Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Building as if Life Mattered

What if the purpose of architecture were not primarily to surprise with unexpected shapes, awe the viewer with the genius of the architect, or keep up with glamorous trends-but rather to add life to our environment by finding and using patterns that are charged with the spirit of life?
That, in a nutshell, is the aim of the humanistic, holistic, integrative approach to building called organic architecture. It's an emerging worldwide movement that traces its origins to the prophetic American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the Spanish advocate of organic form Antonio Gaudi, philosopher and educational theorist Rudolf Steiner, and others, and it's rapidly gaining recognition and momentum. (The first exhibition of organic architecture opened at the Berlage Museum in Amsterdam in April 2003.) Its prime prophet and theorist is the Berkeley-based American architect Christopher Alexander, and he's just completed a four-volume magnum opus that is both a manifesto and an exhaustive demonstration of how and why organic architecture works.
With the September publication of Book Three of The Nature of Order (Oxford) (the first, second, and fourth volumes appeared in 2003), organic architecture has an eloquent theory to go with its practice.
Alexander helped pioneer the practice of organic architecture 30 years ago with the publication of A Pattern Language. He and his colleagues at the University of California School of Architecture rocked the architectural academy with this revolutionary desigh tool-a compendium of some 253 "patterns" that people from every era and every corner of the world love to see and experience in architecture. The patterns, which address architecture at all scales from a town to the details of individual houses, enable anyone to pick and choose time-tested, possibly even archetypal configurations on which to base the design of whatever they are building.
Alexander and crew's demystification and democratization of the design process challenged the whole idea of architecture as the vehicle for idiosyncratic architects to express their idiosyncratic visions. The modernist and postmodernist orthodoxy dismissed Alexander's ideas as derivative, sentimental romanticism. But critic Tony Ward, in a review for Architecture Design, wrote that A Pattern Language "allows any lay person or group of persons to design any part of the environment for themselves...Every library, every school, every environmental action group, every architect, and every first-year student should have a copy."
Now comes the completion of The Nature of Order, the long-awaited and much-delayed 2,150-page treatise on "the art of building and the nature of the universe" that Alexander calls a single, if very long, essay. In it he provides the theoretical basis for the selection of the patterns in
A Pattern Language, and for the creation of new patterns. Alexander claims that the art of building began going awry in the 16th century with the rise of mechanistic scientific thinking. One consequence is that there is now no consensus about which values are most important in making buildings.
For Alexander, however, the choice is clear. The criterion that trumps all others is how much life the building has. He acknowledges that aliveness is hard to measure objectively, but he asserts that most people know it when they see it. When, as part of his research, Alexander set photos of two objects-say, a salt shaker and a ketchup bottle, or a Bangkok slum and a postmodern residence in Massachusetts-side by side and asked people to comment on the juxtaposition, more than 90 percent agreed on which photos had more life.
Drawing on these and other findings, Alexander establishes human feelings as the final arbiter of good desigh. He writes: "I assert, simply, that all living process hinges on the production of deep feeling... Yet perhaps there is no other place in this essay where the intellectual paradigm I offer is more at odds-at least on the surface-with the Cartesian paradigm. At first sight it would almost seem absurd to claim that every living process may be recognized, or measured in its degree of efficacy, according to the depth of its capacity to produce deep feeling. Yet I believe this is so."
Toward the end of Book Four, The Luminous Ground, Alexander makes his greatest, and most potentially controversial, contribution. He asserts that through feelings of reverence, awe, wonder and love, "we somehow come more closely into relation with the underlying ground-stuff of the universe, with the domain of pure unity."
He's saying that in order to create architecture that has life, that connects us to our wholeness, designers need to train their inner spiritual senses and "to make the practice of architecture nothing less than a path to higher consciousness, a path to God."

-found in the November-December 2004 issue of the Utne Reader, written by Eric Utne.