The Quality Without a Name (part one)

24 April 2010

In 1979, Christopher Alexander, an architect whose primary concern is to create what he calls living structures, wrote about what he called The Quality Without a Name.

From The Timeless Way of Building:

“There is a central quality which is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building, or a wilderness.  This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named.”  (19)

What he is writing about is familiar to all of us, to anyone who has ever known that feeling of wholeness and connection in the presence of something beautiful.  The wild garden. The towering, yet calming, cathedral.  The bright blue butterfly.  The thriving market.  Sunlight and stove smoke drifting through the pine trees.  The busy, bright, warm kitchen.  The radiance of skin warmed by the sun, bathed in a creek.  Also the loneliness the rain allows, or the comforting weight of the heavy quilt when I’m sick on the couch.

The quality of these things is indescribable.  In fact, I am almost entirely relying on your familiarity with this feeling as I list with minimal description some examples that come to mind for me.  I imagine you, reading this list, had other, personal examples brought to mind spontaneously, driven by some inner understanding of the quality without a name which unifies them.

On the other hand, not many of us, probably, have taken any time to wonder just what it is about these things that make us feel so whole, so inexplicably complete.  They come to us from outside ourselves, yet they seem to unite everything about us, even on the inside, if only for a moment.  In those moments, the past feels resolved, it wraps us like a blanket, and the future holds no fear.

No wonder we don’t think to analyze them, to apprehend them, to question their motives, their tactics, their amazing feats!

Yet that is just what Christopher Alexander has devoted the last thirty-plus years to doing.  The architecture of wholeness, the phenomenon of living structure in all its forms, has been the object of Alexander’s pursuits, in writing, in painting, and of course in the architecture of his buildings, gardens, and neighborhoods.  His attention to this quality, and his willingness, as some have noted, to stubbornly ignore the overwhelming pressure of today’s predominant culture of building (and of seeing, of believing) offers us a way of looking at the world with eyes that are both soft and clear.

This other way of looking at the world is most clearly expounded (with hundreds, maybe thousands of beautiful pictures) in Alexander’s four volume masterpiece published in the last decade: The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe.  In this work he shows the reader, after decades of experience looking at the world and building parts of it, what he believes creates those living structures which make us feel whole and truly alive.  Most simply, it is an investigation into the phenomenon of wholeness.  Wholeness, which is still just another attempt at naming the quality without a name.

Nonetheless, he believes we can understand the processes that lead to it, even if we cannot describe to our satisfaction their profound result.  And if we can begin to understand the process we too can begin to create structures that come to life.  From neighborhoods and highway systems to urban gardens and country homes to hand-painted tiles and the arrangement of the ramshackle furniture in your home.


An osprey just landed on the very tip of the Doug Fir outside my window.  It sparks a moment of wonder and joy in me, though I see it regularly.  Why is that?  It feels, literally, like a gift.  Not to me personally, maybe — but it does, nonetheless, have a personal quality.  It touches me.  I would be cutting off a vibrant part of myself if I said this was only my own (indulgent) interpretation of this event.  Because the fact of my feeling is, to call it a gift in some degree describes an actual, real quality of the relationship between myself and the osprey.  The question is what this means.

2 Responses to “The Quality Without a Name (part one)”

  1. joelmiller said

    More experiences of wholeness: homemade icecream under the mapel tree at home, running in a light rain, the last keystroke of a sermon that came together just right, good conversation with a good beverage. It has something to do with everything that one values being present at that moment, holding together in just the right way.

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