At the beginning of the twenty-first century, many people have identified significant problems with modern culture, ranging from superficiality, materialism, and greed and dehumanizing forces of technology to rampant destruction of humanity and the environment. A substantial body of literature has arisen that offers solutions to these problems and visions of how to return to the “real,” to basic values that emphasize respect for the self, for others, and for the world.
In The Nature of Order, Christopher Alexander presents another voice of criticism and distress. As an architect, his main concern is the built environment, which includes not only the structures one inhabits but also one’s communities with all their infrastructure and the surrounding natural environment. He levels strong criticism at most twentieth century architecture, which he characterizes as ugly, banal, pretentious, “almost unimaginably bad.” He says that many modern architects have “altogether poisoned the earth with an abundance of terrible and senseless designs” and have failed to create a built environment which is nourishing and in which structures become “vehicles for our sacred human life.” He asks: “Has there ever been a time in the history of the earth when a group of people, entrusted by society with the creation and preservation of our physical world, have so sadly undermined it?”
The Nature of Order is Alexander’s solution to this great dilemma. What makes his approach so different is that his answer goes deeply to the fundamental basis of life, in fact, the nature of order itself. Alexander is a mathematician and architect with advanced degrees from Trinity College and Cambridge and Harvard Universities. The Nature of Order is a projected four-volume summa of many of years of thinking about these issues from a scientific standpoint. The subtitle, An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe, indicates the encompassing inquiry that Alexander undertakes.
Alexander begins by challenging the modern mentality which views order as mechanism. He traces the origin of this worldview to the seventeenth century, as stated most clearly by the French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650), who espoused the idea of using a mechanical analogy to aid in understanding how things work. Much of the scientific method since that time has been based on this mechanistic approach. However, Alexander identifies a major mental shift in the twentieth century, when the mechanical model or method came to be regarded as veritable reality. As a consequence, “the idea of order fell apart.”
Alexander’s approach is to develop a more fundamental concept of order. A deeper understanding of order not only would rectify problems with architecture, an inherently “order-creating process,” but also would illuminate the very nature of “life.” Alexander states: “It is this very general life—formal, geometric, structural, social, biological, holistic—which is my main target.”
Much of book 1, titled The Phenomenon of Life, is concerned with explaining, analyzing, and proving in mathematical terms the geometrical structure of “wholeness” (W) in space which forms the essence of life and order. The character of wholeness resides in “centers.” From a mathematical standpoint, centers are recursive: “Centers are always made of other centers.” A center “functions as an organized field of force in space”; the wholeness of an entity comes from the field-like interaction among its composite centers.
In an optimal situation where the greatest degree of life or wholeness exists, the centers help and intensify one another. Alexander identifies fifteen fundamental properties, “recurrent geometrical structural features,” that form the main ways that centers create coherence and life in a given entity. He describes and analyzes these properties first in things made by human agency and then in nature. The examples on which he draws to illustrate these fifteen fundamental properties are vast. Built structures and objects come from all cultures and all periods, while in nature examples range from cells and molecules to systems of galaxies. The fifteen fundamental properties are levels of scale, strong centers, boundaries, alternating repetition, positive space, good shape, local symmetries, deep interlock and ambiguity, contrast, gradients, roughness, echoes, the void, simplicity and inner...
(The entire section is 1839 words.)