Monday, February 27, 2006

Book Review: The Nature of Order, Book 1

The Nature of Order, Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life by Christopher Alexander

The Phenomenon of Life is the first of a four part magnum opus by Christopher Alexander, known as the co-author and primary voice behind A Pattern Language, a "handbook designed for the layman which aims to present a language which people can use to express themselves in their own communities or homes, and to better communicate with each other." If that is a handbook, this four-parter is his Theory of Everything, a combination of science and architecture proposing that wholeness and life are all pervasive in varying degrees.
Book 1 outlines this idea, using the first half to explain the author's "theory of centers", where wholeness is not a sum of parts but a complex of overlapping centers of greater and lesser intensity. It is a theory that may be hard to grasp for many readers, though Alexander uses a series of illustrations that ask questions like, "Does A have more life than B?" In many of these the answers are obvious, and we see that the choices one answers yes to tend to be handmade over machine-made, natural over synthetic, ornamented over plain, etc. These qualities - which appear to be a reaction to mid-20th-century Modernism and its lasting impact on architecture - are illustrated as fifteen fundamental properties found both in the man-made and natural environment. It's the ubiquity of these properties where Alexander bases his theory, though he admits that any general scientific validation is years off, perhaps beyond his lifetime.
This problem doesn't stop him, instead he boldly proclaims in the second half of the book that a new form of scientific observation is required in order to show that his theory is true, something he already believes without validation by his peers. In this second half, he sets forth an extremely interesting proposal: deep emotion is not subjective but objective. He argues that our surroundings have an impact on us, they make us a feel a certain way deep down and that feeling is shared not subjective or separate. Here we see why Alexander must propose a new scientific method, as testing the impact of our surroundings on our internal feelings would be a long and difficult process. If anything his goal isn't to complete this process but to explain that a new method is worth exploring, so in the future it may happen.
Alexander's theory, while intriguing, suffers from an over-dependence upon images, especially in terms of the aforementioned A vs. B comparisons. In many of those, the answer was clear, and clearly against Modernism, another aspect that taints his theory: Is it a discovered theory, as he mentions? Or is it a theory born from a hatred of modern architecture and its lasting influence? I think it's a mix of those two. He was probably driven to find something to counter Modernism's effects, though what he found wasn't prescribed, but discovered. A third hindrance to Alexander's theory is the quality of his own architecture, which appears to be a far cry from the other precedents he uses in the book, though ultimately very little comes close to the quality of places like Ise, Japan. Regardless of these shortcomings, the theory he proposes is very intriguing and spurs me to complete the other three books. If Alexander's goal is successful he will have changed my thinking about space and architecture, as well as the legions of other architects and students that don't currently prescribe to his beliefs.

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