We will be publishing Nikos Salingaros’ book, Unified Architectural Theory, in a series of installments, making it digitally, freely available for students and architects around the world. The following chapter expands on the phenomenon of “life” in buildings introduced in Chapter 3, and also introduces a simple test which can be used to determine the degree of “life” in a structure. If you missed them, make sure to read the previous installments here.
Approaching architecture from the entirely new perspective of organized coherence — what Christopher Alexander calls “wholeness” — unifies many phenomena. The traditional distinctions between ornament and function, between buildings and ecology, and between beauty and utilitarian structure are blurred. We can look for the “life” in artifacts and structures, which explains our experience of them.
Later in this course we are going to count features, and measure parameters that contribute to our impression of “life” in an object. These measures will show that the phenomenon of life is not idiosyncratic, but is, to a very large degree, shared among all people.
There is a problem with saying that we “like” something. This is not the same as the perceived degree of life. After all, even the most monstrous, inhuman building was liked sufficiently by both its architect and the client who commissioned it. We also know that the trillion-dollar advertising industry exists principally to manipulate our opinion of what we like.
The perception of “life” in objects comes instead from a deep connection established between the observer or user, and the object. It comes from a physiological, intuitive interdependence, which we can choose to ignore but probably cannot change.
Alexander lists some characteristics of this emotional connection to artifacts and structures:
- We feel a sense of nourishment from them.
- If we participate in actually making them, we also feel this sense of nourishment.
- When we can identify this connection and distinguish it from media-influenced liking, then we find that we agree with many other people.
- This is not merely an aesthetic judgment, but something that overlaps with deeper aspects of culture and life.
- The connection can be checked empirically, and is not a simple matter of opinion.
Judging the relative degree of positive connection we experience personally between ourselves and either of two objects is easy. It relies upon a psychological trick to give us the result. The trick forces our brain to compute the organized complexity of the two objects in a comparative, though not absolute, manner.
Alexander’s “mirror of the self” test asks which of two objects that I experience provides a better picture of myself. We have to imagine all of our personality, our strengths and weaknesses, our humanity, our emotions, our potential, and our life experiences as somehow encoded in the structure of these two objects. Then, which of the two objects is a more faithful representation of my self?
Alexander found that more than 80% of people choose the one object from the pair presented that also has the higher degree of life, as computed by other objective measures. Therefore, we could dispense with any of those calculations and just ask this single question about mirroring our self. The correlation is high enough to make it a very useful — though not infallible — test.
This test succeeds in drawing us away from preferences and opinions that we have learned from the outside, but which do not necessarily correspond to what arises deeply from the inside of our being. It cuts through idiosyncratic and possibly biased ideas about beauty to draw from us what we honestly connect to.
It is regrettably true that our taste has been manipulated so as to manufacture out of us a perfect consumer of fashion and industrial goods. Using the “mirror of the self” test repeatedly not only makes us more proficient in its application, but also helps to liberate us from opinion, images, and ideology. It makes us more astute in perceiving living structure.
Let us turn the topic around and inquire how, in a world that is already in touch with living structure through culture and education, people could be disconnected from their feelings. How does one deny an intuitive talent for recognizing “life” and make humans first ignore it, then forget it entirely? The method is to distract our attention, and use false authority to keep us from rebuilding vital connections and cognitive maps.
There exist two totally distinct conceptions of a shared experience of the world. The first occurs as we use our perceptual systems to form an honest and direct worldview. Since our biology is shared with other humans, our experiences are also shared to a large extent. The second scenario is when an entire population buys into a false worldview. In that case, what is shared is not truthful, but exists only as an image.
If we are indeed caught inside an unreal world, reinforced because it is shared with others, these tools can help us to break out. A different way of describing the “mirror of the self” test is to feel how an object or specific environment affects our humanity. Ask yourself: “is my own sense of humanity increasing or decreasing by being exposed to this particular structure?” Here we can forget our mechanical civilization and use only our intuition about our inner emotional states.
The “mirror of the self” test picks out what reminds us of nature, such as natural scaling hierarchies, the organized complexity of natural materials, and other geometrical features that make an object feel more “alive”. When we connect to an environment because we feel part of it, and comfortable in it, we can perform our lives and functions with more pleasure and less stress. This sense of wellbeing does not register consciously.
Often, we experience a high degree of life from objects and buildings with imperfections — semi-ruined buildings, antique artifacts with damaged parts, etc. That does not diminish their appeal. Tourists travel a long way to see and experience ruins, and collectors buy antique carpets with holes in them.
Using the “mirror of the self” test gives us a key tool for implementing evidence-based design. There are two aspects to this methodology. The first one was derived in a medical setting, and measures the effects of built structures and environments upon human health. It is not difficult to compare alternative design choices according to their healing potential — hard data of patients healing faster in specific environments. Beginning with hospital design, evidence-based design is now applied to other, more general settings. The second aspect, relating to the use of feedback, will be discussed at length in Chapter 9B of this series.
- Christopher Alexander, The Phenomenon of Life, Chapter 8, “The Mirror of the Self” & Chapter 9, “Beyond Descartes: A New Form of Scientific Observation” (The Nature of Order, Book 1, Center for Environmental Structure, Berkeley, California, 2001).
- Michael Mehaffy & Nikos Salingaros, Design for a Living Planet (Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon, 2015).
- Nikos Salingaros, Unified Architectural Theory: Form, Language, Complexity. A Companion to Christopher Alexander’s “The Phenomenon of Life: The Nature of Order, Book 1” (Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon, 2013).