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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher

Battle Cries for Life

In graduate school in the late 1990’s, I fell hard for Christopher Alexander. Fell as hard as a person can fall, short of falling in love. I must have been in my second or third semester – far enough along to know that my choice to enter architecture school had a bit of madness in it. I was there because of my undeniable fascination with the places we inhabit – towns and cities mostly, but also rooms and buildings. But I was out of my depth, given that I had no prior architectural courses, design experience or even basic drawing skills. I was the oddest of ducks in architecture school: the most sensitive student with the crudest of skills. The gulf between what I could understand and I what I could do with that understanding was painfully vast, and I suffered it every day.

Had I not stumbled upon Alexander’s work, I imagine I would have come to despise architecture. The curriculum seemed designed to gut my passion and leave it for dead. One of the famously notorious classes in that first or second year had us sizing mechanical systems. Another one, called Structures, had us calculating shear forces and bending moments of fictitious beams. Even the studio – that traditional atelier for aspiring designers, left me cold – forcing me to apply my nonexistent drawing and modeling skills to an incomprehensibly complicated building type (an Athenaeum, I think it was). You might as well have asked me to build a space shuttle from paper clips and a glue gun.

But then here was Christopher Alexander, in the Timeless Way of Building:

The power to make buildings beautiful lies in each of us already. It is a core that is so simple, and so deep, that we are born with it. This is no metaphor. I mean it literally. Imagine the greatest possible beauty and harmony in the world – the most beautiful place that you have ever seen or dreamt of. You have the power to create it, at this very moment, just as you are.

Even now, when I reread him all these years later, I know that Alexander is talking to me – to me specifically -- to my deepest hopes, to my intuition and to my idiosyncrasies. It's why people who follow him really love him. Here was everything I wanted to learn about architecture, art and sure, life itself. My mind was blown at how Alexander described the essence of this beauty – this ineffable, wonderful, vital feeling you get in some places. He called it the quality without a name. That was his way of describing the quality that brings buildings, towns, streets and rooms to life. To be more accurate, it’s his way of describing physical space come alive. It felt one thousand percent right on to me.

In his long career, Chris Alexander went on to write a few million words explaining what this quality is and how it comes to be. If it sounds pretty soft to you, it did to me too, until I came to learn that Alexander was a Cambridge-trained mathematician and that the whole mushy theory was founded on a lattice of mathematical constructs borrowed from physics. So not-mushy is it in fact, that it’s now seen as an important influence in areas of computer programming like object-oriented programming and development of the wiki.

Amidst my rapidly sinking enthusiasm for architecture, I had stumbled upon a rebel-genius who was determined to wrench the discipline away from the technologists. “It’s already in you.” “It’s what makes things beautiful.” “It’s life itself.” “It includes a feeling of sadness.” I was defenseless against this humanist ideology then, and am only a little less so today. Alexander was preaching that professional and academic architecture had lost its way, but that there is a Way – far more spiritual than technical – by which any of us, with nothing more than attentiveness, egolessness and correct study, can participate in and contribute to the wholeness of the world.

Remind you of anyone?

A quick google search of “Christopher Alexander and Wendell Berry” turns up exactly one result: a book, by Prince Charles of all people, called Harmony: A New Way of Looking at our World. So we’re safe to assume that their kinship isn’t particularly obvious or well documented. But like the Prince, I can’t think of the two of them apart, not only because of the formidable influence they’ve had on me, but because I find so much overlap in their thinking.

Berry, in the essay Imagination in Place from the eponymous collection, tries to explain how he writes his fiction, surely an interesting topic to his readers because of how closely his art hews to his life. Alexander is also at pains to explain how he processes the material that becomes his art. (The two of them are not only artists, but ex-professors, after all, and inclined to explication). Berry admits that sorting out the influences of people and events, past and present, real and imagined, is a messy business. And anyhow, he concludes, the impact of one’s art is far more important than the causes. As a farmer’s work is measured by its effect on its place, so might a writer apply the same standard to his writing.

Obviously this is going to be hard for anybody to know, and you yourself may not live long enough to know it, but in your own mind you are going to be using the health of the place as one of the indispensable standards of what you write, thus dissolving the university and the ‘literary world’ as adequate contexts for literature. It is also going to skew your work away from the standard of realism. “How things really are” is one of your concerns, but by no means the only one. You have begun to ask also how things will be, how you want things to be, how they ought to be.

Like Alexander, Berry is ultimately concerned with the health and wholeness of real places, and both of them are transfixed by the possibility of a beautiful order in which human beings take up their appropriate and constructive place. Alexander, the mathematician, sought to solve a formula for making this wholeness – his magnum opus is a four part volume called The Nature of Order. Berry, the farmer, is more humble. He is only trying to honor the wholeness of what he knows to be God’s work.

The reason for bringing the two of them together in this post is to pause for a moment on their most significant shared attribute. It is this thing that Berry calls particularity which I wrote about last month. To oversimplify, it’s the idea that you can’t really know a thing by reading about it.

It’s an anti-intellectual idea – the notion that things can only be understood by engaging with them. So when Berry writes that a farmer “can’t deal with things merely according to category; you are continually required to consider the distinct individuality of an animal or a tree, or the uniqueness of a place or situation…” I am instantly catapulted back to graduate school and Alexander, who championed the idea of designing buildings on site, slowly as you go, allowing each decision to inform the next. Like Berry, Alexander believes in principles – his most famous book is A Pattern Language which is almost a rule book for designing spaces that are comfortable for people – but, again like Berry, he has no confidence whatsoever in remotely applied knowledge. If you’re not there, you can’t know, even with a rule book in hand.

I’ve been pondering what it is about Alexander and Berry and the few others like them (Fritz Schumacher, Gary Snyder) who so easily and permanently took up residence in my heart during my young adulthood. Because it’s not been my experience that everyone holds a set of teachers quite as loyally and fondly as I do, like precious photos in a wallet. My working conclusion is that these men, each brilliant, each intellectually gifted, have arrived in a place of anti-science. These are the thinkers who’ve been able to see past the reductionism, beyond empiricism even, to the other side. (This is almost exactly how Berry describes the imaginative faculty). These are my heroes because they’re the ones who've told science to sit down and shut up.

Now why would that be so important to me?

Try picking a fight with the scientific method and see how you do. Go ahead and try to say something is “true” without “evidence.” Try to win an argument without “rationale.” Try to prove a thesis without “data.” Try to do anything these days without data. Try to advocate for an improvement that isn’t “efficient.” See how far you get by putting any value ahead of economic growth, as measured by Gross Domestic Product, or stock market valuation, or wealth accumulation, or market share – all numerical and therefore all-telling. Try to defend environmental protections without marshaling every fact about the human causes of climate change. Good luck trying. I’ve never been able to do any of this.

This is how our modern world works and I’m not trying to dump on it. Science and the knowledge we’ve gained through reductivism is wondrous and many (not all) of its applications are marvelous. But it is partial. And what it leaves out, every time, is life itself.

It seems that my preternatural gift is to appreciate life. That’s really it. I’m a person who seems to have an unusually strong affinity for life in all its mystery, which I absolutely comprehend as a particular phenomenon, and a gift. It may simply be a matter of hubris; maybe it’s my own life-force that I’m so passionately committed to. Regardless, this biocentrism hasn’t made me especially religious, nor has it made me into much of an advocate or activist. I’d describe myself as more sensitive and passionate than most, but pretty normal in the main.

Except where I’ve found voices that amplify my own, which, in the face of all the force of our scientific age, has been quiet to the point of silent. But in this one way, I've been privately tenacious. This is how I've taken my stand; by pointing to these few people and saying “Look. There. Right there. These guys. They aren't cowed by the rules of engagement. Their’s is a bigger, better, brighter view. There are other systems for us to consider -- systems that don't mechanize us and every last inch of the world. ” It doesn’t matter to me if they’re right. By what standard would we judge, anyhow? (Oh, right. By scientific and measurable standards of course.)

Now in their eighties, Alexander and Berry are both famous, and at the same time, hardly known. Their ideas have not revolutionized architecture or agriculture, and I’m sure that’s disappointing for both of them. Sadly, in such times as these, their legacies may amount to droplets in a pool.

But not to me. To me, they are giants who’ve had the guts, determination and raw smarts to pierce the superstitions of modernity and call it for what it too often is: life-crushing, soulless and petty. To me, that’s uplifting as hell. It’s what keeps me going. Their’s are the battle cries for life, which I have needed, and heeded, in every chapter of my own.

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