The construction site of the Eishin School in Japan, designed by Christopher Alexander and his colleagues.
“The non-art-loving public at large, instead of being grateful to architects for what they do, regard the onset of modern buildings and modern cities everywhere as an inevitable, rather sad piece of the larger fact that the world is going to the dogs.”
— Christopher Alexander, “A City is Not a Tree”
From the very beginning of his career, Christopher Alexander was always interested in the differences between the “modern” systems of production of cities — beginning around the early 20th Century — and what he termed the “unself-conscious” processes of designing and building that largely governed the creation of the human environment for most of human history.
As he noted in Notes on the Synthesis of Form (1964), there were clearly some advantages in the former system, from a human point of view. Our challenge in the modern era was, in a sense, to recapitulate these more satisfying, life-giving characteristics, now in a necessarily more self-conscious way. All of his subsequent work over the next half century or more — his work on pattern languages, generative processes and the like — can be seen as an effort to do just that.
In just the way that Alexander’s entire career was, in a sense, an exploration of mereology, or the relation between parts and wholes — a point I have argued throughout this book — we can also see that his entire career was, in a similar sense, an exploration of human technology, and its failure to account adequately for this aspect of nature. Moreover it was an exploration of the nature of the needed correctives.
His last major published work, The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth (2012), returned to this topic. On the surface it was an account of the development of the Eishin School in Japan, one of Alexander’s most notable building projects (working with his associate Hajo Neis and others). At a deeper level, the book was an exploration again of our time in the history of design and production, the nature of our systems, and the question of needed reforms. In a sense, the Eishin project was the case study for examining this larger set of issues.
In the book Alexander distinguished between “System A” production and “System B” production. In a real sense, System A was the same “unself-conscious process” of his PhD thesis, and System B was the process we have today: governed by powerful but limited abstractions, by rigid template-based production, and by economies of scale and standardization. In this scheme of things, architects are just another set of specialists in their own “silos,” whose job it is to cloak an appropriately alluring art costume on the whole questionable enterprise.
As my colleague Nikos Salingaros and I have written about elsewhere, there is certainly an important place in the natural world for the economies of scale and standardization, and biological systems do employ them frequently. For example, genetic seeds certainly operate on vast scales, and their components are highly standardized. But biological systems, unlike “modern” human technology, also routinely employs economies of place and differentiation. When the first two are applied without a balanced application of the second two, the results are powerful but can also be exceedingly destructive. It is place and differentiation that provide the contextual feedback, the necessary balance to scale and standardization, without which they become destructive. (There is an interesting and remarkably accurate analogy to the process of cancer in biological systems, in that cancer is a runaway process of standardized, i.e. undifferentiated, cells, that reproduce at large scales without responding appropriately to their place within the body.)
In The Nature of Order, Alexander referred to the root of the problem as “massive process difficulties.” That is, the processes we have instituted for shaping our world in “modernity” have begun to malfunction in important ways, creating unsustainable and harmful forms of development (e.g. “sprawl,” lifeless buildings and cities, etc.). This is not because we are intentionally creating such a system, but because we are making a certain kind of mistake:
How could rules, laws and processes which generate such obviously harmful structures, have been introduced and replicated throughout modern society, unless it were on purpose? Yet of course, it is not on purpose. It is all by mistake. And it is by means of a very particular kind of mistake.”
Part of the problem is that we do not yet even understand what is happening:
We, the first children of the modern age, have not yet understood the huge extent to which the physical structure of the world is generated by its processes. The processes do have a huge impact on the way the world is shaped. But these impacts are most often unintended, tangential. So the structure-destroying processes which run rampant in creating our modern environment are on the loose, uncontrolled, created by idiot processes for which no one takes morphogenetic responsibility. We have let loose a system that generates monsters. And we do not even realize that it is we who created this system of processes and we who continue to let it loose.”
In Battle, Alexander delved more deeply into these issues. He spent a considerable amount of time tracking how the modern development process works, and the many places where it goes wrong. Most importantly, he says, the process does not allow for local adaptation. In the second chapter titled “The Crucial Importance of Local Adaptation,” he started out by saying,
An environment or community will not come to life unless each place, each building, each street, each room becomes unique, as a result of careful and piecemeal processes of adaptation… Paying attention to this pervasive kind of adaptation throughout our project required mental, artistic, and procedural tools. We had to develop these tools so that adaptation could be a constant focus in each place, at many different scales, all over the Eishin Campus.
The supposedly “modern” systems of development and production did not have such tools, for the simple reason that there was no perceived need. The economies of scale and standardization were imagined to be sufficiently powerful and adequate to build a satisfactory new world. But as Alexander observed, this was a fundamental mistake.
Like Jacobs, Alexander also clearly saw the economic dimensions of the problem, and the problem of faulty feedback. For Alexander, this was a question of “the flow of money” and the processes whereby each person who handled money had a series of adaptive steps to take in applying the expenditures. This was not simply an additive combination of elements, but rather, a careful sequencing of steps and gathering of feedback for adaptation.
Of course, the money itself did not require such a careful sequencing, and it was perfectly possible — as it always is — to treat money as a purely quantitative resource, without regard to quality. However, as we have seen, this approach can produce enormous damage.
Worse, this amounts to an abdication of responsibility — and for Alexander, the central task is to revitalize the immediate responsibility of the maker, the adaptive agent, the human being. This requires two aspects — one, the recognition of our actual power, our actual ability to respond (response-ability), applied with appropriate tools, and two, the recognition of the qualitative aspects of the built environment, and of human life.
Alexander is hardly the first to note that methodologies since about 1600 have discounted the qualitative aspects of experience, attempting to relegate them to the status of “mere” psychological phenomena. As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead and others have noted, this attempt was not ultimately sound, from a logical point of view, but it constituted a kind of “mental trick” that allowed modern thinking to progress on its then-current path, for better or worse.
This mental trick, as it were, was an extremely useful tool to dispense with highly variable and unreliable phenomena. But modern science has come up against the limits of this tool, which is in fact what Whitehead memorably called “an omission of part of the truth.” As I noted earlier, in fields as diverse as neuroscience, anthropology and medicine, the qualitative experience of value has made an insistent return to the scientific purview. Perhaps nowhere does this re-integration seem more necessary than in the fields of the human environment, where “quality of life” and “the quality of a natural environment” are hardly trivial aspects of what is going on. Indeed, they are increasingly being seen as the very essence.
For Alexander, the qualitative is not some trivial psychological side-effect, nor is it some mysterious unseen realm. It is quite literally right before our eyes, in the structure of things. What we call “matter” is matter precisely because it “matters” — it has a qualitative experiential effect upon us, and only then becomes a “fact”.
Just so, we cannot separate value from the world of facts, as Whitehead also pointed out. The Universe is shot through with value, and this phenomenon cannot be “psychologized” away. A corollary, as I alluded to in the introduction, is that beauty is also not a psychological effect, or a trivial source of pleasure — as it is so often regarded. It is, rather, a recognition of a deep order, of a kind that is likely to be beneficial to the perceiver. That is, it is an experience of quality and value, embedded deeply in the structures and spaces we experience. (This is one of the key insights of the topic of “biophilia,” which suggests that we have naturally evolved preferences for environments that are the most likely to promote our well-being, e.g. meadows, vistas seen from safe vantage points, etc.)
This view of things must be at the root of the recovered benefits of a “System A” architecture. It is not that our current world must be swept away, replaced with some radically different world containing a radically different economic system. That would be to make the same kind of mistake we have already been making. Instead we need a “structure-preserving transformation” that preserves what is already good about our cities, and about our economic systems too. Or, following Alexander’s later terminology, we need a “wholeness-extending transformation” that recognizes and builds upon the existing health, wealth, and wholeness (all related words) of cities and towns.
In that sense, we need to build on the renaissance that has already begun.
This way of thinking amounts to a return to a "structuralist" view of nature, as I will discuss in more detail in the next section. In essence, structuralism is the philosophical idea that meaning has a relation to the structures of the world, and to language, and interacts creatively with them. We make the meaning of our lives by structuring our world, and by structuring the language by which we know it and act on it.
While Alexander’s is a more elaborate form of neo-structuralism than Jacobs', we can readily see the echoes of this structuralism in both writers.