‘People used to say that just as the twentieth century had been the century of physics, the twenty-first century would be the century of biology… We would gradually move into a world whose prevailing paradigm was one of complexity, and whose techniques sought the co-adapted harmony of hundreds or thousands of variables. This would, inevitably, involve new technique, new vision, new models of thought, and new models of action. I believe that such a transformation is starting to occur…. To be well, we must set our sights on such a future.’
- Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order
This edition of the Katarxis journal is the start of a conversation. Or rather, it is the resumption of a neglected conversation begun almost half a century ago.
There is a remarkable final chapter in Jane Jacobs’ classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, called “The Kind of Problem a City Is.” In it she gives a remarkably lucid account - and a remarkably perspicacious one, as it now appears at the beginning of the new century — of the progress of science in relation to the planning and design professions.
Quoting one Dr. Warren Weaver, Jacobs notes how we have moved through “three stages of development in the history of scientific thought: (1) ability to deal with problems of simplicity; (2) ability to deal with problems of disorganized complexity; and (3) ability to deal with problems of organized complexity.” After establishing a thorough understanding of the relations of segregated variables - say, retail space in relation to number of housing units - we moved to the opposite extreme, an understanding of the average behaviours of myriad variables interacting in statistically predictable ways. Only recently, in historical terms (Dr. Weaver wrote his paper in 1958!) we have moved into the realm of “organised complexity” - the realm where we are "dealing simultaneously with a sizable number of factors which are interrelated into an organic whole." It is in this “great region in the middle” that biological problems - and the problems of cities – can best be understood, and acted upon.
The exploration of this "middle region" has opened a door to astonishing aspects of nature that, in historic terms, we have only begun to explore. We are beginning to tease out many of the secrets of living processes, and gain insight into the nature of life itself. Great insight has also come into the nature of collective human activities — the operation of "collective intelligence" in economics, in social organisations, in the formation of great cities.
But Jacobs observed that architects and planners had lagged behind, and were continuing to treat cities as a problem of simplicity or disorganised complexity - with disastrous results. Her book documented the horrendous mistakes made by planners and architects of that day, and the resulting near-destruction of once-great cities.
Christopher Alexander came to prominence in that same era, also by famously demonstrating the limits of the then-current conception of cities. His landmark book “Notes on the Synthesis of Form” seemed to hold out the promise of a more highly-adapted, more advanced kind of city. His classic paper “A City is Not A Tree” was perhaps even more influential, describing with elegant mathematical precision why the new city plans of that era were structurally deficient in a fundamental way.
In a nutshell, Alexander showed that the plans were not sufficiently complex. They were geometric “trees” rather than “semi-lattices”, as natural cities invariably were. This deficiency of complexity prevented the new cities from having an essential level of interactive richness and structural robustness.
Alexander noted that the roots of this problem lay in the way a single human mind conceives, and then typically generates, a structure: by isolating, segregating, dividing. (To be sure, this reductive approach has been the basis of many of our greatest scientific triumphs.) But biological morphogenesis – and the morphogenesis of a complex city – works quite differently, by differentiation, folding, overlap, collective intelligence, emergence. The structures that result have a much higher density of connections, and a much more exquisitely adapted evolutionary form. As a result, they are more robust, and more successful.
Alexander went on to develop his ideas of computer-generated morphogenesis, and the limits of the technology at that time, coupled with a key theoretical insight, prompted him to recognise a simpler archetypal language that he called a “pattern language.” The book by that name is now reportedly the best-selling treatise on architecture of all time. In a final irony, the Pattern Language itself became the basis for a new branch of object-oriented software design, as computer technology, and science in general, began to better understand and incorporate new ideas of complexity.
For the last twenty-five years, Alexander has developed these ideas to their logical and philosophical culmination in a new magnum opus called The Nature of Order. In it he examines the way living processes work on a structural level, and the lessons for architects – and intriguingly, a few lessons in the other direction, from architecture to the natural sciences.
Along the way Alexander has had to engage deep philosophical questions about the nature of of life and value. That has led some architects to dismiss him - in error - as a mystic. For some, like our scientist-interviewee Philip Ball, such a discussion is all well and good; however, it is not science, but philosophy.
But for Alexander, this is precisely the point: science is today increasingly forced to make an historic assessment of the nature of life, the structural basis of "qualities" and the place of consciousness in the scheme of things. To ignore this realm - to accept an arbitrary compartmentalisation between science and philosophy - is to leave unfinished a massive part of the scientific project.
Indeed, this question of the phenomenon of life, in all its quantitative and qualitative aspects, looms ever larger in fields as diverse as neuroscience, psychology, virology, genetics, and countless others. What processes make a set of coded molecules behave in the goal-seeking way we happen to call “life?” What is consciousness, and how does this phenomenon arise in relation to the material world we observe - a question central to the medical sciences and the sciences of mental health? What is pleasure, joy, pain?
Moreover, to go forward into this realm, as treacherous as it may be, seems to hold out the promise of astonishing, and powerful, new insights into the real structure of things. And in turn, there are implications for ethics and other aspects of philosophy, as it seems to be returning from exile as "queen of the sciences". There are echoes here of Heisenberg's famous remark that "theoretical physics is actual philosophy."
Perhaps in this sense, then, these "new sciences" do indeed represent a new paradigm.
But if so, there is little sign that the deeper lessons of such a "new paradigm" have propagated into the rest of the architectural profession as yet. Indeed, the evidence suggests to us that what Charles Jencks famously describes as the "new paradigm in architecture" still barely scratches the surface, and falls back much more upon re-clothing the old technological approaches in clever new semiotics.
But the thing about semiotics, as Umberto Eco noted, is that signs have to signify something (pace Derrida). As we have noted elsewhere, to treat all art as semiotics is to enter a hall of mirrors - and to lose the flesh-and-blood city.
Leon Krier puts it very well in his essay here: to treat architecture purely as language is to "confuse the roles of the observer-spectator and the actor-inhabitant." And it is the actor-inhabitant - the vast majority of us, at the vast majority of times - who loses in the exchange.
It is all well and good that the architect-artists are expressing, as Charles Jencks notes, a new semiotics about a new and complex world, implying, for some at least, a new cosmology and a new political meaning. Concurrently there has been a radical evolution of design styles and themes, variously called post-modernism, deconstructivism and, now, fractured varieties of neo-modernism. There has been an exploration - at times it seems a fevered desperate search - of daringly innovative new kinds of forms. Even the methods of the individual artists explore natural morphogenetic processes, in Gehry’s crumpled forms or Eisenman’s overlapping fragments.
But as our authors point out here, fundamental aspects of their morphogenesis are still deeply rooted in the old statistical and mechanical sciences - particularly at the level of the crucial connective urban structure. The form-creating urban methods of the heroic architects-artist are in truth not fundamentally different than they were four decades ago. Only the social idealism is gone - replaced by a post-structuralist nihilism about the corruptive power of elites. If we can’t control it, perhaps we can “deconstruct” it, and, at least, celebrate a truth that makes us free. This seems to us to be behind Peter Eisenman's remarkable view of architecture as a kind of large-scale "art therapy."
Rem Koolhaas sees this as the crisis of modernity. He says that "Modernism's alchemistic promise – to transform quantity into quality through abstraction and repetition – has been a failure, a hoax: magic that didn't work." In his apt metaphor, we stand at the bottom of a “crater of modernity.” The architecture we produce, then, is little more than re-assembled bits from the blast.
Almost a half-century after Alexander and Jacobs offered their critiques, in the larger building culture not much has really changed. It is only too easy to see the growing global wreckage, added to a world already littered with the destructive acts of an ignorant and naïve world-view, reflecting an unjustified faith in the superiority of primitive industrial geometries over the more delicate, more complex structure of nature and tradition. So much has been lost. And so much is still being lost — now threatening the sustainability of human culture, and life itself.
To be fair, many architects are deeply concerned about this state of affairs, no less so than anyone else. Many of them are making diligent efforts to do something — to fashion more efficient "green" technologies, to control sprawl, to protect natural habitat. But they do not yet question the fundamental technological assumptions of the age, because that is too daunting a prospect. After all, modernity is a fact of our time; and modernity, as Gideon noted, is the problem of large numbers. If we are consigned to it, we had better celebrate it, and make it the basis of our art. Surely that is the only appropriate "architecture of our time."
But a few have begun to notice that the phenomenon of life handles large numbers rather well, and has done so sustainably for billions of years. Intriguingly, the new sciences are just beginning to tease out all the astonishing morphogenetic processes that allow this to happen. Alexander is exploring precisely the same kind of territory, and how it might apply to a new approach to human technology and human architecture. This would mean, among other things, very different forms of technology, and very different forms of expression.
But meanwhile, the rest of the profession — and the rest of the culture — continues on with the old industrial model, consuming, growing, destroying, expressing, presenting – but not regenerating.
So life is what Christopher Alexander wants to understand about architecture. His is not a Frankensteinian sense of arranging matter in such a way as to “create” life out of non-life; rather, it is an understanding that “life” is something that is a latent property of nature, ready to emerge when conditions are right. This is a very different picture from the old “dead nature” model in which life cannot really be explained and is therefore left “behind the curtain.” For Alexander, life must be amplified and reinforced as an emergent property in built environments. The structure of life – its attributes, its characteristics – can be rationally understood. Moreover, its processes can be understood, and even generated – at least to some extent — in human activities.
This is the project he brings back to architecture, and to a world trapped in Koolhaas' “crater of modernity.”
To do this Alexander recognises that he has to move far beyond the confines of architecture, asking provocative questions about the flow of money, the participation of users, the ability of building technology and building culture to adapt and change over time. He does not accept a diminished role of architecture as a specialised fine art, sitting amidst the "junkspace" that is spewed out by blind economic processes. For him, the reforms needed in architecture are no more urgent than the reforms needed in development, in finance, in technology itself. In a world in which sciences like "game theory" show that we are not fated to a particular technological structure, it seems we do have some options to get out of the "crater of modernity" after all. We can choose another, more life-supporting kind of game.
In doing so, Alexander suggests that we will necessarily move out of another kind of "crater": a detachment from meaning and human value. At present the conception of a divorce between the living and the physical world also implies a divorce between subjective value and objective reality, with the result that all feeling and value is "personal," "relative," "psychological." In such a world, there is no reason to object to a certain building or freeway or any other structure, save on personal or political grounds. There is certainly no objective basis for saying that one kind of structure is better than another, or one combination better than another. We might as well accept a world of fragmentary meanings, and fragmentary semiotic expressions, jumbled up chaotically against one another.
The result is a paralysis, an inability to make joint progress in improving the quality of the built environment — because quality itself has become a purely relative concept.
But in a world in which life is an emergent property of space - in which meaning is deeply embedded in the very structure of things - such notions begin to look very different. The chaotic jumble of buildings is not simply a collection of intriguing artistic signifiers. They represent a potentially grave threat to human health, and even to the sustainability of life itself. Conversely, when done coherently, they can support and enrich human life, and heal the social dysfunctions. And all this can be assessed and acted upon in a rational, discussable way.
Intriguingly, this revives the old modernist project of progress for humanity through science and art. As we argue elsewhere, in this respect Alexander may be more of a modernist - albeit a reformed one - than might appear.
In such a view of things there are enormous implications for changes in technology as well. For example, new kinds of generative rules or codes can be used to establish coherence and emergent order. Such rules are not the usual top-down fiats that tell everybody what they must do in lockstep — the kind of hierarchical exercise of power that the poststructuralists attack. Theoretically, at least, they can be entirely participatory, like any cooperative game. They can function much as the simple rules of cellular automata, or of DNA itself, giving simple adaptive steps for actors in a building culture to take under certain conditions. Like life itself, they can evolve to produce great varieties of more successful, better-adapted structure.
This could radically revise the assumed relation between power and order.
Even so, such a notion of shared value - let alone of rules - is a deeply frightening prospect for architects. Surely some privileged person will be the arbiter, the judge? Who will implement and enforce such rules? To what extent are they going to curtail the freedom of the artist?
But again, the new notions of "emergent" order become significant. Such rules can be made in such a way that vast numbers of non-trivial possibilities exist for artistic expression. These can operate in a bottom-up way as much as a top-down way.
In the end, the protest about artistic freedom looks like a canard anyway. After all, many of the greatest artists of history operated under much more severe restrictions. To insist upon the absence of any real rules, any coherent rule-based processes that produce form, is to advocate the generation of random individual acts that, taken together, form a homogeneous randomness across the face of the earth. Such an agglomeration of changing, individualistic fashions adds up to a kind of white noise. It is the fragmentation, and the ultimate death, of artistic culture.
* * *
Each of our trio of scientists has explored similar themes, with varying conclusions. Each is well-known in his own field and to a wider audience of general readers. Each is remarkably inter-disciplinary in his thinking. Alexander, too, has his own scientific credentials as a Cambridge-educated physicist and mathematician.
There are certainly notes of caution and even scepticism about Alexander's work - particularly for Philip Ball. For him the notion of "life" as a property of space begs the question of what life actually is - a notion better relegated to philosophy. But for Alexander, philosophy is precisely the realm where science needs to get its house in order, after a period of excessive positivism. Nothing less will be required for real progress in the scientific understanding of the structure of wholes. As biologist Mae Wan Ho put it, "much of the science of complexity is still mechanism aspiring toward organism."
But as we said, this is only the beginning of a conversation.
Ball, Goodwin and Stewart are all interested in pattern-formation and the morphogenesis of structures, and in that respect they all share common ground with Alexander. Each of them is mining a particular vein of the new complexity science. The physicist Ball wants to know how a "self-made tapestry" emerges in natural processes, much as Alexander wants to know how such tapestries emerge in the collective efforts of traditional artisans. The biologist Goodwin wants to understand how a "strange attractor" can occur in biological evolution as what he calls a "structural attractor", or a type — closely related to Alexander's desire to understand how a "pattern" recurs as part of a living language of traditional settlement. The mathematician Stewart wants to know more about the mathematics of evolutionary structures, and the ways in which symmetry operates in the qualitative world of experience. Alexander, too, explores "structure-preserving transformations" in great detail, and seeks to understand their qualitative aspects in an operational way.
All three recognise a clear relation between complexity science and the organisational structure of culture, including the building culture. Stewart echoes Alexander's suggestion that architecture may now begin to inform science when he says, "I think that the idea of self-evolving systems, be they organisms or buildings or societies, is a very exciting area that will stimulate a lot of new scientific thinking and a lot of new mathematics."
This fascinating and fruitful discussion will no doubt continue.
* * *
Andrés Duany has been responsible, with his colleagues in the movement dubbed New Urbanism, for a remarkable reform of much recent building around the world. This is no armchair "New Romantic," in Charles Jencks' term. He himself would say that much of what has been built under the New Urbanism banner has not been very good; but that it is a necessary step that begins to meet the critical threshold of reforms necessary in the wider building culture. For him, perfection in an ivory tower is of no consequence.
Duany notes that architects have painted themselves into an artistic corner, retreating into semiotics, hermeneutics, shape grammars, poststructuralism – nursing their bruised neuroses, working through their sculptural art therapies. Meanwhile the reality of the larger building culture is an “unacceptable win/loss ratio,” increasingly a condition of “junkspace,” in Koolhaas’ memorable term. Like Koolhaas, Duany is more fatalist about the condition of modernity than Alexander; but then again, neither has Alexander’s scientific background, or theoretical insight. But while Koolhaas accepts the inevitability of “junkspace” and even celebrates it, Duany sees a path toward quality, using a kind of realpolitik to get there.
Leon Krier – one of Andrés Duany’s great sources of inspiration, according to Duany himself – is interested in collective intelligence, and the strange corollary phenomenon in our time of collective amnesia. Why, he asks, would we shun 4,950 years of copying, adaptation and refinement — producing some of the undeniable great treasures of humanity— and limit ourselves to what could be produced only in the last 50? Why adopt such an irrational doctrine?
Unlike Alexander, Krier believes it is entirely appropriate to import old archetypes into a new context, just as our ancestors did repeatedly. (Think Romanesque, Renaissance, Neoclassical, Georgian, Colonial, etc. etc.) If we thing the hardware is worth preserving, then why not the software? What is it about modernity that makes these forms, repeated and embraced in eras throughout history, no longer “of our time”? (For while technology may certainly modify them, it doesn’t invalidate them altogether.)
It is a political agenda, he answers, and a logically indefensible one. This is the semiotic fallacy again. For there is nothing politically determinist about a particular kind of architecture, as history is full of revivals in very different political contexts. For him this is throwing out the baby with the bathwater – perpetuating the modernist sins of the 20th century.
Moreover, as we noted earlier, there is a similar logical confusion — evident particularly in deconstructivist architecture — between language and architecture. Architecture is not simply an expression to be appreciated by those who understand it as art; though it may be formed through a kind of language, what is formed is the connective physical structure of human life. The failure to account for that fact is a critical failure of the current architecture.
For Alexander, Krier's “top-down” introduction of historically derived form is more problematic, implying a “top-down” regime to do the introducing, and an insufficient generative process of adaptation to local conditions. Not so, says Krier: after all, the “patterns” that Alexander identifies are not so different from the “archetypes” that Krier identifies. (And, we note, not so different from Goodwin's "structural attractors.") Nothing prevents them from being radically adapted to new conditions, or shared between cultures.
In any case, the architect/urbanists are united in their call for a “new architecture” more aligned with the notion of a “collective intelligence” — an architecture formed over time, as part of a cultural process, and more expressive of human life. They reject the exclusive notion of architecture as a heroic exploration of technological or abstract novelty, as nothing more than semiotics, nothing more than a giant sculptural excursion into the adventure of ideas. Such explorations are all well and good in small doses; but they are not enough. While the urbanists keenly feel themselves to be artists, they also feel that architecture must do something more than address such cerebral adventures. It must serve to form the real, complex connective fabric of human life.
And after an age of modernist “rational” segregation — and its ironic neo-modernist parodies — that would be a new paradigm indeed.
* * *
Our own contributions in these pages begin to suggest the practical implications of such a new world-view. Nikos Salingaros, a mathematician and physicist at the University of Texas at San Antonio, looks at the specific geometries of buildings and the processes that give rise to them – fractal structure, “bottom-up” generative processes, “top-down” imposition of forms. In so doing he offers a reconciliation of the Alexandrian and Krierian view. He also examines the relation between biological structure and architectural structure. Brian Hanson, architectural historian and research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Religion, Ideas and Society at London University, also explores a reconciliation between the Alexandrian and Krierian views. He traces the provenance of Alexander’s metaphysical ideas through Ruskin, Bergson and Whitehead. He also examines the notion, advanced by Charles Jencks, of a “new paradigm” in architecture, mirroring the new paradigm of biological complexity. He argues that Jencks' is far from being the only new paradigm which the new science suggests, and indeed, that the one he identifies is probably the least relevant today. Michael Mehaffy, an educator and writer on philosophy and architecture, asks questions about the evolution of human culture and the parallel evolution of its built environment in light of a changing notion of “modernity.” He examines the potential for new tools, such as new kinds of codes, to address the challenges of the future. Lucien Steil, senior editor, has guided this project from the beginning, weaving threads of cultural continuity through artists as diverse as Borges and Goethe, Alexander and Krier.
Again, this is only the start of a conversation — and one covering momentous topics. But such is the human challenge we face, in an astonishing time.