Chris...'s Gold Box
A Commentary for Readers of The Nature Of Order, Book 2
By Christopher Alexander

Many millions of people - by some counts (Paul Ray, Cultural Creatives) as many as sixty million Americans - are waiting for a paradigm change, and believe themselves to be in a paradigm change. They are convinced that society must change, that radically new ways of seeing the world are necessary in order to for us to get out of our present "mess."

So far, so good.

But a real paradigm change - a way of thinking which really and truly changes our ideas about war, equality, money, jobs, leisure, family… all that may be easy to say, but is nevertheless very hard to DO. It is frightening to do, because to do it, we really have to change the things we are comfortable with. We may, yes indeed, be conscious of the fact that we are screwed up, and we may wish for better things for ourselves and for our children - but we remain enmeshed in a system which makes us secure (relatively), happy (relatively), morally OK (perhaps), and protected from starvation and disease (if we belong to the privileged 10% of the world's population who are economically OK in the world today).

But, we ourselves are enmeshed, deeply enmeshed, in the production of ugliness, zoning, banking, transportation, corporate America, making warplanes, destroying beautiful land by permitting and encouraging construction of freeways for our cars, and by permitting and encouraging the ravages of commercial development and strip malls. No matter how much we look down on it, and criticize it as bad, evil, and harmful - still we ourselves live off the product of this kind of America we hate. It is therefore easier to keep walking as a cripple with a pair of crutches, than it is to throw the crutches away, and take the huge effort of actually learning to walk again.

We are part of that which we criticize and part of that which we hate. Yet we are sustained by that of which we are a part.

So talking about a paradigm shift is nice stuff for armchair reading, but very much harder to DO.

Book 2 of The Nature Of Order comes closer to confronting this problem than Book 1. It confronts it, because it addresses the daily processes we live by -- in construction, in planning, and in building the world - it sets forth an entirely new way of understanding process, and therefore sets forth an entirely new way of changing and living our lives, and living a changed life.

If it sounds too much like religion, throw that thought away. It is about the real practical processes of house building, banking, gardening, fixing your room, acting towards people you care for, earning your paycheck, what you may usefully strive towards, and what you should usefully decide to abandon (even if that comes with your paycheck and as the price of the paycheck). It is entirely down to earth, and it invites a new way of existing, in which every act, makes some, discernible, small difference to the beauty of the world immediately around us.

In some ways, because it is filled with this advice about process and with mathematical descriptions of life-creating processes at the root of all nature; and because the processes are truly mind-changing when applied to buildings and to our world (they are based on a set of considerations almost never thought about today, and they ignore a set of considerations which are the locks and chains that keep us in order today) this Book 2 of the four books of the Nature of Order may perhaps be the most radical, and the most far-reaching of the four books, if taken seriously. It is certainly the one which has got me, personally, into the most trouble.

When my colleagues and I wrote the Pattern Language, thirty years ago, that was my first attempt to move towards a world in which all the people of the world, together, make the world beautiful. Although today, thirty years later, pattern language is used by millions, at that time many people - architects especially -- came down on it, tried to keep it away by dumping epithets on it, "opinion masquerading as fact", and so on. But that book did not yet deeply threaten the professional architect's daily form of existence. Architects believed that, as they were, ultimately, they could absorb the content of the patterns and put that to work in buildings and communities - and that they would be able to do this without harm to the paradigm that keeps architecture going, without harm to the paradigms of professional planning, or construction, or banking, or architectural education. In short, the patterns, nice little ideas, could be eaten, crunched up and digested, and then become part of the great machine of architecture, without really changing it.

And, indeed, that is what happened. That is what we now have in the regurgitated form of postmodernism and new urbanism, co-opted by banks and magazine editors, a pale touch of class hiding inside a continuation of the image-ridden society of the 70's, with a few sprinkled bits of moral spice to assuage the conscience of the developers themselves, the bankers, and their clients.

Book 2 starts something different. Based on the fact that living structure has been defined in Book 1, it becomes possible to study cases where living structure exists in the world we build, and where it does not. The intellectual tools of Book 1, make sober judgments possible, case by case. And what it then becomes possible to do, in Book 2, is to dissect the cases - among our daily processes - which act in the service of life and help to sustain life, and separate them from the more common accepted processes which continue to cripple life, which continue to damage life.

This all becomes visible, and hard to escape. It really works, too. It is not just clever guff, which doesn't lead very far. It works, hook, line and sinker. It really works.

And that, as I say, is where it got me into plenty of trouble, especially at the University of California, Berkeley. When I began writing and teaching about the kinds of processes which would lift architecture and architecture processes out of the mud that they are in today, students began paying attention. Students found that the subject of architecture is more interesting when it is looked at like that. It gets better results. People get excited.

But - and here comes the slammer - as they learned these things, it also made these same students very suspicious of the "normal" ways of doing architecture that they were learning day in, day out, in the classes they went to. So, of course, students started taking more and more of my classes, more and more of the classes my close colleagues offered, and less and less of the classes my more conservative and professional colleagues offered. The students also started asking very awkward questions about WHY, why architecture was done and taught in the fashion of the 1980s, and why they were forced to learn it when it was so obviously wrong. These questions alarmed, angered, and sometimes terrified the professors in the school. Otherwise-respectable professors began forcing students to take the classes which did NOT make as much sense, in order to prevent them from having access to the dangerous new material. The more devious and political professors started making arrangements, clever, barely seen arrangements, which made it administratively more and more difficult for students to give their concentrated study to these new ways of seeing process.

If you are reading this, you may believe that the ills of our architecture can be solved by good design. Sustainable design thinking is the latest design fad, and some people believe that ugliness, commercialism, strip malls, tract houses and so on will go away if we use sustainable design ideas. But it isn't so.

A genuinely new way of thinking about the world cannot arise from sustainable design thinking or from any other design idea. Sustainable architecture , like all the other innovative design movements, has merely made a small side step which allows the far deeper non-living processes of contemporary development to continue. All that happens when these world-changing ideas are attempted within the existing paradigm, is that nothing really changes. That is because it is not the designs, but the processes, which must first change, and until that happens no significant change will occur.

That is what Book 2 is about: The nature of the life-giving processes which are needed to heal the built world, and first steps in an accurate, carefully thought out way of defining and implementing these life giving processes. Even then it is not simple to move the world in this direction. The idea that there are such a things as definable and palpable life-giving processes, was real to my students at Berkeley. Students are smart, they are fairly free in their heads, and they can see when something like this is true. So they flocked to the classes in which this was happening, and began not attending the classes that the "other" professors wanted them to attend.

This HAD TO BE STOPPED by the authorities. Of course, because Western civilization would fail if it was not stopped, and the architectural establishment would collapse, and God knows whatever other dangerous things would happen, too. So the Department did their best to stop this material from being taught. We had quite a donnybrook at Berkeley, from about 1985 to about 1992, a first -amendment legal case between me and the Department of Architecture, which finally concluded after seven years, in the University agreeing that the new material must be permitted and must be taught. But it was so frightening to the faculty, that three years later, the University Administration turned tail, and found yet another way to make it impossible for me to teach these classes.

So this is what you have in Book 2: The Forbidden Classes of Christopher Alexander at Berkeley, 1985 to 1992… all the knowledge that was too dangerous to allow the students to take, or to absorb, is presented in this book.

Yes, it is dangerous. Because if you start to understand how everyday processes in our normal lives are linked (or not) to the creation of life, in us, in our neighborhoods, in our surroundings, …then everything will change.

This material comes from new ways of thinking about the way the world unfolds. It suggests a new vocabulary of thought about living process, defines some of the main ideas, shows hundreds of examples, and discusses, patiently, carefully, all along, why and how one process destroys life, and why another process enhances life.

At the end of the book there is a sixty-page section on building a single house, showing what happens when the life creating processes are in charge, and what kind of house you get: a living structure.

The idea of process thinking has been a large part of the last few decades. But the idea of living process is new. The suggestion that the harmony of the earth, which occurred naturally at one time, almost by itself, is dependent on a class of processes which we have not previously recognized: that is entirely new.

That is something you can think about. The book sets forth a new way of looking at the world scientifically, not only politically, which shows how living structure can be encouraged, and how all the sciences, as well as large scale social and artistic processes, are likely to be modified by this kind of thinking.

What to do next? A great question. Look at The Process Of Creating Life to get to grips with it. Think about it for yourself. Perhaps then, truly, nothing will ever be the same. --Christopher Alexander

Purchase all four of the books in The Nature of Order series.

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