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Empirical Findings from “The Nature of Order”

Original text here.

Christopher Alexander

Architect, scientist, and writer Christopher Alexander is one of the most remarkable thinkers and makers of our time. His many books include A Pattern Language (1977), The Timeless Way of Building (1979), and A Foreshadowing of Twenty-First Century Art: The Color and Geometry of Very Early Turkish Carpets (1993). This essay is his recent effort to distill the major discoveries in his masterful four-volume The Nature of Order (2002-2005), published by the Center for Environmental Structure in Berkeley, CA. He wishes to thank Maggie Alexander and Randy Schmidt for help in editing this essay. © 2007 Christopher Alexander.

I am a scientist. The science of the last four centuries and especially the science of the last 150 years has profoundly shaped our culture and our civilization. We are now living in a world defined by a widely accepted group of statements and kind of knowledge that was non-existent before. These have changed our view of what a human being is. The offshoots of science have changed how we look at ourselves, how we think and feel, and how we view our social institutions, political institutions, love, war, and race. How we view children and how we view old age. How we view art and the making of things. How we view the birth and death of the cosmos.

Yet in this exuberant and fascinating surge of modern science, with all its authority and power, the divide between fact and value remains hardly changed at all. The questions of what we ought to do, how to solve problems, how we may attain the peaceful form of existence in which a person lives with quiet in one’s heart, how to act to protect the planet, how to act so as to protect and help the wretched of the Earth, how to bring loving kindness into the workplace—these issues have hardly changed. If anything they have become more extreme, and every day more painful.

Science rarely helps us with these matters. We scientists have not yet laid down a way of thought that gives us a foundation of careful and tender action that deals with everyday life, makes common sense, and leads to actions that make the Earth more whole in its people and in its soil and substance. Indeed, the philosophy of science, which has brought us so far, has also made it more difficult to address these issues. The findings of science have intentionally separated the process of forming mechanical models of physics from the process of feeling and from appreciation of the poetic whole that forms our own existence.

In brief, then, we have not yet found a model through which we may understand things in an overall, wholesome way that is both rooted in fact, as deciphered by scientific effort, and also gives us a foundation for ethical daily thought and action. As a result, to put it bluntly, we do not know who we are. We can hardly act without floundering morally or emotionally. Often, we find ourselves in the greatest pain because things do not hold together. We cannot find a comfortable picture of our daily actions in relation to the larger whole of the Earth and universe.

In The Nature of Order, a four-volume work mainly written in the 30 years from 1975 to 2005, I have tried to construct a coherent picture that makes sense of these matters and gives us something worth living for.

How does The Nature of Order work? First, although the book is long, it is modest in intent and deals with something so ordinary that most scientific works never touch it—namely, the everyday world around us, the world of rooms and streets, houses and trees.

The four books of The Nature of Order continually try to describe our everyday world in objective terms, yet at the same time deal with the emotional world that this objective, ordinary world raises in all of us. It is an exploration of the way that we sentient, feeling creatures interact with our surroundings, and of the way that interaction leads us to understand ourselves and the nature of our lives, and ultimately even to understand, in part, the nature of our own souls.
* * *
At the heart of this exploration there is a logical and empirical thread of argument that may be viewed as the core of my four books and that establishes the necessity of a new view of ourselves in relation to the world. This view ultimately nourishes (and, if accepted, could become the foundation of) a new kind of hope that is all the more profound because it integrates knowledge from philosophy, science, and religion to help us to experience the wholeness of the whole.

It could even shed light on the way wholeness occurs in the universe so that we might find help wrestling with the question of God. It might give us a path for our own access to that mystery, yet couched in acceptable, concrete terms of scientific reference.

The sequence of my argument follows a brief introduction to each of the four books and is arranged, as the books are, in four parts.

Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

To lay a ground work for understanding built environments that support human well-being, I began about 40 years ago, searching for, defining, and identifying patterns of space that recurred in buildings, each one dealing with a particular range of problems that was likely to occur. By about 1975, these investigations, which I undertook with five colleagues, gave us gold. We discovered about 250 invariant spatial patterns, each one associated with the stability of a human-environmental system. These were published in A Pattern Language (Oxford University Press, 1977) and in several other books published in the same decade. They have become a standard part of what is known and used by architects.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, I began to notice that these 250 patterns were themselves special cases of a small number of much deeper configurational properties. I began to hunt for these and try to purify them. In the end, after ten years of work, I had identified 15 of these properties. It began to seem more and more certain that all living structure—indeed, all “good” structure—is composed of these 15 fundamental properties.

It is significant that these 15 properties are not confined to buildings and works of art but are equally visible in nature. In naturally occurring physical systems, one could see that virtually all phenomena had, in one form or another, a configuration that was “composed” from, or at the very least strongly molded by, these 15 properties.

My co-workers and I began to feel that there was, in these phenomena, a recurrent structure of some kind—almost as if one could see the same deep structure in a huge variety of actual phenomena, and that it was so deep that each time it occurred, it took a different form, and was, nevertheless, always the same.
* * *
The argument of Book 1, The Phenomenon of Life, may be captured by the following results that summarize 30 years of observation and experiment:

1.     A previously unknown phenomenon that may be called “life” or “wholeness” has been observed in artifacts. This quality has been noticed in certain works of art, buildings, public space, parts of buildings, and in a wide range of other humanmade things.

2.     The idea of how much life is in things is objective in the sense of observation and is thus common to people of different inclinations and cultures. This is a surprise, since the finding seems to contradict the accepted wisdom of cultural relativity. (demonstrated)

3.     This quality of life seems to be correlated with the repeated appearance of 15 geometric properties—or geometrical invariants—that appear throughout the object’s configuration. (demonstrated)

4.     We began to refer to this quality, in its geometrical aspect, as “living structure.”

5.     The appearance of living structure in things—large or small—is also correlated with the fact that these things induce deep feeling and a quality of connectedness in those who are in the presence of these things. (demonstrated)

6.     Degree of life is an objective quality that may be measured by empirical methods. The empirical test that most trenchantly predicts “life” in things is a test that asks which of two things induces the greater wholeness in the observer and which of the two most nearly resembles the observer’s inner self. (demonstrated)

7.     Astonishingly, in spite of the vast variety of human beings and human culture, there is substantial agreement about these judgments, thus suggesting a massive pool of agreement about the deep nature of a “human self” and possibly suggesting that we may legitimately speak of “the” human self. (at least strongly indicated)

8.     The 15 properties are the ways in which living centers can support other living centers. A center is a field-like centrality that occurs in space. (demonstrated)

9.     In phenomena ranging in scale from 10-15 to 10-8 meters, on the surface of the Earth ranging from 10-5 to 105meters, and at cosmological scales ranging from 109 to 1026 meters, the same 15 properties occur repeatedly in natural systems.

10.   There is substantial empirical evidence that the quality of buildings and works of art as judged by knowledgeable people who have the experience to evaluate quality with some objectivity is predicted by the presence and density of the 15 properties. (demonstrated)

11.   It is possible that the properties, as they occur in artifacts, may originate with cognition and work because of cognition, and that is why we respond to them.

12.   But that cannot explain why they also occur, recur, and play such a significant role in natural phenomena.

13.   Centers appear in both living and non-living structures. But in the living structures, there is a higher density and degree of cooperation among the centers, especially among the larger ones. This feature comes directly from the presence of the 15 properties and the density with which they occur. (demonstrated)

Books 2 & 3: The Process of Creating Life  & A Vision of a Living World

How does this living structure come into being? Where does it come from? And why do these structural properties keep recurring? It is more important to ask this question about the phenomenon in nature than in architecture, since in nature living structure is being created all the time, in architecture only sometimes. Yet it is a question that—in this form—has hardly ever been asked from within the mainstream sciences.

As a rule, scientists take it for granted that naturally occurring structures are beautiful. So much so, that the questions “Why?” or “How do things become beautiful?” do not usually seem important to a scientist and are rarely posed as scientific questions. But when seen through the eyes of an architect or looked at in the scale range that I look at professionally, these two questions come into sharp relief. They are questions that need answers. When one looks at architecture and modern cities, it is obvious that human beings can manage to make a terrible mess of their surroundings. This shows us by default that beauty does not come about automatically. Yet in nature it does seem to come about without effort!

Evidently, then, we must conclude that there are particular kinds of processes occurring in nature that, repeatedly and without effort, make things beautiful. It must be that somehow these natural processes are constrained or specialized in some way that allows nature’s phenomena to become beautiful, while the same particular specialization of process is missing from most contemporary architecture, planning, and development. It is not impossible for beauty to arise in human artifacts, but it is relatively rare.

What process is it that is universally present in the processes of nature but is rarely present—indeed, most often missing—from contemporary town building and architecture?
* * *
This is a new and important scientific question. Having arrived at the description of the 15 properties, and seen them as vitally important structures in both nature and architecture, the question regarding good and bad process gave me a clue to the answer, especially since both nature and the best architecture are characterized by a special kind of harmony, beauty, and wholeness. By the early 1990s, I had begun to focus on this particular class of processes—what I later came to call “unfoldings”—and asked why the underlying processes of nature and traditional architecture are able to create harmony and beauty without effort, while the processes of modern urban construction are almost never able to do so.

I believe these kinds of processes are common in nature—at all scales. But it is easier to identify them in architecture, because as an architect, one is more blatantly forced to ask how harmony comes about in the scale range of architecture. I believe this is why these transformations first surfaced in my studies in architecture and why they have not previously come to light or been described in physics or biology.
* * *
Continuing the sequence of my argument, now focusing on the logic set forth in Book 2, The Process of Creating Life:

14. The structure of living things has been shown to have a predictable geometric coherence at least partly governed by the 15 properties presented in Book 1. (demonstrated)

15.  In examining the origin of those things in nature and in art that possess living structure, we find that this living structure comes about, almost without exception, as a result of an unfolding process that draws structure from the whole by progressive differentiation. (demonstrated)

16.  More particularly, it is possible to define a new class of transformations—“wholeness-extending transformations”—that allow continuous elaboration of any portion of the world, according to non-disruptive and healing acts. [Note: In Book 2, the term “structure-preserving transformations” is used throughout. Since its publication, I have adopted the more expressive term “wholeness-extending.”]

17. This progressive differentiation and coherence building can be shown to depend on the system of wholeness-extending transformations that preserve and extend wholeness. (demonstrated)

18.  In addition, it can be shown that these transformations generate the 15 properties as a natural by-product of their wholeness-extending actions. (demonstrated)

19.  It is precisely the use of these wholeness-extending transformations that has generated the greatly loved, and now treasured, traditional environments throughout the world. (demonstrated).

20.  It can also be shown that the environments typically created by commercial development in the last 100 years are generated by an almost diametrically opposed system of wholeness-disrupting transformations. (demonstrated)

21.  It may be concluded that healthy environments can only be generated by actions and processes based on wholeness-extending transformations. If we hope for health or living structure in our built environment, it is reasonable to say that the efforts of project initiation, design, planning, and construction must be revised to incorporate the necessary processes.

22.  Not surprisingly, the new methods and processes required to achieve this healing will need to be substantially different from present-day commercial methods, thus requiring great courage and a widespread willingness to make serious changes in society. (demonstrated)

23.  Examples throughout Book 2 demonstrate how a great variety of sequential-holistic processes can give rise to effective unfolding and produce new buildings and environments that have greater than normal coherence, adaptation, and harmony with their surroundings.

24.  It is shown, above all, that it is the holistic and sequential nature of the unfolding that governs the coherent quality of end-product configurations. As far as we are aware, only this kind of process places appropriate emphasis on the well-being of the whole.
* * *
Continuing the argument as it is presented in Book 3, A Vision of a Living World:

25.  The core quality of an environment that is unfolded through wholeness-extending transformations is its deep relatedness to human beings in a way that may be called “belonging.” (demonstrated)

26.  This belonging must be something related to people’s everyday inner feelings. This relatedness is not trivial but leads, rather, to a far deeper substance than the artificial constructions currently hailed as “art.” (demonstrated)

27.  In addition, structures created by a process of unfolding are likely to have a wider range of physical and human characteristics—far wider than the range of those visible in the homogeneous commercial projects of our time. They will, by their nature and by the nature of wholeness-extending transformations, nourish the land and people and give rise to a great depth and substance that provides genuine support for human beings and the Earth. (demonstrated)

28.  Made in this way, the environment will be sustainable as a whole, and in a deeper and more comprehensive way than the partial technological sustainability that has become fashionable in recent years.

29.  Book 3 provides many examples of buildings and building complexes where wholeness-extending transformations have been at work in different environmental and human settings. From these examples, one sees how much richer and more various both the processes and the resulting products are. (widely demonstrated)

30.  Furthermore, in all these examples, there is a richer variety and greater number of living centers, at all scales, ranging from the very large to the very small. When one examines these examples, the characteristic change of overall quality that these techniques induce is plain to see. (demonstrated)

31.  It is anticipated that such environments will, by their nature, give honor and respect to all people on earth. (Partially verified, but certainly not yet truly demonstrated, since many more examples from different cultures still need to be built and tested.)

32.  As far as the extant examples are concerned, they seem to come closer to a new form of collective art that evokes the true nature of people able to express and live their own aspirations, culture by culture. All these examples encourage people to increase their own self-esteem and that of others.

33.  By honoring the wholeness of the Earth and its neighborhoods, these newly built places, in their physical character and presence, are also likely to encourage and support new depths of spiritual seriousness in the people who make them and for whom they are made.

34.  Such environments have not previously been an object of scientific study. The in-depth analysis and description of such profoundly made environments advances our understanding of the basic qualities and characteristics of the environment and offers an approach to healing.

35.  Most important is that the many experiments described in Book 3 use the generating processes put forward in Books 1 and 2, and one can see the results. Briefly put, the places are experienced by people who live in them, work in them, or visit them, as something that establishes a deeper connection. In some fashion, which appears inescapable, the theory of Books 1 and 2, is confirmed by the physical results in building and by the way these places work—far more deeply, so it is argued, by people who have been in them—than the normal buildings and plans made by other contemporary methods. (demonstrated)

36.  It is to be hoped that the empirical base will not only provide a sturdy underpinning for a new way of regarding the world we live in but will also provide a foundation for social and political methods of achieving these results on a wider scale. This empirical base also validates an interpretation that describes the interaction of people and their environment in a much deeper fashion than we have been used to in contemporary dialogue. Something has shifted.

Book 4: The Luminous Ground

In the fourth chain of my argument, I come back to the process of doing any work of unfolding and the core activity that needs to be followed for the unfolding to arise successfully. This depends on a cognitive state that will allow a human being—any artist, maker, architect or planner—indeed, anyone—to perform an unfolding successfully. This requires that he or she pay attention to the whole (not always easy)—a skill that must be learned, since it requires that the person forget himself or herself sufficiently to be able to act as nature does.

Let us now take a deeper look at the nature of these centers from which wholeness is composed. In Book 1, I defined a center as a field-like centrality that occurs in space. It is not an object. It is not a point. It is a holistic phenomenon that appears within a larger whole. Wholeness is composed of centers. So we have a recursive phenomenon here: centers appear in wholeness; wholeness is composed of centers. Each center has some degree of life. The life that a center has is a function of the configuration of centers that surround it and of the degree of life that these surrounding centers have. In slightly different language, a living center is a center that is unusually dense in other living centers.

Conceptually, it is not easy to hold on to this enormous multiplicity of interconnected living centers, each working on others and doing so through the action provided by the 15 properties. Toward the end of my efforts to understand this phenomenon, I came to a formulation that expressed this in a helpful way. Namely, I chose to use the word “beings” to describe living centers. This language was slightly shocking, since it smacked of sensationalism, even of exaggeration. I found it extremely helpful, however, to think of and to see living centers—the focal points of a living structure—as “beings.”

What the word does that is especially useful is to avoid the often antiseptic language of mathematics and admit, into the phenomenon of living structure, a sense that life in some form—biological, artistic, poetic, mythical—is a real thing, a thing that has spirit. When one conceives a living structure as made of a multitude of beings, it allows one to give dignity to the fact that it really is life that is being created and that has established its presence there, not only an antiseptic shell.

In the first part of Book 4, I describe this apparent life as it appears in technically “dead” stones, in marks of paint, in the roof of a certain building, in a window, or a window pane. This way in which an inanimate configuration springs to life and calls forth life is what brings us face to face with the significance—and meaning—of the phenomenon!

I do not want to go too far with the concept of beings and have introduced the term only because it conveys a better sense of the enormous nature of what is going on when centers form in space. Nevertheless, the concept does underline what has already been established in early sections of this argument—namely, that one must conclude that space itself is somehow being-like, has the potential for beings to appear in it, not in the mechanistic sense of assembly from components, but in the far more startling sense that something within space and matter can be awoken by the presence of the proper configurations. It is this that begins, firmly, to close the argument and point toward a much deeper nature of matter and space than to what we are accustomed.
* * *
Completing my summary of the argument, the following steps are laid out and explored in Book 4, The Luminous Ground:

37.    The empirical arguments presented in Books 1, 2, and 3, are fairly straightforward. They provide a concrete, substantial way of understanding the quality of artifacts, works of nature, and works of building. But what has not been visible so far is that the web of these empirical findings leads to an altogether deeper and somewhat mysterious picture. This picture must be understood so that one can fully grasp the significance of the earlier empirical discoveries.

38.    Let us come back, then, in this fourth book, to the whole: the nature of the living whole and the way that any one part of that whole plays its role within the larger whole, binding everything together. To some degree we have a picture of the way this happens, also of the processes that make it happen. But what is the meaning of these processes? What is their significance in the larger scheme of things?

39.    We have seen that living structure occurs when centers unfold from the whole and form complex binding schemes in which larger centers emerge from the whole, intensify the life of whole, and are built from smaller centers. (demonstrated)

40.    We have also seen, repeatedly, that any example of living structure creates a connection between that structure and the human self and is in some definite sense “personal.” (demonstrated)

41.    These observations gain empirical support from the experiments in Book 1, which indicate that perception of a self-like quality in a thing (whether it be natural or humanmade) provides the most direct access to the degree of life in the thing. (demonstrated)

42.    The observations also gain strong empirical support from the experiments described in Book 3, where attention to the living structure in an environment strongly increases the feeling of belonging that people experience there. (demonstrated)

43.    These two conclusions suggest that what I call “living structure”—whether it occurs in nature or in art—is entangled with the human self, in some fashion that we have not previously understood.

44.    More specifically, every single living center that appears repeatedly in living structure, at many overlapping scales, has a character connected to the human self.

45.    Even more exactly, any environment that has life or, for that matter, any system or work of art that has life incorporates multiple and sometimes very large numbers of living centers that appear to be being-like—i.e., self-like. This appears to be a fact of nature—not merely a psychological or cognitive interpretation.

46.    Experiments, observations, and descriptions of these phenomena finally bring us to the brink of something one can hardly avoid saying—namely, that the natural phenomena and artifacts made in this way and the living structure they exhibit strongly suggest the need for a modified understanding of the nature of matter.

47.    It appears that the process of making a living environment succeeds or not to the degree that the making process is based on the repeated use of the criterion, “How much is this part, that part, or that whole like my true, inner self?” We thus find a substantial, empirically-based clue for making ecologically wholesome places, spiritually sustaining places, and energetically self-supporting places.

48.    By empirical standards, this is a startling proposal. All these forms of making are dependent on perceptions and actions that might be imagined as appropriate and natural for a 14th-century Christian monk or a Sufi saint. They are far removed from the current late-20th century version of our scientific world view and what it tells us to do.

49.    If the view presented turns out to be a sound and testable picture of reality, as my experiments suggest, we must then be prepared to contemplate and perhaps in the end accept a modification in our present-day view of the nature of space and matter.

50.    In any case, whether we succeed in this renewal or not, it does seem that there are good grounds for reviewing our picture of the nature of living structure and the matter from which we are made and which surrounds us. (demonstrated)

51.    At the very least, in my experience, thoughtful people who have contemplated these issues and thought about them carefully, find—sometimes with a sigh of acceptance and relief—that, within this frame of reference, they are finally able to live in a world that makes sense. They are able to act in a way that makes sense and without those actions being based on any current canons of morality.

52.    This is a world view in which acceptance of the whole and efforts to heal the whole can be seen as the most profound and most important forms of prayer. This world view is consistent with modern science and yet calls into question some of science’s most deeply rooted assumptions.

53.    It is a new kind of thought about matter, in which our understanding of the world is coupled with the idea of healing the world, and in which our relation with the world is to be understood through realizing that our own selves are in the world, part of it, and not separated from it.

54.    In such a modified world view, science can perhaps be brought into alignment with human feeling and awareness.

55.    An apparent link between environment, self, God, and matter has shown itself. It has been uncovered by carefully raking through the ashes of our mechanical civilization and in the attempt to build a phoenix of living structure that may arise again, if we choose to pay sufficient attention to it.

56.    In any case, the world can become beautiful as a result of efforts based on this new understanding. (demonstrated)

57.    As a result of these investigations, it may turn out best if we redefine the concept of God in a way that is more directly linked to the concept of “the whole.” This would permit the reconciliation of our daily efforts with the well being of the whole—something that is anyway necessary from a scientific point of view. But in so doing, we may be able to unite the mental and emotional territory of what was traditionally called God in a way that provides the connectedness that people crave and in a way that allows people to feel humility and responsibility for the whole as part of the sum total of mentality that once existed in other cultures and that must exist in our own highly modern civilization in a way that is true to the facts.

58.    We would then have the goal of making a world that is literally made, as far as possible, from “self.” This means, of course, the eternal self that lies in each of us and manifests in living structure. This also means that the world is to be made of this substance.

59.  But, even more shocking and exciting, there may lie ahead new ways of understanding physics and biology in these terms so that space and matter would be linked and entangled, literally, with the source of all consciousness, by reference to the whole and its hitherto misunderstood properties.
* * *
The empirical findings—those that I have marked above as “demonstrated”—are expressed in the four books with sufficient background so that it is clear that they are testable and have been tested. It is also clear that more rigorous experiments along the same lines can be done, with larger samples, to reach conventional standards of scientific acceptance.

I have not pursued this traditional scientific avenue to its full conclusion, since the construction of the logic of this chain of reasoning was a harder and more important task, arduous in the extreme. I spent most of these last 30 years working to make the chain of argument as clearly and as logically as I could. My experiments brought results that have established a prima facie case that the findings are reasonable and plausible. They now simply need confirmation through experiments conducted along more exact lines.

I look to my colleagues and to a new generation of scientists to carry this work forward with the necessary rigor.


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