Books Reviews

Book Review: The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth


The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth: A Struggle Between Two World-Systems by Christopher Alexander with HansJoachim Neis and Maggie Moore Alexander describes the building of the Eishin Gauken Campus in Japan. One of the “main purposes” of the book is “to demonstrate that the physical-ecological and the mental-emotional-social cannot be separated” (p.86). If the “purpose of … architecture … is to provide opportunities and contexts which … support and enhance life-giving human situations, then it must be based on a new set of operating principles” (p.7).

The battle
The battle which gives the book its name is the battle which introduces these principles. It’s a battle against “the present-day mechanical viewpoint that dominate today’s society” (p.9). It’s a battle for “a worldview … which has life, well-being, beauty, and care for the whole, as its primary concepts” (p.9). Achieving this will “require so many changes in our idea of the world … that we must … adjust our idea of reality” (p.10). The foundation of these ideas were “set forth in the four volumes of The Nature of Order” (p.16).

Adaptations binding things together
For Christopher Alexander, the “essence of all profound techniques of architecture” is to make a world “which binds things together well” (p.16). An “environment or community” will only come to life if each part is “a result of a careful and piecemeal processes of adaptation” (p.19). “An environment can only be made healthy, and good for human life, if the process mobilizes vital adaptations at many scales” (p.24). Adaptations “create freshness and uniqueness wherever they appear” (p.41). That is a “huge step beyond the rigidity of mechanistic components” (p.41). Adaptations “forge a solid, powerful unity” that “draws the whole place together, just as a living organism” (p.42). And you “cannot create real adaptation, unless there is a process at work which permits, and encourages” it (p.48).

System-A vs. System-B
There are “two archetypal systems of production” (p.49). In system-A, “creation and production are organic … and are governed by human judgments that emanate from the underlying wholeness” (p.49). “The quality of wholeness … defines what is to be done” and “comes into play at every moment” (p.49). In system-B, “what matters are “regulations, procedures, … efficiency, and profit: … as if society itself was working as a great machine” (p.49). Wholeness, if considered, is “left far behind … mechanical considerations that are regarded as primary” (p.49). The two categories, A and B, “serve to identify a dimension of great importance” (p.49). “A” is used to refer to “more life-giving systems” (p.49). “B” is used to refer to “less life-giving systems” (pp.49-50). Furthermore, the difference between “more life-giving and less life-giving environments can be measured by a range of indicators” (p.50). These indicators correlate with physical, mental, and ecological health, and “the way people are treated socially” (p.50). Certain “forms of social interactions” and certain “kinds of positive emotional states in people” have direct “healing impact on human well-being” (p.51).

Enabling life to flourish
Christopher Alexander states directly that “we will not be able to make a living world,, unless we put in place entirely new kinds of human organization and new operational assumptions, which … encourage beauty, health, and genuine humanity to be achieved” (p.57). The cardinal rule of A, is to “Always try, at each moment, … to do that thing or take that action which … increases the life in the place, in the people, and in their environment” (p.59). Alexander thinks it is reasonable to say that “any useful change in society must show us how to generate life, how to provide the foundational conditions which will enable life to flourish” (p.59). “If the making process is dead … the resulting product … will inevitably be dead” (p.60). “If the process of making … is living … the generated forms and places … will … have a very good chance of being alive” (p.60).

Two different worldviews
The clash between A and B is a “clash between two competing systems of thought, human organization, and social activity” (p.60). “The two worldviews differ about the ways human society should be organized, about questions of ultimate value” (p.60). “The effects of the clash between A and B can be found in each one of us” (p.63). A “comes from inside, from the human psyche … and from human culture” (p.69). B “comes from the laws, the institutions of society and … mass production” (pp.69–70). “The use of money to make money,” did “produce great wealth for a few,” but “not for most people” (p.76).

Step-by-step whole-making
Years ago, Christopher Alexander introduced the phrase, “the quality without a name” (p.87). It was “very helpful and inspiring” but “it evaporates too easily … to guide practical effort” (p.87). We have all a “tacit obligation to enhance the life in our communities” but it is “difficult to bring it off” (p.91). “The largest driving force in the whole-making and wholeness-enhancing … is the step-by-step process which demands that at each step the configuration be made more coherent” (p.94). It is the “coherence of feeling and function that holds everything together” (p.95). “Creating wholeness is a practical matter” (p.96).

Activating and intensifying life itself
The “need for courage is a real requirement” (p.100). Courage “is absolutely necessary as a practical matter in the world we live today” (p.100), since it is a “battle between two utterly different views of the world, and between two utterly irreconcilable attitudes towards society” (p.109). Christopher Alexander is not interested in “making an image of life” (p.116). He is only interested in “creating conditions that will activate and intensify life itself” (p.116). This requires trying “to help each person reach the deepest place in their own hearts and to help them bring this material out into the open” (p.117). “We tend to overlook the violation of people’s feelings because it happens every day, and we have become accustomed to it” (p.119).

Abstractions vs. reality
“The essence of system-B is that it works with abstractions” (p.185). Plans, money, processes, and the “reality itself is abstract” (p.185). “There are no feelings, no truly human events, only calculations, ink, and paper” (p.185). “The essence of system-A“, on the other hand, is that it is “real“” (p.185). It deals with real people, feeling, and “the three-dimensional reality of buildings” (p.185). “In fact, the very life and wholeness which is aimed at by … system-A are achieved by a … relaxed state of mind,” but it is “not sloppy” (p.195).

Money and efficiency
“The exaggerated precision typical of system-B” is “often done at inappropriate times” (p.195). Furthermore, and perhaps surprisingly, “system-A produces better quality … at a cheaper price” (p.266). Money and efficiency “drive out almost every possible way of allowing human spirit to exist” and, specifically, “drive out … local adaptation” (p.267). “To increase profit there is substantial incentive … to cut corners” (p.270). “Working in a “speed is money” approach, subtleties are not possible” (p.307).

Enhancing wholeness, recognizing destructive actions
[I]t is the creative force we, as human beings collectively possess, that is the most powerful well-spring for the improvement of society” (p.382). “This requires cultivation of a new attitude that both seeks out wholeness-enhancing transformations and recognizes destructive actions” (p.443). “Even when we cannot perfectly define the wholeness, we can distinguish those continuation which are most apt, and most true” (p.452). “Simple beauty and wholeness … heals, supports, and engages life” (p.453).

Profound integration
“Every living entity … has, as its most basic quality, the fact that it is somehow “glued together”” (p.421). When “one part of the system is in trouble, or is damage, other parts which depend on that part themselves become vulnerable” (p.421). What we “see and experience as beauty is a quality in which the world … is profoundly integrated, deeply interwoven” (p.455). A “living environment is at once physical and social in its beauty” (p.458).

Courage and love
It is “within our power to recover the deeper aspects of human nature and work our way toward a compassionate and ethical civilization” (p.475). “It is possible to recover ourselves, our world, and a future for our children and their children — one that is rooted in profound and lasting values” (p.475). “We can begin now” (p.475). And if “we have sufficient courage, we can make a difference in our lifetimes” (p.475). “Any one of us can do it because of love” (p.487). “Not love for this or that person — but love for a small spider …, love for the field …, and the individual grasses that sway as the breeze comes gently across” (p.487). “The most tender wakefulness lies in your heart” (p.488). “At every moment, remain wakeful and aware of your love” (p.488). “It does not need effort. It is already there, in your heart” (p.488).

This is a beautiful book, full of life, which touches me — deeply. I could comment on the book, intellectually, but somehow it doesn’t feel appropriate. I just want to contemplate Christopher Alexander’s message. Yes, the battle for life is a struggle between worldviews. And yes, ultimately, it is a question of love — for the Earth, for our fellow-beings on the Earth, and for ourselves.

Update 2022-09-21: Text converted to blocks. Uncorrect reference to page 86 changed to page 87.

By Jan Höglund

I share my reading, book reviews, and learning in my blog.

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