Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Nature, Design, Architecture

A couple days ago Speculative Catholic linked to a four volume set The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and The Nature of the Universe by Christopher Alexander.

The Nature of Order, Alexander's magnum opus, synthesizes the most provocative discoveries of 20th-century science — and lays them at the feet of aesthetic theory.

Alexander does for the 21st century what Roman author Vitruvius did for the first century B.C.: Write an account of how to build buildings by drawing from everything the culture knows about science. During the Renaissance, Italian author Leone Battista Alberti one-upped Vitruvius: where Vitruvius described, Alberti prescribed. Now Alexander is out to better Alberti.

Every millennium or so, architecture needs to assess its relationship to other branches of learning. Alexander's contribution to the millennial call is to give us four weighty tomes on how not to build buildings. Thou shalt not build to satisfy thy intellectual curiosity. Thou shalt not make design thy God.

Alexander argues with mind, heart and spirit that there is such a thing as an intuitive human need for beauty, order and harmony. Many traditional societies were in touch with that intuition that was fostered and nurtured by spiritual beliefs and practices. In the 20th century, this has been divorced from tasks like building edifices and cities. “Issues which were straightforward in other ages, such as spirit, are no longer part of our way of looking at the world,” Alexander writes in the prologue to the first book. If the human spirit is not on our minds, how can we build to nourish it?
It turns out that this more generally focused work follows several in which Alexander (described by the NY Times as "the zen master of home design") deals more directly with the practical elements of home, town and city design:

The Timeless Way of Building
A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction
The Oregon Experiment
The Production of Houses
A New Theory of Urban Design

There are, of course, too many interesting books in the world to make any pretense of reading all of them. Still, with the continuing Darwin-family grumbling about 'someday we'll build our own house', we'll have to keep our eyes open.


Bernard Brandt said...

As I recall, Cassiodorus, in addition to formalizing the Seven Liberal Arts (i.e., Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric, Music, Geometry, Arithmetic, and Astronomy) from the Platonic and Neoplatonic writings on the subject, also formalized the three professional arts: Medicine, Law and Architecture.

I am glad to see that someone is attempting to achieve a modern synthesis of an ancient professional art. Now if only we could do something about the doctors and the lawyers.

By the bye, thanks for your recent posting on my essay, On Writing Music

Darwin said...

I have at times considered suggesting "doing something" about doctors and lawyers, but there is the matter of the sixth commandment... :-)

Bernard Brandt said...

Or, as Robert Heinlein once wrote: "It's only a temporary pleasure, and it's bound to get you talked about."

Darwin said...

I'm somewhat hesitant to know what exactly Heinlein said that about, but curious nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

Found your blog via Amy's. Most impressed.

You may or may not know that Alexander is held up as an icon by the software Design Patterns community.