Process

We now come to an aspect of Alexander theories where he clearly distinguishes himself from most other architects and theoreticians. Alexander has, from early in his career, been unusually focused on developing actual generative systems with which to shape architecture. While the preceding theories of wholeness and geometry can be understood strictly as tools for analysis of form, Alexander has pushed beyond the contemporary fixation with form and developed his ideas into a methodology that can shape the built environment. In other words, he has worked to shape the process of building, not only the form of architecture.

The shapes of mathematics are abstract, of course, and the shapes of architecture concrete and human. But . . . the crucial quality of shape, no matter what kind, lies in its organization, and when we think of it this way we call it form. ManÕs feeling for mathematical form was able to develop only from his feeling for the processes of proof. I believe that our feeling for architectural form can never reach a comparable order of development, until we too have first learned a comparable feeling for the process of design.

In keeping with his use of traditional and natural environments as models, Alexander's theory of process is largely based on the systems that generated these environments, namely, traditional culture and life generating systems of nature. These two systems are identical in Alexander's hypothesis:

Within this process, every individual act of building is a process in which space gets differentiated. It is not a process of addition, in which preformed parts are combined to create a whole, but a process of unfolding, like the evolution of an embryo, in which the whole precedes the parts, and actually gives birth to them, by splitting.

This does not mean that Alexander advocates turning away from modern technology or contemporary culture. Rather he is suggesting that we modify our use of technology in order to better allow our culture to make meaningful buildings and places. As we will investigate in Part II of this essay, AlexanderÕs own method of building engenders an architecture rooted in tradition, yet uses modern building techniques and highly progressive processes.

AlexanderÕs geometric theories suggests a new understanding of order and this understanding is fundamentally rooted in process. Because all order is in constant flux - constantly influenced by distinct, but related processes - a generative system of order can only be understood in terms of process or becoming. Order is in a constant state of becoming. This hypothesis Alexander calls "The Principle of Unfolding Wholeness":

At each moment in the emergence of a system, the system tends ('prefers') to go in that direction which intensifies the centers which exist in the wholeness in just such a fashion that the new centers reinforce and intensify the configuration or wholeness which existed before.

The scientist David Bohm has developed a general theory concerned with identifying the nature of matter and mind, very much in keeping with AlexanderÕs theory of "unfolding wholeness":

The new form of insight can perhaps best be called Undivided Wholeness in Flowing Movement... That is, there is a universal flux that cannot be defined explicitly but which can be known only implicitly, as indicated by the explicitly definable forms and shapes, some stable and some unstable, that can be abstracted from the universal flux. In this flow, mind and matter are not separate substances. Rather, they are different aspects of one whole and unbroken movement. In this way, we are able to look on all aspects of existence as not divided from each other, and thus we can bring to an end the fragmentation implicit in the current attitude toward the atomic point of view, which leads us to divide everything from everything in a thorough going way.

The "new science" of dynamic systems, complexity theory and chaos theory, also holds ideas congruent with Alexander's, especially with regard to the connection between beauty and process:

Why is it that the silhouette of a storm-bent leafless tree against an evening sky in winter is perceived as beautiful, but the corresponding silhouette is not, in spite of all efforts of the architect? The answer seems to me, even if somewhat speculative, to follow from the new insights into dynamical systems. Our feeling for beauty is inspired by the harmonious arrangements of order and disorder as it occurs in natural objects - in clouds, trees, mountain ranges, or snow crystals. The shapes of all these are dynamical processes jelled into physical forms, and the particular combinations of order and disorder are typical for them.

In the Nature of Order, Alexander labels the steps of an unfolding process as "Structure Preserving Transformations." He gives numerous examples of both natural and human processes that illustrate how what is created evolves in a smooth and unbroken sequence. There are no sudden breaks or jumps in a given evolution. At each stage, both prior and subsequent, the essential aspects of the form are in subtlety different configurations. Existing ÔcentersÕ are maintained and strengthened by any additional 'centers' or changes to existing 'centers.' He gives an example from nature, the breaking wave, which he describes as "...a catastrophe creating new structure":

When the wave breaks, the smooth curved top of the wave, becomes a point, and this point then curls over when the wave breaks. Finally, the broken wave turns into many drops which form the splash. Even here, when the curve turns into a cusp with a sharp point, only one new differentiation is introduced. The centers which existed in the volume of the water, on the air-water interface, and in the air, are, for the most part, maintained. A tiny little bit of new structure is added and this tiny bit of new structure, gradually introduced and extended, becomes more and more extensive in its impact, and finally makes the wave break.

The existing structure is preserved at each step. Alexander gives an example from human culture, a timber building from a traditional culture:

First the farmer chooses the best place for the building. He steps out the foundation. The building is placed with regard to trees and slope and windbreaks. The foundation is built as an extension of the ground. The walls, then, built as extensions of the mountain or the street. The roof, and its overhang is built as an extension of the wall...The variety and beauty of detail work which follows in the curved and shaped logs, is lovely...The process is step by step, slow, not perfectly predictable, and above all it allows the maker to adapt each part, each board each log, just as he needs to make it right.

It is apropos to again note the common etymological root of whole and heal, and to point out that Alexander's process is essentially one of healing. Each step of the process is seen as an opportunity to improve the wholeness, to make it stronger by reinforcing the geometric relationships that comprise it. By concentrating at all times on how to make the wholeness stronger, a natural process of healing follows, whereby anything which detracts from the wholeness is eliminated or transformed. The architect Christopher Day has a very similar approach, which he calls "ensouling buildings" that contains a similar attitude to the evolution of a building that Alexander expounds:

Soul can incarnate progressively into a building as it progressively gains substance from wish, through idea, planning, constructional design, building and occupation. Each stage develops, deepens and extends that which had come before. They are not stages which alternate from aesthetic to practical but, with these aspects inseparable throughout, are stages of continuous process of incarnation into substance until we architects complete our task, leaving a shell for life which will continue to grow.

Modern building processes generally have distinctly different motivations than that intended by the above examples, usually revolving around the generation of profit or prestige. Alexander contends that these compromised motivations are directly responsible for the growing ugliness of our built environments. He places the responsibility for these new processes upon the intellectual manipulations that human beings bring to reality:

Humans guide their actions according to a mental "picture" of the situation. Because a person makes things according to such a conceptual picture of what he or she wishes to make, the next step in the unfolding of the world is now governed by that personÕs image. Unfortunately the images which people use to guide their actions may be wholeness-preserving, or they may not be.

In Alexander's view, the modern processes of planning and design and construction - separated and isolated as they are (relative to traditional and natural systems where there was not, and is not, a separation of processes) - lack a sensitivity and flexibility necessary to create real living beauty. Modern building processes cannot help but destroy the existing structure of wholeness that they encounter in the world. New and catastrophic elements are added suddenly and without the smooth evolution that marks 'structure preserving transformations'. Alexander gives an example, the city of Algiers, which underwent a major reconstitution of its city centre in the 1940Õs. He describes the old city as "informal" yet "highly organized":

Then the French government introduced a huge band of high rise apartment buildings, right through the middle of the most beautiful part of the town. This new construction, supported by Le Corbusier's plan, is really like a giant slash through the town. It preserves no structure, destroys hundreds of thousands of living centers. But more than that, the new structures which are created are not related to any aspect of the land, the sea, the town. This is almost an archetype of a structure-destroying transformation. It occurs simply because the French government, working with the then prevailing image of architecture, could persuade themselves that this was the ÒrightÓ thing to do, that it was in the interests of architecture and so on. In other words, the concepts (in this case those of the modern movement) could seem to justify the wild slashing of the previous structure. What is perhaps more mild, and more accurate, is to say that this concept confused the situation sufficiently so that under the mental spell of this concept, people in Algiers - administrators, government officials, and so on - became confused about the wholeness which was really there, and could no longer see it. Failing to see it, then of course they did not act according to it. Their ability to make structure-preserving transformations disappeared.

As an alternative to modern planning, design and construction processes, Alexander has developed what he calls "The Fundamental Process":

1. At every step of the process - whether conceiving, designing, making, maintaining, or repairing - we must always be concerned with the whole within which we are making anything. We look at this wholeness, absorb it, try to feel its deep structure.
2. We ask which kind of thing we can do next that will do the most to give this wholeness the most positive increase of life.
3. As we ask this question, we necessarily direct ourselves to centers, the units of energy within the whole, and ask which one center could be created (or extended or intensified or even pruned) that will most increase the life of the whole.
4. As we work to enhance this new living center, we do it in such a way as to create or intensify (by the same action) the life of some larger center.
5. Simultaneously we also make at least one center of the same size (next to the one we are concentrating on), and one or more smaller centers - increasing their life too.
6. We check to see if what we have done has truly increased the life and feeling of the whole. If the feeling has not been deepened by the step we have just taken, we wipe it out. Otherwise we go on.
7. We then repeat the entire process, starting at step 1 again, with the newly modified whole.
8. We stop altogether when there is no further step we can take that intensifies the feeling of the whole.

In Part II of this essay examples will be offered as illustrations of the unfolding process in use.

Alexander is unrepentantly critical of modern building processes and of the architects who propagate them, especially the so-called heroes of 'Modern' architecture, such as Mies van der Rohe and Corbusier. He describes their architecture as being derived from an ego-based mental picture:

It is this intentional nature - the presence of idea and image, which distorts the process, makes it not common sense, makes it contrived, ornery. It is ornery because it runs at cross purposes with the structure that exists...Thus, of necessity, in the architecture of the late 20th century, the architect lives in a world of fake, teaches by fake, works by fake, and transmits the fake as an essential part of what he does.

As an alternative to the confused mental constructs he blames for wreaking havoc on our built environment, Alexander places feeling as his essential guide in the unfolding process:

The unfolding process can therefore be steered, kept on course towards the authentic whole, when the builder uses feeling as the origin of his insight, as the guiding light at the end of the tunnel by which he steers. I am suggesting that if the builder, at each moment of the process, takes that step which contributes most to feeling, which has the most profound feeling, then this is tantamount - equivalent - to the natural process in which the individual forward-moving action is governed by the whole.

Alexander's general interest in the emotional quality of architecture, which places feeling in a dominant position as a guide for architectural judgment, is at odds with the contemporary predilection for rational apprehension of the physical world. In the next and final section of Part I, this essay will explore the nature and implications of Alexander's conviction that feeling deserves such attention.