in a mechanistic system, but rather of regions of space amplifying one another in a larger totality. That is, one cannot take the environment apart into elements, but must see the environment as a field of wholes, each supporting and amplifying one another in an interlocking totality. One can be very precise and descriptive about these wholes, but one cannot avoid looking at the totality at each step of the way.
Alexander calls each spatial region a "center," emphasizing that it is not an isolated entity, but an embedded field within an infinitely larger system of fields, with gradually diminishing contextual influences. One cannot look at a part of the whole without looking at its relation to the whole, and the complex influences of its location within the field.
This geometric holism is not a new view of things, although perhaps, as Alexander suggests, it holds revolutionary implications for the way we order the architecture of modern society. As Alexander correctly notes, we are still captivated by the power of Cartesian reductionism, the metaphor of the machine. It utterly dominates our conception of the natural world and of the design problem. It gives us great reductive power over nature, the power to take apart and reassemble at vast scales for our own purposes. And yet we pay a terrible price: like Humpty Dumpty, we sometimes find ourselves unable to get all the pieces to go back together again. Or rather, we find it impossible, since we don't really understand, in the current world view, what it means for "things to go together" in the first place. And thus the iconoclastic quality of this work.
From his introduction:
In physics and biology some progress has been made toward understanding the phenomenon of order, and the processes which create order. The creation of living organisms through the morphogenetic process, the creation of matter, the creation of stars and galaxies from nuclear fire, the constant creation of particles by interaction with one another- have all been studied in the last seventy years. In these limited cases we now have a rudimentary idea of the way the order-creation works. It has become clear, too, that the way the order is created in these cases is of essential importance to our understanding of the world. Our knowledge of order-creating processes in physics, chemistry, and biology has molded the modern view of the universe.
The art of building has not, so far, had a comparable impact on our understanding of the world. Our modern picture of the universe, what kind of stuff space and matter is made of, has not been influenced by building or by architecture. Yet, I shall argue, the process of building is an order-creating process of no less importance than those of physics and biology. It is vast in its scale and scope. It is almost universal in our experience. It is therefore reasonable to think that the art of building might give us equally essential insights.
In what follows I shall try to show that there is a way of understanding order which is general and does do justice to the nature of building and of architecture. It is a view which, I hope, is adequate to understanding the intuitions we have about beauty and the life of buildings. It is a view which tells us what it means for a building to be a great building, and when a building is working properly. It is, I believe, a common-sense and powerful view, with practical results.