The purpose of this series of articles is to show how the writings of architect Christopher Alexander bear on nonduality.
The fundamental message, which will be elaborated, is that architects who work from realization of their true nature could build structures that inspire realization of true nature.
Nonduality means non-separation, which refers to all things being the same at some level of understanding, while retaining their individuality. A classic metaphor pointing to nondual reality is that of the wave and ocean. Though each wave is unique, each one is the substance of the ocean and not separate from the ocean itself: Nonduality, non-separation.
photo by Jerry Katz
What is the “I”?
Christopher Alexander’s term for what is the same and unchanging in reality, is the “I”. The “I” is Christopher Alexander’s most common term for one’s essential being or true nature, although he also uses other terms, such as “eternal self” (Alexander, 2004, p. 40), “ground of all things” (Alexander, 2004, p. 47), “Self” (Alexander, 2004), “substrate of the universe . . . the origin of who and what we are” (Alexander, 2016), “true childish heart” (Alexander, 2004, p. 5), “true self” (Alexander, 2004, p. 52).
The term “I” has several alternatives: “awareness of being aware” (Spira, 2015), “essential being” (Spira, 2015), “God” (Ramana Maharshi, 1989, p. 550), “I am” (Nisargadatta Maharaj, 1993, p. 13).
Christopher Alexander’s work is characterized by persistently and passionately speaking about the need to experience in one’s self what he calls the “I” (Alexander, 2004) and to intentionally create buildings and structures that are founded in the realization of the “I” and which in turn inspire the realization, or at least the sense, intuition, or feeling of the “I” in those who experience the built structures.
Christopher Alexander was born in Vienna, Austria and raised in Oxford and Chichester, England. He studied at Trinity College in Cambridge, at Cambridge University, and at Harvard University where he received Harvard’s first Ph.D. in architecture. In 1963, Alexander became Professor of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught for 38 years, becoming Professor Emeritus in 2001. He has published hundreds of papers and built over 300 buildings globally (Christopher Alexander, 2011).
Some quotations from the YouTube video: Every step you take … has to increase or deepen the part of the enivornment you are working in. . . . Where does the whole come into play and what is it we need to do to deepen that wholeness … and what are the means one could use or should use to make this happen? . . . You can’t say something is beautiful unless it actually produces in you the emotion of beauty.
Christopher Alexander currently lives and works in England, where he has been since 2002. For nearly 50 years he has promoted an architectural hypothesis which values the “I” or essential self. His work arises out of refined observation and testing, and the totality of his works bears not only on the design of buildings but on computer science, transportation science, art in general, and cognitive science (Christopher Alexander, 2011).
Alexander’s groundbreaking works including A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (Oxford University Press, 1977), The Timeless Way of Building (OUP, 1977), and the four-volume book set, The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe (Center for Environmental Structure, 2004), from which Volume Four is the source for most of the material in this essay (Christopher Alexander, 2011).
Alexander’s most recent book is The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth: A Struggle Between Two World-Systems, authored with Hansjoachim Neis and Maggie Moore Alexander, and published in 2012 by Oxford University Press in New York.
When in 1958 Christopher Alexander began to study for his Ph.D. in architecture at Harvard, he was seeking “the smallest particles of fact that I could be certain of . . . small enough and solid enough that I could be sure that they were true” (Alexander, 2016).
“…the smallest particles of fact that I could be certain of.” Photo by Jerry Katz
In this search, he came upon an awakening experience when he realized that some of the small details of architecture touched people in beneficial ways. They had the potential to inspire and support mental and emotional well-being: “. . . a shelf beside the door where one could put a packet down while searching for one’s keys, for instance, or the possibility of a sunbeam coming into a room and falling on the floor” (Alexander, 2016).
“…the possibility of a sunbeam coming into a room and falling on the floor.”
Photo by Jerry Katz
He elaborates on this awakening experience:
I was able to see how buildings support human well-being — not so much mechanical or material well-being, but rather the emotional well-being that makes a person feel comfortable in himself. And as I studied these small effects carefully, gradually I was led to a conception of the wholeness and wellness that might, under ideal circumstances, arise between buildings and human beings (Alexander, 2016).
This and likely other such awakening experiences fueled an inquiry into the fundamental nature of architectural elements. Through this inquiry he ultimately recognized his fundamental self: the “I,” his own true self, or his “true childish heart” (Alexander, 2004, p. 5), about which he observed,
. . . is something vast, existing outside myself and inside myself, as if it were a contact with the eternal, something everlasting existing before me, in me, around me. I recognized, too, that my most lucid moments occur when I am swept up in this void, and fully conscious of it, as if it were a blinding light (Alexander, 2004, p. 7).
“I am swept up in this void, and fully conscious of it, as if it were a blinding light.”
Photo by Jerry Katz
Alexander’s architectural theories began to emerge. They were based on imparting a deep feeling — psychologically and emotionally — of being human (Alexander, 2016).
Now, for nearly sixty years, Alexander has worked “to provide a basis for architecture that can sustain human feeling and the human spirit” (Alexander, 2016).
Chartres Cathedral, a well-discussed example by Alexander of “Architecture that can sustain human feeling and the human spirit.”
Christopher Alexander’s work is characterized by persistently and passionately speaking about the need to experience in one’s self their true nature or what he calls the “I” (Alexander, 2004), and to intentionally create buildings and structures that are founded in the realization of the “I,” which in turn inspire the emotion of beauty and the realization, or at least the sense, intuition, or feeling of the “I” within the one experiencing the built structures.
In Part 2 I’ll write more about the “I” and discuss the meaning of “living structure.” Your comments are welcome.
Alexander, C. (2004). The nature of order: An essay on the art of building and the nature of the universe. Book four: The luminous ground. Berkeley, California: The Center for Environmental Structure.
Alexander, Christopher. (2016) “Making the Garden.” First Things. Retrieved from www.firstthings.com/article/2016/02/making-the-garden
Christopher Alexander: The Battle To Bring Life and Beauty to the Earth. (2011, May). Retrieved from atc.berkeley.edu/bio/Christopher_Alexander/
Nisargadatta Maharaj. (1992). I am that: Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. Durham, NC: The Acorn Press.
Ramana Maharshi. (1989). Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi. India: Sri Ramanasramam.
Spira, Rupert. (2015). “Meditation: Being Aware of Being Aware is the Highest Meditation.” Rupert Spira: The Essence of Non-Duality. www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZ8tQYYNIg0. Accessed 14 Mar. 2017.
The Timeless Way of Educating Architects: A New Master in ‘Building Beauty’ in Naples, Italy. (2016, October). Retrieved from papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2846153