Christopher Alexander’s Science of Imagination

I’m six chapters into The Luminous Ground, and Christopher Alexander has already convinced me that living architecture has the potential to profoundly alter the way we relate to the universe. A building composed of what Alexander calls “living centers” literally opens a window to a deeper dimension of reality. We do not see these openings with our eyes, though certain geometric patterns and the proper play of light and color may evoke them. In truth, living centers require a form of supersensory perception: we feel them in our hearts, but they exist also in their own right as features of the world no less real than we are. This is why the feeling is one of sublime relationship–of a universal bond almost beyond description because it touches the very core of our own identity. These centers, like us, are “I-beings” which tunnel into space-time through forms of matter that are especially receptive to their spiritual light. Their source is a unified plenum of God-like substance that Alexander believes underlies the physical world at every point in space.

As a philosopher and aspiring poet, my role is to conceive new forms of language that transform the way we perceive the world. Alexander’s insights are best expressed by the silent majesty of the buildings themselves, by being actually present in, for example, Chartres cathedral (his favorite example of living architecture) so as to feel the light that pours out of every shape. But even Alexander cannot avoid trying to articulate his insights. It is the only way to share what he has perceived. And share he must, because the modern world has almost entirely lost touch with the living dimension of the universe.

Our senses have been dulled and our hearts made hard by the march of economic efficiency. Feelings are no longer taken seriously within our positivistic worldview where the only facts are what can be measured objectively (by math or money), and so human well-being is not factored into technology or building design. Modern people have become conditioned to view the universe as basically dead, made of empty homogenous space and inert matter governed by mechanical laws. This is the world we live in even before we have a chance to reflect upon it. Given such a cosmology, it is no surprise that we’ve made such progress transforming the once beautiful earth into an industrial hell. It is that much harder to convince ourselves otherwise now that most of us live in huge cities surrounded by dehumanizing machines. Those of us working to build (whether architecturally or philosophically) a new imaginal background for our civilization are met either with outright derision from those scientists whose cultural authority depends upon the mechanistic world-picture, or with patronizing smiles from post-modernists who believe such metaphysical pursuits are but the romantic vestige of a bygone era when humanity still believed it could participate in the truth of things themselves. It seems we’re trapped in a self-fulfilling prophecy, unable to break free of the disenchanted world we’ve created for ourselves.

I believe there is hope, as more people are beginning to wake up to the possibility of another world. Alexander’s vision of a luminous ground underlying the physical world, breathing life into its various forms, is evidence that a new organ of perception is growing within the human heart. This supersensory organ perceives not the reflection of light off colored surfaces, but the emanation of love from transphysical beings. The spatiotemporal effect of these “I-beings”–for though they are transphysical, they are not separate from matter, but rather provide the formative forces necessary for its organized manifestation–is beauty.

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Rudolf Steiner predicted in the 1920s that more people would begin to acquire this sort of inner vision, or clairvoyance, in the coming century. He lectured extensively about the need for a science of the imagination, and Alexander’s pattern language derived from 30 years of architectural observation is exactly that (see my essay on Steiner and Teilhard de Chardin for another example). Steiner developed a more complex understanding of supersensory realities that includes four enveloping layers: physical, etheric, astral, and the spirit or ‘I’ from which everything else proceeds. Alexander seems to lump the latter three together into a single plenum of “God-stuff,” which isn’t entirely misleading since reality is best understood as a seamless whole. But Steiner’s fourfold description provides for a more richly textured ontology. According to Steiner, it takes a highly developed imagination to perceive the etheric realm, while the astral and spiritual dimensions require cultivating organs of inspiration and intuition, respectively. He suggests that a long process of consciousness evolution will be required for most of us to develop these abilities, but that the task of our age in particular is to cultivate the imaginal sense that will allow us to feel the life hidden just behind the sensory world. The easiest way to begin to perceive the etheric realm is to feel its activity within ourselves. It brings the physical body to life by organizing it such that the ‘I’ can penetrate into space-time.

Alexander describes this wonderfully:

“In a human body, which is at least in part a structure of matter alone, the experience of ‘I’ or ‘self’ arises. In spite of various sociological attempts at explanation, this everyday experience of our own selves is not yet understood in a satisfactory way by physics. But it would be relatively easy to understand if we postulate the plenum of I, universal and general, linked to matter, and if it were a fact that the matter in a body, once organized, is able to make direct connection with this I. We would then experience the bridge or tunnel to the I as our own self, not realizing that it is in fact merely one bridge, of a million similar bridges, between the matter in different beings and the I. That is to say, in such a conception of the I which one of us experiences as his own self is not a private and individual thing, as most of us imagine it to be, but a partial connection of our own physical matter (my body) to this very great, and single, plenum of I-stuff” (p. 149).

Recognizing that our most immediate sense of being who we are is not, as we tend to believe, an isolated chemical event within the skull, but an effect of our participation in the universal Self is the first step towards taking the love we feel for one another and for the beauty of the living world seriously. These are not just subjective feelings, but evidence of the very Ground of reality itself.