Pages 144-235 of Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order Volume One: The Phenomenon of Life contain a theory of beauty as perceived by humans, conveyed in fifteen “fundamental properties.” Not every property occurs in every beautiful object, but in very beautiful buildings and objects, many of these properties are usually apparent, baked into the logic, structure, and detail.
Here I will briefly explain the fifteen fundamental properties, with reference to an early 20th century ivory dog netsuke and a Jeff Koons balloon dog sculpture.
Here is the netsuke:
Continue reading “The Fifteen Fundamental Properties”
In The Timeless Way of Building (1979), Christopher Alexander argues for the counterintuitive proposition that feeling (in the sense of perceiving the beauty and “life” of a space), unlike ideas or opinions, is quite objective; there is an astounding level of agreement between people about how different environments and buildings feel, though there may be little agreement of opinions or ideas about them in general. I reproduce here a few crucial paragraphs from Chapter 15 of the book, which chapter and book I of course recommend reading in their entirety.
Continue reading “Centers”
The internet is probably the most important social domain for play, not just for children but for adults as well. All cultures have some form of ritual combat – a form of ritualized fighting that transforms and subverts the normal human tendencies for hostility towards outgroups into fun. The most obvious and widespread form is athletic competition – football games, fencing, soccer. Non-athletic competition, such as chess and go, also fits the bill. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz describes cockfighting among the Balinese as such:
Fighting cocks, almost every Balinese I have ever discussed the subject with has said, is like playing with fire only not getting burned. You activate village and kingroup rivalries and hostilities, but in “play” form, coming dangerously and entrancingly close to the expression of open and direct interpersonal and intergroup aggression (something which, again, almost never happens in the normal course of ordinary life), but not quite, because, after all, it is “only a cockfight.”
Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight
Continue reading “Internet Respite Ritual and Public Suicide Threats”
Cultural evolution represents an entire field of study. It has the potential, like biological evolution, to be a mechanism underlying and connecting many fields of study. This short introduction will pull together a few themes and compelling stories from this large field and present some of its concepts, mechanisms, and evidence—hopefully enough to increase the reader’s suspicion of the claim that cultural evolution is a “myth.”
Continue reading “Why Cultural Evolution Is Real (And What It Is)”
In all species, the play of the young is practice for the essential survival tasks of the adults. Human children play at many things, but the most important is the play of culture. Out of sight of adults, children learn and practice the rhymes, rituals, and institutions of their own culture, distinct from that of adults.
The Western child today is mostly kept inside his own home, associating with other children only in highly structured, adult-supervised settings such as school and sports teams. It was not always so. Throughout history, bands of children gathered and roamed city streets and countrysides, forming their own societies each with its own customs, legal rules and procedures, parodies, politics, beliefs, and art. With their rhymes, songs, and symbols, they created and elaborated the meaning of their local landscape and culture, practicing for the adult work of the same nature. We are left with only remnants and echoes of a once-magnificent network of children’s cultures, capable of impressive feats of coordination.
Iona and Peter Opie conducted an immense study of the children’s cultures of the British Isles. The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959) is comparable in richness to Walter Evans-Wenz’ The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (1911) on the fairy faiths, or to Alan Lomax’ collections of American and European folk music.
Continue reading “The Last of the Monsters with Iron Teeth”
Sacred Boundaries of Thought
Boundaries are the forms that shape communities and civilizations. Without boundaries, communities cannot come into existence. These social boundaries are even mirrored in our cognition: common thoughts give us access to ordinary, related concepts, including common knowledge, but certain thoughts are relatively fenced off and rarely brought to mind.
Communities of all sizes are bound by their notions of the sacred. A violation of community sacredness – from casting aspersions on the rite of voting to mocking a family tradition – is experienced by community members as a kind of pain. This is one mechanism by which communities and their sacredness are maintained. People hurt each other, if “only” psychologically, when they violate each other’s sacredness.
A Christian who has a lot of social contact with non-Christians must build up a tough shell in order to withstand the (often accidental) violations to his sacredness that others are bound to make. It is much less painful for him to mainly interact with others who share his notions of the sacred. When a Christian and an atheist are good friends, however, each undertakes to feel the sacredness of the other, gaining the ability to be (vicariously) pained by its violation. They can speak easily on all topics without hurting each other, because each has learned to feel the other’s sacredness on his behalf. This is a precondition for intimacy.
Continue reading “Socially Enforced Thought Boundaries”
I describe two patterns here, one from the domain of the social, the other from the domain of the sacred. I discuss them together because they are of the same shape; the shape, or form, that they share is also shared with the human self.
This is the visual form of the shape: [my drawing, adapting Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language (1977), Pattern 66: Holy Ground (p. 334)]
Continue reading “Two Patterns”
[E]very design problem begins with an effort to achieve fitness between two entities: the form in question and its context. The form is the solution to the problem; the context defines the problem. In other words, when we speak of design, the real object of discussion is not the form alone, but the ensemble comprising the form and its context. Good fit is a desired property of this ensemble which relates to some particular division of the ensemble into form and context.
There is a wide variety of ensembles which we can talk about like this. The biological ensemble made up of a natural organism and its physical environment is the most familiar: in this case we are used to describing the fit between the two as well-adaptedness. But the same kind of objective aptness is to be found in many other situations. The ensemble consisting of a suit and tie is a familiar case in point; one tie goes well with a certain suit, another goes less well. Again, the ensemble may be a game of chess, where at a certain stage of the game some moves are more appropriate than others because they fit the context of the previous moves more aptly. The ensemble may be a musical composition — musical phrases have to fit their contexts too: think of the perfect rightness when Mozart puts just this phrase at a certain point in a sonata. If the ensemble is a truckdriver plus a traffic sign, the graphic design of the sign must fit the demands made on it by the driver’s eye. An object like a kettle has to fit the context of its use, and the technical context of its production cycle. In the pursuit of urbanism, the ensemble which confronts us is the city and its habits. Here the human background which defines the need for new buildings, and the physical environment provided by the available sites, make a context for the form of the city’s growth. In an extreme case of this kind, we may even speak of a culture itself as an ensemble in which the various fashions and artifacts which develop are slowly fitted to the rest.
Christopher Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, pp. 15-16, Citations removed.
Continue reading “Beauty is Fit”
Crabs Are A Process
The word “crab” brings to mind a snapshot (or perhaps a scuttling mental video) of the surface appearance of an adult crab. Like most nouns, “crab” is a metonym for a complex system of processes that are concealed by the snapshot-in-time and surface appearance connotations of the word. Some processes are internal to crabs, such as respiration, digestion, and the Krebs cycle. Other processes are impossible to localize in the space and time of a crab snapshot. The adult coconut crab (Birgus latro) is evidence of a complex reproductive process, in which crabs mate and drop their eggs into the ocean on a rocky beach at dusk; the eggs exist as plankton, then as small hermit crabs; eventually some re-emerge on islands to grow into adult coconut crabs. They also interact with human processes, such as fishing, cars, and perhaps occasionally the deceased female aviator process.
Boxer crabs carry anemones in their claws and use the toxins in the anemones’ tentacles for defense; the anemones feed on the crabs’ scraps. The boxer crab process is inseparable from the anemone process. Wider processes are relevant to crabs as well, including the weather effects from long-term astronomical processes, ocean currents, asteroids, and evolution itself. Some processes are inseparable; others have limited interaction; some are completely separate, although subtle interdependencies are often hidden.
The physical shape of the adult crab represents the successful interaction of many processes. Carcinization is the process by which diverse non-crablike life forms adopt the shape of a crab – indicating that the crab shape is a kind of attractor, a particularly viable form given all the relevant processes within the system.
Continue reading “Toward the Synthesis of Flourishy Forms”