October 17, 2011
The Living Technology of Christopher Alexander
Life is a kind of “making” process of unfolding and differentiating production.
The words “living” and “technology” do not often occur in the same sentence. We think of technology as something mechanical, inert, dead — very different from life, and even dangerous to living systems. And yet the word “technology” simply means “the knowledge of making” — that is, how to create structures in the world that help us do the things that we want and need to do to thrive as human beings. Living organisms do very similar kinds of things: a Nautilus makes its shell, a colony of termites makes its mound, a cell makes its twin — and ultimately, through a compounding process, this kind of duplication, combined with gradual differentiation, makes complex organisms. (We will come back to the bit about differentiation.) In a real sense, we call this the “technology of life.”
The insights we are gaining about these processes are opening the door to a new chapter in design — an era of “bio-design”, “biophilia”, and “biomimicry”. It’s an exciting promise, particularly in an era when our old technologies seem to be failing us. The crude industrial processes that powered our world for a century or more leave us with depletion, fragmentation, and decay.
Living systems can show us the way to recover and sustain the damaged systems upon which life depends. The design theorist Christopher Alexander has argued that similar processes have gone on throughout our own human history, and throughout the history of life itself. Life is a kind of “making” process of unfolding and differentiating production. The “technology of life” is governed by knowable steps. And we had better learn how to apply it, if we are not to be destroyed by the unsustainable technologies that surround us today: what we might call, on strictly scientific grounds, the “technologies of death”.
Let’s start with the insight, Alexander says, that living systems are able to make extraordinarily coherent structures, like dragonflies, or roses, or humans. These coherent structures are remarkably well organized, and remarkably beautiful. (As we will see, that’s not a coincidence.) Biologists call this process “morphogenesis” — the generation of structures, in this case living ones. Alexander proposes (on the basis of many others’ work in physics, biology, and cosmology) that these morphogenetic processes generating coherent structure are going on all the time — in fact, are at the heart of living processes, which are themselves more elaborate forms of the same kind of structure generation. So the capacity for morphogenesis is deeply ingrained in the structure of matter (both animate and inanimate) and nature, even if living organisms seem to be relatively rare phenomena.
Design produced by a technology of life should embody the same qualities found in unselfconscious traditional creations, providing the same quality of emotional feedback. Cold industrial impositions in the built environment are instead products of a technology of death.
Photo: Alexia Salingaros
Morphogenesis is closely related to ecological sustainability — the ability of organisms to maintain stability in the face of very dynamic and even hostile environments — because it is nothing other than the process by which living systems adapt to the changes that would otherwise destroy them. So it’s very important that we understand this kind of process, and understand how we do and don’t incorporate it into our own actions. Can our technologies and our way of making things reflect living processes? This includes our making of buildings, cities, and landscapes — Alexander’s primary focus as an architect. If we don’t do this, then we risk creating fragmentations, rifts, disordering mechanisms. Up to a point, this may not matter — our environment has sufficient resilience to absorb minor disruptions. But at some uncertain boundary — perhaps a sharp threshold — we risk the collapse of critical systems on which our human well-being depends. That’s because fragmentation destroys the morphogenetic ability itself.
There is ample reason to be alarmed that we are approaching just such a state today. How did we get into this predicament? We humans are very good at assembling large complex structures from lots of standardized parts. We started doing it with rifles, where one rifle design was broken down into parts, and we could make thousands or millions of identical rifles from sets of identical parts. Following essentially this technique, we have built our world today. Nature occasionally does something like this too, when it makes, say, billions of individual blood cells that are largely interchangeable — so much so that we can even swap them between certain people, and they will continue to carry out their complex processes and functions. In a similar way, a soldier can swap out his bolt assembly with another rifle, and it will still function.
Yet nature seldom works this way: every creation of structure is embedded in a context, with its unique circumstance, adaptation, and evolutionary history. Even in the rigid realm of crystals, there is mind-boggling variety among snowflakes, for example. If we could somehow swap out the arms of one snowflake with another, we would find that they never fit symmetrically. The context, not the thing, is the key. We might say: nature is complex — and all complexity is local! When we create the parts of rifles or buildings, we treat the whole as being “composed” of its parts. But this is an abstraction: a whole is not simply the sum of its parts. Leaves do not “make” a tree. In fact, the tree makes the leaves!
Each step of morphogenesis transforms a previous whole, in which the connected parts go through some kind of patterned restructuring. They may group together, they may differentiate, they may form various kinds of structured sets in relation to one another — but always, they do so in characteristic patterns, based on fundamental properties of space and the physical structure of the cosmos. The more important evolution occurs in the connections, though these are much harder to visualize. There is one more key issue to note. Aesthetics is not a “mere” psychological phenomenon. It is the way that our participation in the structure of things forms a distinctive experience. Evolution has given us a remarkable ability to perceive qualities within the structures of the universe, which are neither artificial nor arbitrary but manifestations of a kind of resonance with coherent real structures
From software engineer Helmut Leitner: “properties of life and categories of form are also inevitable concepts of our cognitive system”. Thus we find a radially symmetric pattern to be highly pleasing, and it is no accident that this is a fundamental spatial phenomenon. By implication, art is not simply a freely invented construction of abstractions at the whim of the artist, but a participation in a more structured cosmos, and a way of elucidating that profound structure. We are not “constructing a narrative” arbitrarily, but are actually relating what really does matter to human beings at a deep level, as living creatures. Art is thus fundamentally not arbitrary, and not abstract (though it may delve into those realms temporarily). Another implication is that public art in cities (including the art of architecture) has a responsibility to human wellbeing not to impose its expressions at the whim of the artist. Rather, there is an ethical obligation to serve the elucidation of a richer geometrical and sensory experience of our world, and the profound dimensions of our lives.
Searching to create life in an artifact before the age of industrial technology leads to a definite and recognizable geometrical quality. We have gradually lost this intuitive understanding with the advent of industrialization!
Photo: Alexia Salingaros.
A current example might serve to illustrate the point: Frank Gehry’s controversial design for the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C., which features monolithic eight-story cylinders holding up enormous stainless steel mesh panels. The gargantuan proposal has drawn heated opposition from many quarters, including members of Eisenhower’s own family. The famed architect seems intent on making an outsized “statement”, imposing a large-scale industrial structure, without much regard to the scale of human beings, or the quality of their ordinary experience. There is no effort to elucidate the rich geometrical pattern of the city; the effort is all geared toward imposing the artist’s statement — as if by a gigantic advertising billboard.
A product of archaic industrial technology and its thinking. Eisenhower Memorial Proposed Design by Frank Gehry.
Photo courtesy of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission
What does all this mean for today’s urgently needed reform of technology? Form-generating processes are required that work with, not against, the larger processes of natural systems. Our current technologies, however, because they conceive of structure as being fundamentally independent (a kind of useful deception that later backfires) are, in critically important ways, incapable of doing this. They default to a crude aggregation of parts through a linear process meeting largely pre-defined goals.
Take, for example, the notion of a blueprint — a standard tool of most technological production today. Blueprints are supposed to predefine what is going to be made, as a composition of pre-defined elements turned into an “object”. The blueprint is a linear set of instructions to the maker of that composition about precisely what to make, and how. But nature never makes blueprints! Nature does not just bring together collections of elements. Instead it follows coded guides akin to computations or recipes, and it uses them to make step-wise transformations. This is how Nature continues to make “wholes” through integrated structures that grow in complexity and richness.
It also appears that this contextual transformative process is how Nature achieves sustainability. The insights into such processes are opening the door to a very possible revolution in human technology. To achieve the power of this revolution, we have to get away from the prison of what Jane Jacobs called “thing theories” — that is, theories about non-interactive objects — and develop a much clearer “web way of thinking” that really models the interconnected way the world works. This may sound abstract and philosophical, but it has very concrete implications for how we go about our lives. It also points us in the direction of a different way of thinking about design — a very different living technology of design.
We are using an assumed technology of design all the time, but Alexander argues that what is needed must be different in five key respects:
Adaptive design cannot start from a supposed tabula rasa condition, but will always transform what already exists. Even similar design problems, in different contexts, have the task of transforming distinct configurations. In mathematical terms, every design problem has distinct initial conditions that strongly influence the solution.
Adaptive design has to engage multiple actors, forming a “collective intelligence” to explore the universe of available solutions and non-solutions. Otherwise, the search algorithm seeking good solutions can take forever, so someone chooses an arbitrary, poorly adapted or dysfunctional solution out of desperation.
Adaptive design explicitly employs simple stepwise procedures, operating sometimes at fine scales that can vary and adapt as they develop. This is known in the software community as “interactive computation”, in which the momentary configuration influences the solution as it develops. Computation is affected by feedback in real time.
An intelligent approach to design recapitulates the evolutionary successes of the past, and avoids the evolutionary failures of the past, by retaining “genetic information” on the most successful patterns, which we can re-use. Again, it is the software people who have profited most from this insight.
- A revolutionary aspect is to use the qualitative aspects of living systems, and in particular, the qualities of feeling that we bring to the design process. Surprisingly, this qualitative “selection by systemic attributes” very effectively helps to narrow down the search for adaptive solutions.
That last point bears some further explanation. Just as living systems are not simple mechanical structures, but integrated biological wholes, so too, life is not a simple assembly of quantities — this much potassium, that much nitrogen, etc. — but a class of whole systems that have important, even essential, qualitative aspects. These qualities are not particularly mysterious (we now understand very well that they are intrinsic to the structure of life) yet they are exceedingly complex. It is critically important for organisms like us to be able to perceive these qualitative characteristics of complex systems, so that we can avoid threats to our well being, and promote what is quite literally our “quality of life”.
Luckily for us, nature has evolved a powerful tool to do exactly that — our sensory and aesthetic perception. Far from being a trivial diversion, undamaged aesthetic discernment can make the difference between eating poisonous meat versus healthy meat, breathing fresh air versus dangerously contaminated air. And it can help us to find many other ways of being well within our environments. This is the revolutionary new field of “biophilia”. To use this powerful tool, however, we must apply it skillfully within our own processes of design. We cannot override it with abstract schemata, or simplistic formulas, or clever games, or narrow specialized considerations. Nor can we trivialize it, or consider it a mere form of titillation or diversion — or a rarefied aesthetic adventure, divorced from the other concerns and responsibilities of life. That too is a dangerous form of specialization, and even derangement. It results in dangerously maladaptive designs. This is the antithesis of sustainable design.
People surrounded by products of the technology of death are so numbed by them that they cannot be argued out of that sterile worldview; they can only be awakened from this state of acceptance. Previous cultures used a technology of life for every generated structure: from their coins, to the sculptures of their Gods, to their buildings, to their cities.
Photo: Alexia Salingaros
Instead, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to use these built-in sensors of living structure, working within a kind of “collective intelligence” with many other co-designers, including the actual or eventual users, to detect the most important qualities of buildings and settlements. Those perceived qualities can, indeed, promote our common well being, and the well-being of the ecosystems on which our lives depend. Armed with these new insights and approaches, we can begin to transform the old failing technologies of design — and thus initiate the necessary transition to a world that is no longer built on a technology of death, but instead, a technology of life.
Michael Mehaffy is an urbanist and critical thinker in complexity and the built environment. He is a practicing planner and builder, and is known for his many projects as well as his writings. He has been a close associate of the architect and software pioneer Christopher Alexander. Currently he is a Sir David Anderson Fellow at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, a Visiting Faculty Associate at Arizona State University; a Research Associate with the Center for Environmental Structure, Chris Alexander’s research center founded in 1967; and a strategic consultant on international projects, currently in Europe, North America and South America.
Nikos A. Salingaros is a mathematician and polymath known for his work on urban theory, architectural theory, complexity theory, and design philosophy. He has been a close collaborator of the architect and computer software pioneer Christopher Alexander. Salingaros published substantive research on Algebras, Mathematical Physics, Electromagnetic Fields, and Thermonuclear Fusion before turning his attention to Architecture and Urbanism. He still is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio and is also on the Architecture faculties of universities in Italy, Mexico, and The Netherlands.
Read more posts from Michael and Nikos here.