Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Ecologist Stuart Cowan reviews The Nature of Order: Unfolding a Sustainable World.

His review of The Nature of Order, was first published in Resurgence, 2004.

THE UNIVERSE IS abundantly filled with living structure at every level of scale. Energy, matter, and information cascade from vast sheets of galaxies through to our own solar system, to the earth, to the oak glistening in the glade, to its microbial symbionts, on to their proteins, and ultimately to the Planck scale at which spacetime becomes discrete.
When we are most alive, we experience the universe in its wholeness. We experience our connection to a thirteen-billion year old unfolding story that links every living cell, every particle, every star. Why then are we surrounded with buildings, landscapes, and artefacts that engender fragmentation?
Christopher Alexander, an architect, builder and mathematician, has spent forty years attempting to discern the living structure inherent in the universe and harvest this structure for use in practical processes that repair damaged places and create harmonious new ones. In his extraordinary four-volume summation of a fruitful life’s work, The Nature of Order, Alexander proposes both a new science and a new approach to buildings and places unified by a profound notion of wholeness as the governing field.
Wholeness is understood as a richly nonlinear field of interactions among salient entities – or centres – with surprising, yet empirically verifiable properties. Centres support larger centres, and in turn are recursively formed from smaller centres. As we know from experience, subtle changes may greatly affect the field of wholeness. The field has a number of postulated mathematical properties, but currently resists even approximate calculation.
            Fortunately, we can access the field of wholeness through personal observation. We need merely ask, “To what degree each of two things we are trying to judge is, or is not, a picture of the self – and by this I mean your and my wholesome self, perhaps even our eternal self”. This mirror of the self test asks us to awaken to our deepest feelings in the presence of a farmhouse, a chair, a painting, and to see whether we are made more or less alive. Remarkably, extensive experiments have demonstrated that subjects cross-culturally will reach extremely high levels of agreement after honest engagement with the task of evaluating wholeness.
            Based on intensive examination of thousand of examples, Alexander posits fifteen fundamental properties that generate life and wholeness from a system of centres. These properties include levels of scale, strong centres, boundaries, alternating repetition, positive space, good shape, local symmetries, deep interlock and ambiguity, contrast, gradients, roughness, echoes, the void, simplicity, inner calm and not-separateness. This list, while provisional, hints at something of profound importance; a comprehensive taxonomy of transformations that generate orderly, larger and larger wholes with living structure.

more about planning theory:

Interaction of Architecture and Society: City Individuality under changeable informal Effect Conditions

Moses v. Jacobs: Who Lived the Abogo Lifestyle?

Urbane-ing The City: Examining and Refining The Assumptions Behind Urban Informatics

Manuel Castells - Space of Flows, Space of Places: Materials For a Theory of Urban-ism in the Information Age - 2004

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