Building as if Life Mattered

What if the purpose of architecture were not primarily to
surprise with unexpected shapes, awe the viewer with the genius of
the architect, or keep up with glamorous trends — but rather to
add life to our environment by finding and using patterns that are
charged with the spirit of life?

That, in a nutshell, is the aim of the humanistic, holistic,
integrative approach to building called organic architecture. It’s
an emerging worldwide movement that traces its origins to the
prophetic American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the Spanish
advocate of organic form Antonio Gaudi, philosopher and educational
theorist Rudolf Steiner, and others, and it’s rapidly gaining
recognition and momentum. (The first exhibition of organic
architecture opened at the Berlage Museum in Amsterdam in April
2003.)

Its prime prophet and theorist is the Berkeley-based American
architect Christopher Alexander, and he’s just completed a
four-volume magnum opus that is both a manifesto and an exhaustive
demonstration of how and why organic architecture works. With the
September publication of Book Three of The Nature of Order
(Oxford) (the first, second, and fourth volumes appeared in 2003),
organic architecture has an eloquent theory to go with its
practice.

Alexander helped pioneer the practice of organic architecture 30
years ago with the publication of A Pattern Language. He
and his colleagues at the University of California School of
Architecture rocked the architectural academy with this
revolutionary design tool — a compendium of some 253 ‘patterns’
that people from every era and every corner of the world love to
see and experience in architecture. The patterns, which address
architecture at all scales from a town to the details of individual
houses, enable anyone to pick and choose time-tested, possibly even
archetypal configurations on which to base the design of whatever
they are building.

Alexander and crew’s demystification and democratization of the
design process challenged the whole idea of architecture as the
vehicle for idiosyncratic architects to express their idiosyncratic
visions. The modernist and postmodernist orthodoxy dismissed
Alexander’s ideas as derivative, sentimental romanticism. But
critic Tony Ward, in a review for Architecture Design,
wrote that A Pattern Language ‘allows any lay person or
group of persons to design any part of the environment for
themselves. . . . Every library, every school, every environmental
action group, every architect, and every first-year student should
have a copy.’

Now comes the completion of The Nature of Order, the
long-awaited and much-delayed 2,150-page treatise on ‘the art of
building and the nature of the universe’ that Alexander calls a
single, if very long, essay. In it he provides the theoretical
basis for the selection of the patterns in A Pattern
Language
, and for the creation of new patterns. Alexander
claims that the art of building began going awry in the 16th
century with the rise of mechanistic scientific thinking. One
consequence is that there is now no consensus about which values
are most important in making buildings. For Alexander, however, the
choice is clear. The criterion that trumps all others is how much
life the building has. He acknowledges that aliveness is
hard to measure objectively, but he asserts that most people know
it when they see it. When, as part of his research, Alexander set
photos of two objects — say, a salt shaker and a ketchup bottle,
or a Bangkok slum and a postmodern residence in Massachusetts —
side by side and asked people to comment on the juxtaposition, more
than 90 percent agreed on which photos had more life.

Drawing on these and other findings, Alexander establishes human
feelings as the final arbiter of good design. He writes: ‘I assert,
simply, that all living process hinges on the production of deep
feeling. . . . Yet perhaps there is no other place in this essay
where the intellectual paradigm I offer is more at odds — at least
on the surface — with the Cartesian paradigm. At first sight it
would almost seem absurd to claim that every living process may be
recognized, or measured in its degree of efficacy, according to the
depth of its capacity to produce deep feeling. Yet I believe this
is so.’

Toward the end of Book Four, The Luminous Ground,
Alexander makes his greatest, and most potentially controversial,
contribution. He asserts that through feelings of reverence, awe,
wonder, and love, ‘we somehow come more closely into relation with
the underlying ground-stuff of the universe, with the domain of
pure unity.’ He’s saying that in order to create architecture that
has life, that connects us to our wholeness, designers need to
train their inner spiritual senses and ‘to make the practice of
architecture nothing less than a path to higher consciousness, a
path to God.’

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