The Center For Environmental Structure

30th January 2020

By Eurospanners

Christopher Alexander has been a legendary figure in architecture for nearly 40 years. World-renowned for his revolutionary theories on the art of building, Alexander now caps his lifetime of profoundly original thinking about the meaning and purpose of architecture with this magnum opus, The Nature of Order. In these four books, Alexander constructs an entirely new cosmology, grounded in the latest scientific knowledge, and integrating the perennial wisdom of the centrality of human experience and values. In this way, Alexander reunifies for the field of architecture the 400-year old split of Body (structure) and Soul (feeling).

Alexander explores the properties of life itself, highlighting a set of well-defined structures present in all order – and in all life – from micro-organisms and mountain ranges to good houses and vibrant communities.

Taken as a whole, the four books - which are available as a complete four-volume set - create a sweeping new conception of the nature of things which is both objective and structural (hence part of science) – and also personal (in that it shows how and why things have the power to touch the human heart). A step has been taken, through which these two domains – the domain of geometrical structure and the feeling it creates – kept separate during four centuries of scientific though from 1600 to 2000, have finally been united.

Book One: The Phenomenon of Life

In The Phenomenon of Life, the first volume in this four volume masterwork, Alexander proposes a scientific view of the world in which all space-matter has perceptible degrees of life and sets this understanding of order as an intellectual basis for a new architecture. With this view as a foundation, we can ask precise questions about what must be done to create more life in our world – whether in a room… a humble doorknob… a neighbourhood… or even in a vast region.

He introduces the concept of living structure, basing it upon his theories of centres and of wholeness, and defines the fifteen properties from which, according this observations, all wholeness is built. Alexander argues that living structure is at once both personal and structural.

Book Two: The Process of Creating Life

Scientifically, this is perhaps the most exciting of the four books. How do beautiful creations come into being? Nature can make an infinite number of human faces, each one unique, each one beautiful. The same is true for daffodils, streams, and stars. But man-made creations – especially the towns and buildings of the 20th century – have only occasionally been really good, more often mediocre, and in the last 50 years have most often been deadly.

What is the reason for the difference? It hinges on the deep nature of the processes we use.

Alexander presents a living world that is of necessity generated by processes to create locally adapted spontaneous structure. In essence, he shows us how to do for buildings and cities what DNA does for grasses on the hills and trees in the forest: allowing each thing to become what it needs to be, as it arises from its own circumstances, with coherent form that flows out from the process.

Book Three: A Vision of a Living World

In the four books of The Nature of Order we have been given a new framework for perceiving and interacting with our world, a methodology for creating beautiful spaces, a cosmology where art, architecture, science, religion and secular life all work comfortably together. The third book shows us – visually, technically, and artistically – what a world built in this cosmology and framework is likely to be: what it may look like and be like.

Hundreds of examples of buildings and places are shown. New forms for large buildings, public spaces, communities, neighbourhoods, lead to discussions about equally important small scale of detail and ornament and colour. Many of the examples are built by Alexander and his colleagues; other buildings explored take us around the world and through time.

With these examples, lay people, architects, builders, artists, and students are able to make this new framework real for themselves, understand how it works, and understand its significance. The book is a feast for the eyes, and mind, and heart. Places created by living process (Book 2) have living structure (Book 1), and they connect us to our essence as people (Book 4). The seven hundred pictures of Alexander’s buildings and works of art shown in this book demonstrate in detail what he means.

Book Four: The Luminous Ground

The foundations of modern scientific thought, four centuries old, are firmly rooted in a conception that the universe is a machinelike entity, a play of baubles, machines, trinkets. To this day, our real daily experience of ourselves has no clear place in science. It is little wonder that a machinelike world-view has supported the deadly architecture of the last century.

The Luminous Ground, the fourth book of The Nature of Order, contains what is perhaps the deepest revelation in the four-volume work. Here is a geometrical view of space and matter seamlessly connected to our own private, personal experience as sentient and knowing creatures. This is not merely an emotional appendix to the scientific theory of the other books. It is at the core of the entire work, and is rooted in the fact that our two sides – our analytical thinking selves, and our vulnerable emotional personalities as human beings – are coterminous. They must be harnessed at one and the same time if we are ever to really make sense of what is around us, and be able to create a living world.

Altogether, present throughout this fourth and final book, is a new cosmology uniting matter and consciousness: consciousness inextricably joined to the substrate of matter, present in all matter, and providing all wholeness with its material, cognitive, and spiritual underpinnings. This view, though radical, conforms to our most ordinary daily intuitions. It may provide a path for those contemporary scientists who are beginning to see consciousness as the underpinning of all matter, and thus as a proper object of scientific study.

And it will change, forever, our conception of what buildings are.