KATARXIS No 3
by the Editors
by Christopher Alexander
Images of Community
Alexander's The Nature of Order
Architects and City Planners:
Philip Ball, Brian
from Studies in
Built Work of
* Examples of
* The Kind of
* Nikos Salingaros:
Brian Hanson and
Form and Urban
* Michael Mehaffy:
Meaning and the
* Nikos Salingaros:
Fractals in the New
* Brian Hanson:
the “Science of
Images of Landscape and Gardens
* Michael Mehaffy:
Codes and the
Architecture of Life
* Nikos Salingaros:
* Brian Hanson:
* Michael Mehaffy:
The New Modernity
Architecture in Our
Afterword by the Editors
Katarxis Nº 3
NEW SCIENCE, NEW URBANISM,
‘People used to say that just as the twentieth century had been the
century of physics, the twenty-first century would be
the century of biology… We would gradually move into a world whose
prevailing paradigm was one of complexity, and whose techniques
sought the co-adapted harmony of hundreds or thousands of
variables. This would, inevitably, involve new technique, new
vision, new models of thought, and new models of action. I believe
that such a transformation is starting to occur…. To be well, we
must set our sights on such a future.’
Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order
This edition of the Katarxis
journal is the start of a conversation. Or rather, it is the
resumption of a neglected conversation begun almost half a century
There is a remarkable final chapter in
Jane Jacobs’ classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities,
called “The Kind of Problem a City Is.” In it she gives a
remarkably lucid account - and a remarkably perspicacious one, as it
now appears at the beginning of the new century -- of the progress
of science in relation to the planning and design professions.
Quoting one Dr. Warren Weaver, Jacobs
notes how we have moved through “three stages of development in the
history of scientific thought: (1) ability to deal with problems of
simplicity; (2) ability to deal with problems of disorganized
complexity; and (3) ability to deal with problems of organized
complexity.” After establishing a thorough understanding of the
relations of segregated variables - say, retail space in relation to
number of housing units - we moved to the opposite extreme, an
understanding of the average behaviours of myriad variables
interacting in statistically predictable ways. Only recently, in
historical terms (Dr. Weaver wrote his paper in 1958!) we have moved
into the realm of “organised complexity” - the realm where
are "dealing simultaneously with a sizable number of factors which
are interrelated into an organic whole."
It is in this “great
region in the middle” that biological problems - and the problems of
cities – can best be understood, and acted upon.
exploration of this "middle region" has opened a door to astonishing
aspects of nature that, in historic terms, we have only begun to explore.
We are beginning to tease out many of the secrets of living
processes, and gain insight into the nature of life itself.
Great insight has also come into the nature of collective human
activities -- the operation of "collective intelligence" in
economics, in social organisations, in the formation of great cities.
But Jacobs observed that architects
and planners had lagged behind, and were continuing to treat cities
as a problem of simplicity or disorganised complexity - with
disastrous results. Her book documented the horrendous mistakes
made by planners and architects of that day, and the resulting
near-destruction of once-great cities.
Christopher Alexander came to
prominence in that same era, also by famously demonstrating the limits of
the then-current conception of cities. His landmark book “Notes on
the Synthesis of Form” seemed to hold out the promise of a more
highly-adapted, more advanced kind of city. His classic paper “A
City is Not A Tree” was perhaps even more influential, describing
with elegant mathematical precision why the new city plans of that
era were structurally deficient in a fundamental way.
In a nutshell, Alexander showed that
the plans were not sufficiently complex. They were geometric
“trees” rather than “semi-lattices”, as natural cities invariably
were. This deficiency of complexity prevented the new cities from
having an essential level of interactive richness and structural
Alexander noted that the roots of this
problem lay in the way a single human mind conceives, and then
typically generates, a structure: by isolating, segregating,
dividing. (To be sure, this reductive approach has been the
basis of many of our greatest scientific triumphs.) But biological
morphogenesis – and the morphogenesis of a
complex city – works quite differently, by differentiation, folding,
overlap, collective intelligence, emergence. The structures that
result have a much higher density of connections, and a much more
exquisitely adapted evolutionary form. As a result, they are more
robust, and more successful.
Alexander went on to develop his ideas
of computer-generated morphogenesis, and the limits of the
technology at that time, coupled with a key theoretical insight, prompted him to recognise a simpler
archetypal language that he called a “pattern language.” The book
by that name is now reportedly the best-selling treatise on
architecture of all time. In a final irony, the Pattern
Language itself became the basis for a new branch of object-oriented
software design, as computer technology, and science in general,
began to better understand and incorporate new ideas of complexity.
For the last twenty-five years,
Alexander has developed these ideas to their logical and
philosophical culmination in a new magnum opus called The Nature
of Order. In it he examines the way living processes work on a
structural level, and the lessons for architects – and intriguingly,
a few lessons in the other direction, from architecture to the
Along the way Alexander has had to
engage deep philosophical questions about the nature of of life and
value. That has led some architects to dismiss him - in error - as a mystic. For some, like our
scientist-interviewee Philip Ball, such a discussion is all well and good;
it is not science, but philosophy.
But for Alexander, this is
precisely the point: science is today increasingly
forced to make an historic assessment of the nature of life, the
structural basis of "qualities" and the place of consciousness in
the scheme of things. To ignore this realm - to accept an
arbitrary compartmentalisation between science and philosophy - is
to leave unfinished a massive part of the scientific project.
Indeed, this question of the phenomenon of life, in all its
quantitative and qualitative aspects, looms ever larger
in fields as diverse as
neuroscience, psychology, virology, genetics, and countless others.
What processes make a set of coded molecules behave in the
goal-seeking way we happen to call “life?” What is consciousness, and how
does this phenomenon arise in relation to the material world we observe
- a question central to the medical sciences and the sciences of
mental health? What is pleasure, joy, pain?
Moreover, to go forward into this
realm, as treacherous as it may be, seems to hold out the
promise of astonishing, and powerful, new insights into the real
structure of things. And in turn, there are implications
for ethics and other aspects of philosophy, as it seems to be
returning from exile as "queen of the sciences". There are echoes
here of Heisenberg's famous remark that "theoretical physics is
Perhaps in this sense, then, these
"new sciences" do indeed represent a new paradigm.
But if so, there is little sign that
the deeper lessons of such a "new paradigm" have propagated into the
rest of the architectural profession as yet. Indeed, the
evidence suggests to us that what Charles Jencks famously describes
as the "new paradigm in architecture" still barely scratches the
surface, and falls back much more upon re-clothing the old
technological approaches in clever new semiotics.
the thing about semiotics, as Umberto Eco noted, is that signs have
to signify something (pace Derrida).
As we have noted elsewhere, to treat all art as semiotics is to
enter a hall of mirrors - and to lose the flesh-and-blood city.
Leon Krier puts it very well in his essay here: to treat
architecture purely as language is to
"confuse the roles of the observer-spectator and the
actor-inhabitant." And it is the actor-inhabitant - the vast
majority of us, at the vast majority of times - who loses in the
all well and good that
the architect-artists are expressing, as Charles Jencks notes, a new
semiotics about a new and
complex world, implying, for some at least, a new cosmology and a
new political meaning. Concurrently there has been a radical
evolution of design styles and themes, variously called
post-modernism, deconstructivism and, now, fractured varieties of neo-modernism. There has been
an exploration - at times it seems a fevered desperate search - of
daringly innovative new kinds of forms. Even the methods of the
individual artists explore natural morphogenetic processes, in Gehry’s crumpled forms or Eisenman’s overlapping fragments.
But as our authors point out here,
fundamental aspects of their morphogenesis are still deeply rooted
in the old statistical and mechanical sciences - particularly at the
level of the crucial connective urban structure. The form-creating
urban methods of the heroic architects-artist are in truth not
fundamentally different than they were four decades ago. Only the
social idealism is gone - replaced by a post-structuralist nihilism
about the corruptive power of elites. If we can’t control it,
perhaps we can “deconstruct” it, and, at least, celebrate a truth
that makes us free. This seems to us to be behind
view of architecture as a kind of large-scale "art therapy."
Rem Koolhaas sees this as the crisis
of modernity. He says that
alchemistic promise – to transform quantity into quality through
abstraction and repetition – has been a failure, a hoax: magic that
didn't work." In his
apt metaphor, we
stand at the bottom of a “crater of modernity.” The
architecture we produce, then, is little more than re-assembled bits
from the blast.
Almost a half-century after Alexander
and Jacobs offered their critiques, in the larger building culture not much has really changed.
is only too easy to see the growing global wreckage, added to a world
already littered with the destructive acts of an ignorant and naïve
world-view, reflecting an unjustified faith in the superiority of
primitive industrial geometries over the more delicate, more complex
structure of nature and tradition. So much has been lost. And so
much is still being lost -- now threatening the sustainability of
human culture, and life itself.
To be fair,
many architects are deeply concerned about this state of affairs, no
less so than anyone else. Many of them are making diligent
efforts to do something -- to fashion more efficient "green"
technologies, to control sprawl, to protect natural habitat.
But they do not yet question the fundamental technological
assumptions of the age, because that is too daunting a prospect.
After all, modernity is a fact of our time; and modernity, as
Gideon noted, is the problem of large numbers. If we are
consigned to it, we had better celebrate it, and make it the basis
of our art. Surely that is the only appropriate "architecture
of our time."
But a few have begun to notice that
the phenomenon of life handles large numbers rather well, and has
done so sustainably for billions of years. Intriguingly, the new
sciences are just beginning to tease out all the astonishing
morphogenetic processes that allow this to happen.
Alexander is exploring precisely the same kind of territory, and how
it might apply to a new approach to human technology and human
architecture. This would mean, among other things, very
different forms of technology, and very different forms of
But meanwhile, the rest of the
profession -- and the rest of the culture -- continues on with the
old industrial model, consuming, growing, destroying, expressing,
presenting – but not
So life is what Christopher Alexander
wants to understand about architecture. His is not a
Frankensteinian sense of arranging matter in such a way as to
“create” life out of non-life; rather, it is an understanding that
“life” is something that is a latent property of nature, ready to
emerge when conditions are right. This is a very different
picture from the old “dead nature” model in which life cannot really
be explained and is therefore left “behind the curtain.” For
Alexander, life must be amplified and reinforced as an emergent property
in built environments. The structure of life – its
attributes, its characteristics – can be rationally understood.
Moreover, its processes can be understood, and even generated
– at least to some extent -- in human activities.
This is the project he brings back to
architecture, and to a world trapped in Koolhaas' “crater of modernity.”
To do this Alexander recognises that
he has to move far beyond the confines of architecture, asking
provocative questions about the flow of money, the participation of
users, the ability of building technology and building culture to
adapt and change over time. He does not accept a
diminished role of architecture as a specialised fine art, sitting
amidst the "junkspace" that is spewed out by blind economic
processes. For him, the reforms needed in architecture are no
more urgent than the reforms needed in development, in finance, in
technology itself. In a world in which sciences like "game
theory" show that we are not fated to a particular technological
structure, it seems we do have some options to get out of the
"crater of modernity" after all. We can choose another, more
life-supporting kind of game.
doing so, Alexander suggests that we will necessarily move out of
another kind of "crater": a detachment from meaning and human value.
At present the conception of a divorce between the living and the
physical world also implies a divorce between subjective value and
objective reality, with the result that all feeling and value is
"personal," "relative," "psychological." In such a world,
there is no reason to object to a certain building or freeway or any
other structure, save on personal or political grounds. There
is certainly no objective basis for saying that one kind of
structure is better than another, or one combination better than
another. We might as well accept a world of fragmentary
meanings, and fragmentary semiotic expressions, jumbled up
chaotically against one another.
The result is a
paralysis, an inability to make joint progress in improving the
quality of the built environment -- because quality itself has
become a purely relative concept.
a world in which life is an emergent property of space - in which
meaning is deeply embedded in the very structure of things - such notions
begin to look very different. The chaotic jumble of buildings
is not simply a collection of intriguing artistic signifiers. They
represent a potentially grave threat to human health, and even to the sustainability of
life itself. Conversely, when done coherently, they can support
and enrich human life, and heal the social dysfunctions. And all this can be assessed and acted upon
in a rational, discussable way.
this revives the old modernist project of progress for humanity
through science and art. As we argue
elsewhere, in this respect Alexander may be more of a modernist
- albeit a reformed one - than might appear.
In such a view
of things there are
enormous implications for changes in technology as well. For
example, new kinds of generative rules or codes can be used to
establish coherence and emergent order. Such rules are not the
usual top-down fiats that tell everybody what they must do in
lockstep -- the kind of hierarchical exercise of power that the
poststructuralists attack. Theoretically, at
least, they can be entirely participatory, like any cooperative
game. They can function much as the simple rules of cellular automata, or of
DNA itself, giving simple adaptive steps for actors in a building culture to
take under certain conditions.
Like life itself, they can evolve to produce great varieties of more successful,
radically revise the assumed relation between power and order.
so, such a notion of shared value - let alone of rules -
is a deeply frightening prospect for architects. Surely some
privileged person will be the
arbiter, the judge? Who will implement and enforce such rules? To what extent are they going to curtail the freedom of the artist?
But again, the new notions of "emergent" order become significant.
Such rules can be made in such a way that vast numbers of
non-trivial possibilities exist for artistic expression. These
can operate in a bottom-up way as much as a top-down way.
In the end, the
protest about artistic freedom looks like a canard anyway.
After all, many of the greatest artists of history operated under
much more severe restrictions. To insist upon the absence of
any real rules, any coherent
rule-based processes that produce form, is to advocate the generation
individual acts that, taken together, form a homogeneous randomness
across the face of the earth. Such an agglomeration of
changing, individualistic fashions adds up to a kind of white noise.
It is the fragmentation, and the ultimate death, of artistic culture.
Each of our trio of
scientists has explored similar themes, with varying conclusions.
Each is well-known in his own field and to a wider audience of
general readers. Each is remarkably inter-disciplinary in his
thinking. Alexander, too, has his own scientific credentials as a
Cambridge-educated physicist and mathematician.
are certainly notes of caution and even scepticism about Alexander's
work - particularly for Philip Ball. For him the notion of
"life" as a property of space begs the question of what life
actually is - a notion better relegated to philosophy. But for
Alexander, philosophy is precisely the realm where science needs to
get its house in order, after a period of excessive positivism.
Nothing less will be required for real progress in the scientific
understanding of the structure of wholes. As biologist Mae Wan Ho put it, "much of the
science of complexity is still mechanism aspiring toward organism."
But as we said, this is only the beginning of
Ball, Goodwin and Stewart are all
interested in pattern-formation and the morphogenesis of structures,
and in that respect they all share common ground with
Alexander. Each of them is mining a particular vein of
the new complexity science. The physicist Ball wants to know
how a "self-made tapestry" emerges in natural processes, much as
Alexander wants to know how such tapestries emerge in the collective
efforts of traditional artisans. The biologist Goodwin wants
to understand how a "strange attractor" can occur in biological
evolution as what he calls a "structural attractor", or a type --
closely related to Alexander's desire to understand how a "pattern"
recurs as part of a living language of traditional settlement.
The mathematician Stewart wants to know more about the mathematics
of evolutionary structures, and the ways in which symmetry operates
in the qualitative world of experience. Alexander, too,
explores "structure-preserving transformations" in great detail, and
seeks to understand their qualitative aspects in an operational way.
All three recognise a clear relation
between complexity science and the organisational structure of
culture, including the building culture. Stewart echoes
Alexander's suggestion that architecture may now begin to inform
science when he says, "I
think that the idea of self-evolving systems, be they organisms or
buildings or societies, is a very exciting area that will stimulate
a lot of new scientific thinking and a lot of new mathematics."
This fascinating and fruitful
discussion will no doubt continue.
has been responsible, with his colleagues in the movement dubbed New
Urbanism, for a remarkable reform of much recent building around the world. This is no armchair
"New Romantic," in Charles Jencks' term. He himself would say
that much of what has been built under the New Urbanism banner has not been very good; but that it is
a necessary step that begins to meet the critical threshold of
reforms necessary in the wider building culture. For him,
perfection in an ivory tower is of no consequence.
that architects have painted themselves into an artistic corner,
retreating into semiotics, hermeneutics,
shape grammars, poststructuralism –
nursing their bruised neuroses, working through their sculptural art
therapies. Meanwhile the reality of the larger building culture is
an “unacceptable win/loss ratio,” increasingly a condition of
“junkspace,” in Koolhaas’ memorable term. Like Koolhaas, Duany
is more fatalist about the condition of modernity than Alexander;
but then again, neither has Alexander’s scientific background, or
theoretical insight. But while Koolhaas accepts the
inevitability of “junkspace” and even celebrates it, Duany
sees a path toward quality, using a kind of
realpolitik to get there.
Leon Krier – one of
Andrés Duany’s great sources of inspiration, according to
Duany himself – is interested in collective intelligence, and the strange
corollary phenomenon in our time of collective amnesia. Why, he asks, would
we shun 4,950 years of copying, adaptation and refinement --
producing some of
the undeniable great treasures of humanity-- and limit ourselves to what could be produced only in
the last 50? Why adopt such an irrational doctrine?
Alexander, Krier believes it is entirely appropriate to import old
archetypes into a new context, just as our ancestors did
repeatedly. (Think Romanesque, Renaissance, Neoclassical, Georgian,
Colonial, etc. etc.) If we thing the hardware is worth
preserving, then why not the software? What is it about modernity
that makes these forms, repeated and embraced in eras throughout
history, no longer “of our time”? (For while
technology may certainly modify them, it doesn’t invalidate them altogether.)
It is a
political agenda, he answers, and a logically indefensible one.
This is the semiotic fallacy again. For there is nothing politically
determinist about a particular kind of architecture, as history is
full of revivals in very different political contexts. For him this is
throwing out the baby with the bathwater – perpetuating the
modernist sins of the 20th century.
Moreover, as we noted earlier, there is a similar logical
confusion -- evident particularly in deconstructivist architecture
between language and architecture.
Architecture is not
simply an expression to be appreciated by those who understand it as
art; though it may be formed through a kind of language, what
is formed is the connective physical structure of human
life. The failure to account for that fact is a
critical failure of the current architecture.
For Alexander, Krier's “top-down” introduction of historically derived
form is more problematic, implying a “top-down” regime to do the
introducing, and an insufficient generative process of adaptation to local
conditions. Not so, says Krier: after all, the “patterns” that
Alexander identifies are not so different from the “archetypes” that
Krier identifies. (And, we note, not so different from
Goodwin's "structural attractors.") Nothing prevents them from being radically
adapted to new conditions, or shared between cultures.
In any case,
the architect/urbanists are united in their call for a “new
architecture” more aligned with the notion of a “collective
intelligence” -- an architecture formed over time, as part of a
cultural process, and more expressive of human life. They reject the exclusive notion of architecture
as a heroic exploration of technological or abstract novelty, as
nothing more than semiotics, nothing more than a giant sculptural excursion
into the adventure of ideas. Such explorations are all well
and good in small doses; but they are not enough. While the
urbanists keenly feel themselves to
be artists, they also feel that architecture must do something more
than address such cerebral adventures. It must serve to form the
real, complex connective fabric of human life.
And after an age of modernist
“rational” segregation -- and its ironic neo-modernist parodies -- that would be a new paradigm indeed.
Our own contributions in these pages
begin to suggest the practical implications of such a new world-view. Nikos Salingaros, a
mathematician and physicist at the University of Texas at San
Antonio, looks at the specific geometries of buildings and the
processes that give rise to them –
generative processes, “top-down” imposition of forms. In so
doing he offers a
reconciliation of the Alexandrian and Krierian view. He also
examines the relation between
structure and architectural structure. Brian Hanson,
architectural historian and research fellow at the
Centre for the Study of Religion,
Ideas and Society at London University, also explores a
reconciliation between the
Alexandrian and Krierian views. He traces the
Alexander’s metaphysical ideas through Ruskin, Bergson and
Whitehead. He also examines the notion, advanced by Charles
Jencks, of a “new paradigm” in architecture, mirroring the new
paradigm of biological complexity. He argues that
Jencks' is far from being the
new paradigm which the new science suggests, and indeed, that the
one he identifies is probably the least relevant today.
Michael Mehaffy, an educator and writer on
architecture, asks questions about the evolution of human culture
and the parallel evolution of its built environment in light of a
changing notion of “modernity.”
He examines the potential for new tools, such as new kinds of
codes, to address the challenges of
the future. Lucien Steil, senior editor,
has guided this project from the beginning, weaving threads of
cultural continuity through artists as diverse as Borges and Goethe,
Alexander and Krier.
Again, this is only the
start of a conversation -- and one covering momentous topics. But
such is the human challenge we face, in an astonishing time.