The Man Who Started a Fire (Christopher Alexander Lecture at Berkeley, California)
Jump to 12:20 to skip introductions
As said in the introduction to this lecture held in spring 2011, Christopher Alexander has started a fire that keeps on burning, spread by the ‘wind’ throughout the world. But in the wake of this fire there’s no ash, but only beauty and true living structure. As in the new cosmology of Alexander, matter is not inert anymore — it has spirit, revealed in the field of centers. This means that beauty is seen as a fact of the wholeness found in nature and the universe.
Beauty is the manifestation of secret natural laws, which otherwise would have been hidden from us forever. — Goethe
These natural laws are not so secret anymore. Though Alexander in the beginning of his lecture says he has only taken the first initial steps toward our understanding of living structure, I believe in the end it will turn out that these steps were gigantic. If we survive as a civilization, something we can only do if we start creating living structures, not as something added on, but as the very core of a new civilization where nature and culture are one.
The field of centers revealed. Photo: Derek Ramsey
You never hear about Christopher Alexander in quiz-shows on TV, but in spite of that A Pattern Language is probably is the most sold book on architecture ever. This is because this book and his research questions, and even goes directly against, the power-structures of our world. Some have tried to ridicule him, but this is of course impossible, so the main strategy is to silence him. This is illustrated by a story Alexander tells, where a construction company offered the management of the Eishin Campus $80,000 in a bag if they could get him out of Japan.
When the arch modernist Le Corbusier died his death was regarded as a great loss for both capitalist and socialist leaders:
Such views made Le Corbusier a natural ally of the masters of the modern world. He wanted to turn everything into a rational machine, and a rational machine is easy for those in power to understand and control. When he died in 1965, the Soviets said, “modern architecture has lost its greatest master,” while President Johnson commented, “his influence was universal and his works are invested with a permanent quality possessed by those of very few artists in our history.” Leonid Brezhnev and Lyndon Johnson may not have known much about art, but they knew what they had reason to like. — James Kalb
While Le Corbusier is the architect of the modern power structure, loved by the elites, who use their whole apparatus of power to enforce their desires on the masses, Christopher Alexander is the architect of the people:
My conclusion is that careful construction of the world, according to the principle that every center is made to be related to the true I of the maker, will result in a world which is practical, harmonious, functional. If this is true, astonishingly then, it would appear that the safest road to the creation of living structure is one in which people do what is most nearly in their hearts: that they make each part in such a way that it reflects their true feeling, in such a way that it makes them feel wholesome in themselves and is, in this sense, related in the deepest way to their own true I.
For someone educated in the 20th-century way of looking at the world, this is enigmatic, if not ridiculous. It means that a world constructed in the most personal and individual fashion, made by people who are searching deeply to follow the nature of their own true I, their own true selves, will be – in the most public, objective, and universal sense – a world which is functional, adequate and harmonious.
The enigma which arises, then, is that the process by which human beings create the world in their own image, gradually creates a living world, and this is – apparently – the best, and most efficient way in which a living world can be created. Of course, the phrase "in their own image" requires that it be the true self they are looking for; and implies that this larger process of building the world cannot be separated from each person’s personal search for the true self. – Christopher Alexander, The Luminous Ground, page 142
Surely, Alexander is the architect of the coming realm of the commons!
I’m happy to share that a new book by Alexander is to be published in October. Here is the Amazon.com description of The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth: A Struggle between Two World-Systems:
The purpose of all architecture, writes Christopher Alexander, is to encourage and support life-giving activity, dreams, and playfulness. But in recent decades, while our buildings are technically better — more sturdy, more waterproof, more energy efficient — they have also became progressively more sterile, rarely providing the kind of environment in which people are emotionally nourished, genuinely happy, and deeply contented.
Using the example of his building of the Eishin Campus in Japan, Christopher Alexander and his collaborators reveal an ongoing dispute between two fundamentally different ways of shaping our world. One system places emphasis on subtleties, on finesse, on the structure of adaptation that makes each tiny part fit into the larger context. The other system is concerned with efficiency, with money, power and control, stressing the more gross aspects of size, speed, and profit. This second, "business-as-usual" system, Alexander argues, is incapable of creating the kind of environment that is able to genuinely support the emotional, whole-making side of human life. To confront this sterile system, the book presents a new architecture that we — both as a world-wide civilization, and as individual people and cultures — can create, using new processes that allow us to build places of human energy and beauty. The book outlines nine ways of working, each one fully dedicated to wholeness, and able to support day-to-day activities that will make planning, design and construction possible in an entirely new way, and in more humane ways.
See the lecture, read the book, and let’s create a new kind of world. A world full of living structure!