hubble nebulai via nasa

The Legacy of Christopher Alexander and A New Conception of the Universe

The following is a lecture by Nikos Salingaros on the ideas of Christopher Alexander from the last chapters of The Luminous Ground: The Nature of Order Volume 4, given at the Building Beauty Master’s Program, on April 23, 2018:


Great architecture—even modest architecture that possesses intensely human qualities—is an emergent phenomenon. We perceive a wholeness coming from the coherence among numerous design and physical elements. Alexander and his collaborators have derived techniques for generating the design components necessary for life, and also the rules for putting them together. But the final coherence—or lack of it—is a surprise that cannot be predicted or “designed.”


Alexander comes back to our visceral response to such wholeness. Our body responds subconsciously but strongly to the degrees of wholeness in our environment. We need to distinguish this positive reaction from a very different intellectual excitement due to transgressive forms, which instead trigger our fight-or-flight instinct. Alexander uses the word “sadness” for a deeply human feeling. Sadness links to physical tears, which, however, can be triggered also by an intense experience of joy. This positive feeling must come from the geometry, not from our inner emotions of the moment.


The Alexandrian method of design begins by dreaming: “imagine the most wonderful place in the world to be in so as to accomplish this function or task.” This is, after all, the basic criterion for extracting a design pattern from numerous observations. If a created structure actually succeeds in this goal, then naturally whoever experiences it will cry tears from the intensity of the positive emotion.


Alexander is insistent that this intense feeling is not a psychological reaction—it’s an actual, physical quality of the environment. This makes it independent of the emotional state of whoever experiences it. To prove this, Alexander points to the healing effect felt by anyone who attempts to generate living structure. This is the intense emotional reward for whoever creates living art, artifacts, music, and buildings in the pre-industrial sense. The production of beauty produces a healing effect on the maker. Alexander discovered a direct relationship between the creation of life and beauty, and an intense feeling of personal nourishment. Turning this affect around gives a test: “the best criterion for judging if you are creating wholeness is that you yourself feel whole and healed.”


Creating life by creating artifacts or structures makes the creator vulnerable, however. It is such a personal act, which contradicts the social pressures of sophistication. Playing the game of producing images and trying to impress others precludes the production of life. Genuine creation does not try to impress others. But people today are frightened by real beauty. There is a deep incompatibility between industrial modernism, and being true to living structure. As a result of detachment, you are not allowed to be comfortable with your own self. Social norms that shape society into a mass consumer of industrial products block people’s inner emotional satisfaction.


It is impossible to explain how wholeness and life created in a painting, artifact, or architectural piece connect deeply to a person in the spiritual sense. This phenomenon has religious implications, and was indeed interpreted in this way by pre-industrial societies. Alexander also notes that the necessary state of mind for creating life is best explained in religious terms—being selfless and giving, “something that has life is made as a gift to God.”


Achieving coherence comes down to applying one of Alexander’s 15 fundamental properties: “Not-separateness.”


Evolve and shape what you’re making so that it is connected to everything else it can possibly connect to. But this idea underlines the basic incompatibility with current architectural culture, where each design shouts “look at me.” This is the opposite of life, where something blends in perfectly well with the world. The desire to be separate sabotages the creation of life.


All of this leads us to recognize, and actively seek an intimate relationship between our own selves and the universe. While this notion is the basis of traditional religions, it has no place in our time. Alexander describes the experience of creating life, or enjoying life already created, as a connection between ourselves and the universe. This goes far beyond coherence among all the components of something created—because our own self is incorporated inside the field of coherence as well. In making life, we are included in what we make.


Living architecture (today as in historical times) can be created only within a conception of matter that is not mechanical. Alexander offers an astonishing hypothesis: that we can use living architecture to influence physics. Discoveries from architecture—how to generate living structure through materials—could revise our cosmology to reveal a richer and more correct physical reality.


Physics describes nature as a fascinating combination of inert components. Its basic rules are mechanical (i.e. dead). Moving one step away from this traditional limitation involves considering the property of wholeness as a structure, not merely a condition. There exists already a precedent in quantum mechanics, in which the wholeness of a configuration determines the behavior of elementary particles. Space thus contains a global configurational structure that is not mechanical. In The Phenomenon of Life: The Nature of Order Volume 1, Alexander refers to my model of organized complexity as a step towards establishing this structure.


Alexander cites biologist George Wald, who suggested that preconditions for life are already present in the matrix of the universe and are not only an end-product of an improbable sequence of chemical events. This would also mean that consciousness is somehow defined by itself, and not as an emergent phenomenon of the animal neural system. Our model of the universe requires additional features not contained in physics, and these define wholeness through the 15 properties. The relative value of space is measured by the intensity of the 15 properties in each point. Space changes qualitatively through intensification.


Of immediate and profound relevance to architecture is the unity of ornament and function. Ornament connects us viscerally to a structure or surface, helping to establish an inclusive overall wholeness. This effect is just as important as our connection to this place, object, or space through using it. Therefore, there is no distinction in living structure between ornament and function. Creating art and life is essential to our spiritual development. We have something like a religious obligation to create life whenever we make something.


Why is the phenomenon of wholeness not presented as a strictly psychological effect? That would remove its strange aspects and make it entirely believable to everyone. I remember asking Christopher precisely this point while we were editing his book, for my own peace of mind, and he was adamantly opposed to it. He insisted that the effects are physical, not psychological. Even with a PhD in Physics, I was (and still am) in no position to either prove or disprove his thesis. So I advised him to present these ideas in the clearest possible way, and perhaps they will be better elucidated at some future time by other researchers. We need more experimental data.


My own reasons for supporting these ideas are twofold. We know that the known quantum effects act in the domain of physics. They’re entirely independent of the existence of human beings. While the wholeness observed in the quantum domain is evident only in microscopic dimensions, and the architectural effect is a macroscopic one, the effect is very similar.


Second, there is the deep philosophical attraction of universality. If indeed this wholeness effect is limited to the interior of a large animal’s head (our’s) living on the surface of the planet Earth, in a minor solar system somewhere in the Milky Way galaxy, then it’s negligible. Such a limitation cheapens the effect. But physics exists everywhere. And in religion, God exists everywhere as well.


Featured image via NASA. 


Get smart and engaging news and commentary from architecture and design’s leading minds.

Donate to, a Not-For-Profit website dedicated to reconnecting architecture and design to the public.