A necessary state of mind
This brings me, then, to a last aspect of the process which produces life in things, a necessary state of mind. The core of this necessary state of mind is that you make each building in a way which is a gift to God. It belongs to God. It does not belong to you. It is made to serve God, to glorify God. It is not made to glorify you. Perhaps, if anything, it humbles you.
Needless to say that I cringe reading (and transcribing) this, but it also makes total sense to me now.
I think I can understand what Alexander calls “God” (based on his slightly weaker earlier descriptions) as a “sense of belonging to a larger whole”. As such, I couldn’t agree more with Alexander’s conclusion that we have lost our way and strive for the wrong things: wrong constructed ideals, individuality, and glorifying ourselves. Yes, the world would be a better place, if we can all together get back to an understanding that we are part of a larger whole — be that our (local or global) community, society, the planet, whatever — and would strive to glorify this larger whole over glorifying ourselves individually. This is a state of mind we have almost left behind in many parts of our society. And this is a state of mind we have to come back to, if we want to solve the greatest problems humanity faces today.
Alexander is tangled up in his vision and conviction to find God. And in a way he has found Them (do we gender God like this now?). But there is no need to call on what many people less familiar with Alexander will likely misinterpret as a mystical higher being behind everything, to explain his theory, when an appeal to a sense for connection among all living beings is sufficient. Especially, if there is a considerable chance that this sense for connection might be hardwired into our physiological and psychological substrate, in ways that can likely be proven with conventional scientific methods.
Of course, I do not say this with any intention to suggest that this state of mind is specifically Christian. It is, as far as I can tell, religious in nature, but quite general in its character. And I do believe that it is necessary. It is not a pious extra. I believe it is a necessary state of mind, without which it is not possible to reach the purity of structure needed to create a living thing.
The essence of this state of mind is that the building must not shout. Emotionally, it must be completely quiet.
It is very hard to allow the wholeness to unfold. To do it, we must pay attention, all the time, only to the wholeness which exists in what we are doing. That is hard, very hard. If we allow ourselves the luxury of paying attention to our own ideas, we shall certainly fail. The things which can and do most easily get in the way, are my own idea, my thoughts about what to do, my desires about what the building “ought” to be, or “might” be, my striving to make it great, my concern with my own thoughts about it, or my exaggerated attention to other people’s thoughts. All this can only damage the building, because it replaces the wholeness which actually exists at any given stage with some “idea” of what it ought to be.
The reason why I must try and make the building as a gift to God is that this state of mind is the only one which reliably keeps me concentrated on what is, and keeps me away from my own vainglorious and foolish thoughts.
This is powerful. Is it powerful, because he put it in religious context? Would it be as powerful if it wasn’t a “gift to God”, but merely a “contribution to the larger community”?
I can’t quite fathom, if him bringing up God is a stain on his shirt that’s hard to ignore, or the final stroke of genius that turns these books into the coherent, beautiful whole that demonstrates the theory in itself.
Any one of us has a certain natural tendency to want to draw attention to ourselves. Any builder has a natural tendency to hope that people like what he or she has built, a tendency to say, “Look at what I have made”, a tendency to want to identify the building which you have made as yours, to have your name on it, to be recognized as its maker, to be recognized as the builder. And in one limited sense this is childish, natural, and all right. But in a more serious sense it interferes profoundly with my ability to make the building right. Instead of paying attention to the structure of the building, allowing it to become just right quietly, paying attention to its wholeness, it will encourage me to change the building, make it more dramatic, make it more identifiable as something which I made, make it so that I can point to it, identify it as a distinct thing in its own right, make it so that other people can point to it.
All this might make me famous as an architect, but it damages the building. It will make me replace care and humble concern for doing what it required with a frame of mind which wants to shout, just slightly, at each moment, while the design is unfolding. This problem potentially affects every single one of the 100,000 steps which I go through to make the building. So it will infect it very deeply, change its character not in a subtle way, but altogether. The beautiful and living thing which is like water will be replaced by something which shouts out, where I can write my name, which is a little awkward because it tries too hard at every moment.
The effect is tiny, but the impact is enormous.
Of course, the desire to make something beautiful is capable of damaging the structure which is actually wanted in the thing itself. It encourages us to let the thing be dominated by an image of “being good”, “being beautiful”, rather than by being what is actually required. So, in the end, my simple human desire for recognition will interfere with my ability to make a thing which lives. It interferes, concretely, with my ability to get the field of centers right because I am thinking about the wrong thing — my own glory, or my carpenter is thinking about his glory — and neither of us is thinking enough about the actual field of centers in the building which will make it alive. Then it will all come tumbling down. To get it right, I must think exclusively about the actual field of centers, nothing else. I cannot think about one tiny particle of myself, or what I want, just what is needed to make the thing come to life.
Egoless dedication to a higher purpose is extremely difficult to achieve in our time, because today’s society pulls us in so many different directions that are, ultimately, just some forms of looking for recognition, admiration, or simply the capability to provide for us and our families. It is unbelievably hard to really dedicate yourself to something without falling into these traps of the ego. I can see how Alexander considers the religious frameworks from centuries ago, and dedicating your craft “to God”, as one way to free yourself from any egocentric desires. And yet, as Alexander says himself somewhere else in the same book, we will not go back there.
I appreciate his attempt as a stylistic choice to conclude his work by dedicating himself to the I, or to present an ultimate “gift to God” in the form of _The Nature of Order_ itself — it does in an impressive way close the circle and his theory becomes a beautiful whole. Pragmatically, to reach other people with his still valid and important message, I think there is huge potential to appeal to the above mentioned sense of belonging and ask for an egoless dedication to a larger whole.
On the other hand — I’m obviously looking at this from an agnostic/atheist position, and as a European mostly familiar with Christianity — for many people who do believe in some form of God, perhaps this is exactly the right message…? Also important to consider are religions Alexander explicitly mentions that I am less familiar with, e.g. (Zen) Buddhism, which seem to have a clearly spiritual grounding but in a completely different way than what someone who grew up in the Western world would expect. My objections against (mostly) Christianity, might not apply at all to these other religions, or in very different and less objectionable ways.