New: Book Report: The Phenomenon of Life

Summary: This is a good book if you skip the first four chapters, the last chapter, and half of the appendices.

Christopher Alexander is famous as the honcho behind A Pattern Language. A Pattern Language described a set of architectural techniques. It was organized very well. Computer geeks liked it--we recognized that this was a good way to organize a bag of tricks. Do you remember that the introduction to the computer science book Design Patterns mentioned that some architect came up with the idea of design patterns? Christopher Alexander is that architect. He released a big four-volume work, The Nature of Order, which is supposed to provide the foundation for his previous works.

I read volume one: The Phenomenon of Life. It was tough going, but it was worth it. I suspect that Alexander would be disappointed with what I got out of this book: some rules of thumb for judging aesthetics. I was supposed to get a New Way to Undersand the Wholeness.

Although this may sound absurd to ears trained in the last few decades of scientific orthodoxy, I shall try to show that this conception is more profound scientifically, that it has a solid basis in mathematical and physical understanding of space, and above all that it does provide us with a single coherent conception of the world, and of what we are doing in the world, when we try to make the world "alive."

--The Phenomenon of Life, Christopher Alexander
introducing some attempts at rigorous definition

These are scientific facts based on the research done by captive supergeniuses working in controlled conditions with test mice and test mice dressed like tiny wizards.

--Dorkstorm: the Annihilation, Seanbaby
introducing a similarly rigorous work

Alexander distinguishes between good places and bad places by saying that good places have more "life". He spends the half of this book describing the nature of life. The Dead Milkmen tell us: "Philosophers try to bring me down: 'What's the meaning of life?' Go kill a cop then drink 'til you drop; baby that's my advice in a f&#*ed up world." In other words, you should not attempt to be very rigorous or mathematical when defining life. Yet Alexander attempts to be rigorous. He spends several pages telling us that he will teach us a new way to see the world. He says that we need to understand the Wholeness. Yes, he capitalizes it. He provides an appendix which attempts to define this Wholeness. I claim that it's never defined: the appendix shifts the vagueness around, but the vagueness never leaves. The attempts at rigor are long-winded.

And yet, if you can skim over the rigor, he presents fifteen structural features of things which have life. In other words, fifteen things to keep an eye out for when considering the form and function of a place.

He provides illustrations of places and natural objects which do or do not possess these properties. He discusses how each of these properties can help a place. I was glad that I read this part.

I am not sure why Alexander wants to present his ideas encumbered with so much rigor. A well-designed, well-described, well-chosen, well-organized Bag of Tricks is more useful than a Humbug Theory of Architectural Technique. That's how A Pattern Language inspired a generation of computer hackers to rip it off. If this book's fifteen properties don't have a Grand Theory to back them up, but if they work, are they still worth studying? Of course they are.

There is a good story buried in the footnotes, in which we find our heroes battling forces of oppression:

In order to help the city of Nagoya, my colleagues in Japan made a survey in which 100 family members were asked to describe their feelings about the kind of housing I had proposed, compared with the 14-story apartment buildings that are usually built at the same cost and density. ...Once this survey was made it showed overwhelmingly that the families questioned prefered [my kind of housing].

However, it was surprisingly hard even to get permission to make this survey in the first place. Public agencies in Nagoya went to some trouble to prevent this survey from being made at all by interfering with practical details of the survey process, and by trying to change the questions. ... (Details of their attempt to prevent this survey from taking place are given in Christopher Alexander and Hisae Hosoi, The Precious Jewel, forthcoming.

That sounds like it's going to be interesting.

Then, in Appendix 3, we get to see Alexander bully a roomful of students into seeing the universe the way he claims that people naturally see the universe:

It is not always easy to see the wholeness which exists in the world. ... I was astonished, many years ago, to find out, in the course of an experiment I was doing with Radcliffe students, that most of them did not see the wholeness of simple patterns. They saw, instead, a distorted picture of these patterns, viewed them with arbitrary intellectual devices rather than responding to the deeper wholeness that was present in them. I found out, too, that it took immense effort to dissuade them from their distorted cognition, and to help them to see wholeness as it is. ...

Read this book and you might learn some new ways to think. Just don't get so snowed under by rigor that you believe that these are the only ways to think.

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Posted 2005-02-15

 Arlene said...

If I have nightmares that I'm back in architecture school after reading your review of this work, I will squarely place the blame on you.

I was forced to read many theory books by architects while studying. I learned that it is possible for a book lover to HATE books after reading too many works by architects. Especially architects who make up their own words (because their thoughts are so original that existing words could not possibly convey their brilliance) or who come up with new conceptions of reality which are so superior to everyone else's that everyone else must reconceptualize reality, even if the new conception isn't well articulated.

Thank you for reading this book so I won't have to.

24 February, 2005 20:40
 lahosken said...

Would you believe now I'm reading volume 2?

26 February, 2005 09:42
 Arlene said...

I figure you have about 5 years of architect babble related program activities - I mean, suffering - to tolerate before you reach what turned out to be my personal masochism threshhold, so it doesn't surprise me.

Though I worry for you. :-)

01 March, 2005 23:55