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A Review by Margaret Magnus on Alexander's "The Phenomenon of Life"

Margaret Magnus (Francestown, NH USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe, Book 1 - The Phenomenon of Life (Center for Environmental Structure, Vol. 9) (Hardcover)

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.


  1. That was a great review, thanks for sharing. I first became interested in the work of Christopher Alexander through your essays on Energy Bulletin. I have read "A Pattern Language", but have not read any of the "Nature of Order" series yet. That will probably be my next big reading project.

  2. I'm so happy to hear I have managed to make a few more people interested in the work of Alexander!

    Personally I started with book one, The Phenomenon of Life, and then kept on to the last book in the NofO-series, Luminous Ground. These appeal more to my philosophical mind than book two, The process of Creating Life, which is the most practical, and which I plan to read at the end.


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