Design for Living

October 02, 2008

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Design for Living

Takimag contributors have recently batted around some thoughts on the “conservative canon” and its continuing usefulness.

The net result of the discussion, I think, is that the conservative canon isn’t really a canon. It’s more a suggested reading list. If you think political modernity is a problem, it makes sense to read those who have thought the same, even though they haven’t solved the problem, and you can’t treat them as sacred texts.

One thing an informal reading list can do is help focus discussion. Such a list is most useful if it is open to anyone who says useful things. One such writer, whom I consider radically traditionalist, in effect if not intention, is the architectural theorist Christopher Alexander.

Architecture is not politics, but it’s relevant to politics because we create our physical environment in the image of what we believe about the world generally. We need to make sense of our surroundings. If they’re too much at odds with the world we believe in, they seem stupid, phony and aside the point. A divine-right monarch would seem bizarre to Ronald Dworkin, a purely secular state to Joseph de Maistre. If they were on a city planning commission together, their disagreements would lead to disagreements on the work of the commission—for example, on the appearance of the cathedral and town hall and where they should be in relation to each other.

City and building provide the physical setting for public life. The political goal implicit in the tendencies of thought now generally dominant is to replace the familial, civic, and religious core of public life with technologically rational processes embodied in world markets and neutral transnational bureaucracies. That goal helps explain why the arch-modernist Le Corbusier said, “The core of our old cities, with their domes and cathedrals, must be broken up and skyscrapers put in their place.”

Such views made Le Corbusier a natural ally of the masters of the modern world. He wanted to turn everything into a rational machine, and a rational machine is easy for those in power to understand and control. When he died in 1965, the Soviets said, “modern architecture has lost its greatest master,” while President Johnson commented, “his influence was universal and his works are invested with a permanent quality possessed by those of very few artists in our history.” Leonid Brezhnev and Lyndon Johnson may not have known much about art, but they knew what they had reason to like.

Times change, but not that much. In the world of architectural style modernist rationalism has supposedly been replaced by postmodern “playfulness” or irrationalism, which has its own cosmological preoccupations. Architects like Peter Eisenman view the world as essentially disorderly, inhuman, threatening and anxiety producing, and contend that’s what architecture should be. Otherwise, it’s kitsch, comfort food, inauthentic, and probably incipiently Nazi, because it’s likely to try to force some image of a fantasized past order on recalcitrant reality.

The political effect is the same as modernism. Business and government put billions of dollars into postmodern projects that disorient people and convince them their understanding of reality can’t be relied on. The Legalist thinkers of ancient China, brutal rationalists who invented the totalitarian state, found they could apply Taoist celebrations of the incomprehensible to their own ends. Lord Shang, who was one of them, went so far as to say that the people should be punished for praising the government. They had no business forming any view at all on matters of state. Contemporary postmodernism has similar implications.

It seems then that today we’re burdened with inhuman architecture that debunks normal human relationships, disorders thought, and promotes tyranny. That architecture is aligned with a social, moral, and even metaphysical outlook that has the same effect. What should we do about it? How should we understand our situation?

Christopher Alexander is very helpful on such issues, in part because he’s not intentionally a traditionalist and so tries very hard to make everything as explicit as possible. He’s an architect, trained as a mathematician and scientist, who’s horrified by contemporary architecture and has spent his life trying to define principles that show how to do better. His strategy is to extend scientific method so it can deal with basic principles of good design while remaining objective and verifiable.

He’s prone to a quirky sort of populism. In spite of his scientific disposition he’s got a problem with experts. His first major work was A Pattern Language (1977), an underground best-seller that sets forth some 250 mostly rather concrete patterns (e.g., rooms should get light from two directions) that make for more livable homes, neighborhoods, cities, and regions, and in fact have always been followed by traditional builders throughout the world. He hoped that people could use the patterns to build beautiful humane buildings for themselves. It didn’t work: people followed the recipes but came up with bad designs.

To remedy matters a higher level of abstraction, refinement and synthesis seemed necessary. The result has been his four-volume magnum opus The Nature of Order, which was published just recently. This latter book is an extraordinarily ambitious attempt to bridge the gap between modern thought and goods destroyed by modernity that have normally been attainable only through tradition.

To do so he needed to identify a defining feature of good design that designers from all healthy traditions have favored, that observers from very different backgrounds recognize consistently, and that scientists treat as real. The feature he has identified is life. Traditional designs and good art are generally alive, contemporary buildings and cityscapes generally not.

Alexander therefore bases his analysis of architecture on his analysis of life. He presents life as a matter of wholeness made up of “centers” that contribute to each other as part of an interlocking hierarchy. A tree, for example, is a whole made up of roots, trunk, branches, leaves and so on, each made in turn of smaller components. All the components contribute to each other, and while they’re separately identifiable, it can be a bit artificial to say exactly where one ends and the next begins. Further, a tree is itself a center within larger wholes such as a forest.

More particularly, he identifies 15 features that make the various centers what they are and enable them to work as part of a living whole. The first three are:

• Levels of scale. A building looks better if it includes smaller structures a third or quarter its size, which in turn include structures that are similarly scaled-down, and so on.

• Strong centers. An object is more compelling if its components point toward some central region or structure that integrates it as a whole.

• Boundaries. Something is more noticeable if it’s framed, and the whole of which it’s part is more integrated if something connects one component to another. Well-articulated boundary regions serve both purposes.

And so on. The importance of his analysis of living form is that it connects the aesthetically valuable to the natural, functional and demonstrable, and so makes it harder to shrug it off as a matter of personal preference, social convention, or ideology. It also aligns traditional design with the results of immediate aesthetic perception and the modern and mathematical idea of recursion. Good design is attained, he believes, by noticing what looks good, and by imaginative trial and error to find how what’s valuable can be secured and extended.

An online gallery of Alexander’s work can be viewed here

The point is to retrieve the benefits of tradition, the emergence through experience and winnowing of functional and satisfying patterns in all aspects of life, in an age that has become radically anti-traditional. Apart from his own buildings his examples of good design are almost all from the vernacular, often from times and places like the European middle ages when artists were anonymous because high art itself was vernacular.

I find his analysis, which he applies to structures ranging from Turkish carpets to wild meadows to Italian hill towns, immensely illuminating. He doesn’t solve all problems, of course. His approach as he presents is not at all practical. His own buildings look like places I’d like to be, but the process of trial and error though which he develops them is too time-consuming and crisis-ridden even for someone of his gifts.

His limitations give traditionalist conservatives an opportunity to point out what’s needed. The basic thing missing in his work is that explaining how the benefits of one way of being come about doesn’t tell us how to get them again when that way of being has disappeared. Hegel discusses the issue in The Philosophy of Right and is pessimistic:

Philosophy ... always comes on the scene too late ... When philosophy paints its gray in gray, then has a shape of life grown old ... it cannot be rejuvenated but only understood. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.

Good design is not simply a matter of the understanding but also of how we live.

Alexander’s 15 points are powerful but not sufficient any more than his 250 patterns were. He says as much:

“These things, the patterns, the properties, may play a role in my being able to create life in things. They actually do play a role. But they are far from certain ... the life is really the primary thing, and the properties are really secondary.”

Retrieval of what tradition gives us requires a rebirth of tradition itself, which requires acceptance of the goodness and authority of reality, and willingness to attend to its implicit patterns and wait for them to manifest themselves without forcing our own views on the matter. It requires, in fact, the end of modernity.

The continuing need for something transcending every system of rules and concepts leads Alexander ultimately to religious categories. He tries to limit recourse to them, referring occasionally to God but in general favoring more impersonal East Asian concepts, which require less extension of the scientific concepts he prefers.

The rest of us are not so limited. God and tradition must somehow connect to scientific analysis, but they are important enough to be treated as more than adjuncts to modern natural science and the professional and aesthetic needs of architects. Our ultimate way of understanding the world must give them their full due. In the end, we must understand Alexander not from his perspective but from our own. If we are traditionalists, we should use his views to understand tradition more deeply.

I should add that in addition to all the grand issues I’ve discussed, which as I present them may seem on the boring side, his books are engaging and illuminating in detail. They include interesting anecdotes and turns of thought. They’re clearly and unpretentiously written. The Nature of Order in particular has lots of pretty pictures. They’re fun, and you should read them!

James Kalb is a lawyer and independent scholar whose book, The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command, will be published in November by ISI.

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