possible sidebarThis is the first of a 4-volume set comprising roughly 2000 pages of Christopher Alexander’s magnum opus, which he ambitiously subtitles “An Essay on the Art of Building and The Nature of the Universe.” The volumes are considered as volumes 9-12 in a series whose most well-known book has been A PATTERN LANGUAGE (1977). The remaining 3 books in THE NATURE OF ORDER are: BOOK 2: THE PROCESS OF CREATING LIFE, BOOK 3: A VISION OF A LIVING WORLD, and BOOK 4: THE LUMINOUS GROUND. ORANGE TEXT indicates what Whole Earth Review used in the Winter 2001 issue.
[optional first paragraph] In the Pattern Language, Alexander and colleagues answered many problems with the built environment by proposing a large set of connected directives for everyday choices in planning, design and construction, such as “Vary ceiling heights continuously throughout the building.” Although there was some chaff with the wheat, the Pattern Language attracted thousands of fans and users because it was people-centered, good-hearted, persuasive, and directly usable.
25 years after the Pattern Language, [Now] THE NATURE OF ORDER meticulously and seductively unfolds a tapestry of thought mapping out the unity and life underlying all levels of physical form. To enter this rich fabric of thought is to dive headlong into a vast, hypnotic network of richly ordered centers. The intricate geometry of the oriental carpets he has so intensively studied has given Alexander a lens for studying everything in nature and everything we humans build, and now he wants to give that tool to all of us. As you’d expect, the result is the direct opposite of a quick series of soundbytes!
The idea of wholeness is not new; it was much cultivated in the 20th century in fields like ecology, cybernetics and systems theory. What IS new is for a mathematically trained and humanistic architect to devote decades to rigorously articulating a new vision for seeing and form-making in the physical world. As an architect (and former student of Alexander’s), I find it incredibly refreshing to try to weave these ideas into my daily design work and into the evolution of my own little homestead.
The examples in THE PHENOMENON OF LIFE substantiate in minute, scientific detail my long-felt intuitive sense that much of the “modern” architecture of the 20th Century substitutes flash, harshness and random visual jazz for life, centeredness and humanity. In comparing numerous pairs of images, Alexander gently educates the eye in seeing how modern architecture often bulges with ego, technological prowess and form-making cleverness, but is short on soul, heart, and an understanding of exactly what makes some buildings and places LIVE more than others.
[moved to end] In the design world, I know of no other architectural theoretician, critic, editor or philosopher offering any thought remotely as inspiring, challenging, or comprehensive.
Alexander’s critique of modernism does not imply that traditional or popular architectures have all the answers either. Instead, seeking deep wholeness and life requires transcending the modernist-traditionalist dichotomy to enter into a timeless realm where geometry merges with spirit. As Alexander once suggested, the search requires a meditative approach: “There needs to be a balance of calm and emptiness with the fuss and delirium of detail for the unity to establish itself and take hold.”* Indeed, one of the “15 Fundamental Properties of things which have life” is “the void,” that calm place where emptiness speaks to the depths within us.
------------------------------ (* the quote above appears in modified form on p.225. The actual wording is from an unpublished draft list of the Fundamental Properties.)
Possible sidebar Alexander’s sweeping idealistic vision has in recent years begun to use the Internet as a vehicle, true to the Net’s populist origins as a beaurocracy-free tool of individual empowerment. At HYPERLINK "http://www.patternlanguage.com" www.patternlanguage.com, you are offered a full understanding of the pattern language, the sequences of patterns needed to design effectively, examples of buildings and places rich in patterning, design and construction management services, new types of contract forms, an order form for publications, links to local designers and builders, even a series of pithy editorials known as “Coffee with Chris.” In addition, many empowering tools are “under development,” including tools for Purchasing Land, What You Can Afford, House Volume Layout, Getting Permit Drawings from Your Sketch, Sub-Contract Forms, and Building Directly from Your Own Sketch. In themselves, these tools – if they work as promised – will be radical offerings toward the demystification and public accessibility of architecture and building, to be given away free or for the very low price of becoming a member of the site. And if the website and its way of action becomes as popular as its creators hope, the world will be built – and perceived – differently afterwards, and with more life.
Suggested illustrations: a built place, an oriental carpet, a hand-drawn sketch, a pattern from nature. Problem: crude illustrations in the prepublication copy. I couldn’t find a carpet illustration that I thought would copy well, but in the attached JPG file are suggestions for the other 3, chosen for clarity in small-scale black and white reproduction.