The Nature of Order: Unfolding a Sustainable World

Stuart Cowan is the co-author of Ecological Design and participates in the rich culture of sustainability emerging in Portland, Oregon.

His review of The Nature of Order, was first published in Resurgence, 2004.

THE UNIVERSE IS abundantly filled with living structure at every level of scale. Energy, matter, and information cascade from vast sheets of galaxies through to our own solar system, to the earth, to the oak glistening in the glade, to its microbial symbionts, on to their proteins, and ultimately to the Planck scale at which spacetime becomes discrete.

When we are most alive, we experience the universe in its wholeness. We experience our connection to a thirteen-billion year old unfolding story that links every living cell, every particle, every star. Why then are we surrounded with buildings, landscapes, and artefacts that engender fragmentation?

Christopher Alexander, an architect, builder and mathematician, has spent forty years attempting to discern the living structure inherent in the universe and harvest this structure for use in practical processes that repair damaged places and create harmonious new ones. In his extraordinary four-volume summation of a fruitful life’s work, The Nature of Order, Alexander proposes both a new science and a new approach to buildings and places unified by a profound notion of wholeness as the governing field.

Wholeness is understood as a richly nonlinear field of interactions among salient entities – or centres – with surprising, yet empirically verifiable properties. Centres support larger centres, and in turn are recursively formed from smaller centres. As we know from experience, subtle changes may greatly affect the field of wholeness. The field has a number of postulated mathematical properties, but currently resists even approximate calculation.

Fortunately, we can access the field of wholeness through personal observation. We need merely ask, “To what degree each of two things we are trying to judge is, or is not, a picture of the self – and by this I mean your and my wholesome self, perhaps even our eternal self”. This mirror of the self test asks us to awaken to our deepest feelings in the presence of a farmhouse, a chair, a painting, and to see whether we are made more or less alive. Remarkably, extensive experiments have demonstrated that subjects cross-culturally will reach extremely high levels of agreement after honest engagement with the task of evaluating wholeness.

Based on intensive examination of thousand of examples, Alexander posits fifteen fundamental properties that generate life and wholeness from a system of centres. These properties include levels of scale, strong centres, boundaries, alternating repetition, positive space, good shape, local symmetries, deep interlock and ambiguity, contrast, gradients, roughness, echoes, the void, simplicity, inner calm and not-separateness. This list, while provisional, hints at something of profound importance; a comprehensive taxonomy of transformations that generate orderly, larger and larger wholes with living structure.

These fifteen properties are so powerful precisely because they generate structure-preserving transformations (1). They extend the existing structure of wholeness, enhancing existing centres through well-defined processes. Alexander proposes that this set of structure-preserving transformations, together with an understanding of the overall field of wholeness, provides the foundation for a new kind of science based on wholeness rather than fragmentation.

This science would of course be consistent with existing physics, chemistry and biology, yet proceed from a completely different epistemological base. It would be able to treat complex, self-organising processes as core rather than peripheral phenomena. Such a science would restore meaning, context and story both to the human and the more-than-human realms. Most significantly, “We shall have a vision of the world in which the world itself – all of it – animals, plants, mountains, rivers, buildings, roads, terraces, rooms and windows – is a part of a single system and a single way of understanding”.

The Nature of Order holds out the magnificent prospect that there are processes that ordinary people can use, in small groups or vast collaborations, to create living structure, whether at the scale of a single hand-painted tile, a city or a continent. These processes use precisely the same kinds of transformations spontaneously employed by breaking waves, developing frog embryos, spiral galaxies or nonlinear chemical reactions. In vernacular form, these processes have been harnessed and turned into shared practices by traditional cultures for millennia.

Living structure, while ubiquitous in the universe, represents a minute portion of the space of available configurations for a house, garden or public plaza. Processes for generating living structure are essential if we are to heal our wounded cities, towns and countryside. Such processes can be learned fairly readily. Proficiency is built up through disciplined application. At every step, each process ultimately relies on the mirror of the self test. Is this step creating more or less life? How is it supporting the whole? How is it being supported by existing centers?

Remarkably, these questions can be constructively discussed. Time and again, I have seen groups of students, architects, or citizens undertake the fundamental differentiating process of creating wholeness. Individuals are able to effectively communicate the structure of wholeness, as they perceive it, and demonstrate to the others why a given step has certain positive or negative effects. The group is then able to verify the observation and respond with additional tests. Gradually, haltingly, greater and greater differentiation and intensification of centers in support of an ever deepening structure of wholeness emerges. The end result is likely to have a fundamental life and coherence that is largely absent from design processes cut off from the wellspring of wholeness and the mirror of self.

There are many ways to enhance the process of creating living structure. One approach is to understand the patterns that help to generate wholeness within a given recurring context. For example, the pattern ‘Light on Two Sides of Every Room’ provides a generic rule for placing windows in such a way that they strengthen the existing centres in the room. Patterns, together with a grammar derived from their intrinsic spatial and conceptual relationships, can be combined into a kind of pattern language and systematically applied. Hundreds of patterns, ranging in scale from construction details to regions, have been documented by Christopher Alexander and his colleagues, most notably in A Pattern Language (Oxford, 1977).

A sequence of patterns carefully chosen to unfold wholeness can greatly accelerate the process of creating living structure and increase its chances of success. For instance, a traditional Japanese tea house may be generated through a well-defined sequence of twenty-four steps beginning with the placement of the tea house in a secluded garden, and ending with the construction of a small pillar in an alcove off the tea room (tokonoma). Efforts are underway to study these sequences in a wide variety of practical situations and make good sequences broadly available.

The Nature of Order begins with the structure of wholeness in the universe and derives adaptive processes that systematically generate living structure in the world around us. Ultimately, I believe it provides a new foundation for sustainability; one grounded in our deepest aspirations to act in ways conducive to all life, testable at every level of scale, and enabled by a powerful set of replicable processes and patterns that are already partially understood.

In order to test this notion, my research team at Ecotrust developed a pattern language for bioregional sustainability for the coastal temperate rainforest ecosystem hugging the west coast of North America, from northern California to Alaska. We generated a website documenting fifty-seven patterns ranging from “Civic Society” to “Sense of Place”. The site uses an open source model that allows site visitors, from all over the world, to test the patterns, adapt them for their own use, and suggest improvements.

Whilst still in an experimental stage, this bioregional pattern language confirms that processes working at the smallest scales – helping to give life to a garden, a storefront or a stretch of river – can be systematically linked to processes at larger scales, including those that ensure the connectivity and functionality of ecosystems at a continental scale and those that maintain compatibility with the cycling of nutrients and materials at a planetary scale. As Alexander states, “At every scale, every act of formation is both local and global, both creative/complete and accretive/incomplete.”

Sustainability emerges from a million individual acts of creative engagement; living processes that preserve the structure of wholeness, healing and repairing damaged sites along the way. These living processes, while self-organising, effectively co-ordinate across different levels of scale, ensuring that small acts sum to meet the preconditions of health for the biosphere. At the same time, these processes systematically translate large-scale sustainability conditions, like those provided by The Natural Step framework, into the joyful detail of millions of living centres. Living processes incrementally restore both the human spirit and its necessary correlate, the wholeness of the world and its diverse beings.

The Nature of Order provides the most powerful set of processes to date for unfolding a sustainable world. These processes affect the scale of activity, the flow of money, the sharing of understanding, and the way decisions are made. They demand of us a commitment to wholeness in ourselves and in each of our interactions with the world.

(1) WHOLENESS-EXTENDING-TRANSFORMATIONS: Discussion of these transformations can be found throughout The Nature of Order, where they are most often referred to by their older name, “structure-preserving transformations.” This name has been given up because it does not correctly suggest the emergence of new structure from wholeness, and seems only to refer to structure that is already there in its entirety. The references in The Nature of Order use the term “structure-preserving” almost exclusively, and the references given below will most often show that term being used for consiatence with the book, even though w-e- transformation is now thought to be more accurate. (See here.)

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