The argument from verifiable details

  • The theory of centers works in practice:
    • empirically, to get good results in architecture — verifiable results in many details
    • as a coherent theory, its pieces fit together and make sense of the whole — fit and coherence of the details with many pieces as a whole

The argument hinges, first of all, on the fact that the theory of centers works in practice. By that I mean (1) that it works empirically in getting good results in architecture; and further, (2) that it works as a coherent theory in which the various pieces fit together nicely and make sense of the whole. These two criteria, verifiable results in many details, and the fit and coherence of the details with many pieces as a whole, are, in the end, the two most important scientific criteria for deciding the truth of any theory.

It helps, I think, to start by taking the solid bits of fact which have been established, without too much fanfare — treating them as isolated and useful bits of information about the way the world works. In this modest sense, I believe the reader will agree that many of the concrete ideas put forward in various places in these four volumes do work empirically. Their results are verified or potentially verifiable. Like any other evolving science, many individual details of the theory have predictive force.

For example, in Book 1 there is an idea of life in things as an objectively existing quality that exists in the world, and which can be measured by experiment. I put forward fifteen structural properties which are associated with this kind of life. They work scientifically. By this I mean that they have predictive force. They enable us to predict the distinctions people make between buildings with more life and buildings with less life. They also do this successfully for works of art, and for other living systems, too. This leads to the idea of living structure as a general kind of structure which exists in nature and in artifacts to the extent these properties are present.

Book 1 sets out to describe wholeness as a structure, thus replacing vague ideas of the whole with the idea that what we refer to as “wholeness” in a configuration is a defined global structure which can be established for any configuration. The system of nested and interdependent centers is an operationally defined approach to capturing the wholeness. Life occurs to the degree that centers help each other and cement their wholeness: the helping between centers is caused by the fifteen properties, and on the recursive appearance of these properties among the centers from which wholeness is made. Although the precise nature of a center remains partly mysterious, nevertheless it is clear that the idea of these fifteen properties defining and linking centers, works in the sense that it predicts, with some accuracy, which structures will be living and which will not.

These ideas also provide insight into the functional nature of buildings. With the same tools we gain scientific insight into the nature of function in buildings in many specific cases, and into the close connection between function and ornament — previously unexplained and often denied in contemporary thought about architecture. This again has predictive force because it adds to our ability to predict which kinds of buildings will work well.

Further, the degree of life that a system has is in some fashion connected to ourselves and correlates with the degree to which the system is seen as a picture of our own selves. This, too, is confirmed experimentally. So this idea, too, works empirically and gives answers to questions about value in architecture and art, questions which, until now, have been left largely unanswered in the last hundred years.

In summary, then, the concept of living structure provides us with a precise, reasonable, and sharable way of understanding many phenomena. Book 1 gives us a powerful set of tools with which to understand architecture, and with which to understand thorny problems of value that, up until now, have remained almost abandoned scientifically and have been treated, instead, as matters of individual taste and personal judgement.

In Book 2, the structural ideas of Book 1 are extended to a dynamic analysis of process. The argument of Book 2 leads to verifiable accounts of the ways in which people succeed in making environments possessing life. It also leads to verifiable techniques for judging processes according to their ability to help generate living structure in towns and buildings. The life-filled buildings and works of art which were examined from a static point of view in Book 1, when looked at dynamically, are seen to be the products of some very definite kind of step-by-step operations: the operations of unfolding. Reasons for the good quality of traditional buildings and towns come into view simply and directly as a result of this dynamic analysis. This theory, too, works — at least approximately — since it leads to verifiable distinctions among processes from the point of view of their efficacy in creating living structure.

As part of the analysis of unfolding, the idea of structure-preserving transformation is introduced as an essential concept arising from wholeness. From what appears in Book 2, one may conclude that living structure can only be created by structure-preserving transformations. This surprising and much deeper conclusion is also verifiable in principle. A number of experiments demonstrating it for buildings have been done so far.

In the latter half of Book 2, particular types of structure-preserving transformation are specified as the necessary underpinning of any successful social process capable of creating living structure in neighborhoods and buildings and rural land. Living processes are defined as linked chains of applications of structure-preserving transformations, and one sees verification of the fact that these living processes are uniquely able to create living structure in the environment. In many instances, the effect of living processes on buildings and environments is described in detail, and their capacity to create living structure has been documented. All this is testable and has been tested in many cases. Once again, the ideas have predictive force.

In Book 3, the idea of structure-preserving transformations is married with practical information about the care of land, layout of buildings, creation of public space, the placing of buildings on a site, the development of building volume, creation of building plans, the interior design of rooms, the development of building structure in its engineering aspects, the creation and construction of myriad building details.

Useful and verifiable insights are generated about the ways in which practical and effective town plans, buildings, gardens, and rooms can be built to be in harmony with their surroundings. Even the making and construction of buildings, the way in which the microstructure of buildings supports or does not support the macrostructure is seen in a new way, with verifiable criteria for success and failure. All this has beneficial practical results, and has practical results even in the realms of materials, engineering, and construction. It creates practical tools which make it possible to design and build buildings which have real, verifiable, degrees of life. This is, once again, what I mean by saying that the theory has predictive force and that it works.

In Book 4, I have introduced the concept of the I in the early chapters. It is more adventurous and perhaps less well-founded empirically than my other results (at least so far). But it provides a practical underpinning of considerable power, by showing us how the strength of centers is associated with personal conditions which significantly change what one is able to do when building living structure. Empirically, it seems certain that it enables artists and builders to make their work more profound. As far as I can judge, the ancients who used similar methods also reached deeper, and were able to go still deeper in their search for living structure by using some version of this conception. Although the empirical aspects of Book 4 may so far be the least well-tested, still, it can hardly be denied that the idea of the I as present in material configurations does have empirical content, and that this content is effective in creating good results. It therefore sets forth an astounding, if controversial way of understanding the foregoing theory, and does it in a way that cements it to rather deep aspects of human nature.

(Pages 136-138)

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