The architect Christopher Alexander (1936–2022), who passed away last month, showed us how to reconnect to the world through architecture. His designs and writings offer an antidote to our civilization’s eager pursuit of self-annihilation. Central to Alexander’s theory of architecture is the belief that the human mind instinctively desires to create structures that are not only utilitarian, but also beautiful. In his books, including The Nature of Order, he aimed to articulate a method for designing beautiful and health-giving environments. Today, studies confirm his assertions. Architecture is profoundly important; beautiful architecture is healing, and ugly architecture, even if functional, can be harmful. By defending traditional architecture and art, Alexander’s work challenged many contemporary architectural trends. I sensed a sadness in Christopher toward the end of his productive life. He saw farther than anybody else, and what he saw was terrifying. He feared that humanity’s self-inflicted moral and sensory numbness would lead to nihilism. He warned of the folly of losing the nourishing sense of beauty. He saw that many of our structures today—from urban complexes, to buildings, to rooms, to windows, to door handles, to furniture—propagate an inhuman aesthetic. The massive global economy derives its wealth from generating dead, soulless objects, while at the same time wiping out natural ecosystems. The culture has institutionalized ugliness.
Alexander believed that architecture was not about imposing the architect’s vision onto nature, but rather about suppressing the ego in order to discover nature’s built-in patterns. Building in accordance with these patterns creates a healing environment or structure. In 1977, Alexander and his colleagues published a collection of practical design solutions called A Pattern Language. Each solution, or “pattern,” is a design or configuration that universally creates a pleasing, stress-free environment. An example of one of these design solutions is “light on two sides of every room.” When a room does not permit natural sunlight to enter from two sides, a room feels dreary and disorienting. Traditional builders arrived at these solutions by trial-and-error over centuries. Every doorway, entrance, garden, room, wall, and window that feels naturally comfortable and life-giving incorporates several design patterns.
Alexander attributed the overall feeling of a life-enhancing environment to what he called the “Quality Without A Name”—or QWAN, introduced in his book The Timeless Way of Building (1979). Alexander later used the descriptor “living structure” for the same quality, the sense of an environment that nourishes us emotionally.
The process of writing The Nature of Order forced Alexander into spiritual explorations. His study of the physical rules governing how matter is arranged revealed another unexpected set of metaphysical rules. This discovered order in the world pointed him toward belief in something beyond the self. As he wrote in his 2016 First Things essay “Making the Garden,” “In my heart, I was always dimly aware that I did maintain an inner knowing that the best way to produce good architecture must somehow be linked to God—indeed, that valuable architecture was always about God, and that this was the source of any strength I had in being able to identify the real thing.” On several occasions he told me that he was mystified and even frightened by what he was discovering, since he was trained as a scientist to use empirical methods of observation and rely on scientific proof. However, Alexander found that he could not ignore his own discoveries; the scientifically honest thing was to acknowledge them and try to document them as faithfully as he could.
The Nature of Order is a grand theory for how to build a healing environment. Yet as Alexander believed, the connecting and healing work of architecture goes far beyond physiological healing, to the transcendental. Certain buildings and environments can have spiritual power. He gave us the tools for switching the historical causality in building culture: “faith generates healing architecture” to “healing architecture can help to resurrect an extinct faith.” It is up to us to use these tools, or choose to ignore them.
Nikos A. Salingaros is professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
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Photo by Ekyono via Creative Commons. Image cropped.