The Appraisal of Life: Christopher Alexander’s ‘Fifteen Fundamental Properties’

5 June 2010

Japanese champion of craft, the late Sōetsu Yanagi, insisted on the priority of seeing over knowing in the apprehension of beauty. Our minds must let go of the readiness to judge, he said, so that our eyes may be inwardly vulnerable to what we are seeing.

Beauty is a kind of mystery, which is why it cannot be grasped adequately through the intellect. The part of it available to the intellect lacks depth. […] Even should every detail of beauty be accounted for by the intellect, does such a tabulation lead to beauty? […] If [the man of erudition] picks a wild flower to pieces, petal by petal, and counts them, and tries to put them together again, can he regain the beauty that was there? All the assembly of dead parts cannot bring life back again. (The Unknown Craftsman, 110)

Scientist-cum-philosopher, Michael Polanyi says, We know more than we can say. He points out how our recognition of a face, our performance of most daily actions, and many other aspects of our life, all betray a reliance on what he calls the “tacit knowledge” of our bodies. We can pick a face out of a million without being able to say how we did it. In this way, we are perpetually relying on operations within us which we neither control nor understand. In fact, over-awareness of what we are doing is the notorious cause of many accidents and foul-ups.

We can see how an unbridled lucidity can destroy our understanding of complex matters. Scrutinize closely the particulars of a comprehensive entity and their meaning is effaced, our conception of the entity is destroyed… Repeat a word several times, attending carefully to the motion of your tongue and lips, and to the sound you make, and soon the word will sound hollow and eventually lose its meaning. By concentrating attention on his fingers, a pianist can temporarily paralyze his movement. (The Tacit Dimension, 18)

Of course, we also gain incredible knowledge if we can, by picking things apart, understand how they relate. This is an invaluable source of information, and its range of applicability is in many cases broader than that of our tacit knowledge. But this range does not include the applications of tacit knowledge itself:

[T]he knowledge I have of my own body differs altogether from the knowledge of its physiology; and the rules of rhyming and prosody do not tell me what a poem told me.

We are approaching here a critical question. The declared aim of modern science is to establish a strictly detached, objective knowledge. Any falling short of this ideal is accepted only as a temporary imperfection, which we must aim at eliminating. But suppose that tacit thought forms an indispensable part of all knowledge, then the ideal of eliminating all personal elements of knowledge would, in effect, aim at the destruction of all knowledge. The ideal of exact science would turn out to be fundamentally misleading and possibly a source of devastating fallacies. (The Tacit Dimension, 20; my italics.)

The pursuit of wholeness in living structure is a matter of integrating seeing with knowledge, and tacit knowledge with scientific knowledge — always with an eye for the enhancement of our daily life. Mere classificatory “knowing”, in Yanagi’s terms, and objective knowledge, as defined by modern science, cannot adequately grasp the life and the meaning of the stuff of our days.

What they can do is help us understand what the general structural components are of the beauty we see.

Trained to think of the physical world as essentially mechanical and made of lifeless matter, we will continue to create mechanically and lifelessly. If we feel a longing for beauty and life, but (as David Bohm suggests) the formative causes of our thinking remain deeply mechanical, we may experience more or less intense and scattered desperation as we try to find it for ourselves. Alternating waves of hope and lethargy define the days of one who is in the uncertain process of discovering a life-giving foundation. This experience has certainly characterized much of my life, both intellectually and creatively. The reality offered to me/us by the prevalent mechanistic self-world view has torn at my/our tacit knowledge of the beauty of the world (this is one way of putting it) and showed how the flowers we find so beautiful are only made of dead petals.

The best we can do, we think, is to make our vests and dresses out of these lifeless petals. Clearly, that is a desperate, sentimental, and ineffectual act, if succeeding in life is truly a matter of mere mechanical proficiency.

This man works in an environment demanding exceptional mechanical aptitude. Yet the quality of this hour, this light, undoubtedly enhances the feeling of a job well done. And no satisfactory equation can be given to capture this quality.

Christopher Alexander is one of many artists, philosophers, scientists who have worked hard at relearning the entire way they see and think about the world, and for that reason are able to put into words what I/we can’t (yet) say. Namely that what is truly unsayable (the feeling of wholeness/comfort/freedom/selflessness/being fully ourselves which living structure provides) is nonetheless real and trustworthy, and more, that it is of the essence of reality.

And we can study it, break it down into nameable ‘parts’ and classifiable characteristics if we want to, and gain helpful knowledge of its structures and relationships — but this exercise is always secondary to the feeling of wholeness which warrants our insights and gives them their meaning. Knowledge that we can say always relies on the knowledge we cannot quite put into words.

The appraisal of life relies entirely on our trust of the unsayable, even as we proceed to work to understand it better, to identify its properties. The reason for this absolute reliance is that the presence of the properties never guarantee the presence of life. A flower cannot be made by putting petals together, even though a flower always has petals. Even a non-biological living structure like a beautiful building cannot be made into a living structure by using, willy-nilly, the patterns of Alexander’s A Pattern Language — a fact which he points out frequently enough — even though any living building will, almost certainly, contain many (perhaps dozens) of the patterns he and his colleagues identified in that book.

Understanding this impossibility, it becomes possible to move forward in the aim of enhancing our knowledge of how living structure can and does unfold.

About twenty years ago, I began to notice that objects and buildings which have life all have certain identifiable structural characteristics. The same geometric features keep showing up in them, again and again.

[…] I simply looked at thousands and thousands of examples, comparing those which had more life with those that had less life. …I did not worry about “my” values as compared with someone else’s values. I simply identified those examples which had the greater wholeness, judging this by the degree of wholeness they induced in me, and assuming, with as much confidence as I felt to real and reliable, that what I measured here would also be shared with others.

I asked myself this question: Can we find any structural features which tend to be present in the examples which have more life, and tend to be missing in the ones which have less life? In other words, can we find any recurrent geometrical structural features whose presence in things correlates with their degree of life? To find this out, it is necessary to make thousands and thousands of comparisons, to ask oneself constantly whether any features can be identified which correlate with the degree of wholeness which things have. This is what I did. For twenty years, I spent two or three hours a day looking at pairs of things–buildings, tiles, stones, windows, carpets, figures, carvings of flowers, paths, seats, furniture, streets, paintings, fountains, doorways, arches, friezes–comparing them, and asking myself: Which one has more life? And then asking: What are the common features of the examples that have most life?

I managed to identify fifteen structural features which appear again and again in things which do have life. These are: 1. LEVELS OF SCALE, 2. STRONG CENTERS, 3. BOUNDARIES, 4. ALTERNATING REPETITION, 5. POSITIVE SPACE, 6. GOOD SHAPE, 7. LOCAL SYMMETRIES, 8. DEEP INTERLOCK AND AMBIGUITY, 9. CONTRAST, 10. GRADIENTS, 11. ROUGHNESS, 12. ECHOES, 13. THE VOID, 14. SIMPLICITY AND INNER CALM, 15. NOT-SEPARATENESS. (NOPL, 144)

These must be understood as no more and no less than an expression of the decades of observance described. As such, they are subject to addition, subtraction, alteration, and so on. What seems undeniable is the astounding feat, the wealth of information provided by such a working list. In future posts I will do my best to describe these fifteen fundamental properties. For now I think it is enough to present the list as evidence of the possibility that the unnameable quality of our life — which we have been calling “wholeness” — can be apprehended in its details without losing the spirit of wonder and praise I tried to point to in last week’s post. Indeed, I might have called today’s post, “The Apprenticeship to Life” to highlight that any level of apparent mastery at creating living structure remains nonetheless subject to life itself, whose variety is endless, and whose essential quality remains, in each of its instances, too All-Embracing for words.


For a postlude, some more thoughts from Sōetsu Yanagi, from an essay on “Pattern.”  (The image comes from The Unknown Craftsman, [plate 23] as does the passage [p 114].)

Pattern is not realistic depiction.  It is a “vision” of what is reflected by the intuition.  It is a product of the imagination, in the sense in which Blake used the word.  Pattern is non-realistic.  It may be called irrational.  In a sense, it is an exaggeration.  Pattern is not a scientific rendering of the original.  Everyone knows that a bamboo grass pattern shows a plant that could never be.  The pattern is a symbol of the plant, not the plant itself.  It is an emblem of the bamboo, and yet the living bamboo is there in it.  A pattern is a picture of the essence of an object, an object’s very life; its beauty is of that life.  In fact, it would be truer to say that its beauty is that life staring the pattern maker in the face.  A pattern may lie on a table inert, just ink on paper, but it is the child of vision.  Springing thus from life it must itself be alive or it is nothing.  From the bamboo leaf to the pattern there is a transformation, as from chrysalis to butterfly, taking life with it into a new form.  This metamorphosis is its significance.  A good pattern is pregnant with beauty.  The maker of a pattern draws the essence of the thing seen with his own heartbeat, life to life.


2 Responses to “The Appraisal of Life: Christopher Alexander’s ‘Fifteen Fundamental Properties’”

  1. Jessie van Eerden said

    I’m inspired by this constellation of thinkers, Mike –- Polanyi, Bohm, Alexander, YOU -– so, I’m responding with my own constellation, one that you’ve sparked in my head.
    In my recent thinking about life-giving literary criticism–criticism that enhances and serves art rather than usurps and harms it–I was most struck by your idea that “wholeness” might be “apprehended in its details without losing the spirit of wonder and praise.” There is a balance in, say, analyzing the craft of a story and marveling at its beauty; there is a lush middle ground, I think. Jane Hirshfield comes to mind here, her NINE GATES (essays on poetry): true “attentiveness only deepens what it regards” (vii). I also think of Susan Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation” (would love to hear your thoughts on that one, Luke, if you’re reading this comment) and her criticism of death-dealing criticism. From the ninth part of Sontag’s essay: “Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art–and in criticism–today. Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are…The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art–and, by analogy, our own experience–more, rather than less, real for us.” (I can’t help but notice the word “luminousness” here.)

    On the far reaches of this little constellation, Buber’s I AND THOU comes to mind, too, with your emphasis on the way we see the world connecting with everything — everything is connected. Buber writes on this connection in light of our attitude toward money and God. Forgive a whopper of a pasting here (it’s worth it):
    “And what does it mean that a man is said to treat money, embodied non-being, ‘as if it were God’? What has the lust of grabbing and of laying up treasure in common with the joy in the presence of the Present One? Can the servant of Mammon say Thou to his money? And how is he to behave towards God when he does not understand how to say Thou? He cannot serve two masters—not even one after the other: he must first learn to serve in a different way.
    He who has been converted by this substitution of object now ‘holds’ a phantom that he calls God. But God, the eternal Presence, does not permit Himself to be held. Woe to the man so possessed that he thinks he possesses God!” [106]
    “Life cannot be divided between a real relation with God and an unreal relation of I and It with the world—you cannot both truly pray to God and profit by the world. He who knows the world as something by which he is to profit knows God also in the same way. His prayer is a procedure of exoneration heard by the ear of the void. He—not the ‘atheist,’ who addresses the Nameless out of the night and yearning of his garret-window—is the godless man.” [107]

  2. Lucas Harriman said

    So many beautiful constellations! And what a beautiful metaphor for the work you are doing on this blog Mike: bringing various thinkers, thoughts, images together and revealing the picture they create, at least from the perspective of your specific location in space. That is the wonderful thing about constellations: though the stars (or planets, or moons, or galaxies, or … ) might be millions of miles away from each other, to the earthly viewer, Rigel appears to be the knee to balance Betelgeuse’s knee, each contributing its own part to form the whole of Orion.

    The picture of “woman and child” is a lovely one, and it strikes me as a fairly Kafkaesque portrait. I think it’s the matching angles of the two bowed heads. Deleuze and Guattari begin their study _Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature_ by reflecting on the proliferation of bent and straightened heads in his work although they see in the bent head a picture of repression, oppression, burden. Truthfully, these lowered heads are everywhere in Kafka, especially in his crazy sketches: here’s a link to an example:

    I wonder about the difference between “bent heads” and “bowed heads.” Also, now that you are discussing these “fundamental properties,” perhaps the symmetry of the angles serves to beautify the portrait. Anyhow, I look forward to your discussions of the properties.

    One final word about Polanyi, whose work on partial knowledge is so important! As it did for Jess, it reminds me of literary criticism. In fact, I think it might have been Sontag who discussed Barbara Kruger’s picture “No Radio” in conjunction with viewing the work of art. Here’s a link to the image:

    Kruger says her title comes from signs she saw inside urban vehicles, advertising the fact that there was no radio inside to steal. These were offered in the hopes of deterring any attempt to break in simply to rip out the radio. She juxtaposes the title with a picture of a scientist who has apparently just dissected a woman and is contemplating her heart, presumably to know more about love. With such meticulous picking apart comes death. We often do the same in our efforts to take apart works of literature in order to see what makes them work. Instead, we should be more comfortable with the tacit elements on the borders of our perception (in the fields of our peripheral vision) informing what we think we know about what we perceive. I think this would help us be a little less cavalier in our petal plucking (and our deathly dissecting).

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