“The Luminous Ground” by Christopher Alexander

Christopher Alexander is an architect, but in order to build living structures resonant with human feeling, he had also to become a cosmologist.

“A person who adheres to classical 19th- or 20th-century beliefs about matter,” writes Alexander,

“will not be able, fully, to accept the revisions in building practice that I have proposed, because the revisions will remain, for that person, too disturbingly inconsistent with that picture of the world…Unless our world-picture itself is changed and replaced by a new picture, more consistent with the felt reality of life in buildings and in our surroundings, the idea of life in buildings itself will not be enough to accomplish change” (p. 10).

In his book, The Luminous Ground, volume 4 of 4 in a series entitled The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe, Alexander attempts to re-imagine the mechanistic worldview informing the common sense of almost all modern, industrial people. He does so for the most practical of reasons: so that our civilization can once again generate architectural forms that human beings can relate to. The culprit, he believes, responsible for a century or two of unlivable architectural design is our inadequate (though admittedly fascinating and wonderful) scientific world-picture.

“In order to creat this effective scientific world-picture,” he writes,

“we had to use a device: the intellectual device of treating entities in nature as if they were inert, as if they were lumps of geometrical substance, without feeling, without life–in effect, merely mechanical elements in a larger machine” (p. 13).

This picture of the universe forces us into what A. N. Whitehead referred to as a bifurcated conception of nature. On the one hand, there is the world that physics models, full of the blind pushing and pulling of colorless, soundless, odorless and fundamentally meaningless bits of matter. On the other hand, as Alexander puts it, there is the world we actually experience. In this world, we taste, we feel, we love; in short, we are conscious beings who care about our existence. Like Whitehead, Alexander is convinced that no truly livable world, much less a method for constructing living buildings, will be possible until this bifurcation is overturned and the material and the personal are harmoniously united in a single cosmology.

“It is this ongoing rift between the mechanical-material picture of the world (which we accept as true) and our intuitions about self and spirit (which are intuitively clear but scientifically vague) that has destroyed our architecture. It is destroying us, too. It has destroyed our sense of self-worth…It has destroyed us and our architecture, ultimately, by forcing a collapse of meaning” (p. 18).

I am only just beginning to read Alexander’s architectural protest for a re-enchanted cosmology, but I’ve already detected strong correlations with Rudolf Steiner and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (both of whom he mentions in footnotes). Alexander’s experience after decades of building have taught him that matter and space-time are not neutral and inert, as the models of physics would lead us to believe, but in some sense alive–even conscious–and that their vitality depends upon the presence of certain organic patterns that human beings can recognize and recreate. Recognizing the reality of these patterns requires that we come to take our feelings seriously, instead of rejecting them as merely subjective projections onto an otherwise valueless objective world. By ignoring the testimony of feeling, science has blinded itself to an entire dimension of the universe. The results have been catastrophic, not only for architectural design, but for human consciousness itself.

I’ll have more to say in the next few weeks as I get deeper into Alexander’s text… (See Alexander’s Science of the Imagination)

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