Pattern Languages Edition
RIP Christopher Alexander, the last bastions of the American Elm, and John Michael Greer reups catabolic collapse.
This is my semi-regular roundup of what I’m reading and working on. If you’re new, catch up on what this substack is about here. I also post occasional poetry and prose. It’s free. Subscribe here if you like.
Otherwise, welcome friend, and read on.
RIP Christopher Alexander. The Vienna-born British architect died this past month, aged 85. It feels a bit disingenuous to go on about how much he has influenced me, since I am not an architect nor have I ever designed any sort of dwelling. Someday I yet may.
But Alexander himself would have objected to that objection, I think. His work was above all about putting the stuff of architecture back in the hands of regular people. It was about a recovery of the vernacular, a resuscitation of bottom-up design. His books sought to give everyday people the tools—from the smallest furniture arrangement to the layout of entire towns—to make their environments more beautiful. That is, more filled with life, themselves and their communities more fully alive.
Reviewers have called his thinking unclassifiable, and this is fair. He was a polymath in the true sense, seeking not only mastery of many fields but also new syntheses, unexpected ways of weaving them together and making connections across them. Mathematics, physics, architecture, biology, theology—it was all fair game, all to be tinkered with and juggled in childlike wonder. Like the alchemists of old he grasped for the brass ring, a theory of everything, and in his time he received as many, or more, accusations of vagueness and overreaching as he did accolades. His disagreements with establishment starchitects were sharp and personal:
Alexander: The thing that strikes me about your friend’s building—if I understood you correctly—is that somehow in some intentional way it is not harmonious. That is, Moneo intentionally wants to produce an effect of disharmony. Maybe even of incongruity.
Eisenman: That is correct.
Alexander: I find that incomprehensible. I find it very irresponsible. I find it nutty. I feel sorry for the man. I also feel incredibly angry because he is fucking up the world.
He found his ring, his theory of everything, in beauty. To him beauty was far beyond mere ornamentation, or even aesthetics. It was the underlying principle of the fractally unfolding order of the world. He didn’t elevate beauty; rather he sunk it into the earth, located it at the very foundations and structural girders of creation. To him it was both spark and sign of the ineffable quality known as life.1 Beautiful order, rightness, aliveness, wholeness: These are not luxuries to be hoarded by the rich or the tastemaking elites; they are the gifts of nature and the birthright of every human. Architecture and design, then, was not about theory at all, but about returning to individuals and communities the language to investigate and apply their inner intuitions, honed by millennia of trial and error, articulated in diverse ways by local cultures, and guided as much by embodied emotion as by reason.
It has taken me almost fifty years to understand fully that there is a necessary connection between God and architecture, and that this connection is, in part, empirically verifiable. With that banger of a line begins one of my favorite essays, the brief cri de coeur that introduced me to Alexander half a decade ago. It condenses many of his major ideas: that beauty is an objective feature of the universe, that it is in a sense the signature of the Author of that universe, and that it is also humble, accessible to each of us in whatever station of life we find ourselves. It fits snugly in the palm of our hand like the well-worn handle of an adze. It reveals our responsibility to shape the world, to act in an echo of our creator, in ways that heal us and heal each other. To stop fucking up the world.
Earth—our physical Earth and its inhabitants—sand, water, rocks, birds, animals, and trees—this is the garden in which we live. We must choose to be gardeners. We must choose to make the garden beautiful.
The most urgent, and I think the most inspiring, way we can think about our buildings is to recognize that each small action we take in placing a step, or planting a flower, or shaping a front door of a building is a form of worship—an action in which we give ourselves up, and lay what we have in our hearts at the door of that fiery furnace within all things, which we may call God.
The capacity to make each brick, each path, each baluster, each windowsill a reflection of God lies in the heart of every man and every woman. It is stark in its simplicity. A world so shaped will lead us back to a sense of right and wrong and a feeling of well-being.
There were many tributes penned, more knowledgeable and eloquent than mine, and too many to quote. This one dives deeper into his early work in mathematics and its impact on programming. This gets into the nitty gritty of complexity theory. And this is a lovely short reflection on Alexander’s idea of creativity as iterative process: “We are shepherds of the unfolding.”
Elisa Gabbert with a close look at Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” the poem’s relationship to the Breugel painting that inspired it, and what it reveals about the nature of suffering and attention.
Ulmus americanus, the great American Elm, largely disappeared in the wake of Dutch elm disease. One town has managed to keep their holdouts thriving, for now.
On Jack Kerouac’s 100th birthday, why his rebellion ultimately failed.
This clip of Kerouac on Firing Line from 1968, just months before his death, is both fascinating and painful to watch. Obnoxious, belligerent, and barely coherent in his drunken stupor, he yet manages to toss off this bon mot: “Being a Catholic, I believe in order, tenderness, and piety.”
Peter Hitchens on his time as a reporter in Moscow, and his fears that the Russia that was almost totally lost after a century of upheaval is now inescapably so.
William Logan sizes up John Berryman’s life in letter-writing. “The poet wasn’t satisfied unless he had conquered three cities and a principality or two before breakfast… Elation when he began became unendurable paralysis when things went bad.”
Bob Dylan is a pretty good painter.
I’ve been listening to more podcasts these days, partially to save my eyes and partially because it is a pleasant thing to half-listen to murmuring while painting.
And apropos energy crises, a very interesting conversation with ecologist John Michael Greer. JMG, in his inimitable neodruid style, gives a good introduction to his ideas surrounding “catabolic collapse,” his term for the process of gradual societal decomplexification that occurs as net energy costs rise and maintenance of existing infrastructure becomes increasingly untenable.
I need to be reading more Gerard Manley Hopkins, in general.
(via Poetry Foundation.)
The liturgical life.
Lent continues, with its always-unexpected interior voyages. The weeks leading up to Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week on April 10, are a time of preparation. Alongside our own penances, we witness the catechumens who will enter the Church on Easter progressing through their scrutinies, standing up and declaring publicly their intentions. For those of us who previously made these vows, three years ago or thirty, it is an opportunity to renew them, rest in them, grapple with them, or otherwise come to terms with the pilgrimage we’re on. At the Easter Vigil we will be asked again if we reject Satan, and all his works, and all his empty promises. Three times we will renounce. And then we will feast.
Outside under nature’s liturgy, the last blasts of spring snow have turned to wind and cold rain. I dream little dreams of a modest garden, and scheme how to pack some potatoes, onions, and herbs into window boxes or various other containers. We shall see. The bee whisperers, meanwhile, are cracking open their hibernating hives with bated breath, coaxing their wards back to life in the great wide world. Someday inshallah I shall join them in honey Valhalla.
Life defined not only in the everyday biological sense, but also under the more robust definition of that which by mysterious processes overcomes local entropy. Schrödinger poetically called life “the astonishing gift…of drinking orderliness from a suitable environment.”