Beauty

This author finds the fundamental cornerstone of Alexander’s theory to be a rigourously developed conception of beauty. Before examining Alexander’s theory of beauty and his notions of why he considers this such a fundamental issue, it is important to make a few basic points regarding the nature of beauty in human enquiry and effort. While the idea of beauty as a real phenomenon in the world has all but disappeared from the contemporary cosmology - at least from academic and professional arenas - this has not always been the case. The ancient Greeks devoted a great deal of energy to the exploration and discussion of the experience of beauty. Beauty was identified with the goddesses Aphrodite and Venus. Plato’s archetypal Ideas were ordered by the Good, the True and the Beautiful:

To Plato’s mind nothing could be more real and more important than ideal beauty and absolute goodness. Such objects became for him the focus of knowledge and the substance of permanently valid truth. He saw in them the great controlling patterns that lie behind the changing face of the visible world…

In the first century BC, Vitruvius wrote of the three needs a building should meet: durability, convenience and beauty. He laid out a rough geometric system of proportion and symmetry based on nature, in general, and the human body in particular, and argued that such understanding should be based on rational deduction of principles of nature. His ideas were highly influential on the architects and artists of the Renaissance, in particular Alberti, who developed a definition of beauty based on the anthropomorphic and mathematical dictums of Vitruvius:

Beauty is that reasoned harmony of all the parts within a body, so that nothing may be added, taken away, or altered, but for the worse. It is a great and holy matter; all our resources of skill and ingenuity will be taxed in achieving it; and rarely is it granted, even to nature herself, to produce anything that is entirely complete and perfect in every respect.

In the late 19th century, Ruskin went to great lengths to explain his aesthetic theories, and expounded on the "Lamp of Beauty" in The Seven Lamps of Architecture:

...the value of architecture depended on two distinct characters: the one, the impression it receives from human power; the other, the image it bears of the natural creation...I desire now to trace that happier element of its excellence, consisting in a noble rendering of images of Beauty, derived chiefly from external appearances of organic nature.

...on the shapes which in the everyday world are familiar to the eyes of man, God has stamped those characters of beauty which He has made it man’s nature to love; while in certain exceptional forms He has shown that the adoption of the others was not a matter of necessity, but part of the adjusted harmony of creation

Ruskin’s aesthetic theories are based on an apprehension of the beauty of nature, which was a central theme of the Romantic period; and, as we will see, Alexander’s theory shares this strong conception of nature as a model. Ruskin was writing at the end of the Romantic period, shortly before the onset of Modernism and the accompanying revolution in aesthetics; and he was one of the first writers to rail against the diminution of the importance of beauty in society. Tarnas argues that this shift in perspective reached maturation in the early twentieth century:

The Romantics quest for spiritual ecstasy, union with nature, and fullfillment of self and society, previously buttressed by the progressive optimism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, had met the dark realities of the twentieth, and the existentialist predicament was felt by many throughout the culture...Faced with the relentless impersonality of the modern world - whether mechanized mass society or soulless cosmos - the Romantics only remaining response appeared to be despair or self-annihilating defiance. ..the nature of contemporary human experience demanded the collapse of old structures and themes, the creation of new ones, or the renouncing of any discernible form or content whatever.

Alexander feels that a fundamental step in repairing the damaged world is to find a way to value the beautiful. However, Alexander takes pains to note that what drove him to work toward such a conception was not his desire to be a philosopher, nor to avoid the real task of creating beauty by writing about it:

I am interested in one question above all — how to make beautiful buildings. But I am interested only in real beauty. I was never interested in making the kinds of slick buildings which architects of my time have generally been making. They have, in many cases given up the making of real beauty — and have, by implication, even given it up as an attainable ideal.

The seemingly common sense aspiration that buildings should support human beings in ways beyond the purely functional needs of basic shelter has been a central one for the architect-builder throughout history, up until the more recent history of the 20th century, when the goal of beauty has been questioned by many and discarded by some. This has had the result - increasingly apparent to many - that whatever beauty is, we are lacking it more and more in the contemporary world, which is getting increasingly less attractive. In the 1960’s, when a ‘revitalization’ effort swept across the United States, critics such as Peter Blake and Jane Jacobs illustrated and forcefully decried our deteriorating built environment.

Low income projects that become worse centers of delinquency, vandalism and general social hopelessness than the slums they were supposed to replace. Middle-income housing projects which are truly marvels of dullness and regimentation, sealed against any buoyancy or vitality of city life. Luxury housing projects that mitigate their inanity, or try to, with vapid vulgarity. Civic centers that are avoided by everyone but bums, who have fewer choices of loitering places than others. Commercial centers that are lack-luster imitations of standardized suburban chain-store shopping. Promenades that go from no place to nowhere and have no promenaders. Expressways that eviscerate great cities. This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities.

And while the aesthetics of our built environment is less austere in stylistic terms then in the heyday of the International Style, there is an ever-growing suburban sprawl that continues to suck the life out of our city centres, as well as a cheapening of construction materials and techniques.

Eighty percent of everything ever built in America has been built in the last fifty years, and most of it is depressing, brutal, ugly, unhealthy, and spiritually degrading - the jive-plastic commuter tract home wastelands, the Potemkin village shopping plazas with their vast parking lagoons, the Lego-block hotel complexes, the "gourmet mansardic" junk-food joints, the Orwellian office "parks" featuring buildings sheathed in the same reflective glass as the sunglasses worn by chaingang guards, the particle-board garden apartments rising up in every meadow and cornfield, the freeway loops around every big and little city with their clusters of discount merchandise marts, the whole destructive, wasteful, toxic, agoraphobia-inducing spectacle that politicians proudly call "growth."

While it has become increasing popular and easy to criticise our deteriorating built environment, what has been significantly less apparent are solutions to these problems; although efforts such as H.R.H. The Prince of Wales’s A Vision of Britain and those of the New Urbanists have begun to influence some improvement in the situation. There does seem, however, a continued trend toward increasingly larger parking lots, and suburban sprawl, while mainstream architecture is still consumed with the cult of personality. In this culture of magazine worship, the image rules, and serious debate about values, particularly values that concern aesthetics, is all but non-existent.

Alexander has gone to great lengths to define beauty in a way that can be shared, despite the strong current of Modern (and ‘post-Modern’) scientific and artistic enquiry, which says that universal truth does not exist, that subjectivity negates such truth and all things are relative. This cosmology, which Alexander is challenging, has it’s roots in the Scientific Revolution. Before examining these roots and the ways in which these beliefs affect our understanding of the nature of beauty, we must first grasp Alexander’s basic ideas about beauty.

Alexander has developed a conception of beauty, which he at various times refers to as "wholeness", "life", or - due to the difficulty of conveying it in words - "the quality without a name." This conception of beauty is understood as a structure existing throughout reality in varying degrees of intensity. Artefacts and experiences of great power and beauty have more of this quality than those we recognise as ugly or ‘dead’, which have little or none.

...life, is not a limited mechanical concept which applies to self-reproducing biological machines. It is a quality which inheres in space itself, and it applies to every brick, every stone, every person, every physical structure of any kind at all, that appears in space. Each thing has its life.

Alexander arrived at this theory, which he labels "The Phenomenon of Life", as the result of his own search for beauty. He began his search at Cambridge, where theories of modern art - Mondrian, VanDoesburg in painting and Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier in architecture - were taught as exemplary examples. Despite his efforts to produce work consistent with these teachings, work for which he was praised, Alexander never felt satisfied with these models and went so far as to hire his own tutor in aesthetics.

There were a lot of intellectual games going on there but I was only a boy and felt both inadequate and frustrated because no one was willing to deal with the question of how to make something beautiful. But I read a great deal, including psychology. My concerns were not just with buildings. In fact, it was mainly painting and music. But I was looking for properties rather than skills.

It was when he continued his education at Harvard and wrote his doctoral dissertation — later published in book form as Notes on the Synthesis of Form - that Alexander first began to understand the disparity between the modern built environment and those of traditional societies which seemed to have a level of beauty generally unmatched by the efforts of the contemporary world. As the subject of his thesis had to do with understanding ‘good’ design, and as the forms of these pre-industrial cultures were generally regarded as ‘good’ design, they were used as illustrations. However, it is important to note that even at this early stage, Alexander had moved beyond a nostalgic longing for the past, and was in fact attempting to find solutions appropriate for the contemporary situation:

When we admire the simple situation for its good qualities, this doesn’t mean that we wish we were back in the same situation. The dream of innocence is of little comfort to us; our problem, the problem of organizing form under complex constraints, is new and all our own. But in their own way the simple cultures do their simple job better than we do ours. I believe that only careful examination of their success can give us the insight we need to solve the problem of complexity.

As he continued to study traditional environments, it became clear to him that there existed a perception - primarily in the realm of feeling - of a quality of beauty which was a real structure of reality.

For example: if you imagine a brick wall that has been standing for one hundred and fifty years, and that some of the paving stones around its base have shifted slightly with the shifting of the earth’s surface, and that there are mosses and grasses growing in between the stones, that the wall itself is essentially a disciplined wall and probably has a rather carefully made capping to it, and the bricks are almost perfectly regular, although not perfectly regular, and you imagine the tree that has grown against the wall, and that there has been a kind of progressive interaction between this tree (which might have grown over a period of fifty years) and the sun warming the wall and bringing the tree to fruit - I think it is quite clear that all of that has a particular feeling to it, if you....just pay attention to the feeling.

It is this feeling - generated by the actual physical structure of material reality - which is recognised as beauty, ‘life’, or ‘wholeness’. In Alexander’s conception, this perception, translated internally as feeling, is one which has an objective basis: it is generated by phenomenon ‘out there’ in a definable, measurable structure. It is possible for people to objectively record, communicate and make agreements and value judgements about this external structure, and, further, about the internal feelings these structures generate.

This feeling, in us, is a direct result of the inner state of the creators of this structure and is in marked contrast to the motivations and results of much of modern architecture, which Alexander pointedly condemns as having lost its moral compass, sold out to the highest bidder:

...too many architects rub their hands cynically, foisting images on the public, creating works which are not friendly to man, or the human spirit - but are friendly mainly to the developers who make the huge profits from these buildings - and which do much to bolster those architects with financially rewarding glossy images in important public magazines.

‘Life’ or ‘wholeness’ is here seen as an actual structure to reality, which causes a feeling of wholesomeness and belonging. It is the recognition of the total interconnectedness of life - of the Unity of reality. This way of experiencing the world is seen as akin to that of traditional societies, where individuals felt part and parcel of their homes and towns:

We may describe the best situation in the environment as one where we experience emotional possession of the world. It is a state in which the fine adaptation between people and their buildings and gardens and streets is so subtle, and goes so deeply to the core of human experience, that the people who then live and work and play in that environment feel as if they are part of it, as if, like an old shoe, it is completely and utterly theirs.

This discussion of the ‘unity of reality’ affords a germane juncture to introduce the issue of spirituality in Alexander’s theory. The theory has had a growing spiritual character from it’s early stages and this character has been off putting to many. As we have noted, the fundamental nature of the theory is a melding of empirical scientific enquiry and mystical spiritual speculation, which results in a new cosmological view of the universe. So it is not surprising that in The Nature of Order, especially in the fourth book, the spiritual content is quite strong. The essential point, which was first introduced in The Timeless Way of Building, is that there is a ‘wholeness’ to reality, which, if perceived and followed, will lead to the making of profound beauty. It is interesting to note that the word ‘whole’ shares etymological roots with the both ‘holy’ and ‘heal’, evidence of the spiritual core of Alexander’s emphasis on wholeness as the quality which can infuse the experience of space with that profound sense of belonging and, further, evidence of the link between spiritualised space and healing space. When one experiences reality as ‘whole’ - as One - that experience includes seeing oneself as a part and parcel of that wholeness, hence the experience of ‘belonging’. In The Timeless way of Building, Alexander explains his conception of wholeness:

Compare the trees along a wild and windblown lake, with an eroded gully. These trees and branches are so made that when the wind blows they all bend, and all the forces in the system, even the violent forces of the wind, are still in balance when the trees are bent; and because they are in balance, they do no harm, they do no violence. The configuration of the bending trees makes them self-maintaining.

But think about a piece of land that is very steep, and where erosion is taking place. There aren’t enough tree roots to hold the earth together, let’s say; the rain falls, in torrents, and carries the earth down streams which form gullies; again the earth is still not bound together because there aren’t enough plants there; the wind blows, the erosion goes further; next time the water comes, it runs in the very same gullies, and deepens them; widens them. The configuration of this system is such that the forces which it gives birth to, which arise in it, in the long run act to destroy the system. The system is self-destroying; it does not have the capacity to contain the forces which arise within it.

The system of the trees and wind is whole; the system of the gully and the rain is unwhole.

In The Nature of Order, he writes:

The existence of the wholeness as an objective structure, and the possibility of seeing life in buildings and in the world, as something which emerges naturally from this wholeness, gives us a unifying picture of reality.

The ‘unifying picture of reality’ is a component of most religious systems and certainly of the Great Religions — Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism. Aldous Huxley developed what he called the ‘Perennial Philosophy’, which is an attempt to find the common spiritual root that these systems all share. Alexander’s theories on the ‘unifying picture of reality’ is a clear echo of the most central of these commonalties:

What is the That to which the thou can discover itself to be akin? To this the fully developed Perennial Philosophy has at all times and in all places given fundamentally the same answer. The divine Ground of all existence is a spiritual Absolute, ineffable in terms of discursive thought, but (in certain circumstances) susceptible of being directly experienced and realised by the human being. This Absolute is the God-without-form of Hindu and Christian mystical phraseology. The last end of man, the ultimate reason for human existence, is unitive knowledge of the divine Ground——the knowledge that can come only to those who are prepared to "die to self" and so make room, as it were, for God.

Alexander’s theories have been strongly influenced and share a particular affinity with the Eastern religions, especially Taoism and Zen Buddhism. The following quote from the Book of Chuang Tzu — written in the 3rd or 4th centuries BC and considered among the most sacred of texts in the Taoist tradition - reiterates the ‘universal picture’ and begins to elaborate on its all encompassing nature:

Do not ask whether the Principle is in this or in that; it is in all beings. It is on this account that we apply to it the epithets of supreme, universal, total....It has ordained that all things should be limited, but is Itself unlimited, infinite. As to what pertains to manifestation, the Principle causes the succession of its phases, but is not this succession. It is the author of causes and effects, but is not the causes and effects. It is the author of condensations and dissipations (birth and death, changes of state), but is not itself condensations and dissipations. All proceeds from It and is under its influence. It is in all things, but is not identical with beings, for it is neither differentiated nor limited.

Zen Buddhism has particular congruence with the theory, and is perhaps more easily accessible - at least on the surface - to the western mind, due to it’s stripping away of non-essential cloaking:

The aim of Zen training is to attain the state of consciousness which occurs when the individual ego is completely emptied of itself and becomes identified with the infinite Reality of things. This experience, known by its Japanese name of satori, is ‘the state of consciousness in which Noble Wisdom realises its own inner nature’ according to the Lankavatara Sutra (which uses the term ‘perfected knowledge’ for this state). It is an immediate seeing into the nature of things instead of the usual understanding through analysis and logic.

This instant apprehension of the "nature of things" is akin to Alexander’s emphasis of the feeling of "wholeness" or "life" in a place, and as Alexander states, "...a teaching such as that of Zen, which starts with the artist’s ability to see wholeness as it is not through the veil of images, may be a necessary basis for anyone who wants to create life in buildings." Zen points to the same dualistic schism as impeding this perception as Suzuki, the zen master, points out:

Our usual understanding of life is dualistic: you and I, this and that, good and bad. But actually these discriminations are themselves the awareness of the universal existence. "You" means to be aware of the universe in the form of you, and "I" means to be aware of it in the form of I. You and I are just swinging doors.

It is understandable, now, that a teaching such as that of Zen, which starts with the artist’s ability to see wholeness as it is not through the veil of images, may be necessary basis for anyone who wants to create life in buildings.

Another of the traditional models that has influenced Alexander’s theories is that of the Islamic world, which has developed with a degree of independence from the West and, at least until recent times, has retained much of the traditional culture that generated its beautiful cities, buildings and artefacts over the millennia. Central to this culture is the conception that all acts are performed in the context of the Islamic revelation, and all acts, especially those of the sacred arts, are an expression of the Unity of Divine Reality - also known as Allah (God). This Unity is akin to the conception of wholeness which Alexander recognises - that of the profound inter-relatedness of the universe:

By refusing to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, by integrating religion into all facets of life and life itself into the rhythms of rites and patterns of values determined by religion, Islam creates a wholeness which is reflected in its architecture.

Furthermore, because the Islamic doctrine forbids icons or images representing Allah, Islamic art (including architecture) has developed other methods to express the metaphysical principle of Unity. Two methods are of concern here: arabesque pattern making and the making of the ‘void’. The void expresses "...the transient and insubstantial character of all that is other than God and therefore the whole of the created order - of which the material is the most insubstantial of all." and, simultaneously, "...the truth that God is completely beyond all that the ordinary mind and the senses can conceive as reality..."

The arabesque,

...through its extension and repetition of forms interlaced with the void, removes from the eye the possibility of fixing itself in one place and from the mind the possibility of becoming imprisoned in any particular solidification and crystallization of matter...Therefore, man must concentrate his mind within himself and remain collected inwardly, for only through this inward collectedness and contemplation can he gain an awareness of the Divinity.

Alexander has recognised the fundamental primordial power of these elements of the Islamic tradition and has integrated them into his theoretical models and projects. Alexander has a great passion for Turkish carpets and has a significant collection which has been published in his book A Foreshadowing of 21st Century Art. For Alexander, these carpets - which he sees as "pictures of God" - embody much of what he is trying to achieve and convey in architecture - namely, wholeness, life or ‘the quality.’ He considers them important teachers in the evolution of his understanding of what makes something beautiful, and specifically, in teaching him about the importance of geometry and colour, which are essentially the ingredients that give the carpets their power.

And, in the absence of a tradition in our time, there is no way to learn it from other people. With others like me, we are trying, effectively, to invent it for ourselves. But of course, learning a great art from scratch, by oneself, is almost impossible. To be an artist you need a teacher. And it is for this reason, above all, that I began collecting carpets. Many years ago, I began to realize that carpets had an immense lesson to teach me: that as organized examples of wholeness or oneness in space, they reach levels which are only very rarely reached in buildings. I realized, in short, that the makers of carpets knew something which, if I could master it, would teach me an enormous amount about my own art.

Historically, the Great Religions discussed above have taken the major role in ordering people’s experience of wholeness, and also for engendering the creation of beauty through the rites and rituals of the religion and through the manufacture of architecture and artefacts, which made ‘windows’ to the Ground. Alexander notes this and begins to explain why:

The importance of mystical religion in helping traditional makers and builders to create life in things, has a rather simple explanation…Belief in God works — I think — by asking the believer to concentrate on God — that means on the Ground of all things in pure humility, not on some other thing. It helps a person dissolve these images, constructs, and concepts — and focus on reality as it is — in other words on the structure of the wholeness as it is.

These structures began to break down as the Scientific Revolution methodically exposed the ‘mysteries’ of life through the dissection of what were seen as subjective distortions of reality. Tarnas notes that this analysis, while perhaps a necessary step in the evolution of human consciousness, nonetheless had the result that certain ‘human’ qualities were reduced in importance: emotional, aesthetic, ethical, sensory, imaginative, intentional modes of perception and cognition were relegated to the realm of the ‘subjective’ where they have languished since:

The scientific liberation from theological dogma and animistic superstition was thus accompanied by a new sense of human alienation from a world that no longer responded to human values, nor offered a redeeming context within which could be understood the larger issues of human existence... Science may have revealed a cold, impersonal world, but it was the true one nonetheless. Despite any nostalgia for the venerable but now disproved cosmic womb, one could not go backward.

It is Alexander’s attempt to find a path toward a new conception of reality that will allow access to the ‘Ground’, but which does not rely on old forms of religion which the modern consciousness largely rejects as either repressive or not relevant to our culture because we have lost the continuity of tradition:

By the end of the 19th century, unshakable faith in God — as human beings had known it in the world’s religions for some 2000 years — no longer worked. For us, of the 20th and 21st centuries, our faith, if there is to be faith, our deep understanding, must come from some new vision — able perhaps to do for us, and in the future, what the vision of God did for the builders of the 14th century — but cannot now do the same for us of the 20th.

Alexander shares the view of many who believe that the fundamental problem facing society today is a cosmological problem - our confusion lies in how we view reality. It stems from what has become known as a ‘dualist’ perspective. Our world view separates mind from matter, spirit from body, man from nature. We are essentially fragmented. Our relationship to nature was an integrated one in traditional cultures. Man and the natural world were one; and while we may have perceived ourselves as unique in nature, we did not see ourselves as separate. At the core we saw ourselves as part and parcel of God’s world. So in the modern world , with a loss of religion and spirituality, our world picture has been replaced by a fragmented one. This has resulted in a fragmented and distorted view of architecture:

I have come to believe that architecture is so agonizingly disturbed because we - the architects of our time - are struggling with a conception of the world, a world picture, that essentially makes it impossible to make buildings well...I believe that we have in us a residue of a world-picture which is essentially mechanical in nature: what we might call the mechanistic-rationalist world-picture...even when we consider ourselves moved by spiritual or ecological concerns, still, most of us are still - I believe - to a greater or lesser extent in the grip of some residue of this mechanical world-picture

Alexander, as well as numerous other writers, traces this mechanistic view back to Descartes and the ‘Enlightenment’, beginning in the mid-17th century. Descartes formulated a way of analyzing the world whereby one pretends that what one is looking at is a machine made up of individual parts, which can be analyzed in an isolated, and thus simplified, context. Alexander believes that this way of analyzing reality eventually became how we actually saw reality:

...after people had used the idea to find out almost everything mechanical about the world from the 17th to the 20th centuries - then, sometime in the 20th-century, people shifted into a new mental state that began treating reality as if this mechanical picture really were the nature of things: as if everything really were a machine.

Alexander’s account of the origins of the modern cosmology are shared by a number of historians and philosophers, many of whom also share his belief that the Cartesian method of isolation and fragmentation of phenomenon has become a way of actually viewing all of reality.

This scientific and philosophic revolution … can be described roughly as bringing forth the destruction of the Cosmoa, that is, the disappearance, from philosophically and scientifically valid concepts, of conception of the world as a finite, closed, and hierarchically ordered whole … and its replacement by an indefinite and even infinite universe which is bound together by the identity of its fundamental components and laws, and in which all these components are placed on the same level of being. This, in turn, implies the discarding by scientific thought of all considerations based on value concepts, such as perfection, harmony, meaning and aim, and finally the utter devalorization of being, the divorce of the world value and the world of facts.

Despite the fact that there is widespread agreement that the Scientific Revolution marked the major turning point toward modern cosmology, there are those who suggest that the roots of this cosmology actually lie much further back in history. Some believe the problem is essentially one of organised religion - Christianity in particular:

The benefits of the ecological view seem patent to me, but equally clear are profound changes which espousal of this view will effect. The Judaeo-Christian creation story must be seen as an allegory; dominion and subjugation must be expunged as the biblical injunction of man’s relation to nature. In values it is a great advance from ‘I-it’ to ‘I-thou’, but ‘we’ seems a more appropriate description for ecological relationships.

Scientists too are beginning to see the flaws in Cartesian analysis, which contributed significantly to the development of the atomic view of matter. This view - which, again, separates reality into parts - has become suspect in light of developments in Relativity and Quantum theories, which suggest that there is a level of interaction in matter on levels beyond that of atoms and their constituent parts - electrons and protons - or even of their constituent parts, quarks. These theories also suggests that this interaction and influence must be understood in terms of a universal flux of events and processes. The noted scientist David Bohm shares particularly congruent ideas with Alexander:

...I would ...call attention to the general problem of fragmentation of human consciousness...It is proposed...that the widespread and pervasive distinctions between people (race, nation, family, profession, etc.) which are now preventing mankind from working together for the common good, and indeed, even for survival, have one of the key factors of their origin in a kind of thought that treats things as inherently divided, disconnected, and ‘broken up’ into yet smaller constituent parts.

It is interesting that Bohm finds it necessary to engage issues of psychology and perception, in order to formulate and explain his theory. This is congruent with Alexander’s need, perhaps strange for an architect, to engage a much wider spectrum of ideas to explicate his theory. Both figures place particular importance on clarifying the role of human perception and on encouraging development of self-knowledge toward a deeper understanding. Bohm states:

...it is crucial that man be aware of the activity of his thoughts as such; i.e. as a form of insight, a way of looking, rather than as a ‘true copy of reality as it is’.

What is essential in these views is the common understanding that the human estrangement from the world - from nature - is one of the primary factors to be considered in trying to understand the current human cosmology. In the last 30 years, there has been quite a bit of focus on this subject and the field of ecology has grown enormously. There are many striking parallels between the ideas emerging in ecological thinking and Alexander’s formulation of wholeness, particularly those of the Deep Ecology movement, a term coined by Norwegian philosopher, Arne Naess, in the 1970’s, and since elaborated and broadened by numerous ecologists.

Deep Ecology also places the blame for our current dilemmas on the aforementioned mechanistic cosmology, which the scientist Fritjof Capra refers to as a paradigm:

This paradigm consists of a number of entrenched ideas and values, among them the view of the universe as a mechanical system composed of elementary building blocks, the view of the human body as a machine, the view of life in society as a competetive struggle for existence, the belief in unlimited material progress to be achieved through economic and technological growth. and - last, but not least - the belief that a society in which the female is everywhere subsumed under the male is one that follows a basic law of nature. All of these assumptions have been fatefully challenged by recent events. And, indeed, a radical revision of them is now occurring.

The essence of the Deep Ecology view is that the Earth is alive, the earth is a living organism, a whole - in fact, a whole within an even greater whole, the universe and even beyond the universe, into infinity. This way of looking at life was formulated into the Gaia Hypothesis:

The Gaia hypothesis sees the earth as a self-regulating system able to maintain the climate, the atmosphere, the soil, and the ocean composition at a fixed state that’s favorable for life. It’s often taken that the capacity for self-regulation in the face of perturbation, change, disasters, and so on is a very strong characteristic of living things and, in that sense, the earth is alive.

While science, and the field of ecology, in particular, has begun to address the issue of the dualistic worldview - largely in response to growing ecological issues that arise from the schism between individuals and the whole of the environment - the culture of architecture has been slow to respond. Instead, one observes the continued parade of fashionable architects championed in the media. Alexander has tried to poke and prod the architectural culture, as witnessed in a debate between himself and the ‘deconstructivist’ architect Peter Eisenman, where Eisenman defends his architecture as a necessary counterpoint of harmony:

P.E.: I am not preaching disharmony. I am suggesting that disharmony might be part of the cosmology that we exist in. I am not saying right or wrong. My children live with an unconscious fear that they may not live out their natural lives. I am not saying fear is good. I am trying to find a way to deal with that anxiety...What is a person to do if he cannot react against anxiety or see it pictured in his life?

C.A.: Don’t you think there is enough anxiety at present? Do you really think we need to manufacture more anxiety in the form of buildings?

 

This illustrates the typical defence of Modern architecture: architecture should reflect the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, and should not be a regurgitation of historical styles or sentiment. One of the few contemporary architects that shares Alexander’s view - that while architecture should be first and foremost about the creation of harmony, this does not necessarily mean a return to historical forms and language - is the English architect Christopher Day. He shares Alexander’s moral perspective that our work should "pass on a world at least as good as the one we’ve inherited." He works hard to keep his buildings healthy not only on a physical level - through careful use of sustainable and non-toxic materials - but also through the perspective that "...every act should have multiple benefits - material, health, social, spiritual." His process is such that users have more involvement in shaping their environments, something Alexander has long seen as critical. Day also sees the act of building as ‘growing’ in a way not dissimilar to Alexander’s ‘unfolding.’ Both architects’ processes seek to allow the careful evolution of a building in its place, carefully adjusted to suit the site, its users and the materials at hand. Day has also explored the personal psychological issues that a designer carries and feels that the designer must "...open oneself up to the listening process so that what wants to come into being can - he must undergo a dropping of personal baggage." Day has also explored the dualistic cosmology as Alexander has and feels that "matter bound thinking is dead, inflexible."

But how exactly does this cosmological dualism affect us? How is it making our world so ugly? For Alexander, the answers to these questions have to do with our limited understanding of order. Although we have an intuitive understanding of the order of nature and we all create order daily, Alexander believes that we don’t have a very clear or deep understanding of what order really is:

...we hardly even know what the word "order" means. Our present idea of "order" is obscure. Although the word is often used informally by artists and biologists and physicists - usually to stand for some deep regularity we cannot quite define - we need a better understanding of the deep geometric reality of order. If we are honest we must admit we hardly even know what kind of phenomenon it is. Yet we build the world, producing its order, day by day. Thus we go on, willy nilly creating order in the world, without knowing what it is, why we are doing it, what its significance might be.

While the search for an understanding of order has been an important one in the sciences and is a crucial element of contemporary views of the universe and has even been the subject of enquiry for many modern philosophers such as Foucault and Derrida, Alexander’s enquiry into these subjects goes against the grain of recent philosophic enquiry, where the search for an objective and holistic picture of the universe has been mostly abandoned in a sea of subjectivity.

As we will see later, this issue of the subjective/objective nature of the order of the universe is an important one. Before exploring this issue it is necessary to understand more fully what Alexander means by "the deep geometric order of reality." Alexander believes that his ideas about order have potentially profound implications beyond the realm of architecture:

It modifies our view of the physical universe and the way it is put together. Thus, what starts out as a way of understanding architecture, ends up, also, as a view which may affect our understanding of physics and biology.. When we understand the art of building from this point of view of order, it not only changes our understanding of the building process, but also has the capacity to change our cosmology....I found that I was able to construct a coherent view of order, and one which deals honestly with the nature of beauty, but only by formulating new and surprising concepts about the nature of space and matter.

This new concept of the nature of space and matter has at its core the concept of ‘life’ or ‘wholeness’ as discussed above. All physical reality - all things and processes - exist in a continuum of spatial unity which is fundamentally geometric in nature. It is at this point, then, that an understanding of Alexander’s conception of how geometry orders reality becomes necessary.