Feeling life

We can feel different degrees of life in things, and that feeling is strongly shared by almost everyone. The intuition, or impression, of life exists in a wide variety of physical systems.

We experience degree of life as an essential concept which goes to the heart of our feelings about the natural world, and which nourishes us fundamentally, as a fact about the world.

This is not merely a metaphor, or an anthropocentric view.

The feeling of more life is correlated with a structural difference which can be made precise, and measured.

The feeling is clear. Only the effort to find a theory to justify your intuition might confuse you.

This life-supporting quality is missing from the 20th century because some deep conceptions of matter — at first almost remote, and apparently not common-sense or practical at all — have been removed from our awareness.

A deep experience of order

The deepest experience of order we experience with wonder

It is this very general life — formal, geometric, structural, social, biological, and holistic — which is my main target.

In a few cases, life in a thing, or in a person, or in an action, or in a building, reaches a level of intensity which is truly remarkable. This can happen in a work of art, or in a person’s life, or in a moment of a day.

Above all, it does sometimes happen in buildings and in artifacts. It is this melted unity, this deepest experience of order that we experience with wonder, which is the real target of this book, since it is this quality which we are most often trying to reach when we make a building.

I wonder how much Alexander’s definition of life aligns with extroversion/introversion. It is easier for extroverts to sense life?

-> Seeing centers

Life shows itself in imperfection and simplicity

Perfect = dead.

Life itself is damaged, and nothing which is perfect can be truly alive.

It has a kind of blitheness or serenity, an innocent and simple quality.

What impresses us about all these examples is that they have a kind of blitheness or serenity, an innocent and simple quality. Their depth is not a mechanical composition: there is a truth, an easiness, about many of these things. Their easiness takes the breath away. They arrive at a simplicity and truthfulness which ring an echo in us — sometimes perhaps even make us weak in the knees. Somehow these works remind us of the essence of life. They have a simplicity beyond artifice.

In conflict with practice and style of contemporary architecture

On the one hand almost all individuals make the same judgement of the degree of life in structures. On the other hand, some individuals, architects for instance, might be invested in the style of structures that exhibit less life because it represents contemporary style.

If that feeling is indeed universal, even those will feel that the other structures exhibit more life, but can’t accept the conclusions and therefore might feel obligated to criticize the validity of the question, marking it as pure opinion and therefore not relevant.


Life in organisms

  • animals, flowers feel alive
  • we can sense a high degree of life in people, but also sense differences in people glowing with life or feeling half-dead

Life in ecological systems

  • we recognize degrees of life, or degrees of health in ecological systems

Life in ordinary human events

  • a sense of functional liberation and free inner spirit that makes us feel comfortable and alive when we experience it
  • it is rough, not manicured
  • it is ordinary, not connected to high art or fashion
  • it occurs most deeply when things are simply going well, or when we are experiencing joy or sorrow — when we experience the real
  • it is the central teaching of Zen and all mystical religions
  • it is the condition in which we are able to see the wholeness which exists around us, feel it directly, and respond to it
  • when we have some loss of inhibition (when we are drunk), our freedom to act and react is often truly increased

Life in traditional buildings and works of art

  • the life we experience seems to lie in the geometry, in the geometrical arrangement of the thing
  • we can feel touched, still, awe, silent, grateful

Life in 20th century buildings and works of art

  • concept-free: not based on images, or on ideas of reality, but instead have reality itself coming to life in them in a free way
  • vigorous and straightforward, where the soul of the maker has entered the thing — or where the ordinary process of daily life, uncontaminated by ideas or notions of what to do, has unfolded in a way that we accept very easily
  • make us conformable, because we recognize them as genuine
  • life springs from wholeness, life is wholeness

Intense life in ordinary poverty

The processes needed for creating life were damaged in the 20th century.

The poverty and dirt allows the life to exist, allows life to shine out, because the middle-class conceptions of what is good are not at work killing the life. The conditions are so impoverished that only the direct life itself exists. Mental conceptions of what is desirable inspired by magazines, images of desire fostered by the media, here have gone out of the window, or never existed.

Meta: Carefully encouraging agreement

In the two-picture comparisons in chapter 2 Alexander does something really clever: he collects several examples of varying degrees of obviousness, let’s us judge for ourselves, and then carefully encourages us to agree with him. In a politically divided world where everyone has their own opinions, we need more of this kind of encouraging agreement.

Even though in a few cases you may have made a different judgement from the one I have made, still I think you will have found that, broadly, you and I agree.

On several (meta) levels, Alexander’s struggle with arguing for his definition of life resembles George Lakoff’s mission to argue for his theory of Experientialism.

#book/The Nature of Order/1 The Phenomenon of Life/1 The phenomenon of life/5 The feeling of life in ecological systems#

#book/The Nature of Order/1 The Phenomenon of Life/1 The phenomenon of life/7 The feeling of life in traditional buildings and works of art#

#book/The Nature of Order/1 The Phenomenon of Life/2 Degrees of life/1 Differing degrees of life in our everyday surroundings#

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