In this, the second of three pieces developed in response to Ka’s quotation challenge, I want to explore briefly the ideas and work of Christopher Alexander, an architect, writer and thinker whose work has had a profound impact on me. The quotes I’ve selected all come from his four volume series entitled The Nature of Order. I don’t remember exactly how I discovered this work, but I do remember knowing instantly that I desired to read the entire collection, and that the investment in the books would be worth it.
I wasn’t disappointed. The books themselves are beautiful, full of artwork, shape, texture and color from around the world, both historical and modern, as well as images from Alexander’s own personal and professional work. I think it was probably close to eight years ago when I found these books, and I continue to be inspired by these works today.
It is exceedingly difficult to narrow down the contents of these four books into a concise post, as they expound not only a new architectural theory, but explore as well the profound relationship that exists between the human—the builder, or creative agent—and the world. I’ve decided to select quotes centered around the notion of the self, an enigmatic phenomenon that is fundamental to Alexander’s architectural theory and that has been a periodic subject of discussion here also.
A key argument of these works is that modern architecture is built upon hollow concepts—that it is centered around image. Works built around images that do not drawing their meaning and their context from the surrounding world, that do not infuse space with life, and that are not responsive to our deepest needs as human beings are typical of the modern approach to building. At the root of all this, is the disconnected self.
In the first book in the series, The Phenomenon of Life, Alexander writes about the importance of the personal experience.
“The trivialization of the word ‘personal’ is part of our present popular culture, immersed in mechanistic cosmology. But from the point of view of the world-picture in this book, ‘personal’ is a profound objective quality which inheres in something. It is not idiosyncratic but universal. It refers to something true and fundamental in a thing itself.
“I believe all works which have deep life and wholeness in them are ‘personal’ in this sense. Indeed, this quality is an essential and necessary part of what I have identified as life in things. When we deal with the field of centers, we are dealing with a realm of personal feeling in which feeling is a fact—as much a fact as the radiation from the sun, or the swinging of a pendulum.”
One of Alexander’s chief concerns throughout this series is that we come home to the personal feelings in our own hearts, and not proceed from the abstractions of thought and theory alone. In some interesting research that he conducted, he created thirty or so different templates of alternating black and white squares. Each template had the same number of overall squares, but differing sequences of black and white. They represented wide ranging studies in terms of pattern complexity, sequences, symmetries, etc. He then asked a large group of people in a controlled study to rank the templates according to which one most accurately reflected their “eternal self”. Alternately, by which generated within the participant the most “wholesome feeling”. The results were striking. There is a universality to the personal—a recognition of wholeness, beauty and order that are not merely “tastes”, or “opinions”.
This self that Alexander is referring to is explored in further detail in the fourth book of the series, The Luminous Ground. It is, as we will see, not what is often termed an ego—a false self striving to achieve existence in its own right, apart from all that is. Rather, it emerges as quite the opposite. Alexander’s own words will serve best here (emphasis retained from the original):
“I wish to say that the relatedness through which I feel that my own self and the tree in the field are directly connected is the most fundamental relation that there is. I wish to say that it is in this relatedness—in realizing my connection between my own self and the tree, or the pond, or the road or the grass—that I learn, feel, understand, that I am of the world, that I partake of the world, and it is in this relation that my real connection with the universe may be understood and experienced by me.
“I claim that the relatedness between myself and a thing in the world which encourages my relatedness is the most fundamental, most vivid way in which I exist as a human being. When it occurs, my own self—the degree to which I am connected to the world, the degree in which I partake of the interior ‘something’ that underlies all matter—is then glorified, is at its zenith, and I then experience myself, as I truly am, a child of the universe, a creature which is undivided and a part of everything: a small extension of a greater and infinite self.
“I claim, therefore, that this simple relation between myself and the treestump by the pond, which moves me, is a connection so profound that my full existence in the universe is made solid, is manifested, is captured by it in its entirety. It is not a small moment. It is the glory of my existence as a person—no matter how humble I am—which I can feel so long as I am in the presence of nature or in the presence of other human-made structures which, too, have the same living structure and hence the capacity to form this bond with me.”
The process and the aim of creating buildings, paintings, or vases is therefore one of mobilizing the relatedness one feels within to create life in the world—to add to the life of the world by accessing the childlike self within and bringing it forth. Alexander suggests this requires a certain desire and willingness on the part of ourselves as builders, a state of mind in which the egoic self is set aside, and all focus is upon becoming one with the world.
“…to make a thing which [has life], I struggle—myself, the maker—to become one with the world. This sounds nice. It sounds like religious stuff again. But I am doing it only to become better, only because I do want, in the end to make a perfect thing. It is terribly hard, because to become one with the world, I must genuinely want to become one with it. I have to catch each flash of ‘wouldn’t this little detail be great’ and kill it. Instead I must keep on the hard work of paying attention, trying to understand what I need to make the deep feeling come forth.
“This means that I must genuinely give up all the remnants of my desire to be separate. I must genuinely seek, and want, and open my arms to being not separate. Most of the time I fail. I fail because, to do it, I must honestly give up every last trace of wanting to be distinct, famous, separate, identifiable. That is one reason why I have to do so many experiments—trying, testing, failing, failing, failing—then once in a blue moon, one time in twenty, occasionally succeeding. I fail those nineteen times because I am trying to think something, I think I have a good idea. Then the twentieth time, somehow, when I am lucky, something perfect sneaks in, without my knowing it. But I have to be fast enough to catch it when the time comes.”
I love the process Alexander describes, and I think creative people in any discipline or field can perhaps recognize traces of the familiar in his process. The egoic self dissolves, and the truly creative moment emerges as the one most deeply expressing the unity of self and world. The act of building, is thus the act of joining self and world together, as one, in the presence of the human being. The conclusion to which Alexander arrives is that this creative process of surrendering to not-separateness, while revealing the universal, paradoxically discloses the profoundly meaningful content of the personal.
“This is, perhaps, the central mystery of the universe: that as things become more unified, less separate, so also they become most individual, and most precious.”
Alexander’s writing speaks deeply to me about the fundamental union of the human being and the world, and the self that emerges in his process is the dynamic expression of a fundamental relatedness. I cannot think of a more beautiful task than the one Alexander advocates: the healing of ourselves and the world by becoming a personal window peeking into the universal.