Part 1 | Prologue to Books 1-4 33

The Nature of Order – An Essay of the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe

Book 1 – The Phenomenon of Life


We welcome comments and discussion points upon Alexander’s thoughts using the comments found below.

Please have a look at the introduction to this reading tour to see how this works.


Prologue to Books 1 – 4

The Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe

Reading Tour: City Skyline

Building and construction creates the physical order of the world

Christopher Alexander starts his prologue with an observation regarding a universal human activity: the act of building and construction. He points out that this global activity creates the physical order of the world. Our world is dominated by the order we create.

Alexander’s aim: Understanding this deep geometric reality of order …

Here Alexander points to a contradiction: if this method of creating order on our planet is so widespread and common, why do we not know what this word “order” means, what its significance might be? Looking at the sciences of physics and biology, Alexander states that progress has been made in these domains toward understanding the phenomenon of order and the processes from which it arises. But architecture and building, even though of no less importance, have not yet made a similar contribution to understanding the deep geometric reality of order.

… in a way which is general, does justice to the nature of architecture and clarifies the intuitions that we have about beauty and the life of buildings

Alexander’s aim with “The Nature of Order” therefore is to show that there is a way of understanding order which is general, and which, at the same time, also does justice to the nature of building and of architecture while clarifying the intuitions that we have about beauty and the life of buildings. His motivation for this venture is not intellectual curiosity, or a special desire to write about philosophy, but to acquire, as an architect, the capacity for making beautiful buildings: to be able to make real beauty.

Alexander’s “The Nature of Order” develops and unfolds such a coherent view of order

After 35 years of hard work and study Alexander states that he has created such a coherent view of order which moreover deals honestly with the nature of beauty. He develops and unfolds this coherent view in the four books of “The Nature of Order”.

Even though his 20th-century empiricist education disputes his findings …

Alexander’s foremost challenge regarding these newly developed concepts was the stark contradiction of his findings to his 20th-century empiricist education. His findings seemed highly suspicious, like some fantastic fiction and potentially ridiculous to him.

… no other explanation is equally convincing

Alexander boldly describes these doubts in his findings and compares them with the doubts of Saint Teresa, who struggled with her faith and only truly believed in God for short periods of her life. But just like Teresa, Alexander sees in such lucid moments that the theory which he presents in his book “The Nature of Order” is true, simply because no other explanation is equally convincing.

… shared approval of the real nature of human feeling affirms his concepts

As a second verification Alexander gives an account of an evening some years previously when he was invited to a film presentation about his book “A Pattern Language” and received great approval from the audience. In the discussion, he described how he and his colleagues had made observations, distilled the essentials and written the patterns. The difference in this method from other kinds of science was the fact that everything was based on the real nature of human feeling, on the forgotten actuality that 90 percent of human experience and feeling are the same. In acknowledging this, we discover that, to a very large degree, we are all the same.

An essay not only on the art of building but also on the nature of the universe

Alexander states that two features of his proposed models are large enough to justify the claim that these books also concern the nature of the universe:

1 – All space and matter has some degree of life in it, and is more alive or less alive according to its structure and arrangement (Book I, THE PHENOMENON OF LIFE).

2 – All space and matter, which we now think to be mechanical, has some degree of “self” in it, is infused with some aspect of the personal (Book 4, THE LUMINOUS GROUND).


Further Questions:

  • Which idea of Alexander fascinates you the most and why? What are possible repercussions of his ideas and concepts?
  • “No other explanation is equally convincing” – which other explanations does Alexander reference to?
  • “The real nature of human feelings” – Has the stated real nature of human feelings been demonstrated by evidence?
  • Which critical ideas from other thinkers and other movements have affected the interpretation of Alexander and influenced his work?

Agree or disagree with Christopher Alexander?

  • “Architecture and building has not yet contributed towards understanding the deep geometric reality of order.”

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33 thoughts on “Part 1 | Prologue to Books 1-4

  • Reply
    Ana Pinto

    First of all, what a fascinating prolog!

    Does anyone agree with me that the image above seems contradictory with the essence of Alexander’s theory?

  • Reply
    Ana Pinto

    The idea of a ‘world of patterns, not things’ is one of Alexander’s most fascinating ideas.

  • Reply
    Ana Pinto

    The theory which Alexander presents in his book ‘The Nature of Order’ is true to me simply because it explains the world exactly how I have been experiencing it my whole entire life, although I did not have the vocabulary to talk about it.

    • Reply

      Ana, this fascinating. I am looking forward to our discussion in chapter 3: “Wholeness and the theory of Centers” and how this view confirms to your experience of the world.

  • Reply
    Ana Pinto

    The great mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead has certainly influenced Alexander’s thinking. “How unfortunate that we should be forced to conclude that in its own sad reality nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colourless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly…” (Whitehead, 1925, cited by Alexander, p. 23, Book 1).

  • Reply

    In this case I disagree “deep geometric reality of order”, based on the generalization of Alexander’s work to many other domains (e. g. software, pedagogy, music, authoring, management, …) which have forces (connections, relationsships) between entities, also abstract concepts like “neighboring”, “distance” or even “space” (e. g. in the sense of a “meaing space”) but not necessarily a “geometry”. For me, there is no geometry of pedagogy or music, although there is a space of all possible creations. In this sense I deny a “deep geometric reality of order” because I think that the concept of geometry as a rather simple coordinate system, a measurement of position, is not profound.

    All the fifteen properties of living system can be interpreted in a non-geometric way. For example, one could see “symmetry” (as in the property “local symmetry”) as based in geometry. But this is not necessarly so; “male” and “female” may be seen as in a relationship of more or less symmetry, and the same is true for “protagonists” and “antagonists” in the domain of story telling.

    I do think that order is a deep or profound concept, but space is not (space is ubiquituous; any thing existing does so in some space) and geometry is also not deep, imho.

    • Reply

      The notion of geometry Alexander used differs fundamentally from others like Euclid and Descartes. If we read Alexander’s works as a whole (instead of reading his works as fragmented pieces), we would have a better understanding on his notion of geometry. His geometry refers to the geometry of Nature – living geometry or the notion of scaling hierarchy of far more small things than large ones:

      • Reply

        To supplement, living geometry is available across all scales ranging from the smallest (Planck’s length) and the largest (the size of the universe). Of course, this is his bold claim. From the scales of geography, I see this claim is pretty convincing. There are two fundamental law of geography: scaling law and Tobler’s law. Scaling law is available across all scales ranging from the smallest to the largest, and it states that there are far more small things than large ones in geographic space. Tobler’s law is available in one scale, and it states that more or less similar things tend to be nearby or related. In fact, these two laws are fundamental laws of living structure or geometry. I have some detailed discussions in this recent paper:

    • Reply

      Hello, this is a fantastic discussion. I think is is important to emphasize that in the prologue, it is stated that the interest is “in one question above all, how to make beautiful buildings.” As Helmut correctly notes, anything extant can be understood to exist in space. Anything spatial is amenable to a geometric description. The second point from the prologue I want to emphasize is how it is asserted that this geometry is part of and directly connected to deep feeling, “90% of our feelings is stuff in which we are all the same and we feel the same things.” Discovering this overlap between deep, shared and personal feeling and the specific geometry to which it corresponds is central to the science of making the most beautiful buildings possible.

      Helmut raised an interesting point saying that geometry as a spatial co-ordinate system is not profound. I agree. It is important to note however, that space as a co-ordinate system is a specifically post-mideaval western way of seeing geometry. To thus say that space is all pervasive in anything that exists (which per force includes ideas, otherwise math would not work) but also to deny that geometry enters into the description of these spaces is inconsistent and highly limiting.

      The exclusion of geometry from music for just one example goes directly against Pythagoras’ discoveries and investigations into harmony. The geometry of the spatial relations of pressed strings along a fretboard is exactly what creates beauty and harmony in music. This instance of a mathematics based on embodiment, is different from the western mathematics of infinite spatial extension or the Arabic/Egyptian/Byzantine mathematic of microcosmic balance, this difference is a demonstration of the need to step beyond familiar definitions of math when we begin to explore the new world view that the “Nature of Order” Explains is so fundamental to applying the principles of discovering and creating beauty.

      The book invites us to expand our categorical notions of math and geometry as this specific investigation of beauty is one that demands of us a new perspective, different from the one we are accustomed to in the post-industrial west.

      • Reply

        I enjoyed this insightful description about geometry – Alexandrine geometry or wholeness, which looks adapted locally and differentiated globally. Because of the adaptation and differentiation, the geometry or wholeness is perceived as harmony or coherent or beautiful or with a high degree of life. It is the origin of our feeling, and it is the reason why “90% of our feelings is stuff in which we are all the same and we feel the same things.” Therefore the feeling is not idiosyncratic or varies from person to person, but shared among different people. However, we failed to see the geometry, because we all are used to the western way of seeing geometry – Euclidean or Cartesian geometry. We have been (mis-)guided by Euclidean geometry over the past 100 years or so in Architecture and city planning, and it is the time to change our way of thinking.

      • Reply
        Richard Sickinger Post author

        David, your observation that the “overlap between deep, shared and personal feeling and the specific geometry to which it corresponds is central to the science of making the most beautiful buildings possible” confirms my perception that personal experiences (German “Erlebnisse”) in three dimensional space have an unmatched transformational power. PS: A kind invitation to particpate in our PURPLSOC call for contributions !

        • Reply

          Hello Richard,

          Thank you for the invitation to contribute for the 2017 Conference. I have begun working with Bryan Mock, a designer and new student at Building Beauty, and we have just now submitted an abstract.

          I look forward to seeing how everything develops.

          All the best,


    • Reply
      Richard Sickinger Post author

      Helmut, your statement that all the fifteen properties of living system can be interpreted in a non-geometric way is a fascinating lead: If you take the property “Strong Center”: a strong center in a coherent group of persons can be a positive and strong personality whos life and personal growth influences and strengthen the life of the others and the group as a whole.

  • Reply

    There’s a concern as well that we take the idea of PL as a science as a “quest” rather than a “fact”. Reading the forward to Book 1 of The Nature of Order I found it intriguing how CA stated his claim that PL was a science, having the most basic essential of a scientific method. He said that he how he developed PL was “not so different from any other science, with “…observations studied for what worked” from which he then tried to “distill essentials and wrote them down.”

    That’s certainly accurate as a basis of science, *assuming* that you have an objective method of observation… For that I find his method a constant work in progress. His premise that all people have the same feelings, seems to be what he bases the validity of relying on his using his own feelings as the basis of a scientific method. That’s likely somewhat of an exaggeration.

    Some people have “deep feeling for nature”, we call “biophilia”, while other’s don’t, for example. Some have “deep feeling for patterns of natural design” we call “biomimicry” and “deep ecology”. Both are also very directly related to our ability to work with natural systems of course, both human and non-human. Historically I think people with strong feelings for them are decidedly rare, not unlike lots of other rare talents and intuitions we see humanity producing everywhere.

    So I delight in CA’s search for PL to become a science, and his own scientific thinking where it’s tangible, but I think it’s a search to become a science rather than an accomplishment. The best test of science is whether things repeatedly work. The best example we have is the way PL was reshaped for the software development. That community made it much more rigorous and demonstrable, without necessarily dropping his qualitative ideals too. To me that’s the magic of PL, that it has been proven “portable”. I think that’s something we should study and distill the essentials of.

    • Reply

      I fully agree that we need to provide analytical and empirical evidence to prove or disprove his claims. I found too that feeling is treated by Alexander as something objective rather than idiosyncratic. To my understanding, the feeling Alexander refer to is the feeling that is triggered by wholeness – a physical structure that exists in space and matter. However, the notion of feeling in our daily use has been often used to refer to emotional things that vary from person to person. This is not what Alexander refer to. One of my students carried out some mirror of the self tests:

      The study is far from enough, since we realized that many of the tested subjects chose one of the two somehow arbitrary, without really understanding these questions such as:

      * Which of the two is more like your own self?
      * Which of the two seems closer to representing you, your own self, in your totality?
      * Which of the two is more deeply connected your eternal self, your aspiration, the core of you that exists inside?
      * Which of the two is or seems more alive or more life?
      * Which of the two makes you more aware of God, or makes feel closer to God?
      * Which of the two would you prefer to become by the day of your death? (Assuming for a moment, that you believed in reincarnation, and that you were going to be reborn as one of these two things, then which one would you rather be in your next life?)

      As formulated in this questionnaire:

      • Reply

        Bin, fyi there’s another kind of empirical test for “wholeness”, that’s looking for signs of whole system behavior such as we see in storms or living organism behaviors or in business or social culture changes. Technically that is often evidenced empirically by finding linked non-linear changes throughout the system either current or historically. The most classic type is period of growth in a business or industry that can be seen in the data on their revenue, but also can be interpreted in the strengthening of a personal relationship (the initial period of rapidly increasing bond)… and lots of other things. Signs of growth are general evidence of something behaving as a whole.

        • Reply

          Thanks! Could you kindly point me to related papers on the kind of empirical test for “wholeness”?

  • Reply

    To add to the discussion on Alexander’s discussion of “geometry” it does indeed seem he writes about it in a wide variety of ways, both referring to topological concepts as well as Cartesian, as well as his own notions “living geometry”. Perhaps whe wrote about it more completely some place. One apparent major omission in my reading so far is anyb mention of the very distinctive living geometries of “growth”. Growth is nature’s most pervasive system organizing process, a pattern of succession in accumulative by non-liner step-wise stages. I think both due to its complexity and that CA doesn’t seem to address it is part of why no one has yet responded to my 2015 PURPLSOC “Guiding Patterns of Naturally Occurring Design: Elements”

    What’s most interesting for a general PL discussion is that the natural geometries of growth are found to be organizing principles for BOTH human design processes and natural ones, bot following step-wise progressions of adding fitting parts.

      • Reply

        David, you say “Excellent point about the geometry of growth. “The Nature of Order” definitely gets there.” I was saying the opposite, that the formative processes of natural growth are, to me, seemingly missing from the discussion. Can you cite in Alexander’s work where there is discussion of growth as nature’s main way of building whole systems?

        • Reply
          David Getzin

          Hello Jessie, the discussion of growth as central to whole systems is pervasive throughout /The Nature of Order/. Specifically, Book Two frames the 15 fundamental properties as transformations. All of them are governed by what is called the “fundamental process” which is a series of structure-preserving transformations, a geometric description of organic growth.

          A very specific and beautiful example is on page 43 of book two, the example of the lines of tension and compression in the shape of a femur bone crossing each other all orthogonally, an example of emergent geometry developing with growth within the context of external pressures.

          From page 19 of Book Two: “we can form a coherent and well-defined idea of what is meant by “the whole,” and of what is meant by a structure which grows from the whole, and preserves the wholeness while it is moving forward.” The process of growth is central to this entire system of morphology. There are examples throughout the four volumes.

          • David, You say “the discussion of growth as central to whole systems is pervasive throughout”. The same is also true for my years of research and writing on the patterns of life… and yet I find no one in the PL community responding to my careful descriptions step-wise progressions of growth and how one can use them as a model for helping you recognize the transformations of growth systems and how they develop and behave as wholes. It’s very strange, I’ve been trying to break through the language barrier and I seem only able to get myself ostracized! I’d have thought that in a group of holistic thinkers like this there’d be a way of reaching across the gaps in language.

          • Helmut Leitner

            Jessie, what does it help to understand or model the design process as a process of growth?

            At first sight, what you say here seems trivial and tautologic. But, is it true? Is there a deeper dimension? Is this really an insight that can be put to good use?

            As long as you do not find an example of good use, people will find your statement useless and stop communicating about this. You are not ostracized. You must find a leverage point that gets people interested. Simple repetition of what you think about this is not enough.

          • Helmut Leitner

            David, while I agree that TNoO can be interpreted that way, that it talks about “organic growth”, I do not think that this is quite correct. The process of life is a process of change, which often is a growth but also sometimes destruction, shrinkage, deletion or decay. Structure Preserving Transformation is a heuristic, a preferrable way to go for nature and builders, but not an inevitable necessity.

            For example, in medieval cities, great places (VOID) were often greated by tearing down hundreds of houses. Cultural landscapes developed in the space of cleared forests.

            Also, when Jessie says “growth” she does not mean “organic growth” or “growth in differentiation”, but “growth on an energy scale”. This is different, although she never clearly states what “energy” means in her language.

            We could and should probably understand Alexander as talking about the “growth of qwan” instead. But, again, this would be a goal for the designer, not a necessity of the design process.

  • Reply
    Helmut Leitner

    Part of discussion is about the word “geometry” in Alexander’s text and what it means.

    I would be happy, if we could state a consensus, that this is not the geometry of the mathematics we learn at school or university.

    We might agree that “geometry” might mean a man-made theoretical framework for a certain space, and think of examples spaces e. g. the 3d-space of objects, the space of music, or the space of meaning.

    The fifteen properties seem to have the quality to work in all spaces. For example STRONG CENTER, SIMPLICITY or CONTRAST work as well in music as in architecture.

    In this way I argue for a “wide interpretation of geometry” which allows to cover all thinkable design spaces, while a “narrow interpretation of geometry” would lead to a reduction to 3d-space.

    • Reply

      Helmut, You asked above “Jessie, what does it help to understand or model the design process as a process of growth?”

      I guess the simple answer is that its to learn about the geometry of growth (as a sequence of non-linear step-wise changes in organization), that appears to be a framework for every organizational change process. Of course, that ‘geometry’ needs to be discovered, not derived, discovered by focusing on natural processes of organizational change, so that the words are defined by the phenomenon, not the reverse.

      • Reply
        Helmut Leitner

        Jessie, isn’t (1) “sequence of changes (transformation, steps, application of patterns)” simpler and clearer as (2) “geometry of growth” ?

        In my opinion such a terminology (2) would create problems for both the concept of “geometry” and the concept of “growth” by burden them with an additional meaning they are originally not built or meant for.

        What advantage would this alternative terminology bring, to justify such language use?

        • Reply

          Helmut, The special geometries that growth processes display really do need more discussion before using “geometry of growth” as a casual phrase. I do think it is closely related to CA’s 15 natural geometries. Take the unfolding of the seed patterns that is exhibited during growth, like how a flower blossoms or how the parts of an gestating animal differentiate. That shows growth producing very organized shapes and structure. It also displays growth as having a crucial organized progressions of evolving organized shapes. The commonality is in their continuity and organization of “S” curve development.

          For design processes the outcome may be less predictable, but the ‘S’ curve historicity is similar as a similar pattern accumulative development. I find learning how to follow those unfoldings of development in one case helps with my seeing and understanding them in other cases. So I think they are varying exemplars of a universal pattern. So there are both the collections of organized shapes that growth produces (including CA’s 15 I think) and also the diverse patterns of growth processes, as organized shapes of dynamic processes. Is there a better word then “geometries” to use for “organized shapes”? I think CA used it that way, but then left us a challenge to understand what he meant, and what the meanings of his 15 geometries have in nature.