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Christopher Alexander’s Theory of Wholeness

EDRA Conference Intensive, Veracruz, Mexico, 28 May 2008

Robert Walsh

Walsh is a licensed architect in California; a design instructor at Lawrence Technical University in Southfield, Michigan; and a doctoral student at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. Over 16 years beginning in 1988, he studied and worked with architect Christopher Alexander on an intermittent basis, first carpentering on an Alexander-designed house; then earning a masters degree from Berkeley in 1992; and, last, working as an architect in Alexander’s office. Walsh was involved in classes at Berkeley in which the material now published as The Nature of Order was developed and taught in design studios. Walsh has run his own practice since 1994 and is presently researching successful residential high-rise strategies Photographs courtesy of Kyriakos Pontikis; placemaking map courtesy of Karen Kho. rmwarch@umich.edu. ©2008 Robert Walsh.

The theme for this year’s Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in Veracruz, Mexico, was “Linking Differences/Defining Actions.” This theme was in sync with the scope and intentions of an all-day, EAP-sponsored intensive that focused on the work of architect and author Christopher Alexander.

The intensive featured four presentations that sustained a lively discussion throughout the day. As the official commentator, I read the papers before the event and sought to call attention to some of the challenging issues raised by the presentations and Alexander’s work. In certain respects, my task proved easier than expected because all four presentations were effectively organized, visually well presented, and thought provoking. At the same time, the audience was attentive, engaged, and generally supportive of Alexander’s work.

This is not to say there were no differences of opinion. In such a diverse group of people grappling with the complex issues that Alexander raises in his work, to encounter some disagreement is perhaps inevitable. But in the three conference days following the intensive, in discussions with various audience members, I gained the impression that this range of perspectives was generally positive and appreciated. I will try to capture some of this diversity of viewpoint in this commentary.

Presentation 1: Kyriakos Pontikis
The intensive began with architect Kyriakos Pontikis’s “Designing and Making as Unfolding Processes: The Saint Andrews’ Christian Church in Olathe, Kansas” (photographs below). Pontikis demonstrated how, in designing and building this church, he and associates Gary Black and Cullen Burda worked to actualize the design principles that Alexander presents in his four-volume The Nature of Order (2002-05). This church includes a building complex serving a community of 100 families and features a spectacular sanctuary as well as handsome auxiliary buildings linked together around a generous colonnaded courtyard [also see Pontikis’s website: www.pontikisandassociates.com].

Pontikis began by describing how, at the start of the project, he and colleagues spent five days with the clients, a process during which their desires were clarified and developed into a pattern language unique to the project.

Pontikis then presented a series of images outlining the process of developing the project, first, in terms of the site, then becoming progressively more detailed and differentiated as buildings and interiors were designed. Pontikis demonstrated how, as a connected sequence of unfolding decisions, the form of the building complex arose in response to particular characteristics of the site and to the project pattern language.

As the photograph below suggests, the church interior is a magnificent space, featuring a high, naturally illuminated nave supported by curving concrete trusses that leave the 60-foot-wide interior unobstructed. The trusses are beautiful and unusual, and the audience seemed especially interested in them. Pontikis showed images to explain how engineer Gary Black used finite-element analysis to perform the complex calculations necessary to make these unusual forms feasible. Pontikis explained how the finished truss form was not the only concern; additional issues involved potential deflections and temporary stresses imposed during erection of the trusses.

Pontikis effectively demonstrated that this building resulted from a process in which creative design and construction were intertwined, interdependent, and continual throughout the project. He also showed how some walls were given added depth by an innovative approach to straw-bale construction combined with an exterior layer of concrete applied once the walls were erected. These innovations in truss design and straw-bale building were refined and developed through practical means that included large-scale models, computer simulations, and mock-ups. Overall, the project appears highly successful, unique, and beautiful.

Beginning the intensive with an actual project proved to be an excellent decision because this real-world example gave the ensuing presentations a sense of tangible reality helping to focus and clarify concepts from The Nature of Order that might otherwise seem abstract or esoteric. For example, Alexander’s concept of a “structure-enhancing transformation” is interesting in the abstract and to see it applied in a real project is quite revealing.

Pontikis showed how he employed a unique pattern language crafted for this specific project and thereby highlighted several issues relating to the use and understanding of pattern languages. Initially, some audience members seemed to restrict use of the term “patterns” to those described in Alexander’s original A Pattern Language (1977). Although the book presents a thorough explanation of some 250 patterns, all do not apply in all circumstances, nor does the compilation represent all patterns that are possible. For each new project, there are countless possibilities for creating new, useful vital patterns that may vary according to specific environmental, behavioral, cultural, and technological factors.

The sanctuary of Saint Andrew’s church is a remarkable space—colorful, well illuminated, and uplifting with the unique trusses organizing and shaping the space. Some audience members seemed perplexed by the trusses, wondering if something more ordinary might have been more feasible or economical. In response, Pontikis explained how the entire project required careful budget management. He also emphasized that the design team could not have produced these results by first developing a form and then finding a way to pay for it. These trusses were seen as essential to the overall project, and allowances for their importance was made by controlling other project costs.

My own instinct as an architect is that there was something about this beautiful and unusual project that was a bit unnerving because it calls into question whether opportunities to create similarly positive results are missed in many projects that follow a mainstream design and construction process. It might be easier to question the results Pontikis shared than face the more challenging question that the project raises: Can architects do a better job of shaping and caring for the built environment by taking responsibility for the actual construction instead of only the initial design?

Some audience members seemed to resort to a more sophisticated version of this argument by suggesting Alexander’s method should be linked to other alternative approaches—for instance, the standardization of building products advocated by architect and researcher John Habraken. In my view, Habraken pursues an agenda that, while valuable, may not be compatible with wholeness as sought by Alexander. Habraken has written of the structure of the ordinary and at first seems interested in similar issues. But his approach focuses largely on modular systems of interchangeable, standardized components, in contrast to Alexander’s efforts, in which unique details are crafted in relation to the immediate context. In a sense, the two approaches are polar opposites.

Pontikis’s work was encouraging because it demonstrates how Alexander’s principles and methods might be successfully applied by other architects, thus demonstrating their usefulness and power independently of Alexander as a direct participant. In the Nature of Order, Alexander goes to great lengths to prove the objectivity of his insights. Whether other researchers repeating an experiment produce similar results is a highly relevant question in scientific inquiry. In this sense, Pontikis’s work can be seen as a noteworthy, independent confirmation of many of the principles and methods articulated in the Nature of Order.

Presentation 2: Jenny Quillien
In her “Myopic Algorithms,” Jenny Quillien offered a valuable perspective influenced at least in part by her background in anthropology as well as her work with Alexander in editing The Nature of Order. Her presentation emphasized the sequential processes of unfolding wholeness, which is an important and subtle issue. Quillien recently published a book—Delight’s Muse: On Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order (2008)—her own effort to condense Alexander’s lengthy work into a more manageable overview.

As Quillien emphasized, one of Alexander’s central claims is that wholeness arises though an incremental, iterative process in which the integrity or existing life in a structure is progressively enhanced through an organized series of transformative steps. Quillien examined a number of developmental sequences from several sources, including art, biology, and architecture.

During the discussion that followed Quillien’s presentation, she and I came at the issue of process and judgment from somewhat opposing perspectives. As an architect, my central concern is guiding the process of design development and making places. Hence, I am most interested in how I make this process more effective as I apply it. For me, there are two key issues: discernment and contextual relationship. I see the design sequence as a means to organize and to focus my own judgment via an effective process, yielding an effective outcome. I view the concept of an unfolding sequence as a tool that underlies and guides judgment, which takes place in relation to a context that is also changing and developing.

Quillien’s approach was oriented toward considering these questions as phenomena to be examined and evaluated, at what seemed to me a step removed from the actual process of making. There is certainly value in this approach, though it took me some time to appreciate her emphasis. Perhaps our differences arose from the contrast between an architect’s struggle to make new places and an anthropologist’s interest in discerning how existing places come into being? The examples Quillien chose—for instance, the development of a fetus or origami animal—tended to be self-contained and, seemed to me to overlook the complementary concerns of conscious judgment, revision during the process, and relation to a larger context.

In essence, I called into question whether the processes described by Alexander could be accurately portrayed as “myopic,” since at least in my experience, these processes, when successful, invariably depend upon and take into account the larger context. Even in the case of a developing fetus, the womb environment and the health of the mother are important concerns that influence the pattern of the child’s development long after birth.

I also questioned whether algorithms were necessarily an accurate characterization of Alexander’s model of process, since judgment is a factor at every step resulting in unique and potentially unpredictable outcomes, whereas “algorithm” suggests a predetermined sequence of manipulations producing a single result. From the perspective of an outsider examining a finished artifact, the process may appear as an algorithm, but, from the builder’s perspective, something more dynamic and unique appears to be at work.

This criticism, however, is not to say that I disagree with Quillien’s fundamental point: That these unfolding sequences are extremely important and one of the central innovations underpinning The Nature of Order. My concern was that there was more to the process than sequences alone. After several lively exchanges, I believe we came to agree that these developmental sequences are indeed very important as are also awareness of context and judgment taking place at every step of the process.

Upon further reflection after the intensive, I became clearer regarding another issue that Quillien’s presentation brought forward—namely, the question of why this concept of a sequence of development is valuable in comparison with typical mainstream architectural practice.

Today, mainstream practice generally assumes that the form of the proposed building crystallizes quite early in the process: the architect supposedly has a flash of inspiration and then the design is there; all that remains is to draw and construct it. In this approach to design, architects are considered to have completed the bulk of their work prior to the onset of construction. For example, a typical AIA construction contract pays an architect 70 percent of his total fee for the work that is done prior to the start of construction. If the architect’s original vision is out of line with real-life circumstances of the site, any revisions are considered to be defects requiring change orders and additional expenditure.In contrast to this conventional approach, the sequential model of process that Quillien emphasized represents something radically different. The aspect of Alexander’s work she highlighted proposes a view of process in which the final outcome is not known at the outset. Rather, the assumption is that a carefully crafted sequential process can result in a more harmonious order.

If we use Pontikis’s work as an example, his church design was actualized through a sequential process in which important decisions were made as the project developed, in response both to what had gone before and also to the larger context. For example, the placement of church parking was decided early because of the large-scale impact it would have on the project and the relationship that parking would have to the larger site context and to the surrounding community. This decision was also considered in response to the question of ideal placement of the church itself, even though the church at that point had not been designed.

In the conventional architectural approach, one option would be to impose onto the landscape a generic parking template that, in the abstract, might be considered ideal in terms of efficiency. Instead, Pontikis’s parking configuration reflected the lay of the land and the sequence of arrival that would most enhance the “attending-church” experience and the placement of the building complex in the landscape. Pontikis’s gently curving parking area may have cost more than a strictly rectangular lot,  but then again the curved shape might require less earth moving and retention, since the design scheme relates better to the existing contours. In addition, the placement of the parking lot pointed to the placement of vegetation that further enhanced the emerging central courtyard, the sequence of arrival, and the parking lot itself.

The result of these evolving design steps is a place that is substantial and well situated—a place that belongs in its setting instead of appearing to have landed there arbitrarily.

Presentation 3: Karen Kho
In her “Deepening the Art of Placemaking,” planner Karen Kho compared Alexander’s efforts with the conceptual model of effective places used by the Project for Public Spaces (PPS), a New York City organization founded by the eminent urban researcher William Whyte.One difference between the work of PPS and Alexander’s is that PPS has codified its approach to urban place making into a unique diagrammatic model organized around four key attributes: (1) sociability; (2) uses and activities; (3) comfort and image: and (4) access and linkages. This model is a helpful conceptual tool that organizes a complex range of concerns into a format that can be easily apprehended, especially by the lay public. [the model is available at: www.pps.org/info/placemakingtools/downloads/place_diagrams].

There appear to be significant parallels between the PPS model and Alexander’s conception. To facilitate the comparison of these two approaches to placemaking, Kho combined the two perspectives in a model she termed the “Holistic Placemaking Map” (see drawing below), which incorporates a diverse range of considerations and is organized around four themes: (1) identity; (2) expression; (3) value; and (4) connection. The ensuing discussion focused on better understanding the implications of this diagram.

Kho’s diagram raised the intriguing question of whether Alexander’s work can be effectively distilled into a unified graphic model. What made an understanding of Kho’s diagram somewhat challenging for me and perhaps others was that it seemed a considerable conceptual and applied leap to transform the PPS model into a composite model addressing two potentially different points of view. Instead, it might have been easier for audience members to grasp if an intermediate model portraying only Alexander’s conception might have been presented first.

Nevertheless, Kho’s placemaking map does raise a number of insightful questions, such as how do Alexander’s 15 properties of order relate to personal and group identity? Further, when considering Alexander’s approach, questions regarding which aspects are tangible or intangible can make understanding potentially more difficult, and Kho’s map suggests ways to organize these concepts in a way whereby they are distinct yet unified.

Although I am uncertain that I understood the detailed aspects of Kho’s model, I found her work to be a worthwhile effort to organize Alexander’s complex body of principles into an easily understood diagram. The ensuing discussion suggested that there might be further refinements, just as this model was a refinement of the original PPS effort. Kho’s presentation, like Quillien’s, represents an effort to make Alexander’s work more easily approachable and hopefully will be similarly beneficial to a wider audience.

Presentation 4: David Seamon
David Seamon’s “Threeness, the Triad, and Christopher Alexander” compared Alexander’s work with the conceptual model of wholeness developed by the British philosopher J. G. Bennett, especially in his four-volume The Dramatic Universe (1956-1966). Bennett’s work, like Alexander’s, is concerned with recurring patterns, order, and resulting wholeness. In Bennett’s efforts, however, the understanding of wholeness is organized around “the qualitative significance of number.” In this sense, according to Seamon, Bennett’s work can be described as a “phenomenology of wholes in which each integer—1, 2, 3, 4, and so forth up to 12—points towards a different mode of togetherness and belonging in regard to the thing studied.”

Being previously unfamiliar with Bennett’s work, I am not sure that I can do it justice here, even though it is highly thought-provoking and a point of view I would like to explore further. In essence, Bennett has developed sequences, systems, and attributes that are both internally consistent and related to one another in a progression that appears to have value locally as well as in terms of larger structures. For purposes of presentation, Seamon focused largely on the system associated with the number three—what Bennett terms the “triad”—which has to do with action, change, and relationship.

After providing a brief overview of Bennett’s theory, Seamon proceeded through a step-by-step analysis and comparison of six different three-part sequences proposed by Bennett and how each of these are expressed in  Alexander’s conceptual and design efforts. One of Bennett’s conclusions is that a phenomenon exhibiting all six of these sequences may come to take on the significance of what Bennett calls an “event,” which, if I understand it correctly, refers to a permanent contribution to shared human understanding—something momentous and of lasting consequence.After examining these different aspects of Bennett’s theory and associations with Alexander, Seamon raised the question as to whether Alexander’s work has the makings of an “event.” To clarify further, the term as used by Bennett points to a situation or process the widespread impact of which may not be perceived for some time, possibly decades or longer in becoming fully evident.  Perhaps it is too early to tell if Alexander’s work will come to be regarded as an event—as an important step forward in human understanding of lasting impact. If Bennett’s theory is correct, however, it appears there is a very real possibility that this result will be the case.

I hope I have made it clear that Seamon, in comparing the work of Bennett and Alexander, was not suggesting that one takes precedence over the other. My sense was that Seamon was using Bennett’s ideas as a springboard for examining aspects of Alexander’s work as they relate to the broader context of life, meaning, and understanding. I found this approach refreshing because it provided a context for exploring Alexander’s work that did not require contrasting and comparing it against current practices in architecture, a strategy invariably resulting in conflict and dispute.

At the same time, this approach and the question of whether Alexander’s body of work constitutes Bennett’s event seems to suggest that Alexander’s efforts do represent a new direction, and one the value of which could take time to become apparent. I also came away from Seamon’s presentation with the sense that perhaps people interested in Alexander’s work are participating in some way in a much larger event beyond us, arising from a shared desire to make the world somehow better.

The discussion of Bennett’s work provided an interesting framework through which to examine many of the concepts discussed during the earlier presentations. Each of the three-part sequences presented by Seamon seemed somehow connected with Alexander’s overall process. It appeared that these sequences might be seen as part of larger repeating cycles. Bennett’s theory of wholeness through number also seemed to have the advantage of being a detailed intellectual structure that relates abstract and concrete structure, process and outcome in a unifying model. In this sense, discussing this theory seemed to have the effect of encouraging constructive critique of Alexander’s work.

Concluding Remarks
As a practicing architect, educator, and researcher who has studied and worked with Christopher Alexander and run an architectural practice, I have had the opportunity to see how a wide range of people approach Alexander’s work, which I have wrestled with myself as I continue to explore architecture as a discipline in which shifting practices, technologies, materials, and processes are rapidly transforming how people shape the built environment.

In my closing comments, I encouraged attendees to continue to explore Alexander’s work and to grapple with it in terms that make sense for each person in an individual way. I noted that I had read drafts of The Nature of Order and the published version several times in the last 20 years and that these re-readings have yielded new insights, in conjunction with efforts to apply this understanding in teaching and making architecture.

My own perspective seems somewhat different from the way others at the intensive were approaching the work of Alexander in that I am actually not that concerned with predicting its place in history. Unlike David Seamon, for instance, I am not comfortable speaking of The Nature of Order as a “masterwork” or even as a theory. Partially, this is out of respect for Alexander and the sense I have that as a former student it is not my place to be passing judgment on his work.

My hesitation also arises from a sense that focusing on questions of importance of Alexander’s work is secondary to actually using and understanding it.  Seamon may be entirely correct in his assessment that Alexander’s efforts represent an “event,” in the terminology used by Bennett. Further, I believe it was this sense of importance that stimulated so much productive discussion in the Veracruz intensive. Nevertheless, my interest is somewhat different in that I prefer to focus my energy on learning what I can from Alexander—discovering new insights and perspectives that can be applied to my own teaching and making.

To illustrate this point, I recounted the story of a man who looked up and pointed out the moon, his finger raised. A crowd of people gathered about him and marveled at the man and his finger, discussing how wonderful he was and which finger he had used and why. These things, however, hardly matter. Rather, what is important is seeing the moon.

My point is that “seeing the moon” is a matter of seeing for oneself, and I encouraged people at the Veracruz intensive to explore Alexander’s work and to consider how it relates to one’s own experience. In a sense, this was the basis for what we shared at the intensive: Four people approaching Alexander’s work from four different perspectives, each valid and worthwhile, each grounded in individual insights and experiences. I hope this diversity of views was useful in illuminating Alexander’s efforts and also in encouraging everyone to continue to explore those efforts further.