The timeless way of building

Christopher Alexander

page: 25--27

We have been taught that there is no objective difference between good buildings and bad, good towns and bad. The fact is that the difference between a good building and a bad building, between a good town and a bad town, is an objective matter. It is the difference between health and sickness, wholeness and dividedness, self-maintenance and self-destruction. In a world wich is healthy, whole, alive, and self-maintaining, people themselves can be alive and self-creating. In a world which is unwhole and self-destroying, people cannot be alive : they will inevitably themselves be self-destroying, and miserable. But it is easy to understand why people believe so firmly that there is no single, solid basis for the difference between good building and bad. It happens because the single central quality which makes the difference cannot be named.

The first place I think of, when I try to tell someone about this quality, is a corner of an English country garden, where a peach tree grows against a wall. The wall runs east to west ; the peach tree grows flat against its souther side. The sun shines on the three and as it warms the bricks behind the tree, the warm bricks themselves warm the peaches on the tree. It has a slightly dozy quality. The tree, carefully tied to grow flat against the wall ; warming the bricks ; the peaches growing in the sun ; the wild grass growing around the roots of the tree, in the angle where the earth and roots and wall all meet.

This quality is the most fundamental quality there is in anything.

It is never twice the same, because it always takes its shape from the particular place in which it occurs.

In one place it is calm, in another it is stormy ; in one person it is tidy ; in another it is dark ; in one room it is soft and quiet ; in another it is yellow. In one family it is a love of picnics ; in another dancing ; in another playing poker ; in another group of people it is not family life at all.

It is a subtle kind of freedom from inner contradictions.

A system has this quality when it is at one with itself ; it lacks it when it is divided. It has it when it is true to its own inner forces; lacks it when it is untrue to its own inner forces. It has it when it is at peace with itself; and lacks it when it is at war with itself. You already know this quality. The feeling for it is the most primitive feeling which an animal or a man can have. The feeling for it is as primitive as the feeling for our own well-being, for our own health, as primitive as the intuition which tells us when something is false or true. But to grasp it fully you must overcome the prejudice of physics which tells us that all things are equally alive and real.


page: 154

So finally the fact is, that to come to this, to make a thing which has the character of nature, and to be true to all the forces in it, to remove yourself, to let it be, without interference from your image-making self—all this requires that we become aware that all of it is transitory ; that all of it is going to pass.

Of course nature itself is also always transitory. The trees, the river, the humming insects—they are all short-lived ; they will all pass. Yet we never feel sad in the presence of these things. No matter how transitory they are, they make us feel happy, joyful.

But when we make our own attempt to create nature in the world around us, and succeed, we cannot escape the fact that we are going to die. This quality, when it is reached, in human things, is always sad ; it makes us sad ; and we can even say that any place where a man tries to make the quality, and be like nature, cannot be true, unless we can feel the slight presence of this haunting sadness there, because we know at the same time we enjoy it, that it is going to pass.