The Timeless Way of Building

_The Timeless Way of Building_
Christopher Alexander
( c . 01979 )


( personal selections )



" There is one timeless way of building.

It is thousands of years old, and the same today as it has always been.

The great traditional buildings of the past, the villages and tents and temples in which man feels at home, have always been made by people who were very close to the center of this way. It is not possible to make great buildings, or great towns, beautiful places, places where you feel yourself, places where you feel alive, except by following this way. And, as you will see, this way will lead anyone who looks for it to buildings which are themselves as ancient in their form, as the trees and hills, and as our faces are.

It is the process through which the order of a building or a town grows out directly from the inner nature of the people, and the animals, and plants, and matter which are in it.

It is the process which allows the life inside a person, or a family, or a town, to flourish, openly, in freedom, so vividly that it gives birth, of its own accord, to the natural order which is needed to sustain life. "

. . .

" Each one of us has, somewhere in their heart, the dream to make a living world, a universe "

. . .

" The power to make buildings beautiful lies in each of us already.

It is a core so simple, and so deep, that we were born with it. This is no metaphor. I mean it literally. Imagine the greatest possible beauty and harmony in the world-- the most beautiful place that you have ever seen or dreamt of. You have the power to create it, at this very moment, just as you are.

And 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 the process which builds order out of nothing. "



" We have been taught that there is no objective difference between a good building and a bad building, good towns and bad.

The fact is that the difference 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 which 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 and bad.

It happens because the single central quality which makes the difference cannot be named. "


" We know, now, what the quality without a name is like, in feeling and in character. But so far, concretely, we have not seen this quality in any system larger than a tree, a pond, a bench. Yet it can be in anything --in buildings, animals, plants, cities, streets, the wilderness-- and in ourselves. We shall begin to understand it concretely, in all these larger pieces of the world, only when we first understand it in ourselves. "

. . .

" We can identify the towns and buildings, streets and gardens, flower beds, chairs, tables, tablecloths, wine bottles, garden seats, and kitchen sinks which have this quality--simply by asking whether they are like us when we are free.

We need only ask ourselves which places --which towns, which buildings, which rooms, have made us feel like this-- which of them have that breath of sudden passion in them, which whispers to us, and lets us recall those moments when we are ourselves.

And the connection between the two --between this quality in our own lives, and the same quality in our surroundings-- is not just an analogy, or similarity. The fact is that one creates the other.

Places which have this quality, invite this quality to come to life in us. And when we have this quality in us, we tend to make it come to life in towns and buildings which we help to build. It is a self-supporting, self-maintaining, generating quality. It is the quality of life. And we must seek it, for our own sakes, in our surroundings, simply in order that we can ourselves become alive. "


” The quality without a name is circular : it exists in us, when it exists in our buildings ; and it only exists in our buildings, when we have it in ourselves.

To understand this clearly, we must first recognize that what a town or building is, is governed, above all, by what is happening there. “

. . .

” Those of us who are concerned with buildings tend to forget too easily that all the life and soul of a place, all our experiences there, depend not simply on the physical environment, but on the patterns of events which we experience there. "

. . .

" What matters in a building or a town is not its outward shape, its physical geometry alone, but the events that happen there.

All the events which happen there-- the human events given by the situations which are repeated, the mechanical events, the rush of trains, the fall of water, the slow cracking of structures, the growing of the grass, the melting of the snow, the rusting of iron, the flowering of roses, the heat of a summer's day, the cooking, loving, playing, dying, and not only ourselves but of the animals, and plants, and even the inorganic processes which make the whole.

Of course, some events happen once in a lifetime ; others happen more often ; and some happen very often indeed. But although it is true a unique event can sometimes change our lives completely, or leave its mark on us, it is not too much to say that, by and large, the overall character of our lives is given by those events which keep on recurring over and over again.

And, by the same token, it is roughly true that any aspect of the life of a part of the world, is essentially governed by those situations, human of non-human -- which keep on repeating there. "

. . .

" We glimpse the fact that our world has a structure, in the simple fact that certain patterns of events --both human and nonhuman-- keep repeating, and account, essentially, for much the greater part of the events which happen there.

Our individual lives are made of them. . .so are our lives together. . .they are the rules, through which our culture maintains itself, keeps itself alive, and it is building our lives, out of these patterns of events, that we are people of our culture.

There is no aspect of our lives which is not governed by these patterns of events. And if the quality without a name can come into our lives at all, it is clear that it depends entirely on the specific nature of these patterns of events from which our world is made "

. . .

" The patterns of events which govern life in buildings and in towns cannot be separated from the space where they occur.

Each one is a living thing, a pattern of events in space, just like a stream, a waterfall, a fire, a storm-- a thing which happens, over and over again, and is exactly one of the elements from which the world is made.

And it is therefore clear that we can only understand these patterns of events by seeing them as living elements of space themselves.

It is the space itself which lives and breathes ; it is the space we call the porch, which is the pattern of events we also call watching the world go by.

The life which happens in a building or a town is not merely anchored in the space but made up from the space itself.

For since space is made up of these living elements, these labeled patterns of events in space, we see that what seems at first sight like the dead geometry we call a building or town is indeed a quick thing, a living system, a collection of interacting, and adjacent, patterns of events in space. And, if we hope to understand the life which happens in a building or a town, we must therefore try to understand the structure of the space itself.

We shall now try to find some way of understanding space which yields its patterns of events in a completely natural way, so that we can succeed in seeing patterns of events, and space, as one. "


” nothing of any importance happens in a building or town except what is defined within the patterns which repeat themselves.

For what patterns do is at the same time seize the outward physical geometry, and also seize what happens there.

They account entirely for its geometrical structure : they are the visible, coherent stuff that is repeating, and coherent there : they are the background of the variation, which makes each concrete element a little different.

And, at the same time, they are also responsible for those events which keep repeating there, and therefore do the most to give the building or a town its character. . . “

. . .

” Of course the patterns vary from from place to place, from culture to culture, from age to age ; they are all man-made, they all depend on culture. But still, in every age and every place the structure of our world is given to it, essentially, by some collection of patterns which keeps on repeating over and over and over again.

These patterns are not concrete elements, like bricks and doors -they are much deeper and more fluid— and yet they are the solid substance, underneath the surface, out of which a building or a town is always made. “


We know now, that every building and every town is made of patterns which repeat themselves throughout its fabric, and that it gets its character from just those patterns of which it is made.

Yet it is obvious, intuitively, that some towns and buildings are more full of life : and others less. If they all get their character from the patterns they are made of, then somehow the greater sense of life which fills one place, and which is missing from another, must be created by these patterns too.

In this chapter we shall see just how certain patterns do create this special sense of life.

They create it in the first place, by liberating man. They create life, by allowing people to release their energy, by allowing people, themselves, to become alive. Or, in other places, they prevent it, they destroy the sense of life, they destroy the very possibility of life, y creating conditions under which people cannot possibly be free.

Let us try to understand the mechanism by which this works.

A man is alive when he is wholehearted, true to himself, true to his own inner forces, and able to act freely according to the nature of the situation he is in.

To be happy, and to be alive, in this sense, are almost the same. Of course, a man who is alive, is not always happy in the sense of feeling pleasant ; experiences of joy are balanced by experiences of sorrow. But the experiences are all deeply felt ; and above all, the man is whole ; and conscious of being real.

To be alive, in this sense, is not a matter of suppressing some forces or tendencies, at the expense of others ; it is a state pf being in which all forces which arise in him ; he is at peace, since there are no disturbances created by underground forces which have no outlet, at one with himself and his surroundings

This state cannot be reached merely by inner work.

There is a myth, sometimes widespread, that a person need only do inner work, in order to be alive like this ; that a man is entirely responsible for his own problems ; and that to cure himself, he need only cange himself. This teaching has some value, since it is so easy for a man to imagine that his problems are caused by “others”. But it is a one-sided and mistaken view which also maintains the arrogance of the belief that the individual is self-sufficient, and not dependent in any essential way on his surroundings.

The fact is, a person is so far formed by his surroundings, that his state of harmony depends entirely on his harmony with his surroundings.

. . .

We constantly meet conflicts, or problems, during the course of the day : and each time, the body goes into a stat of “stress” to mobilize itself, to deal with the conflict, to resolve the conflict.

This effect is physiological. We have, within our bodies, a specific physiological mechanism which produces stress. It produces, within us, a highly mobilized state of readiness, a state in which we have extra adrenaline, more alertness, faster heartbeat, higher muscle tone, more blood to the brain, more mental alertness. . .this highly alerted state, which is the state we call “stress”, arises whenever we encounter difficulty, or conflict. . .any situation in which we have to react, to solve a problem, meet a challenge. . .

Under normal conditions, when we solve the difficulty, cope with the threat, resolve the conflict, the stress then disappears, and all goes back to normal. in this normal sense, stress and conflict are an ordinary healthy part of everyday life. An organism could only exist without stress in an environment in which there were no conflicts or challenges at all— and under such circumstances the organism would atrophy and die.

But a pattern which prevents us from resolving our conflicting forces, leaves us almost perpetually in a state of tension.

For, if we live in a world where work is separated from family life, or where the courtyards turn us away, or where windows are merely holes in the wall, we experience the stress of these inner and conflicting forces constantly. We can never come to rest. We are living then, in a world so made, so patterned, that we cannot, by any stratagem, defeat the tension, solve the problem, or resolve the conflict. In this kind of world the conflicts do not go away. They stay within us, nagging, tense. . .The build-up of stress, however minor, stays within us. We live in a state of heightened alertness, higher stress, more adrenaline, all the time.

This stress is then no longer functional at all. It becomes a huge drain on the system. Since the organism’s capacity to enter the stressed state is already partly “used up” because it is perpetually in this state, our capacity tot react to real new problems, dangers, and conflicts goes way down, because the organism is constantly exhausted by the perpetual state of stress.

And so the “bad” patterns —the windows which doesn’t work, the dead courtyard, the badly located workplace— these stress us, undermine us, affect us continuously. Indeed, in this fashion, each bad pattern in our environment constantly reduces us, cuts us down, reduces our ability to meet new challenges, reduces our capacity to live, and helps to make us dead. . .

While, on the other hand, the corresponding “good” patterns, when they are correctly made, help us to be alive, because they allow us to resolve our conflicts for ourselves. As we encounter them, we are always fresh, in the face of new encounters, new problems. . .and we are continuously renewed, and made alive. . .

It is therefore clear that patterns play a concrete and objective role in determining the extent to which we come to life in any given place.

Each pattern that creates conditions in which people can resolve the conflicts they experience, for themselves, reduces people’s inner conflict, helps put them in state where they can meet more new challenges, and helps them to be more alive.

On the other hand, each pattern that creates conditions in which people experience conflicts which they cannot resolve for themselves, increases their inner stress, reduces their capacity to resolve other conflicts and meet other challenges, and therefore makes them less alive, more dead.

. . .

Good patterns are good because to some extent each one of them reaches the quality without a name itself

After all, the criterion of being good for us could never be a general criterion for patterns —because obviously, there are many patterns, essential to the harmonious ongoing life of the seas, the deserts, the forests— which are not directly good for us at all.

If the only criterion for a good pattern were its goodness for us, we should be forced to judge the ripples in a pond, or the crash of an ocean wave, according to whether we could get nice fish from it, or whether we liked the sound— and this would be ridiculous.

Certain patterns are simply resolved within themselves, within their proper contexts —in these contexts they are intrinsically alive— and it is this which makes them good. And this is as true for the pattern of an ocean wave as it is for the pattern of a courtyard or a home.

Consider the ripples in a patch of wind-blown sand.

When the wind blows, at any given speed, it picks up grains of sand, and carries them a few inches. It carries the smaller grains slightly farther, and the bigger grains not so far. Now, in any patch of sand, there are always a few irregularities —places where the sand is a little higher— and of course, as the wind sweeps over the sand, it is just the grains on these little ridges that get picked up and blown. Since, for any given wind speed the wind carries all the grains roughly the same distance, the blowing wind now gradually deposits a second ridge a certain fixed distance from the first, and parallel to it. This second ridge, as it builds up, is also especially vulnerable, so the grains from the top, once again, get blown on to form another ridge, the same distance again, and so on. . .

This pattern is a recognizable and constant pattern, because it is a truth about the laws which govern sand and wind.

Within the proper context, this pattern creates and recreates itself over and over again. It creates and re-creates itself whenever the wind blows on the sand.

Its goodness comes from the fact that it is true to its own inner forces, not from any special sense of purpose

The same can happen in a garden, where the plants, and wind, and animals are perfectly in balance.
. . .