On Christopher Alexander’s "Nature of Order" - Part I - Degrees of "Life"
Delving into Christopher Alexander's "Nature of Order"
This post became part of a series on Christopher Alexander’s "Nature of Order".
Degrees of "Life" ← this post
On structural aliveness: Torii ⛩, Chuppahs, Sofre Aghd, the Golden Gate Bridge & making the world more alive
How to make living systems On the Fundamental Process to Generate Living Systems
Brasilia: life amidst modernism // Finding life in the spaces in between
I did it. I bought Christopher Alexander’s four-part book series with the very humble title: “The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe”. It’s Alexander’s book series sequel to the A Pattern Language series.
I wrote about Alexander a few months ago reflecting on using pattern languages and painting with words. It was my reflections on how finding patterns of beauty and then describing them with words can help you “possess beauty.”
My newly acquired four-book series is thousands of pages expanding on what qualities make beauty and order in our universe. It’s brimming with ideas that have me daydreaming. The first idea in the book has already started to change me by giving me more language to describe the world.
As a reminder, in “The Timeless Way of Building,” Alexander describes the “quality without a name” which makes places and buildings feel alive. He then goes onto chart various “patterns” that heighten this feeling of aliveness: the more interlocking patterns a building has, the more it comes to life.
In this other book series, Alexander takes this idea further describing how this underlying “quality without a name” is actually the degree something is “full of life”. His main contention is everything has some degree of aliveness - not just living things but everything. From the way that a group of people are arranged, the relations between buildings, the empty spaces of a foyer, the light falling on a book, buildings, people, clothes, dishes, the way dishes are arranged - all of existence. Moreover, Alexander argues strongly that “this feeling is rather strongly shared by everyone.”
This is something that we all can tap into if we pay attention as many (most) civilizations have done in centuries past:
In historic times, and in many so-called primitive cultures, it was commonplace for people to understand that different places in the world had different degrees of life or spirit. For example, in tribal African societies and among California Indians or Australian aborigines, it was common to recognize a distinction between one tree and another, one rock and another, recognizing that even though all rocks have their life, still, this rock has more life, or more spirit; or this place has a special significance. […]
We too - even with our scientific heritage – feel one place to be more significant than another. We feel that a certain tree, or a certain rock, or a certain cliff edge, or a certain clearing, has great power or spirit — or at least, we acknowledge that we feel awe in that place, or we feel an intensity of life. Furthermore, this experience is shared and common. It is not idiosyncratic. Many people feel the same way about just this bend in the Columbia River, this garden gate, this room, this bridge, this stream, this beach.
Here are a few examples where Alexander shows how certain places and things just “feel more alive” than others (the left hand side being the one most people agree to). Note that this isn’t just about “this beautiful mountain" vs. a wall of concrete. Even among two examples of parking lots one feels more alive than another:
When I think back on my life and the places I’ve felt most in awe and most comfortable, it’s almost always this quality of life that I am relishing. The cozy house of a friend. A snowy mountain view. The couch or sweater or cup that just feels different. The Alhambra, Half-dome, the Tokyo Imperial Palace, a cherry blossom on a walk, the temples of Kyoto, a beautiful sunrise or sunset, a canal in Amsterdam, an ivy covered wall of Wrigley Field, the nooks and crannies of Oxford and Cambridge, the “bean” in Chicago, the Hagia Sophia… They all have a high degree of ‘life.”
In the remainder of the book series Alexander goes onto break down what exactly it is that makes things more alive than others. I will likely write more about this as I keep reading, but for now, I can’t help but look around and compare everything around me. This feeling of life is one that is just below the surface at all times. And yet since it’s not something we collectively recognize and talk about, most of our world then has become less full of life.
How much ennui and modern day alienation is just a consequence of the life we have drained from our environment? How do we become less blind to this quality of “life” and build for it in our homes, our relationships, our world?
May your day
be full of life.