Feb 202003

My tiny corner of the blogosphere is abuzz with Christopher Alexander. Michael of the Blowhards has an excellent brief essay on him, with a link to Wendy Kohn’s more detailed treatment. AC Douglas also has a few remarks.

Alexander is a (now ex-) professor of architecture at Berkeley whose most famous books, The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language, have inspired a sort of cult. He believes that the key to architecture lies in rules, or recipes, which he calls patterns. The same problems occur over and over, and the patterns, which he claims not to invent but to discover, are well-known ways of solving them. A Pattern Language consists of 253 of these, with photographs and descriptions. Alexander maintains that if you simply follow the patterns, beauty will come. He aims to demystify all of architecture, and to a great extent he succeeds.

His patterns range in breadth from city planning to room decor, and many of them are alarming in their specificity. Cities should contain no more than 9% parking space; political communities should be around 7,000 people (this is reminiscent of the 19th century socialist crackpot Charles Fourier, who recommended 500 as ideal); no urban downtowns should serve more than 300,000 people; most buildings should be no more than four stories high; terraces should be at least six feet deep; every room should have light on at least two sides. Sometimes Alexander buttresses his rather ex cathedra pronouncements with studies and arguments; sometimes not. “Nine Percent Parking” gives a fair taste of his style:

We [he has co-authors] suspect that when the density of cars passes a certain limit, and people experience the feeling that there are too many cars, what is really happening is that subconsciously they feel that the cars are overwhelming the environment, that the environment is no longer “theirs,” that they have no right to be there, and so on… Instead of inviting them out, the environment starts giving them the message that the outdoors is not meant for them, that they should stay indoors, that they should stay in their own buildings, that social communion is no longer permitted or encouraged.

We have not yet tested this suspicion. However, if it turns out to be true, it may be that this pattern, which seems to be based on such slender evidence, is in fact one of the most crucial patterns there is, and that it plays a key role in determining the difference between environments which are socially and psychologically healthy and those which are unhealthy. [Italics his.]

To begin with, nine percent parking is based not on “slender evidence,” but on no evidence. It is a “suspicion,” which becomes a pattern, which becomes a dictum. Here you catch a faint whiff of the crank.

Yet it is a very plausible suspicion, even if the particular number is bogus. Urban landscapes full of cars, like Los Angeles, are depressing. Most of Alexander’s patterns are very plausible, even the ones that never would have occurred to me, like “Zen View”: “If there is a beautiful view, don’t spoil it by building huge windows that gape incessantly at it. Instead, put the windows which look onto the view at places of transition — along paths, in hallways, in entry ways, on stairs, between rooms.” The man who writes this has meditated long and profoundly about why some buildings succeed and others fail.

Alexander generally begins with what people want. You might think that most architects would begin there, but in fact very few of them do. Instead they talk a great deal about form, function, structure, “machines for living,” and the like. Alexander’s solicitude is one of the sources of his unpopularity within his profession and his popularity in the world at large. The photographs in A Pattern Language are of warm, inviting, pleasant places, places that would be fun to live or play or work in. They are not of monuments, large buildings, or what one has been taught to regard as architectural masterpieces.

In Alexander’s cosmology, beauty in architecture consists of satisfying people’s desires, and those desires are immutable. He uses words like “healthy” and “alive” with abandon. As Michael Blowhard notes, it follows that architectural standards are objective, and artistic standards as well. There is a human nature, to which buildings will appeal more or less successfully. It follows further that Alexander is in on the secret. It is this assurance, more than anything, that infuriates his fellow architects, who fancy themselves artists and resent the suggestion that someone has not only encountered their problem, but solved it.

Now I’m all for normative thinking, provided it’s kept far away from the police power. Jane Jacobs, with whom Alexander is frequently grouped, takes pains to show how livable cities grow organically from people’s natural behavior, while top-down planning leads to disaster after disaster. This concerns Alexander not at all: only ends interest him. Some of his grander patterns must be enforced by law, and he does not shrink from doing so. In “The Magic of the City” he writes:

Put the magic of the city within reach of everyone in a metropolitan area. Do this by means of a collective regional policies which restrict the growth of downtown areas so strongly that no one downtown can grow to serve more than 300,000 people. With this population base, the downtowns will be between two and nine miles apart.

He thinks people ought to own their homes. Arranging this is a simple matter: “Do everything possible to make the traditional forms of rental impossible, indeed, illegal.” So you’re not surprised to read this testimonial from one of his former students in Kohn’s article: “Chriss answer to my doubts about The Timeless Way of Building was to say ‘Find out your psychological problem that prevents you from agreeing.'”

Alexander’s biggest fans are not architects but computer programmers. Unless you are a professional, you don’t have a clue how vast his influence is in the field. The most important book written about software in the last thirty years, Design Patterns, takes its form explicitly from A Pattern Language. The authors enumerate thirty “patterns” that make for elegant, robust, even beautiful software. (The mark of a successful new technology today is the appearance of a book on it called Patterns in ...) Software design patterns are very like Alexander’s: solutions for recurring problems in software development. Cities and software applications are both complex systems that must be broken down into components to be understood. Alexander’s ideas lend themselves more readily to software than architecture because a software architect can control every aspect of a project. He need not rule the world to enforce his chosen patterns.

So we’re left with an inhumane humanist, a brilliant crank, an immodest prophet of modesty. Even so, A Pattern Language is one of the most interesting books about architecture, and the world, that you’re ever likely to read.

(Update: AC Douglas comments. I also posted a slightly different version of this to BlogCritics, where there are a couple more comments.)

(Another: Chris Bertram discusses Alexander and kindly mentions me.)

Feb 192003

The Nobel shortlist is out. (More like medium-length: there are 156 nominees.) I’ll leave Bono and Chirac to everybody else; it’s George Ryan who interests me. No matter what you think of capital punishment, how does a governor who commutes the sentences of 150 convicted murderers to life from execution contribute to world peace?

Feb 172003

Six hours today, from 11 to 5 EST. Finally straightened out my domain reregistration, which involved figuring out who registered me in the first place. Uptime remains at a solid 99%+, my poor organization notwithstanding.

Feb 172003

Eddie Thomas of One Good Turn, a normally sensible man, takes up the cudgel for Hegel. (Twice!) This makes two rational people, him and Andrew Sullivan, describing Hegel as “great” in the space of a week. Has the world gone mad?

Eddie is impressed by Hegel’s breadth, and it is true: his works include a Philosophy of Law, a Philosophy of Aesthetics, a Philosophy of Mind, a Philosophy of Right, a Philosophy of Science, a couple of Logics, a Philosophy of History, a History of Philosophy, and several odds and ends. This would impress me more if any of these works were intelligible. “We ought to contemplate what knowledge means if all anyone can hope for is to have hold of just one piece of the puzzle,” writes Eddie. Maybe so. Fortunately Hegel lost no sleep over this question.

Then we have this:

Hegel’s generosity as a philosopher is second to none. For him, as for Parmenides, all speech must be a speech about something, even if that something isn’t entirely clear to the one speaking. Thus, there are no utterly false philosophies; the trick is to rescue the insights that motivate those philosophies and set aside the ways in which such philosophies are partial. There is still a kind of condescension involved, in that Hegel tells everyone else what they really mean, but it is an approach far superior to the polemical approach that looks to “refute” all competitors.

If my choice is “polemic” or to be patted on the head and told not to worry, my argument is just another a datum in the historical world-consciousness, happens to the best of us, then I’ll take polemic, thanks just the same. Preserve me from such generosity.

This most generous of all philosophers buried his greatest German contemporary, Schopenhauer, with silence, in the customary way court favorites deal with their obscure betters, much as Goethe treated Kleist. German even has a special word for this, Radler, or cyclist, from the posture: bent back above, legs pumping below. Eddie writes that Schopenhauer was “resentful”; quite so.

I characterized Hegel’s philosophy as “the apotheosis of the State,” which Eddie disputes with an anecdote, from Knox, about Hegel toasting the French Revolution every year on Bastille Day. He spares his readers any quotations from the master himself. I will be less solicitous. Hegel wrote on the State as follows:

The State is the Divine Idea as it exists on earth… We must therefore worship the State as the manifestation of the Divine on earth, and consider that, if it is difficult to comprehend Nature, it is infinitely harder to grasp the essence of the State.

The State is the march of God through the world.

The State exists for its own sake… The State is the actually existing, realized moral life.

The really living totality, that which preserves, and continually produces, the State and its constitution, is the Government… In the Government, regarded as an organic totality, the Sovereign Power or Principate is the all-sustaining, all-decreeing Will of the State, its highest Peak and all-pervasive Unity. In the perfect form of the State in which each and every element… has reached its free existence, this will is that of one actual decreeing Individual (not merely of a majority in which the unity of decreeing will has no actual existence); it is monarchy.

…ultimate decision…absolute self-determination constitutes the power of the prince as such.

the absolutely decisive element in the whole…is a single individual, the monarch.

These are odd thoughts for a classical liberal.

Eddie says that my mocking Hegel for “proving” things like magnetizing iron increases its weight has nothing to do with his liberalism. True; but it might make a dent or two in his “greatness.” “If Aaron means that somehow he argues for these matters in an a priori fashion, I’ll let him supply the evidence.” Demanding that your interlocutor read Hegel is a shrewd tactic, even when arguing about Hegel; but of course he argued for these matters a priori. Does Eddie really believe these are lab results? A priori was the whole point. Any ordinary genius could induce Kepler’s laws from astronomical charts; only the greatest genius of all time could deduce them, without the benefit of any facts whatever. Hegel’s definition of heat may provide some insight into his method:

Heat is the self-restoration of matter in its formlessness, its liquidity the triumph of its abstract homogeneity over specific definiteness, its abstract, purely self-existing continuity, as negation of negation, is here set as activity.

Eddie warns us against the metaphysics of the scientists; he might also spare a thought for the science of the metaphysicians.

Hegel is one of the first allegedly serious thinkers to write nonsense, word salads with literally no meaning. (Parse the above passage on heat if you doubt me.) There is an excellent book to be written on nonsense, in which 19th century German idealist philosophy would figure prominently. Kant verged, in places, on nonsense; Schelling tipped over into it; and Hegel raised it to an art. Contemporary academics in the humanities, present company of course excepted, have no idea how much they owe to him.

“And I was just starting to think of these guys [me and Jim Ryan] as friends!” Eddie exclaims. We’re all still friends. Friends don’t let friends take Hegel seriously.

Feb 162003

Why is nearly all war poetry anti-war, and not just now, but always? Stanley Kunitz thinks it’s because “[war] is contrary to the humanitarian position that is at the center of the poetic impulse.” Poets oppose war because they care more deeply about humanity than the rest of us. If this satisfies you then stop reading now, by all means.

A poem motivates, through technical means like rhythm, meter and rhyme, the emotion proper to its rational statement. Emotion derives from personal experience. Thus the statement of poetry tends to be personal. This is not to say that poems cannot make complex logical arguments. But these arguments will relate, in the end, to a personal experience.

War is, at the level of the statesmen (and the pundits), where one decides whether to wage it, or even at the level of the generals, where one decides how, as impersonal a subject as one could wish for. To decide rationally to wage war one must put one’s emotions aside, which is the opposite of what poetry asks you to do.

Therefore most poetry about war is written at the level of the soldier, the best of it often by the soldier, and it’s understandably not very favorable to the enterprise. For the soldier war is a bloody, muddy, destructive, terrifying, chaotic smash — hell, as Sherman said. At this disastrously personal level it is impossible to be pro-war: no one enjoys war, for itself, except the morally deranged. This poem by Yvor Winters limns the difficulty:

Night of Battle
Europe: 1944
as regarded from a great distance

Impersonal the aim
Where giant movements tend;
Each man appears the same;
Friend vanishes from friend.

In the long path of lead
That changes place like light
No shape of hand or head
Means anything tonight.

Only the common will
For which explosion spoke;
And stiff on field and hill
The dark blood of the folk.

Winters fiercely supported the Second World War, but this poem is neither pro nor anti. To support a war one must regard it “from a great distance,” while poetry tends, on the contrary, to regard matters up close. As much room as there is for the individual, there is that much room for poetry; when one disappears the other must as well.

This is why pro-war poetry like Kipling’s sounds like tub-thumping. Kipling had little poetic talent: his poetry resembles great poetry as Sousa marches resemble great music. But mostly he chose a medium that does not suit the subject.

The problem of war resembles the problem of “what is seen and what is not seen,” as Bastiat put it, in economics. Unsound economic policies like tariffs win support because the benefits are seen, while the costs are invisible, being good things that never happen. (Not coincidentally, very little poetry has been written on economics.) War is the opposite. The costs are seen, while the benefits are invisible, being bad things that never happen. All art, and poetry especially, deals best with what is seen. So poems about war will tend to be against, or ambivalent, but always myopic. Anyone looking for geopolitical wisdom from poetry should look elsewhere. And when faced with a subject that’s out of their ken, poets, like actors, should just shut up.

(Update: Jim Ryan comments.)

Another: Andrea Harris notes this pro-war poetry site. The poems are not very good, but they’re better than the anti-war stuff.)

Feb 162003

As Steven Den Beste, Arthur Silber, and others have pointed out, war with Iraq is no longer an abstract question. We’ve already threatened Saddam with force, many times and with increasing shrillness, unless he disarms. He’s failed to do so, as everyone acknowledges, even Inspector Magoo and the French. Arthur writes:

But here is the problem that confronts us now: after all the posturing, preparations, and speech-making, especially over the past year, if we were to do nothing now, we might as well hand out engraved invitations to terrorists to come and attack us again. Paper tiger wouldn’t even begin to describe the problem. We might as well be defenseless — because, in effect, we would have rendered ourselves defenseless.

One could describe this policy as unilateral moral disarmament.

Opponents of the war continue to argue in a vacuum, as though we have not promised to disarm Saddam by any means necessary. It’s certainly possible to argue that we shouldn’t have made any such promise. What I’d like to see is an argument that, having promised to disarm him, we should then proceed not to do so. Just asking, is all.

Feb 152003

Not Ayn Rand; Harvard Professor of Government Harvey Mansfield, in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Harvard is afraid to look ambition in the face. To Harvard, ambition and the responsibility that accompanies it look elitist and selfish. (“Elitist” is the fancy, political version of “selfish.”) Harvard gives its students to understand that the only alternative to selfishness is selflessness. Morality is held to be sheer altruism; it is service to the needy and the oppressed. A typical Harvard student spends many, many hours in volunteer work on behalf of those less fortunate. But what he or she plans for his own life — a career — seems to have no moral standing. To prepare for a career is nothing but to make a selection under the regime of choice. It is careerism — a form of elitism and selfishness — that seems unattractive even to those contemplating it.

Selfless morality is fragile and suspicious: Who believes a person who claims to be unconcerned with himself? Yet mere selfishness is beneath one’s pride. Harvard is caught between these two extremes; it has lost sight of its virtue. It cannot come to terms with the high ambition that everyone outside Harvard sees to be its most prominent feature.

(Courtesy of Erin O’Connor.)