ISIS Review 04/11/03
The Architect of Life
Dr. Mae-Wan Ho
The Nature of Order, An Essay on the Art of Building and The Nature of
the Universe, Vol. 1, The Phenomenon of Life, by Christopher Alexander,
The Center for Environmental Structure, Berkeley, California 2002,
ISBN:0-9726529-1-4, 476pp. This book is available online from
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When the author tells you he spent 27 years on a four-volume work, most
people would hesitate to ask to read it. But thats exactly what I
When the first of four hefty volumes landed on my kitchen table, I knew
that the 476-page lavishly illustrated text was not going to be easy reading.
The pictures are captivating, but whats the message? I knew I had
to make time for it; something told me it was important.
From the very first page, Volume 1 of The Nature of Order, The
Phenomenon of Life, is a journey of initiation. The author gives a few
guideposts, but not until I have followed him to the final pages does the full
significance of his thesis dawn on me.
I am swept off my feet; not just because his quest for good
architecture so closely parallels my own quest for good
science, but especially by the majestic scope and originality of his
findings, based on years of relentless, meticulous observation. Not only do I
begin to see architecture with fresh eyes, but also galaxies, landscapes,
trees, leaves, flowers, thunderstorms, waves, ripples, all natural
phenomena, and yes, even empty space itself
Building creates physical order, but what does order mean?
There is a way of understanding order thats general and universal,
Alexander asserts. He starts with the simple question: how to make beautiful
buildings? A question all the more urgent as the new century begins.
The past century is one in which architecture was "unimaginably bad". It
suffered from a "mass psychosis", creating a form of architecture thats
"against life, insane, image-ridden, hollow." Many readers will resonate to
Why? Because architecture depends on our picture of the world, Alexander
explains, and the 20th century is characterized by a struggle with a
world-picture thats essentially mechanistic, which "makes it impossible
to make buildings well."
It is "the nature of order" which lies at the root of the problem of
Trained as a mathematician in Cambridge Trinity College, Alexander found
he was able to construct a coherent view of order, "one which deals honestly
with the nature of beauty" only by formulating "new and surprising concepts"
about the nature of space and matter which lie outside mathematics. No, this is
not another book about sacred geometry, or eternal, Platonic forms;
far from it.
Nor does it follow any other scientific conception of order. For
example, scientists have suggested using negative entropy
roughly speaking, the degree of improbability - as a measure of order, but that
doesnt help make a beautiful building. Crystals have order, but
thats static and limited. Proposals of "generative process" are important
for biological development, but not immediately applicable to buildings.
Similarly, French mathematician Rene Thoms "theory of catastrophes"
describing morphogenesis (the formation of shapes), and American-born quantum
physicist David Bohms "implicate order" of space-time, all are inadequate
to the task of creating beautiful buildings.
This book has no obvious precedent; the author has not followed
Describing an earlier book, A Pattern Language, published in
1977, to a huge audience gathered to celebrate a film about his work, Alexander
explains, "We assumed from the beginning that everything was based on the
real nature of human feeling and - this is the unusual part - that human
feeling is mostly the same
. in every person
pattern language is
a record of that stuff in us which belongs to the
ninety percent of our feeling, where our feelings are all the same."
I read that with mounting excitement. To me, feeling is the key to
scientific understanding, indeed, of all understanding; it is the
conduit to the universal "ground" of nature to which all are connected.
And in any case, how can we claim to understand something we do not
feel? Yet thats what we are urged to do as objective
scientists. We must leave our subjective feelings and prejudices
behind, for science is neutral and value-free.
Without feeling, science has become the manipulation of meaningless
symbols; no wonder some scientists have compared computers to human beings, and
believe computers can be conscious like human beings.
It is the negation of feeling that makes scientists insensitive to
peoples aspirations and ethical concerns, and to conduct cruel and
inhumane experiments in the name of scientific research.
The "feeling" Alexander is talking about, the "huge ocean" that
connects the consciousness of human beings, is what distinguishes us from a
computing machine. I called it, coincidentally, "a sea of meaning" that
immerses us all. But I had no idea how concrete this could be until Alexander
points to a yellow tower (tower of the wild goose, Hunan Province, China, AD
600, photograph on p.10) as having "the smile of the Buddha, of life and
simplicity". This sent a bolt of recognition through me, making the hairs on my
back stand on end, for it was unmistakably "the smile of the Buddha"
that I saw in the yellow tower.
What is the elusive order that makes good architecture,
arousing feelings that could so unerringly connect the smile of the Buddha with
the yellow tower?
Mechanical order is what mechanical physics talks about, that has all
but taken over the whole of science, infiltrating into the public consciousness
at large. But the order in a Mozart symphony, a tea bowl, and the yellow tower
is "a harmonious coherence which fills us and touches us", which cannot be
represented as a mechanism; "the mechanistic view always makes us miss the
The mechanistic idea of order can be traced back to French
philosopher-mathematician Descartes around 1640. His message was: if you want
to know how something works, you can find out by pretending it is a
machine. Descartes was thus prescribing a method for investigating nature, he
didnt really believe mechanism was the nature of things. But people took
him far too literally, and thats what resulted in the mechanistic
modernism of the past century.
The mechanistic view also led to the disappearance of "I" from the world
picture, what it is to be a person, as is inevitable from the emphasis on
objectivity in science. It has annihilated our inner experience.
Value disappeared, or went underground, and with it, feeling; and so the idea
of order fell apart.
A sneak preview of things to come appears in a cryptic footnote on p.4,
where it says that "all space and matter, organic or inorganic, has some degree
of life in it...matter/space is more alive or less alive according to its
structure and arrangement.... all matter/space has some degree of "self" in it,
[and]...this self...is something which infuses all matter/space, and everything
we know as matter but now think to be mechanical..."
There are other clues. Contrasting old and new buildings, the author
points out how the fake arches of Frank Lloyd Wrights Marin County (San
Francisco) Civic Center in California are "purely decorative, not structurally
real" and damns Eero Saarinens war memorial building in Minneapolis as
"gross, brutal, and appalling".
But arent these judgments purely subjective and a matter of taste?
No. Alexanders proposal is precisely that such things as relative
degree of life, of harmony, or degree of wholeness, which he
demands of good architecture, "objectively exists", and are not merely
subjective or matters of opinion.
In A Pattern Language, he and his colleagues described a number
of key patterns in cities, buildings, gardens and building details, which are
good and necessary to support life. But how is that related to the
degree of life, harmony or wholeness?
According to strict cannons of modernist science, one cannot make
statements about good patterns, but many people became convinced
that those statements in pattern language are "in some sense true". Most
modernist/postmodernist architecture reflects a "one-sided mechanistic way of
understanding order", contrasting with an "organic view of order" thats
good and life-enhancing.
Before we talk about the degree of life, we need a new, expanded
concept of life. Life is much more than a self-reproducing biological
machine that one reads in biological textbooks. "It is a quality which
inheres in space itself, and applies to every brick, every stone, every person,
every physical structure of any kind at all, that appears in space. Each thing
has its life."
But thats precisely how traditional Chinese artists have viewed
nature: nothing is dead; everything is vibrant and alive. There is no category
of painting corresponding to nature morte or still life.
"The active creation of a non-natural structure which clearly has life,
and which is alive, is very much more than merely preserving nature." Alexander
insists. And needless to say, it is also not about slavishly
mimicking or copying nature.
A breaking wave in the sea has a kind of life that moves us, so
does the ripple on a tranquil pond. A clear mountain pool has life, as opposed
to a stagnant pond. Marble feels alive, as wood does, more so than
polymerized stone dust or chipboard.
Although Alexander doesnt say so, I believe thats at least
partly because natural things and phenomena result from real processes
with a coherent history, and carry the imprints of the successive
gestures that brought them into being.
Similarly, theres degree of life in human events, and it
correlates with the quality of freedom. Or should I say spontaneity: an
unplanned, unpremeditated coherence of action.
In a remarkable passage (p.38) Alexander captures the ideal of
spontaneity and freedom that describes the sublime moment of creation in
Chinese art and poetry, that I identified with the state of perfect (quantum)
coherence with the universe; but he sees it also in the most ordinary living
"The freedom which arises when life is at its most spiritual, and also
most ordinary, arises just when we are "drunk in God", as the Sufis say
most blithe and most unfettered. 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."
He invites us next to experience the feeling of life in traditional
buildings and works of art: a Minoan vase, a Danish courtyard, a Korean ceramic
stand for a teapot, Green and yellow tiles from a mosque, a stone column
capital carved by Romanesque masons, an archway in India: "dark shadows, bright
light, cool and soul-like".
"In every one of these examples we experience an intense feeling of
life. We experience it in the objects themselves and in their parts. And, in
keeping with the idea of order, the life we experience seems very much to lie
in the geometry, in the actual geometrical arrangement of the thing."
This passage reminds me of Clive Bells designation, a century
earlier, of the "significant form" supposed to underlie all good
works of art, which has greatly influenced my own thinking on the seamless
connection between science and art. The "significant form" is a coherence of
part and whole, an authenticity and transparency that captures and moves the
human soul, that arouses feelings of the "sublime"..
Alexander insists that the quality he calls life in those traditional
buildings exists as a quality, not the same as the biological life we
recognize in organisms, but "a larger idea, and a more general one."
The feeling of "deep life" in traditional artifacts is less common in
the 20th century, because "the processes needed to create life were
damaged in the 20th century."
In part, those examples feel alive because they are, as far as possible,
"concept-free"; so much for contemporary conceptual art.
For Alexander, the "comfortable ordinariness in its thousands of
manifestations" as much as "the high points of modern art", are all produced by
the same structure, which is "life". So it is that the slum in Bangkok,
Thailand, ends up having more life than a postmodernist house in West
StockBridge, Massachusetts, in the United States.
In a series of paired photographs, Alexander invites his readers to
compare the relative degree of life in each, and people almost invariably agree
with him; even my seven-going-on-eight year-old granddaughter. If thats
not evidence of objectivity, it certainly is a sign of universality
Alexander then develops the idea of cohering centres that
define wholes. Wholes are unbounded, because centers "help" one another to
define larger wholes. He found it impossible to draw boundaries around
This converges with my notion of "entangled organic wholes" that inhabit
the quantum universe, which was inspired, in part, by the writings of English
mathematician-philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, who was intent on creating
an organic physics as opposed to the mechanistic, soon after
quantum theory threw the static Newtonian universe of absolute space and time
The organic whole, as opposed to the mechanistic whole, cannot be
decomposed into parts, for the parts are mutually entangled in the whole.
Alexander illustrates the concrete reality of the organic whole in the
four different self-portraits of the 20th century French artist
Matisse: the features are different in each case, only the wholeness remains
the same in every drawing. "In portraiture, as in architecture, it is the
wholeness which is the real thing that lies beneath the surface, and determines
"Life comes directly from the wholeness." I cannot agree more. Alexander
continues, "Centers themselves have life. Centers help one another, the
existence and life of one center can intensity the life of another. Centers are
made of centers
. A structure gets its life according to the density and
intensity of centers which have been formed in it."
This sounds quite abstract until he illustrates it using a fragment of
tile work from the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. And he makes it even more
explicit in another passage that could be read as a description of what I have
referred to as the "universal, mutual entanglement" of all Whiteheads
"organisms", which include inanimate things from galaxies to
[A]ll systems in the world gain their life, in
some fashion, from the cooperation and interaction of the living centers they
contain, always in a bootstrap configuration which allows one center to be
topped up by another, so that each one ignites a spark in the one it helps, and
that the mutual helping creates life in the whole."
There are ecological examples. The combination of reeds, shallow water
and insects at the edge of the lake help one another create life. In
agriculture, fruit tree guilds are familiar, in which different
tree species mutually affect one anothers health. Acacias help apple
trees to be vigorous and healthy; mulberries also help apple trees. Walnut
trees, on the other hand, have a negative effect on the health and productivity
of apple trees. Plants on the ground, including comfrey, clover, iris and
nasturtium, all have positive effects on apple trees.
The idea of organizing centres in the organic whole actually came from
an earlier systematizing of years of observation on what constitutes good
architecture, of things that have life. He had identified 15 structural
Later on, he found that all fifteen features are interdependent, and
could be reduced to ways in which centers can help one another in space.
Nevertheless, by presenting concrete examples in which each feature
figures most prominently, Alexander leaves us in no doubt of the practical,
empirical nature of his thesis.
Many of those features translate to the ones I have proposed for the
living organism, or sustainable systems.
Referring to the feature, "level of scale", Alexander has this to say
(p.176): "In poor design, in order to give an entity good shape [another
feature], the background space where it lies sometimes has leftover shape, or
no shape at all. In the case of living design there is never any leftover
space. Every distinct piece of space is a whole."
This is reminiscent of the deep "space-time differentiation" that all
living systems possess; the fact that living activities bridge all space-times,
from the very fast to extremely slow, from the global to the most local, which
optimizes energy transfer through the system as a whole.
Referring to "good shape", Alexander emphasizes that it is "an
attribute of the whole configuration, not of the parts"; though it comes
about "when the whole is made of parts that are themselves whole". This
corresponds to the multiple levels of local autonomy that exists in the living
system, a property that writer and scholar Arthur Koestler has earlier referred
to as "holons", wholes that are themselves parts of larger wholes.
"Local symmetries" amid global asymmetry is illustrated by the plan of
Alhambra, which overall is "wildly asymmetrical", and has nothing in common
with the "excesses of neoclassicism", for "it is free, free as a bird. Yet in
its detail, it is simply full of symmetries at many levels." Symmetrical
rooms, courtyards, pieces of wall, windows, columns, "the plan is a maze of
intricate and subtle smaller symmetries, symmetries of segments or
subsymmetries, yet none of this ever creates that dead and lifeless overall
neoclassicist symmetry of which we should rightly be afraid."
This is reminiscent of the "symmetrical coupling of activities" and
"reciprocity of energy transfer" in living systems, which is the key to
achieving dynamic balance and conserving energy within the system.
"Boundaries", similarly, correspond to levels of physical and dynamic
closures in living systems that are necessary for capturing and storing
"Alternating repetition", "roughness", and "echo" are all features
associated with the cyclic nature of living activities, the ubiquity of
biological rhythms; and yet, this is important: each cycle is never quite the
same as the one before, for life never exactly repeats.
I recall once being taken by my son to a string of shops in Los Angeles
to admire Mexican folk sculptures for the Carnival of the Dead.
These sculptures were profusely diverse, though repeated around the same
themes; they were also rough as though created in the full flight
of freedom and spontaneity, and hence very much alive. Later on in the art
museum, we came across the same sculptures, now technically perfect, but quite
dead. They have become mechanical objects manufactured to order, no longer
Alexander concludes: "Systems in space which have these fifteen
properties to a strong degree will be alive, and the more these properties are
present, the more the systems which contain them will tend to be alive." These
include living systems and natural structures, but also apply to "a bowl, a
picture, a bay window, a temple, a tiled surface."
In other words, all nature is alive, and good human artifacts partake
in creating living structure.
Alexander continues (p.292-3): " ..[A]ll of what we loosely and
traditionally call "nature"
is then characterized by just that actual
life which I have identified in the better human artifacts. Within the terms of
my definitions,...nature as a whole all of it is made of living
structure. Its forests, waterfalls, the Sahara desert and its sand dunes, the
vortices in streams, the ice crystals, the icebergs, the oceans, all of it
inorganic as well as organic has thousands of versions of living
The living character of these structures is different from the
character of other conceivable structures that could arise, and it is this
character which we may call the living character of nature."
This living character, though pervasive in nature, appears only in the
good ones among human artifacts.
Moreover, order and living structure cannot be fully
understood if we regard them merely as something in Cartesian space, separate
from ourselves. "Rather
living structure is at once both structural and
Again, according to Whitehead, all organisms are centres of "prehensive
unification", they are wholes that perceive and complete wholes.
Alexander invites us to experience certain objects as having more
"self-quality" in it than others, which correspond to those with more life, by
applying the "mirror-of-the-self test". This involves asking "which touches the
soul more deeply" , and "which creates the greatest sensation of
But surely, arent "selves" distinct? Yes, but there is a common
core, a common ground of shared experience that has to do with life in general.
Akido-trained individuals, Alexander tells us, are quite used to
discerning, and then using, their inner awareness of relative greater harmony
in themselves as a measure of the goodness of the action contemplated. There
are humanity contracting and expanding experiences, as we are all aware, as
when we commit random acts of violence or of kindness. The same is true of
buildings. It is not psychology, but physics, Alexander insists.
Indeed, action can be more or less coherent, as I have pointed out,
which has implications for the coherence (wholeness) of the organism. Coherent
action is action at its most spontaneous, most effortless and free.
In the Cartesian method of modernist science, shared experience is
arrived at based on the observation of limited events - from which the self is
absented - tied to a limited and machine-like view of some phenomenon, stripped
of extraneous associations, stereotyped and reduced; in order that the same
results can be reproduced under the same circumstances.
Alexanders method is different, it is, as said, more like an
initiation into a mature artists seeing thats almost
tactile, richly associative; the grain of experience, the texture, based on the
self, "extend and supplement the arena of permissible scientific observations
in such a way that the self of the observer is allowed to come into the
picture in an objective way."
Ultimately, "space must be considered an almost living entity a
kind of stuff which, depending on the recursive structures that are built up in
it, becomes progressively more and more alive."
Why is that important? Because "the geometry of the physical world
its space- has the most profound impact possible on human being; it has
impact on the most important of all human qualities, our inner freedom, or the
sense of life each person has. It touches on internal freedom, freedom of the
spirit." This sense of freedom is coherence by another name.
Too many inner city slums have been generated by bad housing projects
that dehumanize and degrade our sense of life.
But this does not mean we should be plastering buildings with useless
ornaments. Alexander reminds us (p.404): "No building (and no part of any
building) has real life unless it is deeply and robustly functional. What I
mean by this, is that the beauty and force of any building arises always, and
in its entirety, from the deep functional nature of the centers that have been
"In nature there is essentially nothing that can be identified as a
pure ornament without function. Conversely, in nature there is essentially no
system that can be identified as functional which is not also beautiful in an
Life is in the very substance of space itself. "As such, it is capable
of laying a foundation for all of architecture, for the construction of a
living world." This is not merely a poetic way of talking, he reminds us. It is
a new physical conception of how the world is made and how it must be
This book is available online from www.natureoforder.com
A fully referenced version
of this article is posted on ISIS Members website.
Full details here