Architect starts with idea that space makes life possible. Are you ready to have all that you know challenged?

Kenneth Baker, Chronicle Art Critic

Thursday, February 2, 2006

Kenneth Baker
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First of a two-part series in which Art Critic Kenneth Baker sizes up the content and impact of architect Christopher Alexander's monumental four-volume series "The Nature of Order."

Reading the first book of Christopher Alexander's four-volume magnum opus "The Nature of Order" reduced me to silence. I went about my business for weeks afterward, unable to tell anyone how exciting and dismaying I found the ideas it contains.

The succeeding volumes as they appeared hammered home my conclusion that I would have to reckon professionally and publicly with this work and its author, whom I had met already once or twice.

This sort of philosophical crisis happens seldom, probably too seldom, to critics. It happened to me because Alexander, a practicing architect who taught at UC Berkeley for 35 years, explained more to me about the world I see, and the potential place of the arts in it, than anyone else has.

Most people who recognize Alexander's name know him as the principal author of "A Pattern Language," a thick lexicon of observations and proposals for making a more livable world at every level from the domestic to the civic and regional.

Oxford University Press has kept "A Pattern Language" in print for nearly 30 years. Initially, Oxford also planned to publish "The Nature of Order." But because, in Alexander's view, the books' design had to exemplify as well as illustrate in detail the thinking they contain, Oxford found it prohibitively expensive to produce. Alexander eventually bought back the rights and has issued all four volumes under the imprint of his design collaborative, the Center for Environmental Structure in Berkeley. (For more information, visit

Critics of the visual arts, especially in a mass-circulation outlet such as a newspaper, can easily carry on without ever examining the larger implications of what they write. But I have always tried to keep an eye on the values that my judgments about art support and the kind of social and ethical order they might imply.

So "The Nature of Order" hit me hard.

It plumbs aesthetic, social and philosophical -- or to use the more uncomfortable word, spiritual -- dimensions where I had thought I had my bearings. Alexander's project made my sophistication seem primitive to me, not least because his writing takes a reader so patiently and accessibly to peaks of understanding that the fog of cultural habit ordinarily obscures.

"The Nature of Order" attempts nothing less than reconceiving the relationship between life and space: life as a phenomenon in all its literal and colloquial senses and space as a defining feature of the universe we inhabit.

In a nutshell, Alexander proposes that life is not merely in space but of it, an idea of potentially momentous force for critique and improvement of the built environment. "The idea that one part of space might have relatively more life, and another relatively less life," he writes, "and the idea that this distinction would not be based on the presence of biological organisms but might instead be inherent in the space itself according to its structure -- would challenge our beliefs about the world to the very roots."Alexander has sufficient scientific background to take his argument all the way and propose that the nature of space accounts for the occurrence of any life whatsoever in the universe.

As in earlier books, Alexander suggests that builders and artists in traditional societies frequently possessed the kind of knowledge he has rediscovered and tried to reconcile with science's world picture. He boldly contends in Vol. 4 of "The Nature of Order" that his rediscoveries about the deep connection between life and space have made possible -- and always will -- buildings and other human creations that mirror a self-like quality of the universe as a whole, which some spiritual traditions call God.

The last book of "The Nature of Order" presented some of the trickiest challenges to Alexander as a writer. Anyone who wants to imbibe the essence of his project in depth can read Vols. 1 and 4.

Who has not had the feeling that certain chanced-upon places, not designed by anyone, have an uplifting or consoling quality, while others, for reasons just as obscure, strike one as disheartening or depleting?

Such intuitions, Alexander argues, register more than the observer's mood or echoes of forgotten past experience. They respond inarticulately to the wholeness implicit in a region of space and the way that things or events that occur there cultivate or degrade that wholeness.

Every critic of the arts learns to discern wholeness or the lack of it in artworks, even in the temporal media of musical performance, theater and film. And all of us discern the wholeness of situations and things and respond to them, as when we spontaneously delight in the unfussy warmth of a well-used room or effortlessly recognize a person's face despite its never-ending fluctuations of expression, age and well-being.

Wholeness, Alexander explains, arises from a feature of space that he calls "centers." These may correspond to what we readily identify as centerpoints in a pattern. But as he uses "centers," the term has broader reference to the subtle structure of a region of space that may manifest itself as much through feeling as through geometry.

"I believe," Alexander writes, "that all centers that appear in space -- whether they originate in biology, in physical forces, in pure geometry, in color -- are alike simply in that they all animate space. It is this animated space that has its functional effect upon the world, that determines the way things work, that governs the presence of harmony and life."

Consider the photograph reproduced here from Alexander's Vol. 1, of an interior courtyard in Copenhagen. Merely think of "centers" as the central points in each segment of the facade's geometry, plus the centerpoints in each of the cobblestones below, and you sense the force of Alexander's notion that the life of a space comes from the coruscation of centers that support each other there.

The sunlight and shadow in the courtyard make their contribution. More problematically, so do the photographer's viewpoint and his framing of the image.

Alexander has isolated 15 aesthetic "properties," common to nature and artifacts, through which centers can act to strengthen each other and produce the impression of life.

He spends many pages in discussion and illustration of the 15 properties. But look again at the Copenhagen courtyard and you can find in it reflections of such properties as "boundaries," "levels of scale," "gradients," "alternating repetition," "echoes" and "simplicity and inner calm." Less commonsensical-sounding terms such as "deep interlock and ambiguity," "not-separateness" and "the void" even take on an intuitive meaning when we merely refer them to the space pictured here.

In my own activity as a critic, I suddenly began looking for the "15 properties" in art and in the world. I found them all over the place, but seldom cooperating in the manner Alexander ascribes to many of the great pieces of architecture, textiles, painting and drawing illustrated in "The Nature of Order."

The exercise frustrated me because it made me realize two things. First, I have no real aesthetic vocabulary of my own. Secondly, this matters because, once handed a workable vocabulary, I felt the depth of my antagonism to the prevailing thinking among critics that the significant art of our era has downgraded aesthetics per se to nostalgia. At my age, any imputation of nostalgia threatens to cut deep.

We may have no problem with the idea of living structure revealing itself in various ways in a face. But the materialist bias of modern thought has taught us to dismiss as mere cognitive quirks the perception of living structure in an open space or something apparently lifeless such as a landslide.

Alexander put a provocatively counterintuitive illustration into Vol. 2: a picture of big towers bearing electrical transmission lines over marshlands near the Dumbarton Bridge.

"These towers might easily be dismissed as ugly by an ardent nature lover," Alexander writes. "But I believe they are structure-preserving, not structure destroying. They leave the flat structure of the Bay marsh alone; they are structurally beautiful in themselves; their even spacing is quiet and helps avoid creation of a competing structure and they make a place for pelicans and sea birds to roost. They are innocent, too. ... Engineers simply used steel, bolts and cables in a simple way without trying to 'design' something. ... By comparison, the hundreds of wind turbines at Altamont Pass, ... loved by ecologists (intellectually) because they harness wind energy, are nevertheless strongly structure-destroying. ... Thousands of giant propellers, mounted on smaller pylons, crowd together, disturbing sight, slope shapes, hill curves, grass color, and sound."

Throughout "The Nature of Order" Alexander assumes that we all suffer more or less from living in a built environment that fails to reflect back to us the wholeness and promise of growth that belongs to any human self, even a wounded one.

He challenges readers of "The Nature of Order," as he challenged countless students over the years, with comparisons between pictured objects -- two cups, an ax and a screwdriver, a rough bench and an industrial stool -- or buildings. He asks which presents a more accurate mirror of the self, or more dramatically, "which one of these two things would I prefer to become by the day of my death."

The decision-making processes in design and construction described in detail in Vols. 2 and 3 grew out of this sort of investigation. It trusts supposedly subjective response to probe the subtle structure of the real: exactly what I believe myself to be doing, or attempting, as a critic.

In June, on a press trip in Spain, I found myself trying to explain something of Alexander's thinking to a colleague as we arrived at the small park in Guernica dedicated to the defenseless victims of the Nazi bombing that inspired Picasso's painting.

The memorial park presented a perfect instance of the sort of contrast Alexander discusses between things made in the spirit of a place, with no intent to impress, and things steered into being by a program. Henry Moore (1898-1986) and the famed Basque artist Eduardo Chillida (1924- 2002) had each contributed a sculptural monument to Guernica: wordless bombast frozen in concrete and bronze.

But behind the Chillida, overshadowed by a rough stone wall, stand two simple stone benches of uncertain age, timeworn, moss-speckled, without pretension. How much more effective a memorial they made to the lost souls of Guernica than the commissioned sculptures.

Friday: an interview with Alexander at home in England, talking at length about "The Nature of Order."

E-mail Kenneth Baker at

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