Will Szal Profile picture
Jul 25 44 tweets 18 min read
In 2002, architect #ChristopherAlexander published the first volume of his magnum opus, "#TheNatureOfOrder." It is a book that endeavors to answer the question: what is #aliveness, and how can cultivate it in our #BuiltEnvironment?
Here's the review on the dust jacket: "Five hundred years is a long time, and I don't expect that many of the people I interview will be known in the year 2500. Alexander may be an exception." - David Creeman
Alexander begins by asking the question, why is contemporary architecture so terrible? "In the 20th century we have passed through a unique period, one in which architecture as a discipline has been in a state that is almost unimaginably bad."
I too find myself musing on this question as I sit in the waiting room at a doctor's office, park my car in a garage, or go through airport security. How did we end up with a built environment that actively degrades our lives? Does it have to be this way?
Alexander would suggest: no. Throughout history, cultures have established methods of architecture that enrich the human experience. He posits that this has been caused by a loss of the ability and desire to discern aliveness.
Alexander has a degree in mathematics, and approaches his subject matter systematically. When looking at aliveness, he establishes that aliveness is a property of space and matter, not only of biological organisms.
Next, he establishes that aliveness exists on a spectrum: anything can be more or less alive. In the built environment, we have agency to influence where something—a door nob, and window, a room, and village, a region—falls on this spectrum.
(15th century prayer carpet—Ushak, Anatolia. Very alive!)
So how do we discern aliveness? After decades of experimentation, Alexander has found that it is an objective property. Although it is a discipline requiring practice, the basic tenet is the #somatic question, "which of these things, manifestations, etc brings me more aliveness?"
He describes this as the #MirrorOfTheSelf test; "which of the two things generates, in the observer, the most wholesome feeling?" It should be noted that this question is fundamentally different and divergent from the question, "which do I like better?"
Alexander contextualizes this as a second kind of #science. Whereas the first kind of science was #Cartesian, founded by #Descartes, was focused on #mechanisms, this second kind of science is focused on #wholeness.
I've just reviewed another book, by @andrea_wulf, documenting the rich heritage in this second science of wholeness including the likes of #Goethe #Humboldt #Jefferson #Thoreau #Marsh #Haeckel and #Muir librarything.com/work/16333626/…
The core of Alexander's text is organized around fifteen #PrinciplesOfWholeness:
1. #LevelsOfScale: "the centers these objects are made of tend to have a beautiful range of sizes, and that these sizes exist at a series of well-marked levels, with definite jumps between them."
2. #StrongCenters: "The field effect and the power of 'the' center are created by the sequence of other nearby centers leading up to it."
3. #Boundaries: "focuses attention on the center... by forming the field of force which creates and intensified the center... [and] it unites the center which is being bounded with the world beyond the boundary."
4. #AlternatingRepetition: "The rhythm of the repeating centers, slowly, like the beat of a drum, intensifies the field effect... The second system of centers then intensifies the first system, by providing a kind of counterpoint, or opposing beat."
5. #PositiveSpace "occurs when every bit of space swells outward, is substantial in itself, is never the leftovers from an adjacent shape."
6. #GoodShape: "a shape we see as good is a shape which is itself, as a shape, made up from multiple coherent centers."
7. #LocalSymmetries: "local symmetries work to create coherent, while overall symmetry rarely does... Indeed, perfect symmetry is often a mark of death in things, rather than life."
8. #DeepInterlockAndAbiguity: "situations where centers are 'hooked' into their surroundings"
9. #Contrast: "every center is made from discernible opposites, and intensified when the not-center, against which it is opposed, is clarified, and itself becomes a center."
10. #Gradients: "must arise in the world when the world is in harmony with itself simply because conditions vary."
11. #Roughness: "seemingly rough arrangement is more precise because it comes from a much more careful guarding of the essential centers in the design... roughness is always the product of abandon—it is created whenever a person is truly free... doing only whatever is essential."
12. #Echoes: "there is a deep underlying similarity—a family resemblance—among the elements, so deep that everything seems to be related."
13. #TheVoid: "in the most profound centers which have perfect wholeness, there is at the heart a void which is like water, infinite in depth, surrounded by and contrasted with the clutter of the stuff and fabric all around it."
14. #SimplicityAndInnerCalm: "the quality comes about when everything unnecessary is removed... It is essential that the great beauty and intricacy of the ornament go only just far enough to bring this calm into being, and not so far that it destroys it."
15. #NotSeperateness: "we experience a living whole as being at one with the world, and not separate from it."
So these are Alexander's fifteen Principles of Wholeness. He then goes on to document these principles as they arise in #nature, followed be a segment of #CaseStudies illustrating how these principles have informed the design work of Alexander's firm.
This culminates in a story of Alexander’s experience designing the #EishinSchool campus in #Tokyo.
For the 50th anniversary of the attack on #PearlHarbor, the #JapaneseNationalTelevisionCompany produced a program showing five examples of Japanese-American collaboration since the war. The Eishin campus was one of the five.
When beginning the project, Alexander asked the teachers at the school, "image a most wonderful place where you could dream of being a teacher... You are walking about there... What is it like, where you are walking?"
At first, the teachers were frustrated, having trouble envisioning a campus in Tokyo being a place they could love being, but eventually they humored Alexander.
"I am walking along by a stream, quietly thinking." Themes of water and quiet kept emerging. When building the school, they were able to turn a wetland in the middle of the site into a lake.
A few years after the new campus opened, the students created a film about their experience at the school. It began with them running through the streets of Tokyo, panting like dogs.
Eventually they run through the campus gates, find the lake, and dive in, clothes and all. Joy pervades their galavanting.
Back in the documentary, they interviewed one of the students: "I grew up in Tokyo... I felt like I was in prison... When I came to... this campus... For the first time in my life, I felt that I was #free."
So this is one anecdote about Alexander's Principles of Wholeness in practice.
In reflecting on the book, I'm struck by the way in which the principles and practices he describes can be applied in any discipline—of course in the aesthetic fields of music, art, and writing—but also in fields like entrepreneurship and science.
I have some sadness that Alexander—who was quite well-read—describes his objective somatic science of discerning wholeness as "new," and that he failed to realize the rich and storied heritage leading up to his authorship of this book.
(Although, implicitly he acknowledges this heritage, by the wealth of imagery and cultures he cites in his illustrations of wholeness and aliveness.)
I hope you've found this thread intriguing and inspiring.
If you're curious to explore the somatic science described herein further, you might read the works of @biopoetics and #DavidAbram, as well as @ceisenstein's "The More Beautiful World Your Heart Knows Is Possible."
This thread just covers the first ("The Phenomenon of Life") of four volumes in Alexander's series, "The Nature of Order." In coming months, I may write subsequent threads documenting the three other volumes.

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