In the May 2002 issue of RECORD, William Saunders wrote a Commentary column (page 93) on Christopher Alexander's new book The Nature of Order, Book One: The Phenomenon of Life and his 1977 classic A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. The following essay is the full version of Alexander's response to Saunders. Readers can see an edited version of this response in the December 2002 issue of Record.
William Saunders responded to this letter. See that response here.
It is unusual for a book reviewer to avoid talking about the contents of the book he is reviewing. Mr. Saunders's essay suggests, to my mind, that he felt that The Phenomenon of Life contains material so damaging to the present way of thinking about architecture that it had to be destroyed, rather than reasoned through, so as to prevent architects from reading the book at all.
If indeed that is the case, then this attempt to hide the faults of the present profession of architecture through bluster, is of interest, because it suggests how isolated the profession is from recent developments in the sciences. My book presents a proposal, ideas, and scientific evidence which, if taken together, could have enormous implications for the practice of architecture, and will, once taken seriously, inevitably change the nature of architecture in society.
An Objective Criterion Of Architectural Value
The Phenomenon of Life, describes an entirely new, scientific, criterion of architectural value. It is based on 27 years of carefully recorded observation.
The basic proposal made in the book, is that degree of life is an objective and observable characteristic of buildings and other artifacts; that it depends on the presence or absence of an identifiable structure which may be called living structure; and that it is the presence or absence of this structure which distinguishes valuable buildings from less valuable, good architecture from bad.
And this is real science, not phony social science, not work that only apes the forms of scientific investigation with manner, wording, and presentation. This is real science, in which empirical questions are being investigated, and, in spite of their inherent difficulty, the investigations are beginning to show sharable, empirical, results, which might, within a decade or two, begin to have profound effect on our society. And it is work which has massive implications for all the most basic questions of architectural design and planning.
I have written this book because of my wish to help set architecture on a firm foundation: and because of my conviction that these questions lie, inescapably, at the core of the work all of us architects do every day.
It is presented with arguments regarding the scientific difficulty of dealing with this topic. It is presented with hundreds of examples. It is presented with a background mathematical theory, which has been applied to architectural examples from buildings through history.
It is written in simple language, with careful evolution of ideas, from foundations and first principles, to concrete results, experimental technique, comparison with other comparable methods used in architecture.
None of this is described, analyzed, mentioned, or even vaguely hinted at in Saunders's review.
There are no facts put forward to refute the theory presented, in spite of the fact that the book contains hundreds of pages of examples, facts, and observations, and in spite of the fact that the topic is germane to the interests of every architect.
After all, if there is indeed a scientific criterion, which might be used to distinguish living structure from non-living structure, and well enough formulated so it could be applied to architecture, this would be momentous for the architectural profession—and for society in general—since it would potentially show the beginnings of a way forward from our present widely recognized difficulty of building good environments. So why did this writer not describe what the book really contains?
Did Saunders avoid frank discussion of what the book contains, perhaps, simply because an awful truth is visible in The Phenomenon of Life, namely that the criteria for living structure, if applied to current stylish architectural productions of our era, will in very many cases arrive at negative evaluations. Such a view, for the first time throwing objective doubt on the high priesthood of architecture, would be consistent with opinions held by many ordinary people who do not like the image-fed high architecture presently supported. The possibility exists, therefore, that if this book were to be taken seriously, either by architects, or by society at large, then the bubble of late 20th-century architecture, and its effort to scam the public, might, suddenly, be on the verge of being pricked.
There is an additional reason for wondering what Saunders was really attempting in his review. It is extremely odd that Saunders hides the central concept of living structure, central to the book and to the thesis of the book, and never once mentions it in his review. I say it is odd because in an article on architectural value, published in the Winter/Spring 1999 issue of the Harvard Design Magazine, Saunders explicitly mentions the theory of living structure, (he calls it the theory of maximum aliveness) which he ascribes to "John Dewey, D.H. Lawrence, Christopher Alexander and F.R.Leavis)," and then goes on to say. . "an architecture of maximum aliveness . . .is likely to satisfy several (if not most) evaluative criteria at once, or to satisfy one or to criteria to an extraordinary degree. . . "
Since he plainly understands the idea and has previously expressed the view in print that this is one of the more important criteria for architectural value, it becomes unclear why he would write a review ignoring the 350 pages devoted to sober discussion of this topic, and to the scientific problems inherent in it? It is also not clear why he would write in such a way as to obfuscate the central empirical questions.