Christopher Alexander, 2002-05. The Nature of Order, Books 1-4: The Phenomenon of Life; The Process of Creating Life; A Vision of a Living World; The Luminous Ground. Berkeley, CA: Center for Environmental Structure.
We have a vision of buildings taking their form continuously through a smooth step-by-step process in which each step preserves the structure of what was there before.
— Christopher Alexander, Nature of Order, vol. 3, p. 678
The Nature of Order is architect Christopher Alexander’s four-volume master work. His aim is to lay out the conceptual and applied foundation for an entirely new way of doing architecture and shaping human life. Lavishly illustrated with almost 2,000 images carefully arranged to stir readers to look and see more deeply, The Nature of Order will some day no doubt be recognized as one of the great theoretical and practical achievements of our time, not only for architecture but also for understanding the profound obligation that human beings have to make the best of possible worlds.
It is difficult to decide what is most remarkable about this stunning work. One imposing feature is the inclusion of many of Alexander’s designed projects—over 100 artistic and architectural works ranging from fine arts, decorative arts, and interiors; through houses, workplaces, and gardens; to institutional buildings, campuses, and entire urban neighborhoods.
Most importantly, Alexander has made or built many of these projects. Some of the most impressive examples include glassware for the Royal Dutch glassworks (1997) ; an employee-designable, office furniture system for Herman Miller (1988); a children’s clothing factory in Berkeley, California (1988); community-built, low-income housing projects in Mexacali, Mexico (1976) and Santa Rosa de Cabal, Columbia (1990); the five-story Emoto apartment building in Tokyo (1987); the Julian Street Inn, a homeless shelter in San Jose, California (1988); the West Dean Visitor’s Centre in West Sussex, England (1995); and the New Eishen University campus near Tokyo (1985).
Too often in the past, Alexander has unfairly been written off by critics as “only a theorist.” The practical and artistic creativity demonstrated by his completed projects offer powerful evidence that he is also an exceptional designer.
These built projects also provide real-world support for Alexander’s audacious effort to generate a radical new way of making supportive and sustainable environments. He has little good to say about modernist, postmodernist, and deconstructivist architectures, which he lambasts as “ugly, strange buildings that do not preserve the structure of the Earth” (vol. 3, p. 691). To provide a replacement, he works unstintingly to find a way to create built environments that sustain “a wholesome, life-supporting world” (vol. 3, p. 2)—what he wryly calls at one point a “second modern architecture” (vol. 2, chap. 21).
Wholes Becoming Alive
What Alexander earnestly seeks as an alternative to today’s untoward, edgy, image-driven buildings is a “living architecture”— that is, “an architecture in which every part, every building, every street, every garden is alive” (vol. 2, p. 2). To design the built environment well is to make life in the sense that the designed environment can, on one hand, be comfortable, beautiful, robust, and whole or, on the other hand, be disconcerting, unseemly, lifeless, and fragmented.
We arrive at Alexander’s definition of order, by which he means an ever-intensifying making and unfolding of life, which, depending on the particular situation to be sustained, might refer to poise, handsomeness, exuberance, happiness, solace, holiness, awe, sense of community, emotional weight—in short, the right ambience and feelings for the particular moments and experiences the built environment is meant to encourage.
The theoretical and pragmatic means for actualizing a living architecture is what Alexander calls the “generation of life-supporting processes.” In volume 1, The Phenomenon of Life, he explores, through 15 structural properties like “levels of scale,” “contrast,” “gradients,” and so forth, the space-imbued qualities that contribute to order and life. Particularly important is the need to identify and make strong centers, a structural property of well-made things, buildings, or places that refers to any sort of geometric or lived focus and intensity—for example, a striking ornamental pattern, a well shaped and placed window, a strong sense of building entry, a house gracefully placed on its site, a lively plaza loyally used by regulars, an animated street, or a well-loved neighborhood (for a review of volume 1, The Phenomenon of Life, see the February 2005 issue of Traditional Building).
Alexander’s major purpose in volume 2, The Process of Creating Life, is to establish a design method for generating order and life through an incremental intensification of strong centers at all levels of physical scale, from city and urban district through building layout and massing to architectural structure, ornament, and furnishings.
Method-wise, the impetus and activator for this all-encompassing intensification is step-by-step attention and concern, whereby each stage in the design of the particular project becomes a pointer for what is to come next through the recognition (guided in part by the 15 properties) of creating more and more centeredness, density, order, and life. Alexander writes: “The essence of life in any system lies in the adaptive response of each new development in the system to the previously existing state…. It cannot be achieved by a mechanical framework, by any mechanical system, nor by any stereotyped or stylistic response. Rather, it comes about only when the response of each act of building has been fresh, authentic, and autonomous, called into being by previous and present circumstance, shaped only be a detailed and living overall response to the whole” (vol. 3, p. 22).
The Basic Principle
For some readers, this description may seem complicated intellectually and impractical operationally. Once, however, one understands the basic principle—essentially, “the slow process of getting things right” (vol. 2, p. 8)—he or she realizes the great good sense of Alexander’s proposal, yet its vast difference from current architectural practice where paper plans are the beginning and end of all building designs, which are then turned over to contractor and other parties for actual construction and finishing.
Alexander argues that pre-modern societies built in a fundamentally different way that involved a process of generative unfolding developed slowly over time through trial and error, then largely fixed through routine, tradition, and ritual. One example he gives is Samoan canoe making, guided by a song that, verse by verse, directs the vessel’s step-by-step making—finding a tree, cutting it down, hollowing the trunk, and so forth. Although every canoe made in this way would be unique, the clearly laid out procedure “guarantees that the operation being performed always fits beautifully and naturally into the gestalt of the canoe, as far as it has been created so far. Structure is preserved. Centers multiply and grow. The whole becomes alive” (vol. 2, p. 87).
Drawing primarily from evidence and examples of processes in nature as understood by the natural sciences, especially biology and physics, Alexander aims in volume 2 to create an updated generative process that might be used for 21st-century architecture and design. His means toward this end is a series of 10 structure-enhancing actions that he claims will always intensify the life and wholeness of a thing: (1) step-by-step adaptation; (2) each step helping to enhance the whole; (3) always making centers; (4) allowing steps to unfold in the most fitting order; (5) creating uniqueness everywhere; (6) Working to understand the needs of clients and users (interestingly, his earlier “pattern language” remains an important tool here); (7) evoking and being guided by deep feeling of the whole: (8) finding coherent geometric order; (9) establishing a form language that arises from and shapes the thing being made; (10) always striving for a simplicity by which the thing becomes more coherent and pure.
Alexander claims that, when thoroughly understood and practically mastered, these steps, always interconnected and overlapping, will contribute unfailingly to a living process that, at each stage in its development, “always starts from the wholeness as it currently exists at that moment. At the next moment, we take a new step—introducing one new bit of structure (always composed of new, living, centers) into the whole. The new structure may be large, medium, or tiny; it may be physical or abstract; it may occur on the land itself or in a person’s mind, or in the collective understanding of a group of people.
But the point is that at every state of every life-creating process, the new bit of structure which is injected to transform and further differentiate the previously existing wholeness, will always extend, enhance, intensify the structure of the previous wholeness by creating further and stronger, living centers…. The structure-enhancing step, which again and again intensifies one center and creates ‘hooks’ to other new centers, might even be called the fundamental process” (vol. 2, p. 216).
Generative Process in Design
In volume 3, A Vision of a Living World, Alexander demonstrates how, in his design work, he uses the generative process laid out in volume 2 to create life-enhancing things, buildings, and places. Rather than organize each chapter around a particular project and then illustrate how in total it is guided by the generative process, Alexander instead organizes his discussion by environmental and architectural scale, providing evidence for each thematic topic from applicable projects.
He begins, at largest scale, with “the form of land and buildings” (five chapters on shaping public space; envisioning large public buildings, including their size, massing, and structural geometry; and incorporating gardens), followed by “making neighborhoods” (four chapters on resident involvement; neighborhood reconstruction; high-density housing; and neighborhood strengthening).
Having considered larger-scale place making, Alexander next explores how the generative process can be used to make “actual buildings” (six chapters on addressing user needs; making rooms with character; using and designing for construction elements as living centers; requiring that all design be making; continuously inventing new building materials and techniques; and using the generative process for producing large-scale “giant” projects).
In volume 4, The Luninous Ground, Alexander explores the deeper reasons and source for life-giving order and wholeness. His concern is “the innermost process”—“that shining something which draws me on” (vol. 4, p. 2). Central to his argument is what he calls the “I”: the interior aspect in nature or a created thing “that makes one feel related to it” (vol. 4, p. 2). Or, again, “the spirit which animates each living center” (vol. 4, p. 2).
Moving into the realm of metaphysics, The Luminous Ground is the most tentative of the four volumes and, other than a perceptive chapter on the nature of color, the least relevant to architecture. Echoing and extending themes from his earlier Timeless Way of Building (1975), Alexander draws a cosmological picture where all polarities—people/world, time/space, matter/consciousness, knowledge/experience, understanding/making, and the like—are underlaid and ultimately superceded by a primordial ground or “plenum” ranging in intensity dependent on the degree of life and wholeness present in a particular localized region of space.
“It appears,” he writes, “that life is inherent in space itself, and in which soul, or spirit, is an inevitable part of matter, which shows through, as the curtain rends, in which not only people, but buildings, flowering bushes, even window sills, have their own life and spirit too, as a real thing, which goes far beyond the mechanical world and is part of the nature of their existence” (vol. 4, pp. 343-44).
Design Sustaining Theory?
In evaluating The Nature of Order, a central question is whether Alexander’s built work manifests the life-sustaining wholeness that he advocates. Broadly, the answer is both yes and no. Some of his projects, especially many of the houses, are awkward, roughly constructed, and second rate. Also disappointing are Alexander’s oil paintings and sketches, presented throughout the four volumes. Three or four of these pictures suggest a sense of deeper insight, but the majority seems amateurish, slapdash, and just bad art. These weak works detract from his major argument, and one wonders why they were included.
On the other hand, there are a good number of buildings in The Nature of Order that, in various ways, evoke the sense of clarity, dignity, and life for which Alexander strives. One example is the Mexacali project, in which low-income families built their own houses by mastering a 23-step construction project devised by Alexander and his design-build team.
Though a kind of “funky vernacular” in appearance, these dwellings seem to be comfortable homes, and photographs of the site several years after construction indicate how some families have used their construction expertise to make well-designed improvements. This project demonstrates that, with professional supervision, ordinary people can become decent designers and initiate constructive change in their built environment.
A second impressive project is San Jose’s Julian Street homeless shelter, which, though from some vantage points awkward visually, seems to provide a stable, grounded environment where people without a place might begin to retrieve a sense of self-worth and at-homeness. This project is also significant because of the dining-hall’s unusual concrete trusses, the story of which nicely illustrates Alexander’s central building principle of step-by-step construction and his willing to incorporate computer analysis into his designs.
Perhaps Alexander’s two most dynamic projects are England’s West Dean Visitor’s Centre and Japan’s New Eishen University. Both inside and out, the visitor center is striking architecture, expressing a serene stateliness and grace shaped by careful site placement, a simple, majestic form, and handsomely-integrated materials like brick, stone, and concrete. This building is probably the single best work presented in The Nature of Order and a telling example of what a life-enhancing architecture might be.
The Eishen school is significant because of its size (30 buildings), complexity (a 9-acre site with lake and other water features), and cost (13 million dollars). Designed and built with the continuous input of faculty and students, the site and buildings have been carefully arranged to enhance the natural setting and to foster a sense of school identity and community. The wooden post-and-beam construction of some of the major buildings is spectacular, and, overall, the project demonstrates that, even at a large scale, Alexander’s approach can involve users and be carried out on time and on budget, using the best of traditional and modern structural and construction techniques to make imposing architecture.
These and other built projects presented in The Nature of Order demonstrate that Alexander’s theory of making can have effective, practical results and is feasible for a wide range of situations, clients, and building types. Ultimately, however, he would not wish to be judged on his finished projects alone. Rather, he sees each of these projects as an experiment—as another opportunity to figure out and refine a way of learning and making that can generate order and life.
Here lies Alexander’s unique contribution: his ceaseless effort to understand order-invoking process and, through that understanding, to help the world become more coherent and alive. Alexander defies categories: he is a thinker and designer, scientist and artist, philosopher and builder. He realizes that, if we are to really know and shape our world in a better way, we must find a radically new means of looking, understanding, and making. Without a doubt, The Nature of Order demonstrates the extraordinary progress he has made toward this arduous and nearly impossible aim.
Alexander, however, is only one individual, and the most important test of his theory is if it will convince other interested parties in sufficient numbers to commit themselves to his approach. Whether this commitment will happen is uncertain, though it is propitious that Alexander’s earlier Pattern Language continues to sell well and is used by a loyal and growing following of designers and non-designers, including a dedicated group of software engineers who have used Alexander’s work to develop an “object-oriented programming.”
Implications for Architecture
How will Alexander’s professional colleagues respond to The Nature of Order? Many architects and other designers will vehemently reject Alexander’s radical approach because it calls into question so many long-held professional assumptions. In the kind of architecture that Alexander sees in the future:
• The architect must realize deeply that everything in nature and every aspect of a building has life. Focusing and intensifying that life becomes the ultimate criterion for professional effort and for architectural success or failure.
• Trendy image-making as currently practiced must be supplanted by a wish to make buildings and places that sustain the concerns and delights of everyday living. How can the architect contribute to “the comfort of belonging to the places where we live and work”? (vol. 3, p. 66).
• No longer is the architect an artist discovering his or her design through creative inspiration. Design is a slow, step-wise process that involves as many wrong as right moves. Inspiration remains important but must be balanced with persistence, good sense, and empathetic attention to real-world needs and constraints.
• Architecture is no longer designing but making, which also means that architecture no longer takes place in the office but through study, discovery, construction, and revision in the field. The architect participates in all aspects of the making of a building, having at least some firsthand knowledge of craft and construction skills. He or she works with subcontractors and pays continuous attention to the quality of their work.
• Good design is not a matter of individual elements arbitrarily created and arranged in a fixed design conception. Instead, good design can only evolve through process and through variously-scaled concentrations of density that amplify one another and both intensify and are strengthened by the larger whole. No building is a pre-defined collection of parts straight jacketed in paper plan but, rather, an evolving field of larger and smaller centers, each supporting and strengthening one another in a web of overlaps and interconnections. One cannot understand a building’s parts without understanding their relations to the building’s whole and their placement and situation in the building’s larger fabric of centers.
• Clients and users must continually be involved with the making of a building. Different participants understand different things, thus group involvement often leads to insights and possibilities that the architect alone might not realize.
• Ornament returns as an integral part of architecture because it is the primary means for making smaller-scaled centers. No longer considered arbitrary or designed arbitrarily, ornament is “the natural and necessary way in which fine structure unfolds to its smallest detail” and thereby “completes” a building.
Assumptions like these shatter almost all aspects of current architecture, and one might conclude that Alexander’s vision, because it is so threatening, will have little professional impact.
Intriguing, Alexander suggests otherwise by arguing that more and more people today grow increasingly dissatisfied with the chaotic and ugly state of their built environment. Laypeople, he suggests, understand much better than professionals that something is deeply askew in the way we make and use the physical world.
He suggests that, if architects don’t make major changes in how they work and what they design, then other concerned parties may move in to fill the void. If this should happen, architecture as we currently know it will have to change or disappear as rapidly as the horse and buggy, once automobiles were available.
Whether Alexander is right or wrong about the future of architecture, one can say that The Nature of Order offers a conceptual guide and practical method that could go far to rejuvenate the buildings and places of our lives and make them comfortable, beautiful, vital—even profound.
In this sense, these volumes provoke us to look, to see, to understand, and to act in new ways we have rarely before encountered. Alexander’s ideas move us away from our taken-for-granted thinking toward a sense of higher purpose imbued with order and life. His most lasting contribution is to help us to become more insightful and aware and thereby realize that making a better world is a real possibility, if only we would dare to try.
David Seamon, PhD, is a Professor of Architecture at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, USA. His writings and research emphasize a phenomenological approach to place, architecture, and environmental experience. He has edited Dwelling, Seeing, and Designing: Toward a Phenomenological Ecology (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1993); and, with Arthur Zajonc, Goethe’s Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1998). He is editor of the Environmental and Architectural Phenomenology Newsletter.