Christopher Alexander and the quest for balance in architecture, systemic constellations and human-centered design

We all know what it’s like to step into a space that on first impression feels good, uplifting, harmonious in some way. As we look around at our spaces we can take a moment of pause, feel a sense of ease from the beauty in a landscape, the view from a window, the layout of a room, the posture of a building.

Christopher Alexander was an architect and visionary theorist who wondered about the beauty of a village, a building, a built environment, and asked, What makes it so? And how might this quality of “rightness” be repeated? How might it scale? He thought there was a timeless way of building and that places of beauty were made by people who are close to this way. Alexander set out to find the common patterns that generate the most aliveness in a structure, with the goal of helping more people to be able to create beautiful environments and ultimately a more beautiful world.

He analyzed which buildings and spaces people had resonance with and derived 253 unique patterns described in his book “A Pattern Language.” With this book he wanted to provide a practical glossary that people could reference and reverse engineer for beauty. In the beginning of his quest he called the quality he was searching for “the quality without a name.” Later he named it “wholeness” in Nature of Order which relates to human relationships the feelings of belonging to the place and structure.

In Alexander’s inquiry there are many parallels with Systemic Constellations. In the language of Constellations we would say that Alexander was looking to define the place of balance, where systems come into equilibrium. Systemic Constellation shares in Christopher Alexander’s goal of propagating for beauty, balance, and looks at the relationship between diverse parts of an environment in order to architect for harmony.

The constellations approach is different in that instead of giving people a glossary of patterns to reference, we help people to develop their own capacities for perception. Once they get a felt sense for this senses of balance and harmony they can apply it, not only to building, and environments, but to anything humans “make,” including social systems. We include how things are today and often include a representative for the full vision of what the work could be.

The design process that Christopher Alexander used in building his first client home in Albany, California began with Alexander asking the owner Andre Sala to close his eyes and describe “the most beautiful and comfortable room you can remember.” What he envisioned was a memory of the farmhouse he had visited as a boy in the south of France. This became the center of the home.

While the overall form of the house was planned in advance, it was not driven from behind a desk. Many design decisions were made as building progressed. For example, the placement of windows and the height of ceilings was determined on site by first creating mockups in cardboard. Christopher Alexander said the mockups were considered not by a standard of “Do I like it?” but by considering “In all the variations I can think of, which is the one that makes me feel most wholesome, most whole in myself?”

The act of design and construction is recast into an inquiry about wholeness and balance. This was a departure from the typical process at the time, where an edifice was conceived on a drafting table, with building plans and requirements ruling the process, and then imposed onto a site.  Instead for Alexander the guiding questions were about balance, comfort and harmony. Every detail was finalized on site and in relationship to what was already there. There was a strong awareness of pre-existing patterns, conditions, and history. 

As a human centered designer, I recognize the transition to an iterative process that I have seen over the course of my career in the technology. In the packaged software era, we would create a monolith of code, test it based on our best in-house knowledge, and then release it to the marketplace. If there were errors or lapses in functionality, these would be fixed when the next monolith of code was released. In the late 90s it was apparent to all that the approach needed to be more dynamic for the web environment. I became interested in the human interaction with the system, and found a home in user research where we started testing early prototypes with different audiences. Bringing end users into the design process brought more aliveness and balance into these systems, not to mention making the products functional and wildly successful. 

Before the boom of user-centered design, technology was being driven by “What does the business want?” and “What do the technologists know how to build?” Today we now regularly include “What do our audiences want” as part of the process, but there is mounting un-ease that we are still out of balance. We are now being asked to look for who or what has been excluded from our process. For example, is a vast number of human populations who have been left out, and we are rarely asking how to include nature or the earth in the design process. Systemic constellations gives us a way to grow in our capacities to diagnose these imbalances and exclusions. We can learn to design for wholeness, balance, and aliveness. 

Alexander cautioned us to not lose sight of the fact that systems are embedded and in relationship with other systems. 

“This is a fundamental view of the world. It says that when you build a thing you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must also repair the world around it, and within it, so that the larger world at that one place becomes more coherent, and more whole, and the thing which you make takes its place in the web of nature, as you make it.” -Christopher Alexander

There was recently a conversation about Christopher Alexander in the Pop-Up School with Bonnitta Roy. and the metaphysical tones that were present in his first book: 

Roy: “calling the book a ‘first step in the society-wide process by which people will gradually become conscious of their own pattern languages and work to improve them.’ Alexander thought that the languages which govern people today are brutal and fragmented, and that most people have lost any true language to speak with at all. It was his goal to penetrate deep into the nature of things, to the core of all possible pattern languages, which can make people feel alive and human.

Christopher Alexander describes the balance he is looking for: 

“I first feel existence shimmering in reality, and I then feel it deep enough in the thing I am looking at and trying to make, to know it is worth capturing in concrete and wood and tile and paint. … This thing, this something, is not God, it is not nature, it is not feeling. It is some ultimate, beyond experience. When I reach for it, I try to find— I can partly feel— the illumination of existence, a glimpse of that ultimate. It is always the same thing at root. Yet, of course, it takes an infinite variety of different forms.”

Roy goes on to say that Alexander noticed that, when in the presence buildings or structures that have the quality of aliveness, whether natural or man-made, something was released in him— his true voice — or he was released into something — his natural state. At first he experienced this as getting closer and closer to his true self, but then he realized he was touching “something vast, existing outside of myself and inside myself, as if it were a contact with the eternal, something everlasting existing before me, in me, and around me.”

Alexander describes how he knows what he’s looking for in an embodied way:

“This is what I have felt on the beach on the north shore of Point Reyes, near San Francisco, when the sea comes crashing in with enormous force, when the water and wind are too loud for me to hear my voice, the waves too strong for me to think of swimming, the force of the water and the wind, the white foam of the waves, the blackish green moving water, the huge, loud grinding swells, the beach sand that goes on forever, the seaweeds strewn on the beach that have been hurled by a force greater than they are— as I am, also, when I walk among them.”

“Yet, even though I am next to nothing in the presence of all this forces, I am free there. In such a place, at such a moment, I am crushed to understand my own smallness, and then understand the immensity of what exists. But this immensity of what exists— and my connection to it— is not only something in my heart. It is a vastness which is outside me and beyond me and inside of me.”

This speaks to how we develop our ability to design for balance in a system. In systemic constellations if there is a stakeholder from they system we are designing for, we can architect a living map of the system and use our embodied felt sense to see how the creative impulse moves of its own accord. This can be done for all acts of creation — setting up a room, drawing, painting, programming.