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Recommended books
The Nature of Order
An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe
Christopher Alexander

The Center of Environmental Structure, Berkeley, California

This significant work is the result of decades of research and original thinking...

Review by Besim S. Hakim FAICP AIA, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Book One: The Phenomenon of Life, 2002.
ISBN 0-9726529-1-4
Book Two: The Process of Creating Life, 2002.
ISBN 0-9726529-2-2
Book Three: A Vision of a Living World, 2005.
ISBN 0-9726529-3-0
Book Four: The Luminous Ground, 2004.
ISBN 0-9726529-4-9
Set Of Four Books: ISBN 0-9726529-0-6

All four books are bound in hardcover and are 20x28 cm in size.   They are all profusely illustrated with color, B/W photos, and diagrams.
Bk1: 476 pages, Bk2: 636 pages, Bk3: 697 pages, and Bk4: 355 pages.   Total: 2164 pages.
Price for each volume: US$ 63.75.
Price for the set of four books: US$ 250.00, plus shipping

Review by Besim S. Hakim, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Christopher Alexander (henceforth CA) was born in Vienna, Austria in 1936.   He and his parents moved to England when he was an infant.   Although his parents were trained as archeologists, they became school teachers in England. CA graduated from Cambridge University with degrees in mathematics and architecture. He went on to Harvard in 1958 to pursue his doctoral studies.   After completing his PhD dissertation and graduating he was appointed to teach architecture at the University of California, Berkeley in 1963 where he stayed until his retirement in 1998.   He subsequently moved back to England and currently resides near Arundel, West Sussex.

CA established the Center for Environmental Structure (henceforth CES) in Berkeley, California in 1967, and used it as his office for practice and related research.   Almost all of his work and research was undertaken under the auspices of this Center.   In the fall of 2005 he established a European branch of the CES based in London and Cambridge.

When I started undertaking research in 1975 on traditional towns in North Africa, I became aware of CAs work and made use of his book A Pattern Language (1977) (henceforth APL) for explaining the high quality of the built environment of the village of Sidi Bou Sa'id in northern Tunisia.1   (See the air photo of the village below).   The book on Sidi Bou Sa'id was published in August 1978 and I sent a copy to CA in mid-1979.   He invited me to speak to his graduate students on November 28, 1979 and I presented a summary of my research findings.2   Since then I have followed CA's work, with much interest, through his various publications, and I am now happy to present this review of The Nature of Order (henceforth TNO).

TNO is primarily based on the experience, experiments and most important the serious thought and observations over a period of about 30 years by CA and his various colleagues on their work and its implications on the theory and practice of architecture and the built environment, and how this work might point to an alternative path for generating built environments that embody the high qualities found in most traditional settlements and towns in many parts of the world.3

When confronted with this vast 4-volume work an obvious question arises which is: why four books and why over 2000 pages were necessary to communicate the theoretical arguments and the necessary supporting material that is needed?   My own feeling about this question is that CA wanted to include as much evidence, detailed thoughts, observations, and discussions so as to fully persuade his readers.   In my view he has achieved that very well, but it is also my opinion that it could have been done in possibly two volumes.   Ideally a one-volume book would have been more effective in the long run, particularly if translations to at least the primary languages of the world of this important work is to be practically undertaken.   It is also difficult to expect the average reader, however interested, to read and carefully study the material in over 2000 pages of the four books.4   I believe it is possible to summarize the essential arguments and the necessary supporting illustrations in one volume that I hope will be forthcoming in the future, at least for the purposes of translations to various languages.

What is CAs essential argument and how has it been allocated in the four books? This can best be understood from the 8-page mid-book appendix titled "Recapitulation of the Argument" in Book 4, pp. 135-142.   CA says that he kept careful records and notes of his observations since about 1969, and he did that in the way a scientist does.   His ultimate goal is to help people make better built environments that is good for the surface of the Earth and good for people. To avoid the potential problem that readers might grasp the many ideas in the four books as separate entities, CA is naturally concerned with disconnectedness.   He has tried to emphasize the importance of understanding the details as part of a coherent larger picture, and attempted to do so in Book 4.

To begin digesting this vast material, the reader must first understand the system of centers.   These are configurations in space, which have qualities that describe those centers as being alive. In fact we find in Book 1, chapter 5, pp. 143-242, CA clearly associates the 15 fundamental properties, which are rules that help create living centers, with geometric patterns as he and his colleagues put forward the idea of patterns and pattern languages in the late 1970s.   In my study, with my senior architecture students, of the village of Sidi Bou Said we clearly identified living centers at different levels of the built environment of the village and we explained those in light of the patterns in APL.   We particularly emphasized in the conclusion the high quality patterns as they were corroborated in APL.   The term "living structure" which CA uses implies that it contains living centers and that each center, depending on its size and scale, can be understood as a part of a field of other centers.   So that a center is made of other centers tying together various levels of the built environment.   This phenomenon may also be understood and appreciated as embodying "Wholeness", Book 1, chapter 3, pp. 79-108.

CA emphasizes that centers should not be viewed statically or as frozen objects in space, but should be viewed dynamically.   So wholeness can only be understood as a dynamic phenomenon. Thus living structure, if viewed dynamically, can be comprehended as the result of structure-preserving transformations, i.e. every change tends to respect what came before it and preserves the qualities of what was there already and also enhances it, which is discussed in detail in Book 2.   This is associated with the process of "unfolding" as CA uses the term.   Therefore centers are fundamental building blocks of the phenomenon of wholeness.   To pin down what a center is and further elaborate on the nature of wholeness, CA provides four propositions on pages 139-142 of Book 4:

    "Proposition 1:   Each center is a focused zone of space which may be characterized by saying that, to some degree, space in that zone itself comes to life.
    Proposition 2:   To the degree a center is a living center, it is also a picture of the true self, and - very startling - has this character for all people, not just for any individual.
    Proposition 3:   The structure-preserving transformations which continually modify one wholeness in space and replace it by another that preserves the structure of the first, slowly cause space to be filled with unfolded I-like centers.
    Proposition 4:   Only a deliberate process of creating being-like (or self-like) centers in built structure throughout the world, encourages the world to become more alive."

In the conclusion to the four books titled: "A modified picture of the universe", Book 4, pp. 317-338, CA discusses the following topics: the nature of space and matter, wholeness as a physical structure in the universe, and consciousness as a physical feature of the universe.   Then he proposes a "Modified physics", as understood by 20th century physics, in which the following attributes of matter-space are added:

1 - The existence of centers and wholeness.
2 - Value and life as part of space itself.
3 - Structure-preserving transformations as the origin of the laws of physics and biology.
4 - The personal quality of space, and
5 - The Ultimate I.

Thus the matter-space continuum, as understood by present day physics, is modified in its behavior so that:

    "1- We recognize the relative existence of value in different regions of space,
    2- The value is personal and space is conceived as having some connection to our personal lives,
    3- Space itself is viewed as having connections, or windows, to some undifferentiated plenum of light, or unity, or mind which lies beyond the space and is possibly even in another dimension, but is nevertheless connected to it at every point in the continuum."

In the concluding chapter of Book 4, CA also puts forward eleven new assumptions that present a new picture of a universe in which life and wholeness appear as the central features, Book 4, pp.330-331. They are:

    "1) Matter-space is an unbroken continuum which includes everything, both matter and the so-called space around it, all at the same time.
    2) In varying degrees, any given portion of space may be more whole or less whole, more alive or less alive, more healed or less healed, connected or broken, separated or not separate.
    3) Whenever we undertake an act of construction we have the ability to make the world more alive or less alive, more harmonious or less harmonious.
    4) Everything matters.
    5) Value is a definite and fundamental part of the universe, and of the scheme of things.
    6) Ornament and function are indistinguishable.
    7) Matter itself is not a mechanism: It is a potentially soul-like materiality which is essentially what we call self.
    8) If self or I is woken up whenever living structure appears in matter, what we think of as value may then be described as the protection, preservation, nourishment, of the precious self of the universe.
    9) The nature of space-matter, being soul-like, is such that the more whole it becomes, the more transparent, the more it seems to melt, the more it realizes itself, releases its own inner reality, the more transparent it becomes, the more transcendent.
    10) Thus art is not merely pleasant or interesting. It has an importance that goes to the very core of the cosmology.
    11) The unfolding of the field of centers, and the unfolding of the self, is the most fundamental awakening of matter."

CA ties together a number of disciplines to buttress his theory, chief among them is biology and physics, and he also links their foundations, as they are understood today, to the essence of being that he refers to as the "I and self and its linkages to God.   He does that also to provide a thorough insight on the:

    "Reasons for the good quality of traditional buildings and towns come into view simply and directly as a result of this dynamic analysis", Book 4, p. 137.

I am therefore personally grateful to CA for this most important work that sheds light on numerous aspects of my own studies of the processes followed in traditional societies to create built environments of high quality.5   I began to sense the contrast in the quality of traditional towns compared to modern constructions since I was a fourth year student of architecture in 1961.   My thirst, since then, for finding out how traditional societies created built environments endowed with feeling which touches the human heart, continued until I had the opportunity to launch my life long research and love for this quest since 1975.   CAs work, primarily argued from the findings and insights of science now meshes nicely with my own empirical findings based on the knowledge available in the ancient literature and the built environments which traditional societies left for us.

Once the diffusion of CAs theories become more understood, it will enhance the interest in traditional architecture and urbanism, and ultimately begin to induce changes in the way architecture and urbanism are taught and practiced.

Air photo from the early 1970s of the village of Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia.

Besim Hakim
Besim Hakim is a member of the INTBAU Management Committee.

Views expressed on this page are those of the writer and are not necessarily shared by those involved in INTBAU.


[1] The results of the on-site research which I and my students undertook in the fall of 1975 was eventually published as a monograph titled: Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia: A Study in Structure and Form, (Ed) Besim S. Hakim, Technical University of Nova Scotia, Halifax, Canada, 1978, 192 pages. Available from Books on Demand Program, UMI, Ann Arbor, Michigan. BOD # AU00563.  back to text...

[2] My primary findings were completed in manuscript form in early 1979.   The book was eventually published as Arabic-Islamic Cities: Building and Planning Principles, KPI, London, 1986, 2nd Edition 1988. Available from Books on Demand Program, UMI, Ann Arbor, Michigan. BOD # AU00564. For a selection of recent work visit  back to text...

[3] For an early assessment of CAs work and its implication, see Christopher Alexander: The Search for a New Paradigm in Architecture, by Stephen Grabow, Oriel Press Ltd. (Routledge & Kegan Paul), London, 1983.  back to text...

[4] To make effective use of the four volumes I suggest that at least at the end of Book 4 a glossary is added of the important terms that CA repeatedly uses. A cross-index of the major concepts linking their occurrence in the four books is also necessary so that the reader can go back and forth between the books to trace and link the various concepts and arguments. It would also be useful to add a list of references at the end of each book of the major works that CA cites in his notes.  back to text...

[5] The region that my studies cover are those surrounding the Mediterranean basin since at least the sixth century of the common era, and the sphere of influence those cultures had on adjacent and far away places.  back to text...

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Views expressed on this page are those of the writer and are not necessarily shared by those involved in INTBAU.
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