I introduced these concepts and a few others only because I found them essential to the task of thinking clearly about the life of buildings. Yet they were almost undefinable within the terms of contemporary scientific thinking. This was true to such a degree that even raising these topics as matters for discussion in professional architectural circles caused raised eyebrows, obstructive reactions, and little sincere effort to get to the bottom of the issues.
One by one, then, I allowed these new concepts into my everyday way of thinking, doing my best to hold to scientific rigor and clarity, yet trying to formulate models that would adequately portray the needed concepts in a way that made sense of them.
During 1978–1985, I went as far as I was able in laying the groundwork of a new model. One might say that this new model relied heavily on new forms of experiment, in which a person would attempt to judge the quality of an action, building, painting, or place by consulting his own self as to the degree of wholeness that appeared in the items under discussion or investigation.
This was the beginning of a very new way of thinking about architecture, which viewed the environment and its structure as an instrument interacting with human beings in such a way that people could heal themselves. In short, it was the beginning of a practical theory of healing environments—still far from the subject of God—but now perhaps beginning, subtly, to point in that direction.
My coworkers and I put forward this theory in a number of books, of which the most important was probably A Pattern Language, which has (I am told) become the best-selling architecture book of all time. Companion volumes included The Timeless Way of Building; A New Theory of Urban Design; The Production of Houses; The Linz Café; and The Oregon Experiment, all published between 1975 and 1987. These six books laid out a theory with which people could produce well-functioning environments for themselves.
As my colleagues and I continued experiments in which we did our best to apply these principles to real building projects, it became more and more clear that we needed to sharpen our idea of health and clarify the target of this work. It was urgent to develop a more solid conceptual and experimental foundation that could provide us with practical ways of judging which environments, and which kinds of environments, were indeed most successful in sustaining or promoting health.
This task began to lead, for the first time, to empirical hints of the presence of God. In effect, we began to discover a new kind of empirical complex in buildings and works of art that is connected with the human self, spirituality, social and mental health, God, ways of understanding the role that love plays in establishing wholeness, the role of art, and conscious awareness of the human being as part of some greater spiritual entity. These arguments were later conveyed in the four books of The Nature of Order.
I would like to summarize our work by explaining this new kind of empirical complex in the following way. In any part of what we call nature, or any part of a building, we see, at many levels of scale, coherent entities or centers, nested in each other, and overlapping each other. These coherent entities all have, in varying degree, some quality of “life.”
For any given center, this quality of life comes about as a result of cooperation between the other living centers at several scales, which surround it, contain it, and appear within it. The degree of life any one center has depends directly on the degrees of life that appear in its associated centers at these different scales. In short, the life of any given entity depends on the extent to which that entity had unfolded from its own previous wholeness, and from the wholeness of its surroundings.
When one contemplates this phenomenon soberly, it is hard to imagine how it comes about. But what is happening is, in effect, that life appears, twinkling, in each entity, and the cooperation of these twinkling entities creates further life. You may view this phenomenon as ordinary. Or you may think of it as the Buddhists of the Hua-Yen canon did, when they viewed it as the constantly changing God-like tapestry that is God, and from which life comes.
In this view, architecture contributes to the world to just that extent to which it plays its role in this tapestry, and that, in turn, comes about as a result of the extent to which a building, or an outdoor place between buildings, or a doorway, is composed entirely of entities that are themselves whole and entire, and which—each one of them—make us feel whole and entire. This is, in any case, an attempt to make a picture of the whole.