The argument from coherence
Let us now go to the coherence of the theory. What had to be done to make this theory of architecture work? What was the origin of its empirical success? To answer this question I ask that the reader come with me while I briefly retrace the path I have followed for thirty years while reaching these results.
I started out trying, simply, to make a practical theory of architecture: one which makes sense of things we know and feel, and which helps us to make better buildings. That apparently straightforward task led to the construction of the theory put forward in Books 1 and 2 and 3: A theory which allows us (as previous theories of architecture perhaps did not) to recognize the essential life in things, to recognize the objective nature of this quality, and to ask again and again: What is the puzzling and recurrent structure of this life? What process can create this living structure?
But as part of my practical effort to get a sensible, consistent, and truthful theory, I had to make several key decisions about the underpinnings of the theory. In any science, getting a workable theory is usually a roundabout process where one tries again and again, muddles along, accumulates facts, tries to formulate apparently disparate facts in language which makes them fit each other. In effect we are always searching for the most coherent picture, and along the way we try various different formulations of the underpinnings of the new theory, worrying, from day to day, which of them makes the theory work most simply and most elegantly (and, if possible, does so in a way that sheds the most light on many of the currently unanswered questions and annoying puzzles in the field).
In the course of this work, the underpinnings shift and change as the theory gets refined. For example, at the very beginning of my work on this theory (around 1975) the fifteen properties described in Book 1 played a fundamental role. These fifteen properties were, at the beginning, the underpinnings of the whole theory. Later, I realized that these properties were not the most fundamental aspect of the theory, and that they occur as consequences of an even more fundamental structure — the system of living centers, and are simply the ways that centers support each other to create more life. So the fifteen properties shifted within the theory, and turned out to be consequences of the existence of centers and their interdependence. The idea of centers then came into the limelight.
Later the dynamic aspects of wholeness and the idea of structure-preserving transformations became even more important. It turned out that centers have to be understood dynamically in order to be understood at all, hence as results of unfolding and structure-preserving transformations. And it turned out that living structure, which I had first identified statically, is more profoundly understood when it is understood as a product of dynamics.
In many ways like these, during the last thirty years, the theory shifted again and again as I continually tried to make it more and more practical, more and more effective, and — as far as possible — more and more true to real experience.
Today the idea of a center remains at the heart of the theory. Centers are fundamental as the building blocks of wholeness. They are fundamental to the unfolding process and to the idea of structure-preserving transformations.
Yet throughout the last thirty years, even while it has become clear that centers and their structure play a fundamental role in all living structure, the actual nature of centers still remains partially elusive. From early on, the mathematical nature of a center was partially clear, and could (in principle) be made entirely clear. But the content of the idea, what a center is, that remains uncertain. To pin this down, to provide underpinnings for the nature of centers, I therefore had to introduce other theoretical foundations. These may be summarized in four propositions, all expressing some further explication of the nature of wholeness:
Proposition 1: Each center is a focused zone of space which may be characterized by saying that, to some degree, space in that zone itself comes to life.
To make sense of the idea that life is an observable phenomenon which appears in greater and lesser degree in every part of space, I suggested that the degree of life which occurs in things must be understood, not only as a construct of the organization of space, but also as a quality which happens to the space itself. According to this idea, the pure geometric space itself has the capacity to come to life. In Book 1, chapters 4 and 7, I invited the reader to accept this idea as the basis for a new kind of calculus, a calculus in which the life of each center was defined recursively, as a function of the life of all the other centers it contains. And I think I managed to establish, in a very preliminary fashion, that if we accept this, then it gives us a tool with which we can essentially calculate the greater and greater life that occurs in things. Like a recursive arithmetic, by assuming it is true for limited cases, we can then use it in bootstrap fashion to explain more and more complex examples, deeper examples. It gives us a new kind of practical handle on things. It gives insight into structure of buildings, natural systems, and works of art.
But what is all this? Remember, I am arguing (and necessarily so, to make the calculus work) not that life exists in some mechanical fashion, as a complex mechanism built out of simpler parts. What I am suggesting, instead, is that pure life itself, as an attribute of space itself, increases in some measure according to the organization of the space. The degree of life of any given portion of space, thus appears like a color, or like an overall attribute — a quality which appears in the space itself, along with the structural organization that also signals its appearance.
If true, this idea would be as startling, I think, as Maxwell’s idea, introduced in the 19th century, that light is created by electromagnetic waves in space itself. The idea that space itself, vibrating, should create light, was startling to people who thought of light as something that occurred in space. Maxwell’s idea must have been almost impossible to accept in 1865. Even now, when I myself really stop and think about Maxwell’s idea, I find it very hard to grasp — truly to grasp — the fact that it is true. Yet we now know that it is true.
The idea that life, too, might be an inherent attribute of space itself, as I have suggested, is no less hard to grasp. Yet I believe it is a necessary consequence of the theory I have put forward. It is needed, conceptually, to make the recursion in the mathematics work consistently. And this implies that it is likely not merely to be an artificial device, but that it is actually true.
Proposition 2: To the degree a center is a living center, it is also a picture of the true self, and — very startling — has this character for all people, not just for any individual.
According to the discussion in Book 1, chapters 8-9, the degree of life of each center is correlated with the degree to which that center is a picture of the self. To the degree it is alive, it reminds us of our own self. In this suggestion I laid the groundwork for the concept of “I” which appears throughout Book 4.
I first proposed this in Book 1, as a form of measurement, simply because it works experimentally and practically. It gives us one way of getting agreement among different observers about the degree of life in a given wholeness. It is a useful and effective way to find out what degree of life there is in any given center. I am not sure that, at root, it is not the only way we have of getting a reliable measure of life in things. As far as I have been able to determine, nearly all — and perhaps all — of the effective ways of measuring degree of life experimentally are related in one way or another to this experimental method that depends on our awareness of self.
It is remarkable that such a simple experimental method provides agreement on such a subtle subject. As I explained in the discussion of oriental carpets (Book 1, page 228), the criterion allows complex judgements of quality (which could normally be made reliably only by a museum curator or connoisseur with many years of experience) to be made successfully by a person almost without training, after a few hours. The criterion seems to short-cut a process of learning which would normally take years.
But the mystery is hardly yet plumbed. After all, degree of life, though measured by the degree of self-ness, and discussed in other empirical ways throughout Book 1, is not only reflective of aesthetic or emotional life in a building. It is indicative of actual life, of practical, functional life. It includes the way a parking lot works. It includes the life of ecological systems. It includes the practical way an auditorium works from an acoustic point of view. It even includes the practical efficiency of the entrance to a house and the structural efficiency of the Golden Gate Bridge. What is there in the way things are hooked up in the universe, that can explain such a deeply surprising correlation? Why should the practical beauty and efficiency of a girder in a bridge have anything to do with I?
Why should centers, in a structure which has practical life, in any sense at all resemble the human I, the self which each of us experiences at the core of our being? Why indeed, should what appears as my self, and what appears as your self, be in any sense similar? And why should it be that the things of the world, rank-ordered by the degree of life they have, have approximately the same rank order for you, and for me, and for almost everyone else?
Remember, too, that these phenomena are not limited to human artifacts. If it were true only for human artifacts, we could perhaps explain it by claiming that the artists who made them, consciously or unconsciously made them in such a way as to make them resemble the human self. If we assume that there is enough uniformity among different persons — a species-wide psychological core having to do with similarity of structure in our cognitive make-up — we might then reasonably expect that artists could “see” this psychological core, and could then put it into the centers of the buildings and artifacts they make.
But, as I have pointed out in both Book 1 and Book 2, the structure of living centers appears in nature, too, not just in buildings and works of art. It appears in snowdrops, in waves, in the billowing clouds, in mountains, glaciers, and rushing streams. It appears in a fox, in a snake, in a butterfly. It appears in grains of sand. What reason might there be, that the centers which appear in these things, and which are created by the apparently mechanical process of nature itself unfolding, would also resemble your self, and my self? Why should they resemble the self at all? Why should the self resemble them? There must be a connection, under the surface, which accounts for the correlation. Without proposition #2, the theory does not cohere.
Proposition 3: The structure-preserving transformations which continually modify one wholeness in space and replace it by another that preserves the structure of the first, slowly cause space to be filled with unfolded I-like centers.
This view of the unfolding process presents us with yet another mystery. The unfolding of wholeness is modest and conservative. It governs the emergence of all structure in nature (I have conjectured). It governs the emergence of structure in building and in art. It is related to the gradual intensification of that structural wholeness which exists naturally in space. Nevertheless that structure is essentially mathematical in nature. As a result of this unfolding action, in nature as well as in art, space slowly generates centers which are more and more deeply alive, and which more and more deeply reflect the human self. Thus the I-like character of space — if it exists at all — seems to arise physically, in both nature and in buildings, as a result of the unfolding process.
Why might this be true? On the face of it, as a mathematical process, the process of unfolding itself has nothing whatever to do with self or I — as far as one initially understands it. It is merely structure-preserving. The process of a wave forming in the ocean is not apparently connected with I. Yet it creates a structure which does profoundly connect with the I in me. The process of the unfolding of a buttercup is not apparently connected with my I. Yet again, what it leads to does then profoundly connect with my I almost as if I knew beforehand that my I existed.
The cumbersome explanation that we appreciate these natural forms, and recognize their naturalness, and therefore feel linked to them, does not really explain the sense one has from the phenomena, that the I-ness which develops in them is really there — not merely an after-the-fact invention of our perception. Once again, proposition #3 is more simple, and is inevitable. Though startling, with this proposition, the theory becomes more coherent, and more graspable.
Proposition 4: Only a deliberate process of creating being-like (or self-like) centers in built structure throughout the world, encourages the world to become more alive.
Here we come to the last of these four propositions to crystallize in my mind: the one I myself understood last. As I have said, it has become my conviction, through observation and experiment, that the successful maker of life consciously moves towards those structures which most deeply reflect or touch his own experience of I, his own contact with the eternal and universal I, his inner feeling, and consciously moves away from those which do not. My experience is that this does not merely create places which are pleasant, or liked, but that this process then creates places which are profoundly practical, harmonious, adequate for conduct of life, and respectful of ecology and all living forms.
If you look at the pages of Book 3 you see examples of living processes in action. Although many of the works illustrated are my own or the work of those whom I admire, nevertheless I believe it is still true to say that many of these things do have as much life as most that have been built near the end of the 20th century (possibly even a little more than most). So to some extent the process defined in this way does work, does create life. The effort of creating I-like centers, when pursued honestly and carefully, does create living structure in the world.
My conclusion is that careful construction of the world, according to the principle that every center is made to be related to the true I of the maker, will result in a world which is practical, harmonious, functional. If this is true, astonishingly then, it would appear that the safest road to the creation of living structure is one in which people do what is most nearly in their hearts: that they make each part in such a way that it reflects their true feeling, in such a way that it makes them feel wholesome in themselves and is, in this sense, related in the deepest way to their own true I.
For someone educated in the 20th-century way of looking at the world, this is enigmatic, if not ridiculous. It means that a world constructed in the most personal and individual fashion, made by people who are searching deeply to follow the nature of their own true I, their own true selves, will be — in the most public, objective, and universal sense — a world which is functional, adequate, and harmonious.
The enigma which arises, then, is that the process by which human beings create the world in their own image, gradually creates a living world, and this is — apparently — the best, and most efficient way in which a living world can be created. Of course, the phrase “in their own image” requires that it be the true self they are looking for; and implies that this larger process of building the world cannot be separated from each person’s personal search for the true self.
From the appearance of I-like phenomena throughout the occurrence of natural systems, it would appear, too, that the ordinary process of physical nature, efficient as it often is, also works for some reason when it makes connections with the same I. This is true, apparently, whether it occurs easily — as it does in nature by itself — or with great difficulty as it does when created as a result of an egoless effort by human beings. And those centers which unfold most smoothly remind us most of our own I.