The Nature of Order, Book One: The Phenomenon of Life

I finally read Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order; I started it while at GenCon and finished it probably at least a week ago – I’ve hardly been online in the intervening time.

To some extent I set myself to be underwhelmed; I was already familiar with the basic thesis and was pretty much in agreement with it, and I had already seen the list of principles at work in The Nature of Poetic Order. While some expounding, clarification, and examples are certainly useful the book had very few surprises for me. The writing also seemed to suffer from the extremely long incubation period (25 years or so since the inception of the ideas) Then again my reading method could be partly to blame; the only reason I get anything read at all is because I have a book open on the table while I eat.

I definitely had one thing wrong: the shorthand term for The Quality Without A Name is not ‘wholeness.’ Wholeness is used rather for any collection of things in it’s entirety; the collection can be good or bad, but it is a whole nonetheless. Rather, a ‘good’ wholeness is said to have lots of life – thus the title of the book, The Phenomenon of Life.

Alexander’s thesis goes something like this:
-That there is a quality he calls life.
-That this quality is measurable by any person.
-That this quality varies from one thing to the next.
-That people on the whole agree about the level of life in something – it is not quite the same as ‘liking’ something.
-Things which have lots of life tend to exhibit certain common features, which Alexander collects into fifteen principles of order, based on centers:

1. Levels of Scale
2. Strong Centers
3. Boundaries
4. Alternating Repetition
5. Positive Space
6. Good Shape
7. Local Symmetries
8. Deep Interlock and Ambiguity
9. Contrast
10. Gradients
11. Roughness
12. Echos
13. The Void
14. Simplicity and Inner Calm
15. Not-Separateness

Some of the properties are fairly obvious (many of them, admittedly, from previous familiarity with the pattern language of buildings) Others are not so obvious, and the descriptions given in the book seem too short in these cases. For instance, the description of positive space seemed like it may be insufficient for someone encountering it for the first time. I believe I struggled with this concept in the pattern language; it may be only because of my experience there and from the rug book that I understand it at all. I usually think of certain interlocking rug patterns to grok this myself; for everybody else, imagine a checkerboard: you can’t really say whether the white squares or the black squares are the figure or the ground (well, you could, but it would be personal preference.) Both are equally capable to stand as figure; because of this, both are equally powerful, and all of the space is contributing to the life, with none lost as background.

And yes the, use of the term interlocking while describing positive space implies that one property is defined by another. Alexander recognizes this – in fact he provides a table of which properties depend on which others – some even depend on themselves. That the properties are recursive and interdependent, much like the space that they describe, is offered as evidence of their correctness.

One interesting feature of the book is that it contains a table of contents not only for itself, but for the entire four-book series. Consequently, I now know something as to what each book is about.

Book one is about the concept of life and the fifteen properties of order, as discussed above. Book two, The Process of Creating Life, is about unfolding and structure-preserving transformations; the proper ordering of patterns, and the method by which the fifteen manifest. Book three, A Vision of a Living World, appears to focus on larger public spaces; how the application of these techniques might transform the world. Book four, The Luminous Ground is a little hard to peg down, but it deals with topics like the meaning of art, ‘I’, and god. In book one, Alexander reveals that he uses the word ground for, roughly, the world. So, luminous ground is the world glowing with life.

So, who should read the book? This volume is light on architecture; while one certainly could start using the principle of life to guide building, books two and three appear to deal more with building in particular. As an overview of Alexander’s work, it has hardly any material on patterns, which still have their uses despite being less general than the material presented. It does have a chapter about some projects he as worked on, the and the expected glowing reviews from the people who use them. Really, by itself, this book is primarily of interest to people like me: the nature of art, design, and a theory on how to improve them.

Posted Tuesday, August 19th, 2003 under Review.

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