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On Architecture and Order

What is architecture? How can we define it? As a human art, it seems that we cannot conceive of what it is fully or properly without efficient and final causes: certainly it is by human beings, and somehow for human beings. But for human beings to do… what? What benefit does the architect render human beings in the production of his buildings? It seems that we need a good definition—a more precise definition—if we are to say whether the products of architecture are good or bad themselves.

Integral to architecture conception seems the broader notion of order. The work of the architect, that is, seems nothing if not the making of what has order. But where, and in what, does order germinate? Allow here a quotation of the architect and design theorist Christopher Alexander (4 October 1935—2022 March 17):

Excerpts from The Nature of Order:

The activity we call building creates the physical order of the world, constantly, unendingly, day after day. In the last five millennia, human beings have created millions upon millions of cubic yards of building, and millions of buildings, house, roads, and cities—entire worlds. Our world is dominated by the order we create.

But although we are responsible for the creation of order on this enormous scale, we hardly even know what the word “order” means. Our present idea of “order” is obscure. Although the word is often used informally by artists and biologists and physicians—usually to stand for some deep regularity we cannot quite define—we need a better understanding of the deep geometric reality of order. If we are honest we must admit we hardly even know what kind of phenomenon it is. Yet we build the world, producing its order, day by day. Thus we go on, willy-nilly creating order int he world, without knowing what it is, why we are doing it, what its significance might be.

In the 20th century we have passed through a unique period, one in which architecture as a discipline has been in a state that is almost unimaginably bad. Sometimes I think of it as a mass psychosis of unprecedented dimension, in which the people of earth—in large numbers and in almost all contemporary societies—have created a form of architecture which is against life, insane, image-ridden, hollow. The ugliness which has been created in the cities of the world, and the banality and pretentiousness of many 20th-century buildings, streets, and parking lots have overwhelmed the earth. Much of this construction is caused by developers, hosing authorities, owners of hotels, motels, airport authorities. In that sense architects might be considered blameless, since in some degree the ugliness of what has been created is caused by new relations between time, money, labor, and materials and by a set of conditions in which the real thing—authentic architecture that has deep feeling and true worth—is almost impossible.

But architects are not blameless. For the most part, architects have stood by, content to play their role s part of the 20th-century machine. They gild the lily of commercial development with pretentiousness. Many architects have raised the designer-conscious fashion of building to new levels, have invented absurd ways of thinking about architecture, have altogether poisoned the earth with an abundance of terrible and senseless designs which have few redeeming features.

I believe that we have in us a residue of a world-picture which is essentially mechanical in nature—what we might call the mechanist-rationalist world-picture. Whether or not we believe that we are subscribing to this picture, whether or not we are aware of the impact of its residue in us, even when we consider ourselves moved by spiritual or ecological concerns, most of us are still—I believe—to a greater or lesser extent in the grip of some residue of this mechanical world-picture. Like an infection, it has entered us, it affects our actions, it affects our morals, it affects our sense of beauty. It controls the way we think when we try to make buildings and—in my view—it has made the making of beautiful buildings all but impossible.

Selections from Christopher Alexander 1980–2002: The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe, Book One: The Phenomenon of Life.

This topic—the nature of architecture—cannot in fact be divorced from the question of the human soul, and, specifically, its development of habits. We live in a built-environment. The built-environment informs our perceptual behavior: how our eyes and ears are attuned, how we relate to the phenomena of places, distances; echoes and reverberations, how we are enveloped by air, by sound and silence, by light and shadow. Buildings envelope us every day, from waking to sleeping. We practice our daily behaviors at home or in offices, in coffee shops and grocery stores. Our religious cathexis depends in no small measure on the structure of our houses of worship. The weight of law finds its reflection in the gravitas of the courtroom and the houses of legislation.

Do we think enough about how these buildings come to be—and whether they are fitting to our being?

Philosophical Happy Hour

Interior from Havana, Cuba, free public domain CC0 image.

If you’d like to join us for a discussion of architecture and order in the built-environment, we would be happy to have you! Our happy hours are held (almost) every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET and are (almost always) open to the public. You can join the weekly mailing list by using the contact form here, or join directly by using the link on the right side of the screen here.

“The deepest and most important teaching of Classical Architecture concerns the human soul: before any other work it is necessary to forge your own soul, making it a temple of virtue and knowledge. Those who do not know how to build themselves, will never be able to build anything beautiful and noble.” 

Vitruvian man, from the edition of De Architectura of Giovan Battista Caporali, 1536