A Metaphysics of Planning: The I, Feeling, and Process

Thank you to John and the Congress for the invitation to speak to you today.  Were Nikos Salingaros here he would tell you that volume one of Chris Alexander’s The Nature of Order is on its way and should be out in July.  I, like many of you, have been waiting for several years for The Nature of Order to hit the streets.  Unlike many of you, however, I had the opportunity to read this manuscript two years ago, and to interview Chris about his most recent work.  I want to try to tell you about that work in light of the question before us today--What is metaphysical planning, and can I get one designed by Michael Graves at Target?

To begin, I will do something here today  rather different than what Salingaros would have done.  He is a mathematician and scientist.  He is attempting to describe a scientific architecture.  I am a philosopher and my goal is to understand the world, human life and practices, in their living aspect; in the way that I, a metabolically vital, adaptive, and varying organism encounter them in an equally vital, varying environment.  I want the world alive and vast in my philosophical researches, and not reduced to dead matter.

Fragmentation and Task

With you, I am perhaps most interested in the totality of our environment, its problems and the task of addressing the problems.  The problems, first of all, are those of the human person in relation to the world and our structures.  The problem is that contemporary cities and suburbs get in the way of living well with our fellow beings.  One of the marks of this problem is the alienation felt by individuals in post-industrial, post-urban society.  Another is the disintegration of social interaction.  The absence of people on foot from our streets is evidence of this.  Cars interact but people don't.  The city has become a disjointed, patched up container of egoic expression and separate human lives, where life enjoys itself only here and there.  It is a fundamental human problem, this general fragmentation, and it produces a fundamental human task—that of finding or making a home, which is that place in which we ourselves are found, and to make a place in which better to live among our fellow beings.

Suffering in the City

Since we are part of the city system, one thing I've learned in my experience there, is that the urban is a field of suffering.  In other words, there are conflicts inherent in being human city-dwellers.  Now there are two ways to take suffering.  By the estimation of the best analysts of suffering, the Buddhists, if Buddha represents the best manifestation of humanity, the model of liberation, then suffering is a sort of de-humanizing behavior.  Suffering is the universal tendency of beings to isolate, distinguish and fragment, to become devoted to individual pursuits at the exclusion of the whole.  This is a fact of life, really. But on the other hand, when we speak of suffering, we refer to a sort of undergoing, or experiencing.  It is a passive reception, in terms of being a place where something occurs.  The Greek paschein, 'to suffer' or 'to endure' is the root of our 'passive' and 'passion', thus indicating experience and feeling.   So suffering as feeling is part of the ground of human existence, but we seek to alleviate suffering as isolation as far as possible, which is the point of religion and ethics, but also of architecture and urban planning.  We are most human when we experience or feel our real union with living reality.  We are less human, and therefore suffer most, when we break apart from this condition.  Because I am dealing with the world as a living field of being, and because the vocabulary of life is a thread running from start to finish in Alexander’s work, I choose to examine the experience of the city that I have had from the perspective of living things in their environment, and what Alexander calls the "I" or wholeness.  For Alexander, this suffering especially takes the form of the disappearance of the "I" from modern and contemporary building.  This disappearance is the focus of his critical thrust.

I am going to forego a general introduction to Alexander's long series of works, of which the Nature of Order is the theoretical culmination.  I am glad to say something during the discussion on that matter.  Suffice it to say that the theoretical works all anticipate and point to the much greater scope and ambition, and to the deeper vision of the four volumes of the Nature of Order.  It is a moving work, architecturally, spiritually, and philosophically.

In it several themes are brought together and refined, sometimes in new terminology, but the continuity with his previous books is clear: life, feeling, wholeness, centers, gradual growth, adaptation, positive space, holistic vision, beautiful geometry, living process and structure.  There is a great deal more in this book than I have time to speak of in several talks.  So I will focus on the aspect of the Nature of Order that I take to be most difficult to grasp, most new, but most specific about what life and wholeness are in our cities.  This is the "I", capital "I".

The I: Alexander

There is a human way of embodying this "I", as Heidegger recognized.  He said our human way of being is the way which poses questions about being and thus is capable of recognizing being when it encounters it.   But the "I" is not even visible in the ordinary sense of that word.  It is not the ego nor is it an object such as a transcendent God or some sort of substance, like the old idea of a soul.  So what are we dealing with here?  Alexander describes it thus in volume four:

1.      It is ultimate, beyond experience . . . the core of all living structures . . . the driving force behind what must be done. (ibid.)  It lies in me and beyond me (4:1:2), is without form and name (4:1:2), lies behind matter, is connected to all living structure (4:1:4) and therefore is impersonal (4:pref, 4:1:2).  It is the ground of all things but fused with matter (4:1:2).

2.      It is vast (4:pref).  It is a unity (4:1:4).

3.      It soaks through all matter (4:pref) and is meta-physical (4:2:6).  It constitutes another dimension, a second domain.

4.      But it is also personal (4:1:2)  The individual self is "a small extension of a greater and infinite self" (4:1:3).

5.      It is the full connection (4:2:6), whereas the ego, the individual self is a partial connection.

6.      "It is humble and enormous: that thing in common which each one of us has in us." (4:pref)

7.      It is a kind of light.  It is the spirit which animates (4:pref) , but a material or physical spirit. It is the face of God (4:2:11).


It is probably obvious that Alexander's thought has some similarity in its language with mystical or meditative traditions.  It requires that we admit that there is more to "I" than ego and individuality.  This has been obvious to many of these traditions for thousands of years.  To cite only a few examples: the writers of the Chandogya Upanishad said it this way:

“That which is the finest essence--this whole world has that as its self.  That is Reality.  That is Self.  That is you . . ." (6.10.3)


And, from the Katha Upanishad:


The one inner self of all things

corresponds in form to every form, and yet is outside . . .

The inner self of all things, . . .

who makes his form manifold--

The wise . . . perceive him as standing in oneself . . . ! (5.9, 12; also 3.12, Chan. 3.14.4; 5.18.1)


 The Self is the universal "I".  It is what one shares in common with the totality, and with each thing.  Other philosophical traditions also employ some form of universal personality.  Isn’t this “I” also to be discerned in the Mahayana Buddhist doctrine that all beings have Buddha Nature, for the Buddha of Buddhism is one’s own reality which one need only recognize or awaken to, and so the Buddha, while being global, vast, and universally accessible, is also "I", one's closest self.  Salvation from suffering, in this case,  is effected by one’s own effort, not by the historical Buddha, and yet the historical Buddha is a model of that possibility.  Finally, the Chinese understood there to be a way that Nature has of being and working.  This is the Tao, the Way, and it is our way as well, because we are part of Nature.  Lao Tzu says,

[B]alance your life force

and embrace the One

Without separation. (10)


Respect the world as your self:

The world can be your lodging. (13)



Humans follow earth, earth follows heaven, heaven follows Tao

Tao follows its own nature. (25)


Chuang Tzu says,

When heaven and humanity are not in dispute

then we can say this is the true man. (ch. 6)

The temptation in regard to this "I" is either to picture it to be something in the way this podium is something, or to think it is nothing, a scientific mistake that is easily dismissed because, as Alexander admits, it cannot be mathematically formulated, since it is not finite--it is one, complete, exhaustive and indivisible (4:2:6).  It is a matter for intuitive experience.  Contemporary science may provide support here, for it is unique in the cognitive history of humanity in mathematizing chaos and complexity, while seeking and finding order and unity therein.  The non-sensible whole is the order to the apparent chaos, the simple unity of the apparent complex multiplicity.  It is what the multiverse is as universe.

If we think of all there is as one infinite system, the "I" is not the simple super-structure or whole of every existing sub-structure or part.  It is what I will call the summa (or highest) structure, the unique whole which is the living universe.  Systemically it is the principle of being that is true of each singular thing, of every superstructure which includes them, and of the whole system of being.  It is transcendental in the most extreme sense, but also entirely immanent, meta-physical, and physical.

As a system the "I" is connection for each individual thing in the world.  Even humans, despite being so free and separate, are capable of realizing this unity, this connection, though for the most part today, the connection is severed.  For Alexander the real self or person of each is not the ego, but rather what each has in common with all else (4:2:6).  That is what I, Eric, am in the deepest sense of being.  "I" is what a tree is, and the way a river flows.  The "I am" spoken by Descartes, on the other hand, is not this same "I", because his is based on the ego-defining activity of conceptual thought--in the form of doubt and belief.  The "I" of which Alexander speaks is that by which the whole is a whole, that which connects each living thing to every other living thing.  The "I" is connection, and lack of it, fragmentation--the form of our urban suffering.

It was not enough for Alexander simply to call this thing the ultimate, or the principle of being.  Who can, after all, connect with and act upon such an abstraction?  Rather it is called "I" because it is the very self of each human who might inquire about it and find it compelling in her work, and we all understand this perfectly.  As Alexander said in our interview, "You are actually inside [the structure] when you use ["I"]" to refer to its quality. The term "I" makes real the connection that "I" is.  Since it is the special task of humanity to pose the question of being, it makes sense to speak of the principle of being as that which we hold most dear--one's own self.  But of course it is the self of the living cosmos, which we each manifest.  And though it may not roll off our tongues when speaking of the city, this is only because we have ejected the "I" from the world we inhabit.

            Another way to put this is that there aren't objects forming the world out there without there always being subjects here--and vice versa.  Thus there is an inextricable connection between each person and the living environment, a unity of self and other, even if one neither conceives the whole system, nor actually experiences the connection. The point is to realize it.  In other words, the fragmentation which Alexander decries is not just any sort of looseness of relation like the collection of things on a table.  These admittedly do not form organic wholes, nor need they.  This is a lack of wholeness which is itself natural.  Rather, the fragmentation that is our suffering, is the failure of what should be organically whole for the sake of life.  On what grounds, however,  are we justified in saying that eight-lane highways, high-rise public housing, suburban sprawl, strip malls, and abandoned downtowns, are failures of what ought to be otherwise?  Because of a feeling that we have that is precise and true and objective concerning these places.


To speak clearly of the "I" we must address the issue of feeling.  Feeling is about the adaptive reception and response of the whole organism to the living flux in which it finds itself.  Feeling is the name of the conscious state of the organism as  a whole.  Feeling is a complex--it has parts, but as a determinate thing it is not reducible to these.  More specifically, a feeling for the "I" in a structure cannot be reduced to these aspects, because when I say "I like that street," it is a single, pointed thing, this liking.  I simply have the feeling of liking or disliking in relation to the street, which is connection or disconnection with the street.  In order to know what I mean in any given case of liking, you must experience the thing also, and pay attention to the feeling from your center.

Feeling is not a constant state or experience.  It arises when one participates in a certain definable situation, such as walking past a fountain, or through an intersection.  It is an encounter of the whole body with its environment.  Feeling helps to locate me in the world.

Mirror of the Self Test

This self-feeling of the “I” plays a major role in Alexander's method and theory because it is pertinent to artificial things of the environment.  He describes a test called the Mirror of the Self Test, which aids in determining which of two possible ways of making a building or a plaza has the most life.  One simply compares the two forms, paying attention not to the style but the feeling one has for the degree to which the form reflects the “I”.  Or, the architect or planner might pose questions to a future user of the structure, such as "Does this window or that window reflect you more?"  Or, "Does this courtyard remind you more of you, or does that one?"  They will not all have the same degree of life, and it is not necessary that they all be just bouncing with it.  But it is critical that the connection be the determining factor.  Does one like it deeply or find oneself there?  This is not an easy test, but the results are powerful and exact.  The experience may be hard to describe, but it is in some way "invariable."  Discovering which of two forms best carries the “I” within it, one then knows which form to build.  By training one's experience thus, Alexander tries to restore us to the possibility of building and enjoying the "I" in our environment.

Test and Feeling

We have to keep in mind that visual pleasure alone is not enough.  Vision has come in the west to be the sole important mode of perception.  Designers quite often produce visual impact in their buildings.  The Mirror of the Self Test is balanced on the global, adaptive experience I have described feeling to be. For example, in the case of two slides or models showing two courtyards, it may seem to depend on visual perception only, or a concept.  In the case of using them, resting, playing, and socializing there, this involves sight, touch, posture, hearing, temperature, and a general sense of enclosure.  Or the plan for a new downtown park in Lexington, KY, has undulating hills mimicking the rolling hills of the Bluegrass.  It is to be sheathed entirely in metal, and is the size of a soccer field bounded on three sides by busy streets.  It was the award-winning design in a competition for the space beside the new courthouses. It will be stunning, filled with sunlight, visually arresting, and likely totally unused.  Visual impact is fine, but what of the flesh as a whole--the ears, the feet, the nose, the stomach, the weariness of the bones?  Should the city not also be alive for these human aspects and relieve their suffering?  Shouldn't the experience of the person be the experience of the whole person?  It is possible to be innervated by too much visual excitement.   But that is what happens when only the eyes are addressed: they are over-stimulated and the rest of me has never been awakened. We now begin to see just how much of oneself is involved--the human as a whole and the field of experience is one's general feeling.  We also see how important it is to be on site, rather than in the office, for the Test is a deliberation with one's whole being, through the specific feeling of this organism as a whole.  The Mirror Test of the Lexington park, used with residents on site, would likely have made clear the further fragmentation of the city in this project.  The sort of experience The Nature of Order speaks of and which it refines is the feeling of being a whole psycho-physical organism in a built environment, capable of being in relation with all of being.

And in saying that a park feels warm or inviting, or that one likes design A over design B, one is describing in words the feeling of oneself in relation to a house or a park in its relation to its situation, not in isolation.  Feeling, then, becomes an accurate guide, and the possibility of enjoyment or what Alexander calls "real liking" (1:2:8:5, 6) is powerful and effective.  It is a liking of how I feel in response to something, and therefore this can be trusted for the quality of wholeness or life present in the thing.

I, Wholeness, the 15 Properties

The experience of finding oneself in the world is the experience of wholeness.  Making the "I" generates whole structures.  Wholeness is out there in the world, but reflects the in here because I am part of the world.  Wholeness is the way the "I" lives, and is natural, but can be inhibited or blocked in structures by working from mental pictures or abstractions, which are partial.  Specifically, in urban form and architecture, wholeness, or centers, places where the "I" is strong, can be analytically specified according to fifteen geometric properties:

(1)               levels of scale

(2)               strong centers

(3)               boundaries - help produce center, and focus attention

(4)               alternating repetition - intensifies centers

(5)               positive space -space swelling outward, never leftover

(6)               good shape - beautiful, powerful

(7)               local symmetries

(8)               deep interlock and ambiguity - center hooked in their surroundings, entangled

(9)               contrast

(10)           gradients - variation slowly across space

(11)           roughness - morphological (not an inferiority)

(12)           echoes - deep family resemblance

(13)           the void -

(14)           simplicity and inner calm - slowness, majesty, quietness; 

(15)           not-separateness - being at one with the world


In particular, the presence of these properties in varying degrees of intensity are the second objective test of wholeness and life in buildings and the city.  Their presence corresponds with buildings and urban landscape in which people feel alive themselves.  In general, these are fifteen principles of wholeness that may be found in any living structure or process, whether social, psychological, or what have you.  Alexander spoke of applications of  the fifteen properties in poetry criticism, software design, management consulting, anthropology, and dance, all being carried out by people who are not part of Alexander's work.  That these properties are so universally applicable is evidence of their naturalness.  The explanation for this is to be found in something made clear during our discussion--that the Nature of Order is not only "a book about architecture."  It is more importantly a philosophical work on reality and more especially our connection with it, hence my interest in it.  This world stands as our home, and in this home, when we ourselves are fully alive, and when this condition is assisted by the things we have made containing the "I", we enjoy the sense of unity that attends the naturally unfolding process found in Nature.

Even further, insists Alexander, if our cities are to be living environments, if they are to form a continuous structure of wholes at every structural level, then we must design and build cities so that one experiences the “I” at every turn. Now if a building is built simply from a picture on paper, or a city is planned on a map, how can it possibly--except by chance--be the sort of building or city to which my feelings can respond.  But if a building is built as a process, in which the acts of design and building adapt on site to the feeling of the situation's wholeness, or lack thereof, then is this not more likely to engage the living affective response of the whole person?  This requires the planner and designer to be aware of the whole situation of the city at once, and this is where cognition, or experience, is so important.

New Meaning and Function for Planning: Process

Alexander’s planning and design process has one goal: to generate wholeness.  This quality cannot be produced without using a living process, which is relatively straightforward and simple, but demands the complete attention of the planner or architect.  What it is for a process to be alive is explained in the following seven principles:

1.      is step-by-step adaptive, small increments with opportunity for feedback and correction

2.      the whole is always main focus and is governed by feeling

3.      process is guided by formation of living centers

4.      formation of centers guided by generic centers (like genes)

5.      there is a sequence of unfolding events in coherent order

6.      parts created during process always become locally unique; all repetition based on uniqueness of local situation and the corresponding uniqueness of shaped parts as they are adapted

7.      process is oriented towards formation of coherent, simple, and beautiful geometry


Such process starts from the structural wholeness that is already there, tapping into the existing cultural inheritance of patterns or centers that exhibit some degree of wholeness and life, and into physical situation already existent. (NTUD 58)  The living process, therefore, enhances the existing life or wholeness, such as it is, by following a certain order of feeling-guided actions.  It is structure-preserving, but because it is adaptive, it produces unique, situationally appropriate, living form.  Conventional planning only makes life happen here and there by chance.  Alexander's effort is to make it happen consistently at all levels of planning, design and building, from policy and regional concerns to ornament and color.

Planning, therefore, must become aware of existing wholes, sensitive to feeling, and process-oriented.  What planners, zoning commissions, and others must plan for is the use of living processes (2:2:15).  This entails working on site, elevating the role of users and their expert knowledge of the situation, in relation to which the so-called expert knowledge of the transportation engineer, central planning commission, or city bureaucrat is only ever partial.  Chris told me the story of some black residents of Berkeley who asked him to help them resist the construction of a subway station in a vibrant intersection of a residential community because they knew it would destroy that intersection.  It become clear that some changes in the plan could allow the station to be built but maintain and enhance the existing life of the place.  The city's transportation engineer argued the preferability of his plan.  It was built according to plan, and in fact, the residents were wholly correct, and the engineer was wrong: the area is lifeless to this day.  Central planning has not consistently generated life because it uses the wrong process and a foreigner's point of view.  Living structure in which people have a home comes from living process (2:preface).  This demands from the planner a constant contact with or sensitivity to the whole and to sub-wholes which are within view.

Relieving Suffering

To return to the problem of suffering and fragmentation, the planner’s task, generally conceived, is to relieve suffering by taking the possibilities of the built environment and resolving the conflicts therein.  Alexander effects this through the process of generating structures that contain the "I."  More precisely, the "I" is gradually generated through structure-preserving transformations that create a field of centers or wholeness.  To produce the "I" is to heal fragmentation gradually, both in the city and in ourselves. 

Now, Alexander is an evolutionist of built form.  He has continued to advance architectural form, and he has done so by isolating rules, patterns, geometrical principles from the careful observation of nature, and by experimenting with traditional and non-traditional building processes.  His process transforms the given patterns and the given physical situation into exactly what should be built there, with the sole criterion of increasing available wholeness.  Furthermore, he is a doctor of fragmented spaces, a tinker who repairs the site with each act of design and construction.  The result is that living structure of whatever scale surrounds us with the "I" so that we are not dehumanized by ordinary or extraordinary troubles (1:2:10:8).  His task is to bring integration to our fragmentary existence, by relieving our urban and sub-urban suffering.

Sacredness Regained: Desacralization and Urban Planning

Let me deviate from the path I have been on, and address myself briefly to the issue of sacred space.  It has been a truism of the 20th century that ours is a secular or de-sacralized age, that there is no longer anything or any place that is sacred.  And that as a result of de-sacralization from the enlightenment onwards, the human being has become more than a little superficial and lonely.  Whereas in ages past human beings have been able to live in holy cities, and near sacred mountains, among the gods, it has never been possible to speak of sacred urban design.  There have been sacred architectures, and heavenly cities.  The center of the world, Eliade tells us, was right smack dab in the middle of our village, or even where we raised the poles of our tents.

But since the time that urbanism emerged as a separate discipline--perhaps in the mid-19th century--and since the time one could receive specialized training in it, it has never been possible to take instruction in how to build the city of the Lord.  Because urbanism only came about during the desacralization of the world, it has not been possible to insist on sacred urban form as a living desiderata.  Why, then, do we speak here of meta-physical planning?

Isn't it that we are looking to endow our urban form with meaning beyond the merely monetary or the exceedingly efficient?  Aren't we hoping to re-sacralize the world?  Now it is probably not true that we are trying to re-insert God into the world.  But there is another way to restore meaning to the ball of earth and air and fire and water that we inhabit.  In volume four of the Nature of Order, it is not just possible but urgent that we undertake to make something sacred about our cities.  Because it is clear in the history of culture and of ideas that with the death/loss of God, we also suffered the loss of our selves.  The self as such was chased out of town by the thought that, like God, the unifying self was a fiction, a useless explanatory notion, and that there really was nothing but aggregations of bloody matter about us.  And perhaps we should be grateful to be freed from the idea of a separate soul imprisoned in a body.  But the alternative explanation of materialistic mechanism has only left us (feeling) empty.

But now here comes Alexander who tells us that in terms of our built environment, it is precisely the "I" that can rescue our cities from perdition, and we in turn from meaninglessness.  The loss of the "I" from the cities is coincident with the loss of sacredness.  If then we are able to experience and build our cities in such a way as to bring about a manifestation of the "I", will we not also endow our cities again with meaning?  If I cannot encounter the Self I share with all of reality, in the buildings in which I sleep and eat and work, how can I be expected to find a home, or be at home, anywhere?  Will I not always be a stranger in my own house, if the "I" is absent from its physical form?  Will I not be alone, and is this not the dis-ease of contemporary human society--the alienation from what is most dear to us?  In essence, the restoration of meaning and of the "I" to our cities is a process of repair or healing.  There is a given situation, and every act of building should undertake to increase personal and situational wholeness, to solve problems of fragmentation, to knit together the gaps between regions of life, in short to relieve suffering.  What is required is not a return to God or religion, but a mystical vision of the universe as a physical whole--the vision of our connection to it, an "attention to the ground of all things" (4:1:2).

Conclusion: Meta-physical planning

From my perspective, planning and architecture today have little regard for the process of nature; for the adaptation and wholeness of its constituent parts; and for the unfolding repair of environment and structure.  What this requires, I reckon, is a new attitude--that the world is more than a physical machine.  Planners must attend to the city as a whole, living entity, and to their own experience or feeling of it.  How the re-creation of our environment gets done in particular forms ought to be up to all of us who live there.  Should we be successful in our quest to make the fifteen properties, wholeness, and the "I" appear in even one form currently lacking it, we will indeed have begun to make beautiful and whole the entire surface of the globe.   And ultimately we will have found our homes and our selves.  Thank you.