“The Nature of Order: The Process of Creating Life” by Christopher Alexander

The Process of Creating Life

As someone with a biology and computer science background and no creative power whatsoever, I’m fascinated by Dr. Alexander’s notion that the creative process is essentially the same as the genetic process (seen in the unfolding of an embryo or the growth of a seed). Both processes are subclasses of the Living Process, which is defined in this book.

The Creative Process

“The whole system of order we observe is only an instantaneous cross section, in time, of a continuous and ongoing process of flux and change.”

“Creativity comes about when we discover the new within a structure already latent in the present. It is our respect for the what is that leads us to the most beautiful discoveries. In art as in architecture, our most intelligent and most wonderful creations come about, when we draw them out as extensions and enhancements of what exists already.”

Dr Alexander’s use of the still frames of Matisse painting a portrait really drove it home for me. It also evoked an image in my mind of Michelangelo sculpting Moses and, upon completion, commanding him to speak. (I don’t understand why Dr. Alexander regards Michelangelo’s art as “willful process”.  Can a willful process create such life-like sculpture as Moses?)

The Genetic Process

The seed is sown in the field, it’s latent, and yet if we continue to water and cultivate the ground, the seed will grow and emerge from the ground, the seed grows and bears fruits with seeds in them. It’s a continuous process.

The genetic code, IMO, is both a descriptive code and a generative code, because it defines both the structure and the process to generate the structure. The process is inseparable from the structure. The process creates the structure, which in turn governs the process. Similarly, the functional content generates the form, and the form illuminates the underlying functional content.

The Unanswered Question

What could be the equivalent of the genetic code in any building process?

On the one hand, the architecture of the 20th century overly emphasized form/image and neglected the functional content, i.e., the feelings and well-being of the people. It is life-destroying. On the other hand, the process that Dr. Alexander proposed, a process that goes a long way in structure-preserving and life-extending, seems to be lacking in the final culmination of form. (I think that’s also partly why he finds it easier to demonstrate the concept of living process in impressionists paintings than in buildings).

The Basic Unit of the Living Process
(The Fundamental Differentiating Process)

1. At any given moment in a process, we have a certain partially evolved state of a structure. This state is described by the wholeness: the system of centers, and their relative nesting and degrees of life.

2. We pay attention as profoundly as possible to this wholeness, its global, large-scale order, both actual and latent.

3.  We look for the latent centers in the whole. These are not those centers which are robust and exist strongly already; rather, they are centers which are dimly present in a weak form, but which seem to us to contribute to or cause the current absence of life and lacking in feeling in the whole.

4. We then choose one of these latent centers to work on. It may be a large center, or middle-sized, or small.

5. We use one or more of the fifteen structure-preserving transformations, singly or in combination, to differentiate and strengthen the structure in its wholeness.

6. As a result of the differentiation which occurs, new centers are born. The extent of the fifteen properties which accompany creation of new centers will also take place.

7. In particular, we shall have increased the strength of certain larger centers, parallel centers and also smaller centers. As a whole, the structure will now, as a result of this differentiation, be stronger and have more coherence and definition as a living structure.

8. We test to make sure that this is actually so, and that the presumed increase of life has actually taken place.

9. We also test that what we have done is the simplest differentiation possible, to accomplish this goal in respect of the center that is under development.

10. When complete, we go back to the beginning of the cycle, and apply the same process again.

The Ten Features of the Living Process

1. A living process is a step-by-step adaptive process, which goes forward in small increments, with opportunity for feedback and correction at every increment.

2. It is always the whole which governs, in a living process. Even when only latent, whatever greater whole is latent is always the main focus of attention and the driving force which controls the shaping of the parts.

3. The entire living process –from beginning to end– will be governed and guided and moved forward by the formation of living centers in such a way that the centers help each other.

4. The steps of a living process always take place in a certain vitally important sequence, and the coherence of its results will be dependent to a large extent on the accuracy of this sequence which controls unfolding.

5. Parts which are created during the process of differentiation must become locally unique; otherwise the process is not a living process. This means that all repetition is based on the uniqueness of the locally shaped parts, each adopted, by the process, to its situation within the whole.

6. The formation of centers (along with the sequence of their unfolding) is guided by generic patterns which play the role of genes.

7. Every living process is, throughout its length and breadth, congruent with feeling and governed by feeling.

8. In the case of buildings, the formation of the structure is guided geometrically by the emergence of an aperiodic grid which brings coherent geometric order to built form.

9. The entire living process is oriented by a form language that provides concrete methods of implementing adopted structure through simple combinatory rules.

10. The entire living process is oriented by the simplicity transformation, and is pruned steadily, so that it moves towards formation of a beautiful simplicity.

Links

  1. Synopsis of the Nature of Order
  2. Commentary on The Process of Creating Life
  3. The Schumacher Lecture: Sustainability and Morphogenesis
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