The Origins of Pattern Theory (Part B)

The Origins of Pattern Theory,the Future of the Theory, And The Generation of a Living World (Part B)

by Christopher Alexander

The following presentation was recorded live in San Jose, California, October of 1996, at The 1996 ACM Conference on Object-Oriented Programs, Systems, Languages and Applications (OOPSLA).


B. The Nature of Order

The pattern theory was followed by a deeper theory. I began to notice, by the late 70s, some weaknesses in our work with patterns and the pattern languages.

(1) Under the circumstances that I was most interested, when we and others were using these patterns to generate buildings, the buildings generated were okay, but not profound. There was often a lot of nice stuff going on in them. People were improving certain features, perhaps the daylight was improved, or perhaps the entrance of a building was improved or the characteristics of a street might be improved or an alcove in a bedroom might make it more intimate or something like this. So, there were various isolated features of buildings that were improvements in building performance. The existence of the patterns also allowed people to have better control over their own environment. It succeeded in embodying that control in the real buildings that they made with the pattern material. That was good. But, nevertheless, were the buildings profound structures? To what extent did they really have coherent living structure as wholes. By the late 70s, I had begun to see many buildings that were being made in the world when the patterns were applied. I was not happy with what I saw. It seemed to me that we had fallen far short of the mark that I had intended. But, I also realized that whatever was going wrong wasn’t going to be corrected by writing a few more patterns or making the patterns a little bit better. There seemed to be something more fundamental that was missing from the pattern language. So, I started looking for what that thing was.

(2) At about the same time I began to notice a deeper level of structure and a small number (fifteen) of geometric properties that appeared to exist recursively in space whenever buildings had life. These fifteen properties seemed to define a more fundamental kind of stuff; similar to the patterns we had defined earlier, but more condensed, more essential — some kind of stuff that all good patterns were made of.

These were simple ideas. I can’t take you through all 15 but they are properties like “boundaries” which will not only delineate but connect the inside to the outside, or “positive space,” as when you look at a Matisse cutout and see that the space between the colored paper is not amorphous but also has form. Anyway I began to notice that particular individual patterns seemed really to come always from the 15 deep properties that kept occurring again and again.

(3) Another thing that was happening around this time (late 70s early 80s), my colleagues and I began toughening up our ability to discriminate empirically between living structure and not living structure. During the years of doing the pattern language we’d really been intuitive about that and not very rigorous. We were just trying to get patterns written and learning to apply them without asking rigorously if they made buildings with more life in them. But, at this point (about 1980), we felt it was pretty important to get a fix on the difference between a chair which has a more living structure and a chair that has a less living structure. And the same for a building or a room or for a main street in a town. If you want to say this one has life, this one has less life, how do you say that with any degree of empirical certainty? Can it, in fact, be made a relatively objective matter which people can agree about if they perform the same experiments.

Indeed, we did find such experimental techniques. The use of these techniques greatly sharpened our ability to distinguish what was really going on and what structures then correlated with the presence of life in a bit of the environment? The use of these techniques also helped us to refine the fifteen deep geometric properties, as necessary correlates of all life in designed structures. These fifteen properties turned out to be a substrate of all patterns, and began showing up more and more clearly in our work as the main correlates of living structure in places, buildings, things, space and so forth.

[Side-remark: I need to say a word about the existence of objective criteria and experimental methods. In my discipline there are tremendous vested interest. Many architects claim, and want to claim, that in architecture there is no such thing as truth; that is because everyone wants to do their own stupid thing and get away with it. So, depending on who you talk to, they’d say well this stuff Alexander’s been discovering is a lot of nonsense. There is no such thing as objectivity about life or quality. this and so forth. But, I am here today, and they are not here, so I’m telling you that there is objectivity. They are simply mistaken. Let’s suppose that we’ve got a sidewalk somewhere on a bit of a street and we’ve got another sidewalk somewhere else on another bit of a street. We are trying to come to conclusions about which one has more life, which one is a more living structure.

My belief, by the way, when I began trying to find these experimental methods, always was that there really is such a thing, and that actually everybody knows it, but that it has been suppressed. That is because of the world view that we have and the way of looking at things and the nervousness about intellectual rigor…that people of our era have. Although they have these judgments within them, somehow are separated from their ability to make these judgments correctly. In other words, what I’m trying to say is….and this is just some sort of instinct that I had going in was that this was something childish really that everybody knows. But, for some reason, we are so messed up that we can’t see it. So these experiments were, in effect, designed to penetrate that end result through.

The essence of the experiments is that you take the two things you are trying to compare and ask, for each one, is my wholeness increasing in the presence of this object? How about in the presence of this one? Is it increasing more or less? You might say this is a strange question; What if the answer is Don’t know or They don’t have any effect on me? Perfectly reasonable! That can happen. But the resolution is easy. What turns out to happen is that if you say to a person “Yes, it is a difficult question, it might even sound a bit nutty. But anyway, please humor me and just answer the question.” Then it turns out that there is quite a striking statistical agreement, 80-90%, very strong, as strong a level of agreement as one gets in any experiments in social science. The really strange part is that the things which are then measured by experiments of that sort will not… say it sort of…. all of these different experiments have to do with something like that. Do you feel more whole? Do you feel more alive in the presence of this thing? Do you feel that this one is more of a picture of your own true self than this thing you know whatever? It is always looking at two entities of some kind and comparing them as to which one has more life. It appears to be a rank bit of subjectivity. In other words, it sounds like well okay, fine. I mean maybe this is the truth about human beings in the sense about our coordination or about our perception or about our feelings. But that is not necessarily the same as saying living structure as such is a real thing that resides in those objects. But anyway, to cut a long story short. It turns out that these kind of measurements do correlate with real structural features in the thing and with the presence of life in the thing measured by other methods, so that it isn’t just some sort of subjected I groove to this, and I don’t groove to that and so on. But it is a way of measuring a real deep condition in the particular things that are being compared or looked at.]

What is odd about this, and in a way as our work went further and further, it kept bringing big functional and practical matters back to the human person. So, in other words, you take a parking lot. There are lots of technical problems in the parking lot. You have got to make it work. Cars have got to be able to move around. You know there are security problems. There are in-and-out problems. There are maintenance problems. As a whole, the way a parking lot works is essentially a technical thing. The question is, Is it working well or not well? And yet the functionality of the thing measured by these various ordinary bits of technical discussion correlates with the condition measured by the question, Do I feel myself to be more whole? It works well when you are getting a positive answer to this question. Thus there is a hint of a profound connection between the nature of matter and behavior of material systems, and the human person. Even in engineering design, as for instance where one considers the structural behavior of a bridge. Or the patterns of movement in something where a lot of cars are moving about, and there are complicated questions about how they move and so forth. In these examples very, very practical matters are nevertheless correlated with these apparently personal questions about whether the thing has life and whether it promotes life in me and you.

So there began developing, in my mind, a view of structure which, at the same time that it is objective and is about the behavior of material systems in the world, is somehow at the same time coming home more and more and more, all the time, into the person. The life that is actually in the thing is correlated in some peculiar fashion with the condition of wholeness in ourselves when we are in the presence of that thing. The comparable view, in software design, would tell you that a program which is objectively profound (elegant, efficient, effective and good as a program) would be the one which generates the most profound feeling of wholeness in an observer who looks at the code.

The important thing is that — in architecture — this is not merely a hunch but a testable empirical result. It means that the objects that are most profound functionally (when I say objects, I mean buildings, streets, door knobs, shelf, room, dome, bridge)… the objects that are most profound functionally are the ones which also promote the greatest feeling in us. This is a very peculiar thing. At first it sounds like rank sentimentality; and you just say, It can’t be true. Why should it be true? And yet, it’s a discovery which accords very well with the era that we live in. Because we are living in a period where that is perhaps the most noticeable and most problematic feature of our world is that feeling has been removed from it. When I make a joke in reference to this horrible meeting hall that we are in, maybe I am beating a dead horse, but I mean really, the problem is that whatever feeling there is in here is obviously not a profound positive feeling. And this is what we have come to expect in our modern world. The failure of that profound feeling to exist in the world around us at small scales, large scales, middle scales, here, there and everywhere, is tragic. It’s the thing that we miss. Of course, people have been writing about this for many decades. Writers have, of course, made this known. We all know it. The difficulty is that people don’t seem to know what to do about it. If anything, at the moment, (I’m talking now again about my own discipline, of architecture) the problem is getting worse. It’s not getting better. The world that is being built is more and more unfeeling. We are in a sense more lost, more fragmented, more sort of wandering about in this lonely desert than before.

If there really is a way of looking at structures which both deals with real functional structure in the ordinary technical and practical sense, and simultaneously has its roots in human feeling, there will be a very huge and positive step. In particular, the fifteen properties that I have mentioned provide us the ability to be precise about the nature of living structure, in just precisely such a way that it is connected, not only to all mechanical function, but also to the depths of human feeling. That is why it is an important structure.

At the root of these fifteen properties, there appears to be a recursive structure based on repeated appearances of a single type of entity — the primitive element of all wholeness. These entities are what I call “centers”. All wholeness is built from centers, and centers are recursively defined in terms of other centers. Centers have life, or not, in different degree, according to the degree that the centers are built from other centers using the fifteen geometric relationships which I have identified. This scheme, which is at the foundation of all the work in The Nature of Order, provides a complete and coherent picture of all living structure.

Stretching a bit, I think there may even be a little bit of a connection between the geometric centers which appear as the building blocks of all life in buildings, and the software entities that you call “objects.” Centers are field-like structures that appear in some region of space. They don’t have sharp boundaries, but they are the focal organizing entities that one perceives at the core of all pattern, all structure, and all wholeness.

Everything is made of these kind of centers. The centers are more living or less living. And, that’s essentially the only important property that they have. And the question of whether a center is more living or less living depends recursively on the amount of livingness in the other centers that it is made of, because each living center is always (and can only be defined as) a structure of other centers. This sort of recursion is familiar in computer science. But whether the structure I have discovered and reported in The Nature of Order will translate in any interesting ways to things that you do, I don’t know. (It is true, I suppose that all software is made of objects, and nothing but objects. Could it be said that some objects have more life, and others less? If so, there would be a profound correspondence). What is true, I can tell you from my own experiences in these last years, is that when one has this view of things in architecture, it becomes enormously easier to produce living structure in buildings. It has immediate practical usefulness. If you start understanding everything in terms of these living centers, and you recognize the recursion that makes a center, living as it is, dependent on the other centers that it is made of and the other larger centers in which it is embedded, suddenly you begin to get a view of things which almost by itself starts leading you towards the production of more successful and more living buildings.

This insight goes far beyond the power of the pattern language. Although the patterns define relations which might be regarded as specific instances of the recursive interaction of centers, the overall view of centers gives more comprehensive and more powerful results. It directly effects your ability to make good architecture, in a way that pattern language was not yet able to do by itself. This is a much more powerful and beautiful view than what’s embedded in the pattern languages, because when one has constructed this view…. you say well what is a pattern really? Then it turns out that patterns are merely a few of the structural invariants that appear within these centers under very, very particular conditions. So they’re certainly interesting and important, but they don’t have the same depth or the same universal character as these other structures that I’m speaking about now.

Now we come to the crunch. Once we have the view of wholeness and centers, linked by the fifteen deep properties, we have a general view of the type of whole which must occur as the end product of any successful design process. And because we have a view of it as a whole, we are now able to understand what kinds of overall process can generate good structure, and which cannot. This is the most significant aspect of The Nature Of Order, and of the new results I am presenting to you in this Part B.

It means that we can characterize not merely the structure of things which are well-designed, but we can characterize the path that is capable of leading to a good structure. In effect, we can specify the difference between a good path and a bad path, or between a good process and a bad process.

In terms of software, what this means is that it is possible, in principle, to say what kind of step-by-step process can produce good code, and which ones cannot. Or, more dramatically stated, we can, in principle, specify a type of process which will always generate good code.

Of course we have not actually done this for the production of code. We have done it for design and construction of buildings. But it is possible. This is, if you like, the holy grail of software design — specification of the kinds of process which will (always) generate good, efficient, economical, beautiful, and profound, code.

What are the details? I can tell you in the case of buildings. If one has identified living structure with a reasonable level of objectivity, and if one has identified this recursive center-based structure as being the key to the whole thing, that’s all very well. But then of course the practical question arises, How the hell do you produce this living structure? What do you have to do to actually produce it? You can clumsily try to find your way towards it in a particular case. But, in general, what are the rules of its production? The answer is fascinating. It turns out that these living structures can only be produced by an unfolding wholeness. That it, there is a condition in which you have space in a certain state. You operate on it through things that I have come to call “structure-preserving transformations,” maintaining the whole at each step, but gradually introducing differentiations one after the other. And if these transformations are truly structure-preserving and structure-enhancing, then you will come out at the end with living structure. Just think of an acorn becoming an oak. The end result is very different from the start point but happens in a smooth unfolding way in which each step clearly emanates from the previous one.

Very abstract, I know, but the punchline is the following. That is what happens in all the living structures we think of as nature. When you analyze carefully just what’s going on and how things are happening in the natural world, this sort of structure preserving transformation tends to be what’s going on most of the time. That is why, when nature is left alone, most of the time living structure is produced. However, in the approaches that we currently have to the creation of the built world and the environment; (planning design, construction, and so forth), that is simply not what is happening. The process of design that we currently recognize as normal is one where the architect or somebody else, is sort of moving stuff around, tryingto get into some kind of good configuration. Effectively this means searching in an almost random way in configuration space, and never homing in on the good structure. That is why the present-day structure of cities, buildings, conventional halls, and houses, are so often lifeless. The process by which they are generated are — in principle — not life creating or life seeking.

If a process doesn’t go in the structure-preserving way that I’m talking about, the result is never living structure.

In effect you can write theorems which say, Under the kind of conditions which occur in the construction industry today, you cannot produce living structure. So, the poor son-of-bitches designed and built this convention center were stuck with something lifeless, because they were embedded in the wrong kind of process. There was nothing they could do. about it. It was part of the process by which this kind of entity is produced in today’s society. As things stand, it cannot come out with a living structure at the end. That is a shattering discovery.

A very large part of my work and that of my colleagues in the last years has been one of trying to define social processes, economic processes, administrative and management processes which are of such a nature that they permit true structure-preserving unfolding to occur in society, thus to allow the generation and production of living structure. This is what I do most of the time is that I’m trying to do real projects of one sort oranother where I’m introducing this unfolding process and trying to make it work under the conditions available to us in 1996. The social and technical shifts involved are large. The shifts in thought, in practice, in administration of money, in contracts, all sorts of real nitty-gritty things that one would much rather not mess with because they are so hard, you must mess with because it is those processes which are undermining the ability for our whole contemporary social process to be structure preserving unfolding. If life is to be created, these processes must change.