Having cracked open the idea of imposition and the lack of any such nonsense in the natural world, this post introduces some opening thoughts on how we might bring more of nature’s character into our world.
First, however, I would like to have a quick look at this word, nature. Nature/natural have to be two of the most heavily abused words in our language. Marketers the world over exploit their positive connotations to sell products that have very little (or none) of nature’s essence in them. When I use the terms here, I am not using them in this vague marketing sense, nor even really in the sense of looking at the naturalness of the products or substances involved. It is more about the structural character of nature that is of interest at this point; how it is arranged, the forms it takes (i.e. its geometry) and how we might follow nature’s lead.
Having a discussion about nature with words like: structural, arrangement, form and geometry is unfamiliar territory for most of us. Yet it is useful to look at nature in this way to help recognise the critical point that nature is not totally random and unpredictable. The natural world is not a place where anything can happen. Nature is a subset of everything that is possible. Nature’s shapes have certain defining characteristics which repeat in different organisms at different scales, both in the organic and inorganic realms. Nature is chock full of patterns too, some of them are more obvious than others and many of them are just stunning.
All of nature has a certain defining character to it. That character can at times be found in human creations too, but not always. Humans also have the unique ability to create in a way that is out of alignment with nature’s character. Alexander refers to those defining characteristics of nature as living structure. Alexander’s use of this term broadens the definition of living from the biological life of a bird, bug or bacteria to include everything we consider to be born of nature’s processes. This includes things such as stone, mountains, rivers, oceans and the sun itself. This living structure, as Alexander presents it, can also be found (or not, as the case may be) in any act of human creation such as a painting, a teapot, or a window. These human creations, when possessing a high degree of living structure, in turn enliven the space around them in much the same way as a natural feature might.
So if we are looking to bring living structure into the things we create, there is our first bit of guidance – everything and anything is not OK! Some things have a higher degree of living structure than others. Now, before you rush off and build your house in the shape of a snail shell, your roof like a leaf or your garden like a koru; there is another step. A key step that is even more fundamental, because copying nature’s forms is not creating like nature.
Darcy Wentworth Thompson said it all when he wrote:
“Everything [in nature] is what it is, because it got that way.”
In other words, a leaf is subject to a very particular set of forces and performs a very particular functions: it exchanges gases, catches sunlight, moves in the wind etc. The leaf is how it is because that is how it needs to be. Your roof has a totally different set of forces acting on it, and fulfills entirely different functional requirements. Therefore to set out to build a roof shaped like a leaf and claim it to have the character of nature would be nothing more than a leafy imposition and entirely lacking in living structure. What is required in order to bring about living structure is a living process. Living process generates living structure, the means and the ends are one and the same. We have to design like nature for our creations to have the character of nature.
When you are in a room or a landscape with a high degree of living structure, that space that envelops your body is more alive, you are more alive. When we feel more alive, our gifts are closer to the surface; more accessible, and we are a far more positive force in the world. I would suggest that this is what our world needs more than any other thing – people who are coming alive.
A fortuitous quirk at play here is that in the process of creating living structure, the creator must by definition, be coming to life themselves. How can you accurately tune into all of the forces at play in any given situation and facilitate the emergence of deeply beautiful, functional solutions without first bringing this same awareness to yourself and your own life? In striving to bring our creations to life, we become more alive ourselves. By creating life we are brought to life. How is that for a positive feedback loop? We could do with a few more of those too.
We may not have Mother Nature directly offering her services to help with our design challenges, but fortunately our own bodies, and all the creatures and features of this Earth that surround us are themselves products of living process. No shortage of examples and inspiration then! Sheesh, when you look at it like that, we should be all over this stuff by now! Traditional cultures the world over did actually have it pretty sorted with respect to creating through living process, but conditions since then have changed in a number of relevant way. For now I will spare you that tale of unintended consequences, merely noting that the world is a different place following the industrial revolution. Many of the changes that have occurred during and since that time in history have combined to relegate living design process from the default operating system to a microscopic niche.
The rather obvious point remains; nature won’t be designing our houses, cities and farms for us. So given that fact and given that we deem nature worth emulating, we could well ask the question:
“How can we distill the critical aspects of nature’s forms and processes to help us create in such a way that we reflect nature’s innate wisdom, character and beauty?”
Fortunately, someone has already spent 30 years writing a masterful 4 volume series on just that (not to mention the preceding 30ish years he spent building up to it). Our knight in shining armour is of course Christopher Alexander, and in particular his stonking 4 volume work: The Nature of Order. This blog will continue to pull key aspects from Alexanders work (and anyone else that has relevant contributions) to help answer that rather large and important question.
So off we go Hi ho hi ho, on the path toward tension free landscapes, streetscapes and buildings where people, things and spaces are brimming with life. Where the environmental and social forces combine almost as if of their own volition, as function merges with beauty to birth glistening geometries that not only radiate life, but provide for life, of all kinds. The springs flow clear and strong. The old folk tap their toes and laugh, as the kids dance along to the bird’s song . . .
Who’s keen? Or is that too Utopian? It probably is, but how big a crime is that really? We need to lift our standards if we are going to get anywhere worth being.