Restoring Architecture's Cosmic Context
By ignoring the aesthetic testimony of feeling in favor of the computational power of its models, science has blinded itself to the vitality of the universe Matthew David Segall
Photo by yifei liu
Author: Matthew David Segall
Christopher Alexander is an architect and design theorist who resisted modernist trends by seeking to put human feeling back at the center of building. His theorizing is itself an expression of his design practice, that is, the enactment of a mode seeing and shaping living form. In his four volume Nature of Order series, Alexander sought to explicate the cosmological implications of his building practices. “A person who adheres to classical nineteenth or twentieth-century beliefs about matter,” he writes, “will not be able, fully, to accept the revisions in building practice that I have proposed.” Alexander thus sought a cosmological vision “more consistent with the felt reality of life in buildings and in our surroundings.”1
In The Luminous Ground, the fourth of four books in the Nature of Order series, Alexander attempts to re-imagine the mechanistic worldview still informing the common sense of most modern, industrial designers. He does so for the most practical of reasons: so that our civilization can once again generate architectural morphologies that resonate with human beings and our earthly contexts. Alexander’s theoretical contributions to architecture are rooted in his realization that our built environments and building practices cannot be restored until we have cultivated a different way of inhabiting and perceiving the world around us. His turn to cosmology is an effort to uproot the outmoded scientific materialism blocking even the consideration of such a living mode of perception.
Modern science deployed the machine metaphor as an “intellectual device of treating entities in nature as if they were inert, as if they were lumps of geometrical substance, without feeling, without life.”2 In a few short centuries, this methodological device has completely transformed the world: it not only replaced the meaning-saturated medieval vision of the cosmos with the vacuous neutrality of celestial mechanics, it also contributed its technological know-how to usher in the industrial revolution, thus utterly upending feudal political economies (including their multigenerational building practices), aiding the birth of modern individualism, and helping to inaugurate a new geological epoch: the much discussed Anthropocene.
While geologists continue to debate the details, there is a growing consensus that the planetary effects of industrial civilization must be measured on the same scale as asteroid impacts and super volcano eruptions. The epochal changes brought by industrialization would not have been possible without the so-called “Scientific Revolution,” which is usually described as a shift in our means of knowledge production resulting from a few smart European men’s newfound appreciation for experimental method, precise measurement, and mathematical modeling. These new methods, though initially understood only by a relatively small community of mathematicians, engineers, and natural philosophers, gradually bled into the wider culture, mutating from method to worldview, generating a new understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe.
This mechanistic picture of the universe forces us into what Alexander refers to as “Whitehead’s rift,”3 or what Whitehead himself called “the bifurcation of nature.”4 On the one hand, there is the world modeled by physics, full of the blind pushing and pulling of colorless, soundless, scentless, and fundamentally meaningless bits of matter or quanta of energy. On the other hand, there is the world we actually experience, a world of emotion, desire, and purposeful action, of vibrant sunsets, birdsong, and the aroma of roses. Alexander is convinced that no truly livable world, much less a method for constructing living and livable buildings, will be possible until this bifurcation is healed, allowing the material and the personal to be harmoniously united within an integrated vision of the cosmos.
It is this ongoing rift between the mechanical-material picture of the world (which we accept as true) and our intuitions about self and spirit (which are intuitively clear but scientifically vague) that has destroyed our architecture. It is destroying us, too. It has destroyed our sense of self-worth. . . . It has destroyed us and our architecture, ultimately, by forcing a collapse of meaning.5
Alexander’s experience after decades of building has taught him that matter and space are not neutral and inert, as the models of physics would lead us to believe. He insists that, in some sense, space is alive—even conscious—and that its vitality depends upon the growth of certain organic patterns that human designers can recognize and recreate.
Recognizing the reality of these patterns requires that we come to take our feelings seriously, instead of rejecting them as merely subjective projections onto an otherwise valueless objective world. By ignoring the aesthetic testimony of feeling in favor of the computational power of its models, science has methodologically blinded itself to the concrete vitality of the universe. The results have been catastrophic, not only for architectural design, not just for human well-being, but for the entire community of life on Earth.
Living architecture has the potential to profoundly alter the way we relate to the planet and wider universe. A building composed of what Alexander calls “living centers” literally opens a window to deeper layers of reality. We do not sense these openings with our physical eyes and ears, though certain generative patterns and the proper play of light and sound may evoke them. In truth, living centers reveal themselves only to our subtler senses, to our imaginative and moral organs of perception. All healthy human beings possess these perceptual capacities, though our increasingly urban and digital lifestyles often dull them. As living beings, we are equipped by nature to resonate with the life of our environments. We feel living centers with our heart as we walk into sacred spaces: it is the feeling of being enveloped and sheltered by forms of order that amplify the quality of our existence.
When an environment, built or wild, is living, we feel met by it, as though we are seen and heard by our surroundings, as though the place mirrored our own sense of inner peace back to us. Living centers are not just projected by our over-active imaginations. They exist in their own right as features of the world no less real than we are. The feeling of life—of being alive—is one of sublime relationship: it is the feeling of a universal bond almost beyond description because it touches the very core of our own identity. Alexander claims that these centers, like us, are “I-beings” tunneling into the topology of spacetime through forms of materialization that are especially receptive to the meanings they seek to express. The source of these beings, Alexander tells us, is a unified plenum of God-like substance that he believes underlies and informs the physical world.
Is there any sense in hoping for another world to flower? Alexander’s vision of a luminous ground underlying the physical world, breathing life into its various and ever-varying forms, is evidence that long ignored organs of perception have not yet withered entirely. While modern science has focused on refining instruments for the precise measurement of mathematizable quantities, there are also rich traditions of qualitative science, most notably that developed by the poet-scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in collaboration with the natural philosopher Friedrich Schelling.6 Goethe, Schelling, and twentieth century developers of their methods like Rudolf Steiner, argue that within us lie dormant supersensory organs that, if properly cultivated, are capable of perceiving not only the reflected light of material surfaces, but the emanation of love from deeper agencies. These “I-beings” are not supernatural or in any way beyond this world. They have remained invisible to materialist science only because they reside on the inside of this world, providing the subtle formative forces or generative conditions necessary for the manifestation of this world’s many organizational forms. That which is extended in measurable space presupposes a hidden domain of intention, of genesis, or in Whitehead’s terms, of “concrescence.” The cosmos is not just a collection of finished products, it is also a community of creative poets, the vast majority of whom are not human. Ours is thus better termed a cosmogenesis than a completed cosmos.7 The spatiotemporal effect of these endo-physical “I-beings”—for though they are not merely material, they are also not separate from or beyond matter—is beauty.
Alexander describes this in a provocative way, which I quote at length:
In a human body, which is at least in part a structure of matter alone, the experience of “I” or “self” arises. In spite of various sociological attempts at explanation, this everyday experience of our own selves is not yet understood in a satisfactory way by physics. But it would be relatively easy to understand if we postulate the plenum of I, universal and general, linked to matter, and if it were a fact that the matter in a body, once organized, is able to make direct connection with this I. We would then experience the bridge or tunnel to the I as our own self, not realizing that it is in fact merely one bridge, of a million similar bridges, between the matter in different beings and the I. That is to say, in such a conception of the I which one of us experiences as his own self is not a private and individual thing, as most of us imagine it to be, but a partial connection of our own physical matter (my body) to this very great, and single, plenum of I-stuff.8
How does an architect arrive at such bold cosmological, and indeed, theological claims? That Alexander’s decades of reflection upon design and practical engagement in building eventually drove him into speculative philosophy reveals something about the causes, and cures, of our world crisis. The celebration of abstract intellectually sophisticated structures designed by starchitects in a “frenzy of artistic individuality”9 has contributed only to the hardening of our hearts and the dulling of our senses. Human well-being is not taken into consideration in the design of our urban spaces. The well-being of the ecological places often destroyed to make way for such buildings is given even less attention. A deadening feedback loop has been unleashed, as modern people, enculturated to view the Earth as a valueless heap of matter (valueless except as real estate or industrial inputs), construct inhumane environments that re-enforce this same view.10
Recognizing that our most immediate sense of being who we are is not, as we tend to believe, an isolated chemical event within the skull, but an expression of our participation in a wider community of life may be the first step towards taking the love we feel for one another and for the beauty of the living world seriously. Alexander’s practical and theoretical accomplishments give us reason at least to consider that these are not just subjective feelings, but evidence of the animacy of reality itself striving to shine through to lure us away from catastrophe.
- Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order, vol. 4: The Luminous Ground (Berkeley, CA: Center for Environmental Structure, 2004): 10.
- Ibid., 13.
- Ibid., 17.
- Alfred North Whitehead, "Theories of the bifurcation of Nature," in The Concept of Nature (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1920): 26-48.
- Alexander, The Luminous Ground, 18.
- See Matthew David Segall, "Why German Idealism Matters," in The Side View,Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring 2019)
- For more on the vision of cosmogenesis as a communion of subjects rather than a collection of objects, see Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme’s The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flarring Forth to the Ecozoic Era—A Celebration of the Unfolding Cosmos (San Francisco: Harper, 1992).
- Alexander, The Luminous Ground, 149.
- Christopher Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964): 11.
- See Matthew David Segall, “The Function of Reason and the Recovery of an Earthly Architecture,” in 720 (London: FunctionLab), vol. 12 (Summer 2016). http://functionlab.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/720_The-Function-of-Reason-and-the-Recovery-of-an-Earthly-Architecture.pdf.