on June 17, 2003
This four-volume work is Christopher Alexander's magnum opus of architectural philosophy, and a book on which he has been working for over twenty years. Like Steven Wolfram's "A New Kind of Science" -- to which it has been compared by a number of authors -- it is long (almost 2,000 pages), richly illustrated, and suggestive of nothing less than a new scientific world view.
The essence of that view is this: the universe is not made of "things," but of patterns, of complex, interactive geometries. Furthermore, this way of understanding the world can unlock marvelous secrets of nature, and perhaps even make possible a renaissance of human-scale design and technology.
As to the second assertion, one may be appropriately skeptical until more evidence is seen. As to the first, there are emerging echoes of this world view across the sciences, in quantum physics, in biology, in the mathematics of complexity and elsewhere. Theorists and philosophers throughout the twentieth century have noted the gradual shift of scientific world view away from objects and toward processes, described by Whitehead, Bergson and many others. Alexander, like Wolfram, takes it a step further, arguing that we are on the verge of supplanting the Cartesian model altogether, and embarking on a revolutionary new phase in the understanding of the geometry of nature.
This is much more than speculative mysticism, as some poorly-read critics will doubtless be eager to claim. The Cambridge-educated mathematician backs up his beautifully illustrated assertions with copious mathematical formulas and notes, and he includes extensive discussions of the philosophical ideas of Descartes, Newton, Whitehead and many others. He paints an extremely detailed and convincing picture of a vast world of geometric structure that is just now coming into the range of human comprehension.
Alexander even goes beyond Wolfram and the other complexity theorists in one crucial respect: he argues that life does not "emerge" from the complex interactions of an essentially dead universe, but rather manifests itself, in greater or lesser degrees, in geometric order. For Alexander, the universe is alive in its very geometrical essence, and we ourselves are an inextricable part of that life. This is a "hard" scientific world view which is completely without opposition to questions of "meaning" or "value", "life" or "spirit". For Alexander, such questions are hardly irrelevant: in fact, they are of the essence in the most physical, concrete sense.
Alexander started his career as a highly influential design theorist, and the ideas of this book are its direct if surprising progeny. Early on he was a pioneer of computer-aided design methodology, and his book "Notes on the Synthesis of Form" is a classic in the field. (Curiously, Alexander's work has more recently spawned an entire new field of computer programming language, as well as popular computer games like "The Sims".)
Later on, Alexander sought a method to handle the unwieldy thickets of complex data generated by the computer. He soon identified design "patterns" that repeatedly occurred in the built environment, and that together formed systems or "languages." Such languages, he argued, were readily observable in traditional design methodologies, and were in large part responsible for their unity and wholeness. Implicit in this phase of work was the belief that the priesthood of architects hardly had an exclusive claim to good design, and that ordinary people could be taught to make quite handsome and satisfying buildings, as they have been known to do throughout history.
A Pattern Language was met with great success, and even at $65 per copy, it is still one of the best-selling books on architecture -- some 25 years after it was first published.
But Alexander and his colleagues were disturbed to find that many of the designers inspired by A Pattern Language produced work that was crude and artless. How, short of returning to the unsatisfactory methods of the priesthood of trained professionals, could this be corrected? What was missing from the methodology he and his colleagues were offering?
Alexander came to believe what was needed was an essential grasp of the geometry of nature, in the broadest sense. The effort to come to terms with the implications of this, and to document the ideas for his readers, would occupy him for the next 25 years, and require nothing short of an overhaul of the Cartesian worldview that he believed underlies the conception of the design problem.
Alexander studied the designs of cultures throughout history and across the world, and formulated some empirical notions about their geometric properties. He distilled these down to 15 recurrent geometric properties, and developed them into a powerful and versatile theory of design.
At the core of his theory is the idea that good design is not a matter of elements working properly in a mechanistic system, but rather of regions of space amplifying one another in a larger totality. That is, one cannot take the environment apart into elements, but must see the environment as a field of wholes, each supporting and amplifying one another in an interlocking totality. One can be very precise and descriptive about these wholes, but one cannot avoid looking at the totality at each step of the way.
Alexander calls each spatial region a "center," emphasizing that it is not an isolated entity, but an embedded field within an infinitely larger system of fields, with gradually diminishing contextual influences. One cannot look at a part of the whole without looking at its relation to the whole, and the complex influences of its location within the field.
This geometric holism is not a new view of things, although perhaps, as Alexander suggests, it holds revolutionary implications for the way we order the architecture of modern society. If so, this work is a major advancement.
It is not an accident that scientists are often Alexander's biggest fans, for they understand his ideas more deeply than do many architects. If history is any guide, thoughtful people would do well to pay close attention to the insights of this fascinating, brilliant, important theorist.
on October 28, 2003
The Nature of Order Volume 1: The Phenomenon of Life
This is a book that will haunt you. You think you have "seen" its purpose, and then you'll reread something, and see new depths, reach new insights. You'll be frustrated you don't have it with you to refer to at odd moments, when one of its passages starts ringing bells, and illuminating bits of your experience in new ways. Chris Alexander talks about his journey over twenty five years to write the book, and the efforts over five to ten years by students to grasp and articulate and internalise his ideas.
But don't let these time scale put you off. It is also a wonderfully illuminating book, and very clearly written. The use of hundreds of contrasting photos of buildings, carpets, ceramics, parking areas, and so on to illuminate the concepts, and the presence of more or less life, is nothing short of breath-taking. I found only one pair of pictures leaving me feeling equivocal about what Chris was trying to communicate.
If you are interested in art, architecture, design, learning, cognition, religion, then you will gain immense value from this book, whether from a furiously busy two weeks on a loan from the library, or a purchase to treasure and explore for the rest of your life.
The excerpts from the 476 pages identify and briefly explain the fifteen properties, and attempt to give you a hint of the power of this book.
.. the structure I identify as the foundation of all order is also personal. As we learn to understand it, we shall see that our own feeling, the feeling of what it is to be a person, rooted, happy, alive in oneself, straightforward, and ordinary, is itself inextricably connected with order. 22.
Real life. .. is comfortable, rough around the edges, smooth as if it had been rubbed together. This kind of life is the ordinary life which is not connected to high art or fashion. It has nothing to do with images. It occurs most deeply when things are simply going well, where we are having a good time, or when we are experiencing joy or sorrow - when we experience the real. 38.
.. ordinary enough, or profound enough, to feel alive in some degree. .. they are alive because they are - as far as possible - concept free... They are vigorous and straightforward, where the soul of the maker has entered the thing - or where the ordinary processes of daily life, uncontaminated by ideas or notions of what to do, has unfolded in a way that we accept very easily. These things make us comfortable because we recognize them as genuine. 51.
THE FIFTEEN PROPERTIES:
1. LEVELS OF SCALE:
(can be) too far apart in scale to be coherent with each other. 147
2. STRONG CENTERS:
cumulative power of strong centers.. progressive quality. 153
If we apply the rule repeatedly, it says that every part, at every level, has a boundary which is a thing in its own right. This includes the boundaries themselves. They too have boundaries, each of which is a thing in its own right. What seems like one rule, then, is a pervasive structural feature of enormous depth, which is in effect applied dozens or hundreds of times, at different scales throughout the thing. 162
4. ALTERNATING REPETITION:
The tired yet killing repetition comes from the fact that what repeats is one-dimensional there is no alternation to speak of, no living centers which repeat. And there are no vital secondary centers repeating between the primary ones. The difference between the kind of repetition which has life, and supports life, and the kind which is banal, always lies in this matter of alternation. 169
5. POSITIVE SPACE:
There is not a single space which is "leftover". ..every shape is a strong center, and every space is made up in such a way that it only has strong centers in its space, nothing else besides. 176
6. GOOD SHAPE:
a shape which is itself, as a shape, made up of multiple coherent centers. It is easiest to understand good shape as a recursive rule. The recursive rule says that the elements of any good shape are always good shapes themselves. 179
Partial list of properties required to make a good shape..
High degree of internal symmetries
Bilateral symmetry (almost always)
A well-marked center ( not necessarily at the geometric middle)
The spaces .. next to it are also positive
Strongly distinct from what surrounds it
Relatively compact (1:1, 1:2, occ 1:4)
Closure and complete feel 183
7. LOCAL SYMMETRIES:
over-simplified overall symmetry in buildings is most often naïve and even brutal. 186. ... a large symmetry of the simplified neoclassicist type rarely contributes to the life of the thing because in any complex whole in the world, there are nearly always complex, symmetrical forces at work - matters of location, and context, and function - which require that symmetry be broken. 187
.. the relative coherence of the patterns is an objective matter of cognitive processing, independent of the person who is judging, and independent of the particular kind of experimental judgement which is used to measure it. .. but the measure is subtle and refined. Even in the most coherent patterns only (a few) of the segments are symmetrical. 190,191
8. DEEP INTERLOCK AND AMBIGUITY:
situations where centers are "hooked" into their surroundings. Eg arcade or gallery. 195 The space in the gallery belongs to the outside world, and yet simultaneously belongs to the building - thus causing a fusion of the two. 197
Life cannot occur without differentiation. Unity can only be created from distinctness. .. for the thing to be whole, the contrast has to be pronounced. 200. but it is not forced
Qualities vary slowly, subtly, gradually, across the extent of the thing. ..One quality changes slowly across space, and becomes another. ..centers .. varying in size, spacing, intensity, and character. 205.
.. the seemingly rough solution - which seems superficially inaccurate - is in fact more precise, not less so, because it comes about as a result of paying attention to what matters most, and letting go of what matters less. .. another essential aspect of the property of roughness is its abandon. Roughness can never be consciously or deliberately created. Then it is merely contrived. 211
a deep underlying similarity - a family resemblance - among the elements, so deep that everything seems to be related, and yet one doesn't quite know why, or what causes it. ..depend on the angles, and families of angles, which are prevalent in the design. 218
13. THE VOID:
This emptiness is needed, in some form, by every center, large or small. It is the quiet that draws the center's energy to itself, gives it the basis of its strength. 225. .. there is a great lack of simple, silent, empty, large, calm space. 225
14. SIMPLICITY AND INNER CALM:
geometrical simplicity and purity .. certain slowness, majesty, quietness... it comes about when everything unnecessary has been removed. 226. It comes from an uncompromising steadfastness to function, following the thing to its logical conclusion, refusing to be deterred by convention. An extreme freedom. 227
when a thing lacks life, is not whole, we experience it as being separate from the world and from itself. ..any center which has deep life is connected, in feeling, to what surrounds it, and is not cut off, isolated, or separated. .. Those unusual things which have the power to heal, the depth and inner light of real wholeness, are never like this. .. 231. ..lack of abruptness, or sharpness.. 234.
The interplay of the properties:
The 15 properties are not independent. They overlap. In many cases we need one of them to understand the definition of another one. .. to define ALTERNATING REPETITION exactly, we need to get clear that there is an alternation between certain things or STRONG CENTERS which repeat... (which) relies heavily on the GOOD SHAPE of the things that are repeating.. 237. LEVELS OF SCALE ..are not discernible at all , until we identify the things at different levels as wholes... STRONG CENTERS and have GOOD SHAPE...which contains powerful centers within the BOUNDARIES of the shape. 237 It is the field of centers which is primary, not the fifteen properties. Each of the properties describes one of the possible ways in which centers can intensify each other. Each one defines one type of spatial relationship between two or more centers, and then shows how the mutual intensification works in the framework of this relationship. 241
Life will increase, or it will degenerate, according to the degree to which the wholeness of the world is upheld, or damaged, by human beings and human processes. 293
.. It is not easy to find what we really like, and it is by no means automatic to be in touch with it. It takes effort, hard work, and personal enlightenment to understand it and to feel it. It requires liberation from opinions and concepts and ego to experience deep liking. 316
My experiments show that, in general, people agree to a remarkable extent about which objects are more, or less, like their best, or better, or most whole selves. Very surprisingly, it appears that this judgement is independent of person-to-person differences and independent of culture. .. Even if an observer is at first confused by the question.. "Which of the two is more alive?", it allows him to teach himself and to grow in his ability to judge the matter. 319
We live in an era when people's likes and dislikes are controlled by dubious intellectual fashions - often supported by the media... It is only with maturity that we learn to listen to our own heart and recognize what we truly like. 342
A healthy human being is able, essentially, to solve problems, to develop, to move towards objects of desire, to contribute to the well-being of others in society, to create value in the world, and to love, to be exhilarated, to enjoy. The capacity to do these many positive things, to do them well, and to do them freely, is natural. It arises by itself. It cannot be created, artificially in a person, but it needs to be released, given room. It does need to be supported. It depends, simply, on the degree to which a person is able to concentrate on these things, not on others. 373
I hope these excerpts have done enough justice to the richness and power of this book, and that they stimulate you to buy a copy, study it with care, and then, in time, to use it with flair. We are using it to help us design our eco-village called Rosneath Farm.
on October 17, 2003
"The Nature of Order" is a series of four books, a work that has taken 30 years to complete. It is an ambitious attempt at synthesis, a near-impossible challenge to join together, in one generative thought, all the aspects of man in the universe. Consequently, the critical and wary reader will possibly detect traces of what could possibly resemble an immense megalomania, as Christopher Alexander aims to reunite physics, biology, and the wholeness of human beings in a geometric conception of the universe. Nevertheless, this same reaction is triggered by every real effort of synthetic thought that tries to build a vision of the world less fragmented than today's.
Often in the scientific community, great researchers allow themselves, towards the end of their career, some philosophical height in order to consider the world in the light of the particular discoveries they have made. Some of them -- the most reductionistic -- try to explain whole phenomena by a generalisation of laws they had previously discovered in a particular context. In fact, they reduce the whole world to the phenomena they are able to explain, and try to affirm the supremacy of a particular point of view. These are, for example, the common "all is social", or "all is biological", explanations. Some other scientists, much less pretentious, explain that their discoveries come to support or to lighten in some way certain elements of forgotten and ancestral wisdom. Thus, they indirectly point towards a return of those wisdoms, but without necessarily showing the way. Christopher Alexander belongs to a third category of scientific researchers : those who develop during a lifetime of inquiry their own general vision of the world, continuously nourishing it with the particular progresses of science and the local lessons of practice.
If Christopher Alexander appears to have been obsessed all his life by one and only question (how to make good architecture?), he did not lock himself up in architectural practice, nor in a particular scientific discipline, nor in any philosophy. This is why he knew how to develop and considerably deepen a way of building that is not directly linked to ancestral techniques but possesses even today their immensely wise qualities.
Because of the vast implications of Christopher Alexander's work, I will comment on only one aspect of the first volume (The Phenomenon of Life) ; that is, the issue of judgement in architecture.
In this first book, Christopher Alexander introduces and describes a single criterion to define the architectural value of any building. This criterion is (1) empirical, based on experience, and (2) objective, because it can be shared among several individuals. Each building, each construction, can be characterized by its degree of life. Provided with this criterion it is possible to discriminate between "good architecture" and "bad architecture". This degree of life depends on the presence or the absence of a spatial structure which he calls living structure and which can be used to explain judgements after they have been made. Provided with the properties and qualities of this living structure, it is then possible to look for the processes that governed its growth, in order to formalize a knowledge of the ways of designing and building that lead to "good architecture".
The empirical results are based on comparisons of objects, photographs, situations, or buildings. They are obtained by asking one question : which one of these two buildings has more life ? This question can be reformulated as follows : which one of these two buildings best represents the whole of yourself, which one best represents at the same time all your qualities and all your faults, all your forces and all your weaknesses, all the events you lived and all the ones you hope to live in the future, all the things you love and all the ones you hate, etc. If the answer to this question is sincere, the results are shared in common for a majority of people, and the measurement, which is made by comparison, is valid. For my own part, I did not find anything to object to the possible validity of this method.
If one starts to analyze this question, one realizes that it cancels (or tries to cancel) the majority of the determinisms that we are carrying and that we inherited more or less luckily during our life. It cancels the determinism of personal history by the opposition of past versus future, it cancels psychological determinism since it calls upon forces and weaknesses, it cancels aesthetic determinism by opposing what one loves and hates, etc. Finally, this form of judgement tries to reach the Wholeness which is present in each one of us. It aims at a criterion which is both personal and objective.
By raising this question, one establishes empirical results without dividing the individual into biological, psychological, sociological (and many more) components, because this question addresses the individual in his wholeness. And good architecture should not address only the psychological component of the individual, or the sociological or the historical ones, but the whole individual. Hence this form of judgement constitutes a solid proposal to define the value of architecture.
However it is not easy to apply in today's world, because obviously, we are not used to asking ourselves this type of question. One could even think that all the analytical developments around architectural and urban questions that exist today have as a principal function to circumvent this question that we refuse to ask ourselves directly, and when faced with it, the majority of us is in great difficulty. But to avoid judging is to make ourselves unable to judge, therefore unable to appreciate the things that have value. Most importantly, avoiding this judgement consequently makes us incompetent to design and to build valuable buildings. The issue of judgement, which introduces this first volume of The Nature of Order, is an essential precondition to the construction of a true knowledge in architecture.
Thus my opinion on this book is extremely positive. Without doubt, it is the best book on architecture I have ever read.
on May 20, 2004
*** Original review: May 20, 2004 ***
Those who know me know that I am not prone to making either quick judgements or vacuous statements, so my friends (at least) will know that both the title of this mini-review and the few words that follow are far from whimsical: Alexander's Nature of Order, and in particular this fourth volume which I have recently received and simply cannot put down, are in my humble opinion, destined to rank as one of this *world's* great literary/philosophical achievements. What Alexander has produced is nothing short of a brilliant vision for the transcendent reality that lies beneath and beyond conventional categories. I write this as a Ph.D. physicist, with two graduate-level mathematical physics texts under my belt (both on complex systems), and semi-pro photographer with 30 years of experience of trying to capture "beauty" in nature. Alexander's work has provided a tentative -- but oh so deep -- glimpse of an answer to my own philosophical struggles as scientist and artist: physics and art are but two sides of a vastly richer coin, and are merely pointers to an infinitely rich *life* that pervades this universe; indeed, the life that *is* this universe. Every human being who has ever sincerely pondered the question "Why?" when looking up at the sky, while admiring a pretty flower, or looking into a mirror, can do no better than to curl up by a fireplace with a hot cup of tea, open up volume four of this incredible set of books and start using the musings lovingly offered here to look within for answers. Truly a remarkable achievement. I have never met Christopher Alexander, but can honestly say that I have been deeply touched by this preternaturally wise soul.
***** Musings added Sep 1, 2005 *******
Having now read the entire opus (I-IV), and currently on my 3rd reading of volume I, I am fully convinced that Alexander's Nature of Order is an absolutely stunning achievement of the highest caliber. I also concur with a quote that appears on the inner flap of the books, to the effect that while very few (if any) philosophical/conceptual works (and their authors) are likely to be remembered 500 years hence, there is a strong possibility that Alexander's Opus WILL be remembered as a precursor to what our present day (only partially overlapping fields of) "science" & "art" will have evolved to in 500 years (a unified, wholistic body of "Sci-Art" in which the schism between objective & subjective / inner & outer no longer exists).
What Alexander presents in these books is a tentative first stab at a magnificent new CONCEPT; not a mathematical or physical theory (though rudiments of what might go into a more formal description are also discussed). Although many of Alexander's ideas are quite subtle and require thoughtful reflection to fully comprehend and integrate into (ironically) a whole (new worldview), the basic thesis is original and profound: EVERYTHING that exists contains "life", and the degree (lesser or greater) to which life is manifest in "X" can be *objectively* determined by probing one's *subjective* (inner) world. Nature is seen, in this view, simply as the totality of life, continually unfolding; and beauty (as generated by local life-forms such as humans), as a resonance between outwardly objective forms and (the very deepest) subjective inner feelings.
Western science's longstanding divide between "what's out there in the world" and "what is in here, in our hearts and souls" is exchanged for a new worldview in which our understanding of the cosmos is predicated on an active unity between objectivity and subjectivity; between dispassionate form and intensely personal beauty; between "eye" and "I"; between the deepest inner feeling and continually unfolding outer life. If this sounds radical (and perhaps even a bit strange), that is because it IS radical; Alexander is proposing a sweeping idea that is both revolutionary and (only in hindsight, after having read his extraordinary Opus) obvious! For it really cannot be any other way! Every thinking -- no, every FEELING -- creature who wants to know our cosmos and his/her unique role in it needs to read these books. They are truly remarkable! The next great strides in art and science will be made (simultaneously) when, one day, an EINSTein-Alexander appears and uses the ideas expressed in these books to develop (using a mathematics not yet created) a rigorous new theory of "Sci-Art-Beauty-Life". These are ostensibly books on "architecture"; but they far -- FAR -- transcend that field; they speak, collectively, about everything that exists.
on November 16, 2003
Christopher Alexander's latest series of books, "The Nature of Order", propose new ways of understanding the built environment, as well as new methods of practicing architecture, and as such should be part of every architect's library. As a practicing architect, I have found that "The Nature of Order" series has had a profound impact on the way that I design and create buildings, as well as on the way that I understand architecture and its connection to the larger physical world. The theoretical framework that Alexander sets up in his first book, The Phenomenon of Life, coupled with the analysis and exploration of generative processes presented in his second book, The Process of Creating Life, propose a fascinating and intriguing new way of understanding the physical structure of the world. Alexander presents us with a unified theory where art and science are part of an integrated system that together define the physical structure of all matter, including "life" itself.
In the first book, The Phenomenon of Life, Alexander proposes that the physical environment consists of discreet entities that form specific geometrical relationships, and that these geometrical relationships each have an intrinsic value; a value that can be objectively identified and measured with a significant degree of accuracy and agreement among many observers. Alexander goes on to identify this degree of value as "life", expanding the current biological definition to one that includes strong coherence of geometrical structure. In analyzing thousands of examples, Alexander and his colleagues have identified 15 geometrical properties that, when present in a physical structure or design, help to increase the degree of life, in that particular place or object. These properties can be easily identified and measured, by each one of us, and thus form the basis for an objective form of aesthetic judgment. Questions that address degrees of value, such as "what is a good building?", "what is a good piece of art?", and "what is a good environment?" can now be answered using objective criteria, where consistent agreement among individuals is possible.
It is Alexander's objective approach for judging aesthetic quality, combined with his unified view of the physical and aesthetic world, that has profoundly influenced my own work. As I work on projects every day, going through the process of testing different ideas and possibilities, I now have the tools and framework for making good design decisions - decisions that can be objectively evaluated in terms of their impact on the "life" of each project. In addition, Alexander has provided me with a deeper understanding of the place of my own work in the physical world - how whatever I make, whether it is the creation of window seat or the lay-out of a series of buildings, has a direct connection to the larger and smaller geometrical structures of which it is a part. Of course this approach leads to a sense of deep responsibility for the enhancement and betterment of the physical world; a responsibility that I believe should be fundamental to the practice of architecture.
on July 29, 2004
I'm not an architect, though I do paint a bit and presume to teach. A friend from Ohio undertook one of Alexander's architectural courses, 20 years ago, and posted me notes on Alexander's colour theory. I've used them ever since. But the articulation of this guru's understanding of the experience world & how we process it & make art in and for it, has become keener, more subtle & concise over the years. This is a very, very profound teaching without any messianic overdrive. Indeed, its the patience and humility of Alexander's process of discovering essential rules & roles for making art, that are most profound and the enduring feature of his presentation. And the book's own look exemplifies his quest for the beautiful.I'm not so taken with the reproductions of his own painting, however. I can't quibble with the twentieth century masters he reproduces as evidence for enduring beauty. A fabulous book! For more on art visit>rodmoss.com
on December 16, 1998
The author, who had served as a long time contributor to the English language news paper Korea Herald, opened a new chapter in Korea's literary genre. Until the publication of "White Badge," South Korean participation in the Vietnam War was a taboo in Korea, just as the Korean War had been a "Forgotten War" in the United States. Approximately 300,000 ROK troopers served in the war. Mr. Ahn's book sparked a new interest in Vietnam, which to most South Koreans had been a long forgotten country of the "boat people." A T.V. series depicting ROK troopers' dillema, struggle and death followed. "White Badge" was made into a highly acclaimed film in South Korea. Besides the awakening of South Korean conscousness to the war, the book delivers an important non-US-centric perspective. Ahn, through his portrayal of various characters in a ROK platoon, describes political and cultural dillema that many South Koreans were forced to face. Viet Congs were enemies, but at the same time, they were also patriots dedicated to their nation's independence. South Korean troopers were killing fellow Asians who were fighting for the same thing that their fathers and brothers had fought under the Japanese colonial rule--a national independence. Despite the fame and respect that Korean troops gained for their courage and brutal efficiency during their participation in the war from the American military, many were haunted by fears of death, dimemberment, and cowardice. The war left an indelible mark in the whole generation of those South Koreans who had participated in the war. For non-Korean readers, this book will provide an excellent and entertaining insight into the pschological impact of batterfield and post-war trauma experiences of ROK troops. With the South Korean President, Kim Tae-Chung's, recent apology to the Vietnamese for the ROK participation in the war, I hope that ROK veterans will be able to come to terms with their past as many American veterans have done by visiting the old battlefields of Vietnam.
on July 9, 2005
As a total amateur, I have no design training. I am fascinated by architecture and design, but really only "know what I like". I read "A Pattern Language" when working on object oriented computer systems and find it fascinating - I still re-read it. So, when I saw this book, I was hoping that it would be interesting.
It is way beyond interesting. It completely changed the way I look at the world. It deserves to be read carefully, slowly, savored. Alexander makes his work accessible to both architects and lay people alike.
Even with two kids in college, I am going to spring for book 2. Higher praise could not be given.
on May 16, 2010
After dropping my son off for his first karate lesson, I went in the neighboring book store, plopped myself into the only available comfortable chair and grabbed the nearest expensive book, which happened to be on architecture and happened to be this one. I managed about seven pages during that first hour, and left the store overjoyed at my little discovery. I then shamelessly returned Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4:00 to 5:00 and read. When some nefarious person purchased MY book and the store didn't restock it, I had no option but to become an honest girl and order my own copy. I've read it three times now. It's one of the rare books that I needed to wholly internalize. I haven't yet graduated to any of the sequels, but it did get me to start tiling floors, and my floors make me happy.
I'm no architect, though I've thought since reading this of trying to become one. My biggest complaint about America is that ugliness is so thoroughly tolerated. Our foundation in the Enlightenment has gradually been perverted to a view that goodness and beauty are subjective, and we have for 3 generations had no effective theoretical basis with which to combat the billboard. I am grateful to Alexander for providing that basis. It gives me hope, both that someone has the will to do it, and that I'm not alone in this. The ugliness genuinely bothers me. It makes me lose heart. It even seems to me calculated to make me lose heart. And if I can lose heart, then a whole nation can. It seems to me deeply important that we take this on. The whole purpose of the book, you might say, is to counter the presumption that ugliness is in the eye of the beholder, and even if it isn't, who cares? I care, that's who. Pizza Hut and Midas have no more right to offend my senses with their ads than they have a right to spew out C-O or post enormous Playboy centerfolds by the side of the road. I can prove that now if you give me a chance. I would go so far as to argue that Alexander has provided us with a means to assess what concrete objects and places are Valuable.
The empirical means by which this presumption of subjective ugliness is countered is through pairs of images which appear throughout the book. Most of them differ only slightly, yet one is better than the other. Like one other reviewer here, I found only one pair for which my assessment differed from that of Alexander. (p. 66) The obvious counterargument is simply, "I don't agree with Alexander's assessment of these images." But that does beg the question why 13 of 15 reviewers agree with him more or less wholly. The probability would be that people would disagree randomly if beauty were subjective. Perhaps you would say that good architecture has nothing to do with beauty - or life, as he would say. If beauty, inner delight is not where it's at, then what does matter, I would ask? If Value were subjective, there would be no more reason to have a house designed by Saarinen or Wright than by the local used car dealer... if Value is subjective. If life/value/beauty is not subjective, and it makes sense to hire an architect for reasons other than to make sure the house won't fall down, then, well, it is not subjective. Then some things delight us more than others. Maybe we should figure out what those things are, so we can stop subjecting ourselves to avoidable pain. The pain runs deeper than we wish to acknowledge.
The theoretical foundation for the recognition that beauty is objective presupposes a Transcendent Truth. (Sorry, but there is a God, though he doesn't use the word.) The book takes on the materialist, reductionist, Cartesian world view. But it doesn't do so stupidly. It doesn't in the process throw out empirical science. We are freed from dogma, because he places feeling ahead of intellect as the ultimate arbiter, and appeals to the reader to set aside the brain momentarily and feel in honesty for herself. Another reviewer complains that he's just pushing his personal taste down the reader's throat, And his taste is old=good and new=bad. That's not fair, I feel. There is genuinely modern, innovative construction which is well-proportioned and alive. He offers examples. What he does claim, however, is that the Cartesianism which fully took hold just before WWII has done significant damage, that profusion of ugliness more or less tracks with faith in reductionism.
I love the guy, and if I had one wish for the world, it would be that it would hear him - give him a fair shake and hear him.
on December 20, 2003
"The whole is more than the sum of its parts" is commonly said or writ, but never before have i read so much detail, amply illustrated, of just how that works. There are pictures of beautiful things, and some horrendously ugly things (a certain postmodern house in particular made me laugh out loud), and some side-by-side comparisons of two moderately beautiful things that made me think...which has more "life"?
My interest in architecture is limited to a desire to build an Earthship or cob house sometime in the next few years. I wonder why i find such houses more beautiful than the conventional kind?
Well, understanding the 15 properties gives one an excellent mental toolkit for studying beauty and beautiful things, and figuring out how to make a place or structure more welcoming to human life. Practical exercises and advice, along with all the examples, help the reader develop an eye for these qualities.
As an artist, i can apply these properties to creating and
critiquing my works, and perhaps even to know better how to fix an image that has gone awry. The author's sketches of beautiful patterns of objects, some in which he didn't quite capture the magical essence of life and examines why, enlightened me as i followed the development of his ideas through the book. Always a doodler, i've had a great time hanging out in coffee shops with some 4x6 cards, pencils, Alexander's book, experimenting with following and sometimes deliberately (and sometimes accidently) violating each of the properties, coming to understand them better. Be warned: really "grokking" the material will take much time and much fun!
I actually started with volume 2 then went into volume 1, and that worked okay. Volume two reviews the 15 properties sufficiently, and i found processes to be a more interesting place to start. But partway through vol. 2 i just had to dive into vol 1 wholeheartedly to really understand all 15 of the properties.