I have been reading Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building, which (together with its companion book, A Pattern Language) was recommended to me years ago by my uncle, an architect, as the most important thing to read to understand principles of architecture. I once went driving with my uncle and my father in West Virginia (we were all there for my cousin’s marriage), and I remember thinking how fascinating it was the things my uncle pointed out. He saw towns so differently than my father and I: we, being gardeners, noticed plants and gardens, but my uncle, the buildings.
The Timeless Way of Building begins with an attempt to define a quality without a name. It has no name not because it is too vague and imprecise, but because words are, and it is the most precise thing of all. Alexander gives a range of words whose elliptical meanings contain the ‘point’ of the quality: alive; whole; comfortable; free; exact; egoless; eternal. None of these are quite right, none quite wrong.
It is, he writes, “the central quality which is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building, or a wilderness. This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named.”
Even though we can’t name it, we can recognise it: it is, after all, the root criterion of existence. I suppose that is what I am trying to accomplish with this blog, trying to figure out — in my life and through my writing — how to foster this quality without a name, which is life and wholeness, freedom without license, order without deadness. Eternal: but very much caught in the particular moments. It is what I meant by living with depth and breadth and height, the dimensions of the soul.
What else can we say about it? We could call it the search for integrity, being hale. It is beautiful; things are often beautiful because of this. Even more, it’s how things ought to be, the soul’s life and the world’s life supporting and uplifting the other. Yet Alexander says that one of the things that’s important about this quality is that it is ordinary.
This a beautiful, precise word, which we rarely use with its full valence. Ordinary: what comes out of, and gives, order. Ordinary numbers are those by which we count; integers. Our society tends to privilege the extraordinary, but that, perhaps, is because we have lost the beauty of the ordinary, forgotten to build our lives and cities (and the City) with the quality without a name.
We could call it magic, except that it’s neither illusory nor demonic; I think poetic perhaps comes closer. A fire can be poetry or it can be merely a fire; a fire (or a loaf of bread) can be sacramental, connecting the particular and the infinite, the temporal and the infinite. Pure sprezzatura makes actions a bit like this: carefree, nonchalant, beautiful. Poetry. Buildings. Lives. The quality that makes us us.