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 http://www.natureoforder.com/
fully referenced version of this article is posted on ISIS
Members’ website. Full details here
When the author tells you he spent 27 years on a
four-volume work, most people would hesitate to ask to read
it. But that’s exactly what I did.
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 what’s the message? I
knew I had to make time for it; something told me it was
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’
Building creates physical order, but what does ‘order’
mean? There is a way of understanding order that’s 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 that’s "against life, insane,
image-ridden, hollow." Many readers will resonate to those
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 that’s
essentially mechanistic, which "makes it impossible to make
It is "the nature of order" which lies at the root of the
problem of architecture.
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 doesn’t help make a beautiful
building. Crystals have order, but that’s static and limited.
Proposals of "generative process" are important for biological
development, but not immediately applicable to buildings.
Similarly, French mathematician Rene Thom’s "theory of
catastrophes" describing morphogenesis (the formation of
shapes), and American-born quantum physicist David Bohm’s
"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 well-worn paths.
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…[T]he 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 that’s what we are urged to do as
‘objective’ scientists. We must leave our ‘subjective’
feelings and prejudices behind, for science is ‘neutral’ and
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 people’s aspirations and ethical concerns, and
to conduct cruel and inhumane experiments in the name of
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 essential thing."
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 didn’t
really believe mechanism was the nature of things. But people
took him far too literally, and that’s 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
Wright’s Marin County (San Francisco) Civic Center in
California are "purely decorative, not structurally real" and
damns Eero Saarinen’s war memorial building in Minneapolis as
"gross, brutal, and appalling".
But aren’t these judgments purely subjective and a matter
of taste? No. Alexander’s 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" that’s ‘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 that’s 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
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 doesn’t say so, I believe that’s 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
Similarly, there’s degree of life in human events, and it
correlates with the quality of freedom. Or should I say
spontaneity: an unplanned, unpremeditated coherence of
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
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 Bell’s 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
In part, those examples feel alive because they are, as far
as possible, "concept-free"; so much for contemporary
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 that’s not
evidence of ‘objectivity’, it certainly is a sign of
universality and transparency.
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 wholes.
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 into disarray.
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 everything."
"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 Whitehead’s
"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
another’s 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 features.
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
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
"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
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 energy.
"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 inspired
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 structure…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 personal."
Again, according to Whitehead, all organisms are centres of
"prehensive unification", they are wholes that perceive and
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, aren’t "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,
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
Alexander’s method is different, it is, as said, more like
an initiation into a mature artist’s seeing that’s
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
Too many inner city slums have been generated by bad
housing projects that dehumanize and degrade our sense of
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 created.
"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 ornamental
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 http://www.i-sis.org.uk/www.natureoforder.com
fully referenced version of this article is posted on ISIS
Members’ website. Full details here