Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The one question you need to ask

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Christopher Alexander

For the last few days, I’ve been leafing with increasing pleasure and delight through the pages of The Nature of Order, the four-volume magnum opus of the great architect and teacher Christopher Alexander. Alexander has long been one of my intellectual heroes—his most famous work, A Pattern Language, would be one of the first two or three books I’d take with me if I had to give up all the rest—but for some reason, I’d never managed to take a look at his most ambitious work, which was first published more than ten years ago. (I’m only reading it now because I stumbled across the set, lined up all in a row, on a shelf at the Oak Park Public Library.) If nothing else, these are stunningly beautiful books, gorgeously printed and designed with a rare integration between text and illustration. Simply browsing through the pictures is enough to send your imagination spiraling off into new directions. And although I can see why these books, which attempt to extend Alexander’s insights from architecture into physics and natural history, have been more controversial than his earlier works, there’s a lot to treasure here for anyone who thinks about design for a living, especially writers and artists of all kinds.

Alexander’s immense appeal as an author and thinker arises from his ability to marry the idealistic with the intensely practical. When we look at the world around us, it’s clear that the fields of architecture and urban planning have evolved in ways that have little to do with his ideas—he’s been much more influential in such tangential areas as software development—and he’s occasionally been dismissed as a sentimental figure who wants to turn back the clock to a simpler way of life. It’s true that Alexander is a tireless champion of the insights of vernacular architecture, of buildings and cities that emerge organically from the lives of the people who live there rather than being imposed from above by professional planners, and if his ideas were simply reactionary and negative, he’d be easier to ignore. Yet he grounds everything in concrete observation and pragmatic advice. You could build a house using A Pattern Language as your only guide, and the rules of thumb he provides are bracingly specific: light on two or more sides of every room, balconies at least six feet deep, bedrooms set to the east. Even on a point as apparently mystical as that of the Zen view, he devotes as much time to the how as to the what, and his logic is always clear and persuasive.

The Nature of Order

And his ideas have an applicability far beyond architecture. If there’s a central thesis to his work, it’s that life in buildings and other physical objects can only emerge from a process of gradual unfolding, a recursive, iterative form of evolution that has little to do with the kind of central planning that dominates so many kinds of complex activity. His prescription, like most profound insights, is both simple and daunting:

We look for the latent centers in the whole. These are not those centers which are robust and exist strongly already; rather, they are centers which are dimly present in a weak form, but which seem to us to contribute to or cause the current absence of life in the whole.

We then choose one of these latent centers to work on. It may be a large center, or middle-sized, or small…

When complete, we go back to the beginning of the cycle and apply the same process again.

In architecture, there are countless institutional, political, and financial pressures that have made this kind of flexible, iterative thinking all but impossible. But for those of us who are writing novels, composing music, or designing software in solitude, we don’t have any excuse.

And even on such seemingly intangible questions as the presence or absence of life and beauty, Alexander gives us unforgettable guidelines. In A New Theory of Urban Design, for instance, he gives us one overriding rule, which haunts me as I try to build and revise my own work: Every increment of construction must be made in such a way as to heal the city. In The Nature of Order, he gives us an even more vivid way of gauging the life inherent in all objects, a single question that allows us to make direct comparisons between alternatives, which is the heart of the creative process. Here it is:

Whenever we compare two objects, we can always ask: “Which of the two is a better picture of my self?” We can do it for pairs of buildings, paintings, parts of a neighborhood, doorknobs, spoons, roads, clothes, tables, groups of buildings, parks, gardens. We can do it for actions, for pieces of music, for a single musical chord, for choices of an ethical nature, for a complex choice, even for a single stone set in the earth…We can put the question in a more primitive sense, perhaps, by asking: which one of these two things would I prefer to become by the day of my death?

In a sense, Alexander’s massive output, with its thousands of pages of illustrations and examples, is just a way of reminding us to ask before all choices: “Which of the two is a better picture of my self?” For most of us, it isn’t a question we’re used to asking. But why would we ask anything else?

Written by nevalalee

April 28, 2014 at 9:34 am

2 Responses

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  1. I just discovered his book Pattern Language. Fascinating.


    April 30, 2014 at 8:18 am

  2. Wonderful, isn’t it? It’s the kind of book that both gives you plenty of practical advice and leaves you wanting to be a better person.


    April 30, 2014 at 4:46 pm

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