Review of Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order

[NOTE: This is a preliminary review as of April 2, 2013.]

Twenty-seven years in the making, Christopher Alexander’s lavishly illustrated, 2,200 page, 4-volume The Nature of Order is an extraordinarily beautiful, visionary, ambitious and controversial book that has, astonishingly, not yet been reviewed by any major scholarly urban planning journal. My intent with this review is to draw attention to it, critically assess the few reviews that have been published, and articulate some important connections between the book’s claims and the planning theory literature.

In Book One, The Phenomenon of Life, Alexander (2002a) proposes a scientific view of the world in which all space-matter has perceptible degrees of life. In his view, this provides an intellectual basis for a new architecture and enables one to ask precise questions about what must be done to create more life in our world. He introduces the concept of living structure based on the concepts of centers and wholeness, and he identifies 15 fundamental properties from which all wholes are built. In his view, this approach extends and supplements the arena of permissible scientific observation in such a way that “the self of the observer is allowed to come into the picture in an objective way” (p. 352). More specifically, he suggests that wholeness can be tested empirically through what he calls the Mirror-of-the-Self Test: “Comparing A and B, which one makes me feel the most wholeness in myself, which allows me to come closest to my own life, which makes me experience life most deeply?” (p. 354). “When something works, or is ‘functional,’” he claims, “its space is awakened to a very high degree. It becomes alive. The space itself becomes alive” (p 427).

Whether or not one thinks Alexander succeeds in formulating a rigorously scientific view of life and living structure, it is hard not to agree with his claim that some places at certain moments feel far more alive than do others. Nor can one doubt but that it is possible to sense the whole in a work of art, a building, an event, or one’s life. Or that one feels more alive when surrounded by people who themselves feel more alive. These facts, in themselves, warrant attention.

In Book Two: The Process of Creating Life, Alexander (2002b) claims life and beauty in the built world arise only from living processes which allow living structure to unfold. At the core of living processes lie structure -preserving transformations (or what in later work he calls wholeness-extending transformations). By living process, Alexander means “any chain of differentiating steps, each of which carries out the center-intensifying process by means of the fifteen transformations, applying them, iteratively, to the whole” (p. 217). Each step creates the context for the next one, and each next wholeness is derived from the previous one: “In any living process, or any process of design or making, the way forward, the next step which is most structure-enhancing, is that step which most intensifies the feeling of the emerging whole” (pp. 370-371). How can one know whether the next step enhances wholeness? “The essence, in all cases of unfolding, is common sense. You want to make a house. At each moment, you ask yourself, What is the most important thing I have to do next, which will have the best effect on the life of the house? Then you do it” (p. 130).

In Book Three: A Vision of a Living World, Alexander (2004) displays hundreds of examples of buildings and places to show visually, technically, and artistically what a world built according to his cosmology and framework is likely to look like and be like. Much of this lengthy volume builds on the concept of belonging and advocates designing buildings around positive space (or hulls), which permit public and private spaces to interlock and enhance one another. In his view, the definition of buildings (especially large public ones) should come after the hulls of public space have been defined. Their job is to form the space. Moreover, each new building should be a “good neighbor” to existing ones; “Instead of harming its surroundings,…each new building fits into its context, makes the larger area more profound, enlarges it in spirit” (p. 154). The unfolding process continues all the way down, through individual rooms, construction elements, ornamentation, and color. This would require architects to be “architect-builders” who focus on making rather than simply designing. It would also require “forms of management, forms of contract administration, forms of construction, which allow the focus of the entire operation to be on this living quality, day-in, day-out, while the building is being made” (pp. 106-108).

Book Four: The Luminous Ground (2002c) claims his new vision of architecture enables a unification or synthesis of the material, the cognitive, and the spiritual. When one uses living processes (unfolding) to create living structures and thereby enhance wholeness (both in reality and in human feeling), one can catch a glimpse of something that unites all matter into a single wholeness. At times he refers to this as “the I,” “the eternal self,” “the plenum,” or God. He writes, “I assert that this domain exists as a real thing; that it is parallel to the material world, but that it is inherently incapable of having structure, because it is pure ‘one.’ But it is occasionally visible.…It becomes visible when the structure of a strong field of centers gently raises the lid, lifts the veil, and through the partial opening, we see, or sense, the glow of the Blazing One beyond” (p. 150). His 100-page chapter on color lavishly illustrates and dramatically conveys the way that consciousness and spirit (“inner light”) can make their appearance in the world. “When I make something which has wholeness or life,” he writes, “I become more alive in the act of making it. When I make something which is dead, or contribute to the making of something which is dead, I become less alive.…People are deeply nourished by the process of creating wholeness” (p. 263). This unfolding of the field of centers and the self “is the most fundamental awakening of matter” (p. 331).

It is difficult to do justice to these four volumes in a single short review. It is especially difficult to capture the extent to which Alexander strives to articulate what he considers a deeply scientific approach to architecture that overcomes the post-Cartesian divide between the material and the spiritual, or between fact and value, and to devise a new scientific approach to architecture that treats us human beings as more than mere matter.

Does he succeed? In reviews published in Harvard Design Magazine and Architectural Record, William S. Saunders (2002a and 2002b) clearly thinks not. Focusing primarily on Alexander’s earlier A Pattern Language, Saunders claims Alexander adopts “a rigid, messianic position,” “is deaf to other ways of thinking about architecture,” “believes that the best architecture is not art…and is produced by ordinary people trying to make a good life,” “is seen as reactionary, as wanting to practice ‘timeless’ ways of building, and as assuming that new ideas are almost never going to be as good as ideas that have evolved over centuries of vernacular building,” and promotes goals that “can easily be seen as bourgeois, encouraging complacency, passivity, and parochialism” (2002a, p. 1). Consequently, Alexander “has little ‘cultural capital,’ particularly in architecture schools in which newness, art, and complexity are valued, and belief in timeless and universal human needs is considered naïve” (2002a, pp. 1-2). He finds Alexander to be a radical utopian, who “is indifferent to the feasibility of his proposals” (p. 3). Moreover, “Alexander presumes to know what people want. He can’t seem to imagine that some people might not share his values” (p. 3). “Perhaps the most disturbing qualities of Alexander’s thought,” according to Saunders, “are its absolutism and essentialism”: “Alexander can be a sententious preacher, moralizing castigator, and foggy generalizer (2002a, p. 3) and is a structuralist in a post-structuralist or social constructionist era. Despite all these criticisms, Saunders also recognizes that Alexander’s earlier work has been in tune with proponents of “the everyday” and has been “exceptionally influential among Americans who are thinking about the design of their environments” (p. 2).

In a related review, Saunders (2002b) finds nothing good to say about The Phenomenon of Life; he condemns it for being “full of pitiable delusions of grandeur and persecution.” (It is important to note that Saunders based his review only on the first of The Nature of Order’s four volumes.) In his view, it is “a self-deceptive, sloppy, ill-informed, and numbingly repetitious book full of contradictions, foggy generalities, and extreme and unsupported assertions.” He decries the new book’s “tendency toward abstraction and its distance from common experience,” and condemns Alexander’s inclination to think that his personal feelings are timeless and universal.

Alexander (2002d) responds to Saunders’ criticism by claiming, “It is unusual for a book reviewer to avoid talking about the contents of the book he is reviewing. Mr. Saunders’s review suggests, to my mind, that he felt The Phenomenon of Life contains material so damaging to the present way of thinking about architecture that it had to be destroyed, rather than reasoned through, so as to prevent architects from reading it at all.”  “Saunders puts forward no facts to refute my theory, although my book contains hundreds of pages of examples, facts, and observations, and its topic is germane to the interests of every architect.”

In a 2003 New York Times commentary on Alexander’s work, Emily Eakin writes, “’The Nature of Order’ is a grandiose, polemical, sumptuously illustrated and utterly singular inquiry into what Mr. Alexander calls ‘first principles’: the essence of life itself.” She reports that architect Moshe Safie worries that some readers may be put off by the book’s mystical tone, and she notes that the volumes appear to have been proof-read rather lightly.

In a 2007 review of The Nature of Order for Built Environment, Stephen Marshall offers a more positive assessment. In his view, the four-volume work “addresses not only Alexander’s most familiar ground of architecture and the built environment, but attempts to unite these with science and spirituality in a single grand synthesis. As one might say of the book as a whole: ‘If true, and if it can be made practical, this would be amazing’ (Book 4, p. 272). These are, of course, big ‘ifs’” (p. 255). In his very fair and concise review, Marshall concludes The Nature of Order is “undeniably an extraordinary piece of literature, weaving together architecture, art, design, construction, technology, cosmology, philosophy of science, psychology, physics and metaphysics. This intellectual scope is truly impressive, and perhaps unprecedented” (p. 257). Despite his admiration, and despite seeing considerable value in many of its details, Marshall also finds much to critique: “[A]lthough Alexander favours step-by-step processes in building, ironically it would require an unprecedented leap intellectually and practically to accept and adopt his system as a whole” (p. 258). “Another irony is that while Alexander’s buildings are often humble,…the books tend to the opposite extremes: at times self-indulgent, grandiose and self-consciously iconoclastic.” (p. 258). Moreover, “the books’ expository profligacy mitigates against explanatory parsimony. What might be instrumental explanations or directions are lost in the mix; too many concepts are hard to pin down concisely or definitively, and there is no glossary or index to help. The length – and expense – of the books must surely disadvantage their popularity. The work would pack more punch if the essential messages could be summarized in a much shorter volume” (p. 258). Marshall is also somewhat skeptical of the book’s treatment of science: “Alexander’s attempts to link his own concepts to established phenomena…are not made sufficiently clear or convincing to establish how far they should be subjected to serious scientific scrutiny” (p. 258). “Taken together, the various disappointing and dubious aspects of the book would tend to caution against claiming that The Nature of Order is Alexander’s greatest work; it is nevertheless an extraordinary repository of the author’s ideas, methods and projects, that should provide food for thought for believers and sceptics alike. Ultimately, the book must be acknowledged as a remarkable projection of one man’s thought on the world” (p. 259).

Michael Mehaffy also finds great merit in The Nature of Order. In a 2007 review for Urban Design International, he begins by observing that the current generation of architects and planners seem to have forgotten, or never learned, Alexander’s mid-60s elegant mathematical critique of modernist planning. As for the present, Mehaffy observes: “His ideas, once dismissed as quixotic, grandiose and impractical, are delivering undeniably powerful results in a number of fields. The field of architecture and design may be overdue for a rediscovery, and perhaps that is partly Alexander’s own fault; but at the same time, as Jane Jacobs noted almost a half-century ago, the fields do seem to be stubbornly laggard” (pp. 47-48). “At a time when an unbridled faith in design as a means of social progress has given way to a diminished perception of design as a method merely for ‘organizational efficacy’, Alexander’s clear-eyed insistence that major progress is still possible sets him apart. At a time when the emphasis on sustainable design is growing exponentially, his biological understanding of the form-creating process is starting to look remarkably relevant and useful” (p. 48). “Yet it is certainly true that Alexander has left a legacy long on grand ideas and tantalizing starts, and short on fully practical, implementable methods. Along with brilliant insights have come huge problem areas that, at best, require massive further development – as he himself has noted. The economic dimension of the development process alone, for example, poses profound problems that are a long way from being resolved. Until more progress is made on these areas, Alexander’s actual impact on the built environment is likely to remain modest” (p. 48). Alexander’s personal style hasn’t helped, nor has his distaste for the political messiness of ordinary urban development. “As is often the case with iconoclasts,” Mehaffy writes, “it may be up to others to pick up many of these threads, and develop them into complete methodologies and useful new standards” (p. 48). “Alexander’s focus remains very much on the creation of form, and…the way wholes differentiate to create new wholes, and new parts along with them. In that sense, his work throughout his career has focused on morphogenesis – a topic that takes on new urgency in a time when ‘sustainability’ has become an overriding goal. Alexander’s morphogenesis now embraces topics of social engagement, economic process, and other critical actors in the larger ‘culture of building’.…Judging from his previous successes, the work would seem to warrant careful attention at the very least” (p. 49).

In a very recent review, David Seamon (2013) describes The Nature of Order as a “stunning work” that “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, in his view, Alexander’s “master work.”

There is merit in each of these reviews, some more than others. The Nature of Order is far too long and ambitious for any normal reader to absorb. It is repetitive and would greatly benefit from very careful proof reading. It does propose ideas about science and God (or the eternal self) that would alienate, puzzle, or discomfort a variety of readers. It is based on concepts (e.g., wholeness and centers) that Alexander himself acknowledges are difficult to define precisely. It is radically at odds with conventional architecture, planning, zoning, and construction, and hence would be very difficult to enact in professional practice.

But the fact that he challenges conventions and risks making bold conjectures should not, by itself, lead planning scholars to avoid reading Alexander. Indeed, there is something profoundly refreshing about his boldness and practical spirituality. The facts that he wants to help architects and ordinary people to bring greater life to the built environment, has tried to articulate ways in which architects and others can heal a world that runs the risk of being destroyed by unbridled global capitalism and short-sighted politicians, wants them to design spaces and buildings and rooms that enhance a feeling of wholeness, and has been able to articulate a living process of unfolding and 15 transformations that can help produce living structures, are facts deserving of respect, admiration, careful scrutiny, correction, and elaboration.

Reading The Nature of Order from a planning theory point of view, I think Alexander is wrong in stating or implying that an individual architect or planner can legitimately claim–on the basis of his or her ability to feel wholeness–to know what next step should be taken. Other people would need to be involved in a collaborative process of deciding what constitutes wholeness in any particular place, and of deciding what next step would enhance that existing wholeness. Nor is it reasonable to expect ordinary people to understand the nuances and implications of his theory; they would have to learn by doing. To help them along, it would be necessary to condense Alexander’s overly long book by 80 or 90 percent.[1]

Likewise, I suspect that some readers might be tempted to interpret Alexander’s concept of unfolding as a variant of the market’s “invisible hand” or Charles Lindblom’s idea of incrementalism. But in fact it differs significantly from both of these processes. Alexander’s unfolding is guided by the pursuit of wholeness and a desire to bring greater life to the world, whereas incrementalism is mere drift, with the direction of change being a mere resultant of contending interests, and the “invisible hand” is too focused on economic self-interest.

Like Michael Mehaffy and David Seamon, I see strong connections between Alexander’s concept of wholeness-extending transformations and contemporary ideas about resilience and sustainability. Alexander’s ideas about overlapping centers and well-ordered complexity similarly makes me recall Jane Jacobs’ (1961) claims that the city is a problem in organized complexity, as, for example, when he writes, “When adaptation occurs successfully, and each line or element created is created in such a way as to avoid its possible mistakes, it does this by creating meaningful relationships in every direction” (Volume Two, p. 188). This, in turn, elicits connections with Judith Innes and David Booher’s (2010) arguments in Planning with Complexity.

When I consider Alexander’s claims from the practical point of view of an elected official, which I am, I find it very hard to picture how the processes he advocates can be embedded in local planning and politics. To be consistent with his own theory, innovations would have to emerge organically (that is, unfold) from already-existing wholes in particular places. His core claims would have to be translated into language and images that ordinary people can understand; those claims would have to be presented in a variety of public venues and respond successfully to objections; and then used to modify comprehensive plans, zoning codes, capital improvement programs, and related public tools. A shift to form-based codes might be one small step in the right direction.

This practical concern notwithstanding, there would be considerable merit in asking one basic question whenever dealing with the possible transformation of any particular place: what transformation, what next step, would this place (and us) feel more whole, more alive?

Ultimately Alexander is challenging us to collaboratively co-author a new story for the places in which we live. It would be a story that unfolds from the present and leads, step-by-step, toward the creation of places that are truly alive and inhabited by people who feel it in their bones.

References

Alexander, Christopher. 2002a. The Nature of Order, Volume One: The Phenomenon of Life. Berkeley, CA: Center for Environmental Structure.

___________________. 2002b. The Nature of Order, Volume Two: The Process of Creating Life. Berkeley, CA: Center for Environmental Structure.

___________________. 2002c. The Nature of Order, Volume Four: The Luminous Ground. Berkeley, CA: Center for Environmental Structure.

___________________. 2002d. A new book by a famous author sets off a heated debate. Architectural Record 190, 12 (December): 57.

___________________. 2004. The Nature of Order, Volume Three: A Vision of a Living World. Berkeley, CA: Center for Environmental Structure.

Eakin, Emily. 2003. Architecture’s Irascible Reformer. New York Times (July 12), p. __.

Jacobs, Jane. 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Vintage Books.

Marshall, Stephen. 2007. Zen and the art of building. Built Environment 33, 2: 255-259.

Mehaffy, Michael W. 2007. Notes on the genesis of wholes: Christopher Alexander and his continuing influence. Urban Design International 12: 41-49.

Quillien, Jenny. 2010. Delight’s Muse on Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order: A Summary and Personal Interpretation. _____: ______.

Saunders, William S. 2002a. Review of A Pattern Language. Harvard Design Magazine 16 (Winter/Spring): 1-7.

________________. 2002b. Review of The Nature of Order, Book One: The Phenomenon of Life. Architectural Record 190, 5 (May): 93ff.

Seamon, David. 2013. Making better worlds: Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order. Biourbanism __, __: __-__.


[1] For one recent effort, see Quillien (2010).

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3 Responses to Review of Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order

  1. “I find it very hard to picture how the processes [Christopher Alexander] advocates can be embedded in local planning and politics.”
    I do too. Alexander does give a couple of examples in The Nature of Order. If I remember, one is simply that people in charge of building new things must by law ask themselves, “Does this change preserve the integrity of what’s around it?”—or something like that. I also seem to remember that Alexander had a tough time getting this idea seriously considered.
    I take it that his more serious proposal for how his vision could be realized is through a change in the entire thoughtworld in which politics and architecture occur. Alexander himself conceived his philosophy because he felt that he couldn’t make things as beautiful as certain peoples in the past had, and he came to realize that it was his ideas that were impeding him. So he set out to change those ideas and found that a totally new way of seeing the world was necessary for him to be empowered. Hence, the radical quality of The Nature of Order (and A Timeless Way of Building, et al.). In other words, the commonplaces that define our current rhetorical modes have to be refigured.
    I find one suggestive idea in Alexander—and not just in his work—is that biology (or ecology) should be our first science rather than physics. We should see the basis of everything as life itself rather than begin with the idea of lifeless matter and wonder how life is generated.
    My own hunch is that Alexander will—might—be remembered in the way that someone like Giordano Bruno is remembered, as someone who was on the right side of a transition from one thoughtworld to another, but as someone who was a little idiosyncratic and perhaps not the progenitor himself. Given the response to his work throughout his career, there’s little doubt that if he’d lived during an Inquisition, he’d be set ablaze.

  2. By the way, great piece, Jim.

  3. Bin Jiang says:

    An excellent review!
    To respond to your question on how the processes can be embedded into local planning and politics, I think the generative codes are a useful way: http://www.livingneighborhoods.org/library/generativecodesv10.pdf
    Also, the mathematical model of beauty or simply beautimeter can help quantify the degree of wholeness in the wholeness-extending transformations, and then help orient or re-orient the transformations towards the right direction of highest wholeness.
    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/272159333_Wholeness_as_a_Hierarchical_Graph_to_Capture_the_Nature_of_Space
    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/296396310_A_Complex-Network_Perspective_on_Alexander%27s_Wholeness

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