September 28, 2003

The Salt, or the Ketchup?

I read Christopher Alexander’s book The Phenomenon of Life a few weeks ago, the first of four volumes in his work The Nature of Order: ‘An Essay on the Art of Building and The Nature of the Universe.’ As its subtitle implies, this is foremost a treatise on architecture, but one with general ontological pretensions. I could concur or at least sympathise with many of the points Alexander makes in the book, but found some other of its ideas very difficult to swallow.

And what I mean, in general, is that every single part of the matter-space continuum has life in some degree, with some parts having very much less, and others having very much more (p. 31).

Alexander proposes that some buildings are more alive than others; that some locales have an intense feeling of life about them, while others seem dead. Moreover, the degree of life in a building, he writes, is largely due to its architecture. He deplores much recent architectural practice, and that of the twentieth-century in particular, for its failure to breathe life into buildings. This is a point-of-view I intuitively share, as, more broadly, I can share his almost animistic view of the universe.

The general idea is that the wholeness in any part of space is the structure defined by all the various coherent entities that exist in that part of space, and the way these entities are nested in and overlap each other (p. 81).

Alexander writes that buildings, and natural structures (not excluding organisms), should be considered as wholenesses. The degree of life of a wholeness, he puts it, depends on the configuration of its constituent centers. Thus a tree, seen as a wholeness, has branches and roots for centers, and a branch, seen as a whole, has twigs as centers, which has leaves for centers, and so forth. He insists that centers are recursive entities that can be defined only in terms of other centers. All of which leads me to wonder firstly why he needs the notion of wholeness in the first place, when the tree could be seen as just one more center in the forest, say; and secondly that this definition of centers, whilst superficially a very general and useful one, could only be of limited practical value, inasmuch as its recursion continues indefinitely without ever meeting a base case. One begins to feel that ‘the wonderful thing about centers is that centers are wonderful things…’

Great fleas have little fleas,
upon their backs that bite 'em.
And little fleas have lesser fleas
and so ad infinitum.

- Augustus de Morgan.

In an Appendix, Alexander attempts a mathematical definition of wholeness using topology to describe the interrelationship of spatial regions and sub-regions. Yet, elsewhere he asserts that:

A center is not a point, not a perceived center of gravity. It is rather a field of organized force in an object or part of an object which makes that object or part exhibit centrality (p. 118).

I know next-to-nothing about mathematical topology, but my naïve supposition would be that a fuzzy and effectively boundaryless ‘field of organized force’ would not submit readily to topological scrutiny.

* * *

In Chapter Eight of the book, ‘The Mirror of the Self’, Alexander introduces ‘an empirical test for comparing the degree of life of different centers’ in which the reader is invited to choose one from various pairs of pictures of objects according to an elusive criterion that Alexander variously states as ‘which of these two things generates, in the observer, the most wholesome feeling’; or ‘which of these two things would I prefer to become by the day of my death?’; or ‘which is more deeply connected to your eternal self?’; or…

Suppose you and I are discussing this matter in a coffee-shop. I look around on the table for things to use in an experiment. There is a bottle of ketchup on the table, and, perhaps, an old-fashioned salt-shaker, both shown [below]. I ask you ‘Which one of these is more like your own self?’ […] you, your own self, in your totality (p. 316).
Illustration on p. 317 of Alexander's 'The Phenomenon of Life'.
I make it clear that I am asking which is the better picture of all of you, the whole of you: a picture which shows you as you are, with all your hopes, fears, weaknesses, glory and absurdity, and which - as far as possible - includes everything you could ever hope to be (p. 317).

I think we can conclude, then, that the question has an aspirational, as well as a simply descriptive dimension. Alexander states that, in his experiments, more than eighty percent of respondents chose the salt. I chose the ketchup. It’s not that I even like ketchup, but it struck me that the fluid, messy stuff, an opaque mixture of disparate ingredients, and not necessarily wholesome ones at that, was more like the essential me, even in my ultimate aspirations, than was the pure crystallinity of the salt.

Alexander seems to suggest that there is only one correct answer to this, and similar questions, that there is an objectively true response based on some kind of shared human intuition or experience, and that the ketchupites can, in effect, be made to realise the error of their ways. I would beg to differ. More broadly, he is making a claim for an entirely objective aesthetics: I suppose I am extremely uncomfortable, although I might struggle to articulate exactly why, with the notion that everybody should necessarily like the same things.

* * *

Overall though, this was a very interesting book, and I found much to admire, most especially in his discussion of the characteristics he reckons to be ‘the fifteen fundamental properties of life.’ I’ll probably order volume II when it comes out. Much of what Alexander writes about architecture makes the best of sense, at least to this layman - and if I had the chance I’d invite him build a house for me: I’d just leave the job of designing a universe to someone else…

Posted by misteraitch at September 28, 2003 10:58 AM | TrackBack