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The Nature of Order // Book Two // The Process of Creating Life

Started by droqen, January 04, 2023, 05:17:11 PM

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. . . In the present way of thinking about architecture, one is supposed to design a building completely, occasionally even plan a whole neighbourhood, and then use the description (the design, with its plans and drawings) as a specification from which to build. But the essential idea of Book 2 is that it is precisely in this way that architecture has gone wrong, and that it is because of this that living structure rarely appears in contemporary buildings. Instead of using plans, designs, and so on, I shall argue that we MUST instead use generative processes. Generative processes tell us what to DO, what ACTIONS to take, step by step, to make buildings and building designs unfold beautifully, rather than detailed drawings which tell us what the END-result is supposed to be.

. . .

     So we come to the core of Book 2. In the next chapters I try to specify not only what I mean by living process in technical detail, but also what characteristics are operationally necessary to any process which is a "living" process --- in other words, what is necessary to
ANY and EVERY process which is capable of generating living structure.


In Emergence, Steven Johnson identified 'five fundamental principles' of 'systems where macrointelligence and adaptability derive from local knowledge'. In short, emergence. In shorter, perhaps, Alexander's 'life'. I found this claim very interesting, but the actual execution of it . . . eh.

Whereas I feel that Alexander will deliver. I'm not sure what he's going to deliver on, exactly. That is, I don't even know what I'm looking for. I don't know whether Emergence failed to deliver, or whether it in fact delivered but I was not so interested in what it was delivering on after all.

There are a hundred mirrors in Alexander's writing to my own thinking. I have never been so interested in emergence as I have been in what comes out of it: real life.

What is it that I love about cities? I read Emergence because I thought it would tell me. It did not, not really.

I am here now.




W I T H   S P E C I A L   A T T E N T I O N   T O   T H E   D I F F E R E N C E

B E T W E E N   G E N E R A T E D   S T R U C T U R E   A N D   F A B R I C A T E D

S T R U C T U R E   A N D   T H E   H U G E   E C O N O M I C   C O S T

T O   O U R   S O C I E T Y   O F   T H E   F A B R I C A T E D

S T R U C T U R E S   W H I C H   A R E   C R E A T E D   B Y

C O N T E M P O R A R Y   A R C H I T E C T U R E

struck out because i don't think i'm taking enough notes to justify every one of these chapter headers! things may be quoted out of order.


P. 223-224, 'Reprinted from William McClung, "How to Make a Meadow Following Alexander --- 1," published in THE BUFFER ZONE, 2, (1998), page 3.'

Meadows [akin to Old English m├Ądwan to mow] may sometimes appear naturally, but I think they usually are constructed places. In fire mitigation work, we make meadows by cutting and reducing vegetation, from weeds to grass to excessive tree and brush growth. The art of the meadow is in how we apply reduction, and what we do with what we have removed.

The Fundamental Operation. We can produce life in space, according to Christopher Alexander, if we make things following a natural, slow-unfolding process, which involves these steps: (1) Observe and absorb the deep structure of the whole space. The deep structure of a potential meadow is usually formed by the shape of the land, the major trees and brush clusters, natural edges, vistas, colors, smells, shadows, the way the sky is revealed and hidden, and important animal and plant life of the place. Such things Alexander call strong centers. (2) Ask what we can do next to most intensify the life of what is before us, by strengthening the strong centers and wholeness already there. (3) Try to do it. Life-generating work always involves strengthening existing strong centers, large or small, and in such a way as to make structure-preserving transformations. (4) Evaluate the result and the new wholeness. (5) Repeat the process step by step. (6) Stop when further improvements in the feeling of the whole cannot be made.

In a one-acre meadow we might reduce and shape as much as five tons of plant and tree material, choosing what to cut and what to leave, reshaping the space, making it more alive if we are successful, while reducing fire danger by reorganizing fuels downward. The fuels near the ground decompose more rapidly and have less oxygen in a fire. The opening of good spaces where there was dense vegetation is how we make the meadow. The defining feature of the land form is better revealed when the grasses and weeds are cut, brush removed. An important vista is opened by removing dead tree debris. Insects and bugs thrive in the low debris piles, providing food for lizards, salamanders, birds and other animals. Well made, it will feel right. The feeling a place presents to us is a measure of its life. If the meadow feels safe and inviting, it probably is.



When we examine an object, we may see that each element in the object (part, line, edge, position, color, size) represents a decision. . . . Each element has the possibility of being wrong. By that I mean that the element as placed, sized, and oriented, may be well-adapted to its neighbours, to the space around it, to the conditions which exist, and to the conditions arising from the structure of the surrounding elements --- or it may be badly adapted to the neighbours, conditions, space, trees, arising from surrounding elements.
     We are going to count the number of possible mistakes, and try to estimate how many of these mistakes have been avoided, and how many have been committed, in different types of plan. It is here, that we shall see the vast superiority of generated plans. They avoid mistakes. A fabricated plan cannot avoid mistakes, and in all fabricated plans, the overwhelming majority of possible mistakes, are actually committed.


In Paradise I was briefly enamoured by the idea of perfection. What does it mean for something to be perfect? I thought that it was, perhaps, out of reach. But that passion has been rekindled by this section on mistakes; a perfect thing is simply something made without mistakes. And mistakes . . . mistakes are countable.

I like that Alexander's approach is not to repair mistakes that were made, but to not make them in the first place, through structure-preserving transformations. The mistakes are measured by what mistakes are made in the process of each of the transformations performed to produce the work. Did these transformations strengthen the whole, or did they weaken it? Did they respect the relationships, or did they damage or destroy them? These mistakes, these wounds, are not bugs in code. They scar, they cannot be fixed. Scars heal over, but they do not vanish. I think there can be beauty in damage which has been allowed to grow over. A structure-preserving transformation does not destroy even 'bad' structure. It grows over and around it. The damage remains, but does not remain a fresh wound.



     I would like the reader to consider my discussion of living process in the next ten chapters as applying to every conceivable process in society, and to every architecture-creating process, at any scale, in which the reader is herself/himself involved.

// Way ahead of you. Already doing it. These next ten chapters are going to be awesome. I thought we were done the core of the book at the fifteen transformations, but I can tell the next ten chapters are full of promise.


P. 225
I believe future understanding of living process --- if the concept survives in future generations [I will fight for it] --- must have at least [these features] . . . In the next chapters I shall discuss these ten features of living process in detail.

// I'll try to recap each 'feature of living process' chapter in its entirety as I relate to it.



"The result must be unpredictable." Alexander invokes the butterfly effect to explain how the building process which genuinely has this feature, which I shall summarize as "adaptation to feedback at every step," must not have a fixed result determined ahead of time. Now, he has constructed buildings with purposes, and I believe that this is highly distinct from a fixed result. To build a school, you shouldn't look at a school and copy it... you should ask yourself, What purpose(s) does my building have? To build a game, you shouldn't look at a game and copy it... you should ask yourself what purposes or needs your game seeks to satisfy. You should seek what they tried to seek. I've struggled with this in the past, and I probably will continue to struggle with it.

What are games for?

Quote from: @droqeni spent a couple decades learning how to program and design computer games. i've become disenchanted over the past few years. please refill my sense of purpose:

how have you - and others you care about - used games and computers to make your life better?

(especially recently)


Lots of interesting replies there, which shows how long I've been thinking in these terms (if not, probably, longer). But this also explains the extreme difficulty of building up a game from an idea, and depending on the rigidity of the idea, the deadness of the process... However, an idea may contain a nugget of 'purpose' within it.

My thinking now... Game ideas are like concept art, and when building a game, the design ideas are like the wrapper of the feeling you're after. The game idea is not about the mechanics but about containing, deep inside, the secret of what the game is really trying to satisfy. Naked purpose is difficult and uncomfortable for people to convey, if not impossible. Easier to express something so subtle through a piece of art, a higher-level idea. Through a medium. wow

I really need to summarize this later on.


Oh and the dude literally brings up painting and wholeness and while I wrote "I want to experience a game like I experience a painting, all at once" I of course want to make games like that too...

It's not a perfect bridge but there is an echo. The idea of comparing a painter's process to the process of building an entire building is similar in audacity. The painting is made step by step, without much of a clear idea of how it will turn out (or so he says, anyway). If we can do this with a building, surely we can also do it with something as simple as a game.



I have this feeling that I struggle to hold many small parts in my mind at once, much easier for me to hold one large object in my mind. Moreover, I think other people are . . . different? More capable of handling, or more comfortable with, or more preferring, a large body of little pieces? I wonder what it is -- whether rooted in choice, or nature.

In this chapter Alexander highlights difficulties of focusing on the whole. He suggests that we all have "some negative voice . . . discouraging us from really and truly making every process structure-preserving o the larger whole. This is a kind of mental inhibition (something fuelled by ego, sometimes by greed) which continually makes us focus on the local . . ." and forget to focus on the whole.

He says FORGET as if we all know that focusing on the whole is right, and that anything else is a misstep. I am inclined, strongly, to agree, but I also wonder about this idea of a difference in mentality. Is it a difference in ability? Do people's brains allow them to picture wholes and parts better or worse than each other? What he really says is that we "forget that it is our responsibility, at every turn, to heal and make more whole, the structure of the world." As I said: I am inclined, strongly, to agree, but all I can say for sure is that this is certainly my feeling -- that this is my philosophy or very close to it, and to forget that is a genuine forgetting. A misstep.

Then comes "6 / AT EACH STEP DECIDE ONLY WHAT YOU KNOW WITH CERTAINTY" (p 257) which comes from combination of this step and the previous (i.e. THE WHOLE + STEP-BY-STEP ADAPTATIONS): "Each step is, in a sense, a return to the whole and a starting over with a "first step."" One should not, then, jump at the first idea that presents itself... but consider many ideas and "reject most of them. If we do accept one, we should accept it, reluctantly, only when we finally encounter something for which no good reason presents itself to reject it, which appears genuinely wonderful to us, and which demonstrably makes the feeling of the whole become more profound."

Accept only perfection. Alexander says "If we do accept one"! This implies that we may not accept any of them. I have written in Paradise that I would like to aspire to ". . . perfect games, or perfect art. It's not that a perfect work has no flaws; however, when I produce such a thing, I feel as though I need to make no excuses for what it is, and it makes no excuses for itself." Perhaps Alexander is here to give me another piece of this particular puzzle; a perfect work can have no flaws if we think about each and every decision made in the pursuit of its birth as a thing which can be right or wrong. A perfect thing has unfolded perfectly: without mistakes. Perfection is back on the table, baby.


"The process starts with a vision of a possible whole that comes out of the circumstances, that is felt as something which grows out of the form of the world.

Every step is made with he idea that the feeling of this very large whole is being made deeper, more intense.

Even if it is a only a tiny step, this is still the guiding rule." (p.266, end of chapter)



This chapter contains a remarkable step-by-step breakdown of a process, which I have seen Alexander do before in his books. (P277-278)

Aside from this, we have a chapter which I can see building on top of the previous two chapters. Making a center is a step, and making a center should enhance the whole. The nature of the idea of centers is that they can be taken in steps (I have added one center), and that they enhance the whole -- becaus a center is nothing but a relationship to the whole:

P. 268

Centers are not atomic, and are not in any normal sense building blocks. . . . centers are above all, labile, they are foci of wholeness, they are not things, but regions, qualities, focal points of centeredness which . . . extend the whole while making that wholeness benefit, while they are fused into the wholeness, as they go forward.


Throughout this chapter there is a motif of playfulness and effortlessness. ". . . because it is so simple, yet creates new structure without effort, it is intensely interesting." "almost automatic." "intellectual knowledge is far removed from the practical awakening that there really is nothing else going on in the process which creates life . . ."

And there is one last thing that I thought I'd capture. Alexander criticizes James Stirling's Berlin Library for centers which do not connect or work together, but in part blames this on the fact that they are "quite literally, cut and pasted from history books. One is the stoa. . . . The half circle is like a Greek theatre or arena. . . . [The] plan is an almost perfect replica of an Armenian or Byzantine church." This made me think about using game mechanics from other games... they are borrowed centers without life. They are based on "images" rather than unfolding in due time from a center, a wholeness, a singleness.

They don't have the same RELATIONSHIPS; a center is not a thing, it is a focus.




This chapter is talking about that one part of The Timeless Way of Building where Christopher Alexander gives a list of patterns and describes his process of mentally building a house by following those patterns. . . Again this chapter merges with all previous chapters to form an even stronger picture. These patterns are step-by-step adaptations, but now Alexander says the order of the steps matters. These patterns are always creating centers. These patterns start from the whole and always work at it through differentiation.

A series of patterns or a 'pattern sentence' is named here a 'generative sequence'.
~ SYNAPSE: Generative Sequence of Patterns

I haven't read the middle of the chapter yet and I'm saving it for later, and you'll understand why when I copy this quote:

P. 302-303

     The following twenty-four steps give the generative sequence for a traditional Japanese tea house. To understand the extraordinary power (and effectiveness) of this sequence you should, if possible, ask someone to read it to you while you sit with your eyes closed, and allow a vision of a tea house to form in your mind. . . . After you have heard all 24 statements, with a bit of luck you will have a complete vision of a teahouse in your mind. The process is almost effortless.
     Please, if possible, do ask someone to read this to you, now. And please do close your eyes while you are listening, so that the images can form freely in your mind (as they cannot if you merely sit here and read the words yourself).

// He asks so nicely. I must comply.