Alexander off-balance

ALEXANDER OFF-BALANCE

Christopher Alexander:

“this power we have is so firmly rooted and coherent in every one of us that once it is liberated, it will allow us, by our individual, unconnected acts, to make a town, without the slightest need for plans, because, like every living process, it is a process which builds order out of nothing.” (p. 14)

Alexander believed that the built environment should be a natural production. Towns and buildings should emerge naturally, like birds make nests. The things we make should themselves “be” nature. But his concept of nature relies heavily on the idea that nature finds equilibrium, conceived as a basically static (or at least, very slowly changing) condition. This is evident in his example of trees balanced against the force of the wind:

“These trees and branches are so made that when the wind blows they all bend, and all the forces in the system, even the violent forces of the wind, are still in balance when the trees are bent; and because they are in balance, they do no harm, they do no violence. The configuration of the trees makes them self-maintaining. But think about a piece of land that is very steep, and where erosion is taking place… The system is self-destroying; it does not have the capacity to contain the forces which arise within it.” (p. 31)

Alexander seems to intend that we understand the stable condition of the tree-ground-wind system as better than the system in flux. But what sense does it make to call erosion unnatural? What might appear to be the disorderly and chaotic disruption of the hillside might, from the perspective of the entire watershed and river-system of the region, be part of an ordering or patterning process. I was reminded of the second episode of Adam Curtis’s All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011), which points out that natural equilibrium was an unexamined hypothesis in the ecological and cybernetic thinking of the sixties and seventies. There are many states a system can find itself in, of which equilibrium is only one. Alexander wanted us to believe that if we model our built environments on nature, they will inevitably be balanced and harmonious, but in fact he illicitly imported harmony and balance into his very definition of nature—balance is a premise which forms his idea of nature (and thence building); not a quality of nature.

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