A Wide-eyed, Centering Prayer with Demetrius González and Scott Hunter
Also enjoy the bio on Christopher Alexander – Breathing Green:
Are you guys Christopher Alexander groupies?!
SH: Nope. I take it that you are asking if I uncritically accept, embrace, or applaud everything Christopher Alexander writes.
That’s not the case. But Christopher Alexander has articulated and beautifully developed a view of architecture and building that I find insightful and useful. His work also supports deepening and growing my own understanding of what brings places alive. The wanting to create places of soulful beauty is my own heart speaking.
In our short course, there is plenty to do in trying to communicate and facilitate understanding of some of the key ideas from the Nature of Order. I’m sure the participants can judge for themselves the usefulness of these ideas. We encourage this by using experiential exercises and in the conversation that follows.
DG: Ewww, groupies are for rock stars. I prefer ‘acolyte’ or ‘apostle’. Just kidding! Actually I’ve heard that sort of question more then once, and it’s not surprising, given our individualistic culture. It’s hard for us to accept someone’s teachings as valuable, especially when those teachings are as radical as Alexander’s. It requires us to consider really changing our assumptions and behavior, and people find that difficult. But like Scott, I’ve found Alexander’s work to be very inspiring, and he is one of the few that seem to want to get to the deeper roots of our challenges.
How was the first class?
SH: People were alert and attentive. During the exercises there was a beautiful focused energy. Afterward there were a lot of thank yous given with a smile and bright eyes.
DG: It’s so wonderful to bring curious and engaged people together in a room to explore human potential. It’s inspiring. This was our very first class, and we’re actively learning how to best present the material and engage people with it, so that it’s not just intellectual, but becomes a more fully integrated experience, i.e. using the intuitive/emotional as well as the rational.
What was the feedback?
SH: I forgot to ask everyone to introduce themselves and share what they hoped to get out of the course. The exercises ran too long and there wasn’t enough time for conversation afterward. Some experienced architects found it a bit basic (we presented the phenomenon of Life).
We responded to these concerns (attached) and are confident that, with the continued honest feedback, we will have a really successful experience.
DG: I can imagine some felt it was too basic, but I don’t think it really was. In fact, it may have been too complex. People are really anchored in the intellectual and abstract realm of the mind, which is of course really valuable and important. But it seemed people had a hard time engaging their feelings, and this is so important with this materialand might be our biggest challenge as teachers: helping people see the power of feeling in design, and learning how to use feeling to make beautiful places we can deeply love. I think only 2 or 3 people were really touching something profound, and we want them all to do so!
Are you dealing with sustainability and design here?
SH: Sustainability is not addressed directly as a topic but is integrated as part of the process of creating Life in the building or project e.g. the use of timber or soil from the site can be effective in rooting the project in the place, deepening the Life that it expresses.
DG: This material is about deep sustainability. It doesn’t matter, in my view, how great your building performance is, or if you use certain materials or whatnot, if the building is not loved by most people. The ‘loveability’ of buildings and places is vastly undervalued. Loved buildings get cared for and improved upon. They last and nourish their users. Unloved buildings suck emotional and physical energy from their users and often get neglected, torn down, or require massive remodels after short periods, all of which is a tremendous waste of energy and resources.
Is your course an exercise in Green Building?
SH: An impetus for this course was my sitting looking at a presentation of green building and thinking that the buildings we were looking at were just as ugly and soulless as so-called normal or non-green construction.
I am very grateful for all the hard work done by the green building movement in developing materials, equipment, and processes that are healthier, more sustainable and less energy intensive. Now, even as we continue to enrich our palette of materials and techniques, it’s time to create design and build places that our heart finds a home.
DG: Yes, building holistically means you are trying to balance ALL the forces at play in design and construction. This of course includes all the technical requirements, about which there has been great work done I agree. But it also needs to satisfy and nurture the human spirit, or the emotional realm, and “Green Building” should be broad enough a term to include that.
How are architects getting along with the urban planners and ecologists these days?
SH: I am kind of out of the loop on this, no comment.
DG: There’s a lot of improvement it seems. I’ve just come from Oregon, where I had colleagues at the University of Oregon, teaming up with Portland city planners, and ecologists on designs for integrated housing developments, such that wildlife could have a place, greenery might thrive, people could live and work in close proximity. There’s a lot of interest in this direction, although I think California might be a bit behind.
I personally left architecture for community building because I wanted to work with humans. Reactions?
SH: Great! I left bridge engineering when the direction of my company changed and it started to feel like we were working for the state. And because I wanted more contact with the people creating and building projects.
DG: I find our architectural culture extremely challenging in this regard. I want to design for and with people, but there is such an abstract design process at work, with strange priorities, like making a large and immediate profit, or designing something new and bizarre in order to get noticed. I want to focus on making spaces that embrace people so that they feel calm and inspired. But our mechanized design process makes this really hard, by fracturing the steps, and allowing these skewed priorities to take over.
“In The Nature of Order, subtitled An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe, Alexander goes deeper, asking what brings building alive. He both develops a theory and offers an experiential way of testing for oneself what works.” Please explain and give us some examples.
SH: There’s a lot to it! Alexander develops a theory describing the phenomenon of Life as something that is pervasive and present in greater or lesser amount everywhere not limited to biological. He describes the field of centers that organizes and expresses this Life, the fifteen fundamental properties that intensify the field of centers and how to test the strength of the field and thus thus the Life of a space or object. And that’s just book one!
There are actually many ways of describing how to test for oneself what works. Here is an example of choosing between 2 carpets in Alexander’s own words, ” Please forget what you like or don’t like. I don’t care whether you like one better than the other, nor if you think one is better designed than the other, nor which one you consider more beautiful. All I want is that you look and look and look, until it is clear to you which one come closer to being a picture of your self as you are and as you want to be.”
DG: We all hold within us the power to recognize “Life”, as we are all an integral part of the wholeness of the universe. It’s all one movement. So when we can connect to this way of seeing the world, it gets easier and easier to see when, and how much, something is contributing to life, or when it might be destructive. Sometimes it’s really clear, as in a beautiful Turkish carpet, or in a garden with comfortable bench under a flowering cherry tree, or even a crowded fish market with the chaos of commerce in action.
We feel more alive when in contact with these things and places, and less alive when confronted with wall-to-wall acrylic carpeting, a clear-cut forest, or a parking lot. So Alexander has developed some techniques to help us tap into these ways of perceiving the world, so that we can become better designers.
How does one “scale” Alexander’s principles for larger and larger projects? What are the keys?
SH: While the Pattern Language (Alexander’s best known work) collected many specific patterns for building at different levels of scale, the ideas and method presented in the Nature of Order are universal. I hesitate to try and summarize them in a few sentences, but the keys …?
One key is your intention in your work. Are you doing a job, serving the client, making the world more green, or singing to God?
Another is: Are you making something that satisfies and exemplifies an image or concept or theory or dream? Or are you staying true to your deep feeling in response to the evolving design or project or object?
DG: Yes, I agree, your intentions and staying true to them is critical. It’s so easy to let them slip a little here, a little there, as the forces that ‘dumb down’ a project exert their pressure. It can be a battle, but you need to engage the fight with humor and joy.
I also think being conscious of process is key, and the same fundamental process works at many scales. This has to do with guiding the evolution of the project, the ‘unfolding’. You have to start with certain issues first, get them right, and move on down the list, through the thousands of design decisions that must be made. And you have to make sure you don’t change for the worse the bigger decisions, as you make the lesser decisions down the list. This happens all the time.
Essentially you have to design your design process, so that you get the results you want. The process is key.
What makes The Nature of Order a holistic work? Is this a classic?
SH: With the subtitle “An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe” It’s clear that the Nature of Order is as holistic as you can get. It also provides the balance of the subjective that enables us to achieve an integral view in the sense that the Philosopher Ken Wilber uses it. It invites us to look deeply at how we are in the world, the nature of our experience, particularly in relation to the man made world. It also explores the nature of community and the interior of the “we” the social body. Going further, it considers “the possibility of viewing all living centers as beings”. This is a balance to the expertise of green building and modern technological knowhow on the individual level and balances the prowess and depth of science and systems theory in explaining the world. Yes, I think it is a classic and has enduring value.
DG: Excellent answer Scott. Alexander may be the first architect to develop a comprehensive theory that integrates the rational and intuitive aspects of human being. And he has presented the theory in a way that makes it relatively easy to apply it in the making of things. For many it is a classic already, and I hope it continues to grow in influence. I suspect it may take some time, as again, or culture is so wrapped up in the ego and an individualistic view. It’s our cosmology, we see the world as fragmented, made up of distinct inanimate parts. It’s actually totally interconnected, a infinite web, which brings everything to life. It’s hard to see, but as people feel more and more alienated from our deteriorating earth, they’ll be needing this sort of philosophy more and more.
What are the “Fifteen Fundamental Properties” in your course?
SH: The Fifteen Fundamental Properties are: Levels of scale, Strong Centers, Boundaries, Alternating Repetition, Positive Space, Good Shape, Local Symmetries, Deep Interlock and Ambiguity, Contrast, Gradients, Roughness, Echoes, The Void, Simplicity and Inner Calm, Not Separateness.
They are the qualities or properties that help to intensify and strengthen the field of centers. The number fifteen is not gospel. there is overlap between some of the properties but they are a great help in understanding what works.
DG: These are the geometric properties that appear to be present when something has life. They are missing in dead and ugly things. In the Nature of Order, Alexander shows many, many examples of things and places that have them, and compares them to things that don’t. They’re very powerful tools of analysis, to be used in concert with feelings and intuition.
Discuss “The Nature of Ornament?” Examples?
SH: The process asks, at each stage of the design, what one thing would most help in intensifying the field of centers?” (you can see here where knowing the 15 fundamental properties could be a help) and repeating this question until you are done – until the field of centers is as alive and intense as you can make it. In this view then, ornament is not an optional added on item to fancy up a project or give some ersatz reference to a tradition or theory. Rather it is integral to the process of creating life. In Ironwork (I am an artist blacksmith) the texture and ornament of an object is really important. Look at the vegetable chopper (attached). Imagine it with a plain smooth face. Look at the mala, imagine it without the strongly carved silver beads or without the tassel.
What we generally call ornament often helps intensify the field of centers by increasing and elaborating the levels of scale.
DG: And often, at the end of a project you’re seeing opportunities to bring things alive in ways that have little technical requirement. It might be a certain color brings a room alive. On a house I designed with Alexander we added some large ceramic fish all long the ridge of the roof. They add a highlight color and playful whimsy. We could have used a more economical ridge cap, but we wanted to add a bit of human heart, a final loving touch. The Modernists reacted against the excesses of the Romantic period, but I think they threw the baby out with the bath-water, and that’s one of the reasons so many people find modern architecture so cold and mechanical.
Where are some Alexander projects that the public can see?
SH: In the Bay Area most of the Alexander projects I know are people’s homes. There is the Julian Street Inn, a homeless shelter in San Jose. I called up there and got permission to walk through.
DG: Yes, most are houses. People can contact me about seeing the house in Occidental, if there is enough interest I’ll organize regular tours. The Julian Street Inn is great, but can be hard to get into. Definitely call first. There’s a concrete bench at Fort Mason that is pretty neat. Also a large trellis structure in Fresno where the farmers market is held, with big arched trusses and striking patterned floor.
Where is the soul of a building?
SH: It’s your own soul shining back. You can see it most easily where the field of centers is strongest and when you are quiet and centered yourself.
DG: A beautiful building, or thing, or place, shows us our own soul by making a window to the vast interconnectedness of the universe. We see ourselves as part of this, and it makes us feel at home.
What makes a bridge an “Alexander bridge?”
SH: The only bridge design I know that Christopher Alexander has done was for a bridge competition. We didn’t win so it wasn’t built. I can’t say anything about what an Alexander bridge would be. I know he would strive with great energy and intelligence to create a bridge that you would enjoy. Enjoy using, enjoy seeing, enjoy knowing that it is there as timeless beauty, your own heart speaking.
DG: There’s also the design he did for the Bay Bridge, which I wish was being built. But I think it’s important to make a distinction between an “Alexander bridge” and a bridge designed using techniques he has developed (many of which others have also arrived at independently, by the way). There might be many ways for a bridge to be alive, based on the particular people involved, the time, the materials available etc. It doesn’t have to look a particular way, stylistically speaking. But it would have a certain feeling of ‘belonging’, like it had always been there, even if built with modern techniques and materials. And I would guess such a bridge would be deeply loved by people. Perhaps they would travel great distances to see it, to experience being a little more alive traveling across it.
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The course is a learning circle and will thrive on participants’ active involvement. The initial series consists of five sessions which cover major topics from The Nature of Order. A second series, covering additional topics and going deeper into the material is planned to follow. The sessions are limited to 15 participants and are held in Sebastopol CA and nearby.
Meeting times are Tuesdays 7-9 PM at 2 week intervals beginning on July 14. (The meeting time may be changed by agreement of the participants).
Suggested donation is $10 per class, but all are welcome.
The class structure has the following elements:
– Grounding 5-10 min,
– Homework (brief discussion on questions and exercises in preparation for the current topic) 20 -30 min,
– Presentation on Topic using power point, drawing on text and local examples. 30-45 min
– Silent Break 5 min
– Exercises done in small groups and with partners.30-45 min
– Questions and final check-in with whole group.15 -30 min
The 4 volumes of the nature of order are available from Patternlanguage.com or from amazon.com.
While you can participate in the first session without a text, subsequent sessions really need Volume 1, The Phenomenon of Life.
Guest Presenters and field trips to a local Alexander project and other sites are planned.
1. Wholeness: The Phenomenon of Life
2. Geometry: Fifteen Fundamental Properties
3. Objectivity: The Mirror of the Soul
4. Unfolding: The Process of Creating Life
5. Embellishing Life: The Nature of Ornament
An impetus for this course was my sitting looking at a presentation of green building and thinking that the buildings we were looking at were just as ugly and soulless as so-called normal or non-green construction. Bios:
Scott Hunter Ph.D. P.E. is a licensed engineer doing structural engineering and design for residential, community and smaller commercial projects. He earlier trained as a landscape gardener at the Hillier Arboretum Hampshire England. He invited Christopher Alexander to collaborate on a bridge design for a competition and is quoted in the Nature of Order.
Phone: 707 876-3510
Demetrius González holds Bachelor of Architecture and Master of Philosophy degrees, and works as a designer and craftsman. His Master’s thesis focused on Christopher Alexander’s then-manuscript of the Nature of Order. He subsequently worked for Alexander for a number of years, at a number of scales: furniture, a major residence, and an opera complex. He has recently been teaching architecture at the University of Oregon. He has also been a guest critic at The University of California, Berkeley and The University of San Francisco. He lives in Northern California, and has a dog named Salvador Dagí.