The Nature of Order
Christopher Alexander responds to William Saunders's review of his latest book
Great Changes Coming In The Discipline Of Architecture: The Idea Of Healing
Mechanistic philosophy and the present arbitrary views of value that hold sway in architecture today are intimately connected.
First, the developer's ideal of profit and the profit-oriented approach to architecture, building, and planning, inevitably work against wholeness and against the healing of the earth. That is because the goals of values that can be stated within concepts of mechanism are inherently unable to increase wholeness or to heal systems.
Second, the very idea of healing, presupposes that we know what it means to heal, what health is, what wholeness is therefore. Still more vital, when thinking and speaking in the framework of a mental world governed by mechanism, any thought of value becomes an arbitrary value impressed on the logic of the machine, external to it in every respect that can be entertained or thought within the mechanistic world.
So our values in architecture during the last 50 years have been arbitrary because they have been invented arbitrarily. They are protected by professionals only because they serve the goal of capital-induced development, the postmodern architect's bread and butter. So the values which have been created, the post modern images—like all other passing styles and images—work for capital, for profit, for development, but against wholeness, against health, against the well-being of the earth.
That is the literary and artistic heritage now being taught in schools of architecture and propagated through architects' buildings that serve the process of capital-induced development.
This heritage does not serve wholeness. It does not serve the whole. It does not help to heal the world, or to rebuild Earth as a place where bees, people, breezes, stones, and lizards can run free... nor the starlings, spiders, urban foxes, water , businesses, restaurants, and taxicabs that populate the city.
I have spent my life trying to find a sharable, rational, scientific model which brings this topic of life, wholeness, and harmony, into the open—especially as it touches the geometry of buildings, so that it allows us to share discussion and observation of its effects.
It is in our power to take an alternative path, one in which every single act of building, design, ornament, and economic improvement is always done in such a way as to be part of the healing of the Earth. This is possible even in the high-density metropolis, since there, too, we are capable of making nature.
But we cannot achieve this or even move in this direction without a respect for wholeness, made clear as a concept and formulated so that it transcends all our current pretensions, concepts, and short-term ideals.
The future lies with profound understanding of wholeness as a concept, and as a basis for practice. Turning away from it is more than just shortsighted. It would be a tragedy for architects to inflict further damage on the troubled Earth.
Going the other way, in search of a viable, scientific view of life, which can become a basis for our architectural practice, is more moral than what we do now, more just, more beautiful. It goes more to the service of life. And all those who practice such a revised form of architecture, will probably feel more wholesome in themselves.
When the life of the environment plays such a fundamental role in the well-being of the Earth, and when science itself is struggling to understand the nature of wholeness in the majority of new scientific fields, it would be a great pity if a philistine attack on preliminary efforts to make progress in this direction were to keep architecture as the last of the philosophical dinosaurs from the mechanistic age.
The Implications Of A Wholeness-Based Architecture
The theory is so rich in detail, that we may draw extraordinary consequences from it. These are presented in Volumes 2, 3 and 4—to be published soon. These consequences from theory have implications for the processes which a successful architecture must use to reach buildings which have life.
They have implications that dictate some, and eliminate other, relationships between design and construction, as a necessary part of architecture.
The Nature of Order (in its complete four volumes) has implications for the involvement of people in the design of buildings and in the detailed ways in which this involvement is likely to be successful or unsuccessful.
It has implications for the flow of money. It has implications for the handling of architectural detail and for the successful integration of structural engineering into the framework of design.
It has enormous implications too for the unholy alliance between architects and developers: an unholy alliance, possibly the darkest secret in the history of modern architecture and one which has made architects little more than salesmen, writing advertisements several hundred feet high, claiming to be art, yet actually designed mainly as sign language to stimulate the flow of money into the developer's pocket.
It affects virtually every part of the profession we now know as architecture, and it indicates necessity for change, in almost all of them.
There is no question, that under the impact of this theory, architecture will be deeply changed and it will be changed for the better.
A Note On Science
It may be worth concluding with a short statement about what science is and what it is not.
You are doing science when you figure out how something works. Especially, if you figure out something that people have not figured out before. You don't need to dress it up, you just need to work it out.
All the rest is dressing. Pompous language, format of summary and text and findings, footnotes, erudite references, carefully marshaled precedents—all those are the trappings of science, the appearance of science, not science itself. Too often the trappings and appearance are presented making something seem like science; but it is rare that someone actually figures out how something works.
The material in The Phenomenon of Life and the material in A Pattern Language 25 years earlier are both science. In both cases, partial workable answers have been given to questions about the way the structure of the environment affects people. In both cases we did, to a first approximation, genuinely figure how this works. It would have been possible in both cases to dress up the actual discoveries in fancy dress; but it would not have changed the actual discoveries very much.
For example, it would have been possible to dress the 253 patterns in A Pattern Language, as anthropology—thus giving them the dressing of science, references, language and so on. It might have helped create an illusion of science. But it would not have changed the fact that we did genuinely work out, in part, how the environment supports human life in society. Of course not all 253 patterns are equally profound; but in nearly all of them something has been figured out about how the world works, and we knew more about it after the work was done than we did before. And because the book is published in an available form, we know it for all time—or until someone else goes further, and finds out more exactly, or more deeply, how those things work.
In The Phenomenon of Life other, deeper discoveries are presented. They would not be made more significant by anthropological dressing or psychological dressing. They stand by themselves, and the reader can see that easily, by studying the text. There will be time for scientific fancy dress later, when the hard work of going into more detail and doing more careful experiments really begins. But the really hard work has been done. It is a pity that Saunders couldn't see it.
The slighting references to "bad science," which appear in Saunders's article, only betray a rather undergraduate notion of what science is and how it is done.
The Phenomenon of Life defines criteria for life in buildings, and offers replicable tests for deciding how much living structure exists in different buildings. Of course the appearance of a real test of value in architecture may give the sweats to the profession. But if architects are worth their salt and fear the concept, they can disprove the argument