Living Structure Down to Earth and Up to Heaven: Christopher Alexander

May 2020 | No Comment

This paper is intended to defend living structure as a physical phenomenon, and a mathematical concept, clarifying some common questions and misgivings surrounding Alexander’s design thoughts, such as the objective or structural nature of beauty, building styles advocated by Alexander, and mysterious nature of his concepts. This paper helps people understand why beautiful things are beautiful, and why ugly things are ugly, through the underlying living structure. Living structure is to beauty what temperature is to warmness. Readers may recall that we published the down to earth part of the paper in March issue. Here we present the up to heaven and concluding part of the paper

Bin Jiang

Professor, Faculty of Engineering and Sustainable Development, Division of GIScience University of Gävle, Gävle, Sweden

5. The inner meanings of living structure through the I-hypothesis

The phenomenon of living structure implies that the real world is a living world, to which we human beings belong. This section further discusses the I-hypothesis, the new cosmology, and how to make better sense of living structure in our inner world.

5.1 The I-hypothesis and how it comes

The I-hypothesis states that there is, physically in the universe, and underlying all space and matter – at every point of space and matter – a single underlying substance that shall be simply called “I”. It can be called or expressed in a variety of ways: the concept of “I”, the universal “I”, the luminous ground, the blazing one, the I-substance, the “I”, the Self, the heaven, the spirit, the soul, the domain of “I”, the ground of “I”, the eternal “I”, the plenum of “I”, something luminous, the underlying “I”, the concept of beings, and even God. In this paper, I do not refer to it as God but instead as the “I”, hence the I-hypothesis. The I-hypothesis goes beyond the mechanistic world picture, under which the human inner world is separated or disconnected from the physical world. The I-hypothesis implies an organic world view, under which the human inner world is tightly united with the physical world through the “I”. This is difficult for our minds to understand, because we have become used to the mechanistic world picture. The mechanistic world view is superficial, and could be simply wrong (Whitehead 1938). We have to get out of the mode of thought to which we have become accustomed, just as Alexander did, in order to make better sense of the inner meaning of living structure. This philosophical and visionary part of living structure is metaphysical, and remains highly mysterious, and probably can never be verified.

The following quote shows how Alexander (2002–2005, Volume 4, p. 136) himself struggled with the I-hypothesis:

“When thinking as a scientist, it must of course be this question of truth which occupies one’s mind. It is for this reason that I have kept records, and written down my observations, for the last thirty years, as carefully as possible. As a result of my observations, and as a result of my experiences in the field − as an architect building buildings, as a craftsman making things, as a planner laying out buildings and precincts and seeing them come to life − I have gradually become convinced that this theory [the theory of I-hypothesis, note by this paper’s author], or at least something very much like it, is indeed likely to be true. In short, as a scientist, I have gradually come to the belief that the I must be real. And as an architect, I have also become convinced that the I is certainly real in buildings, and must necessarily play a fundamental role in architecture.”

This I-hypothesis or a version of it first came to Alexander’s mind while he was studying Turkish carpets. As he wrote at the very beginning of the book:

“A carpet is a picture of God. That is the essential fact, fundamental to the people who produced the carpets, and fundamental to any proper understanding of these carpets.

This does not mean, in Anglo-Western terms, that a carpet is a picture of a man with a long white beard. God, the all seeing, everlasting stuff, is the target of Sufism – as it is of all the mystical religions. In modern language we might also call it ultimate oneness of everything. The Sufis, who wove most of these carpets, tried to reach union with God. And, in doing it, in contemplating this God, the carpet actually tries, itself, to be a picture of the all seeing everlasting stuff. We may also call it the infinite domain or pearl-stuff.” (Alexander 1993)

5.2 The new organic cosmology

From the I-hypothesis, Alexander conceived and conceptualized a new world view or new cosmology, in which the outer physical world and the inner emotional world are united as one, in one coherent world picture. Our individual inner selves and any living structures in space and matter are imbued with the “I”. The density of the “I” is not uniformly penetrated in space and matter, and it depends on the degree of wholeness or living structure. In other words, the more living a center, the greater the possibility that the center reveals the “I”. It is essentially a non-material view of space and matter, and is therefore hard for our mechanistic mindsets to accept. If it were accepted, it would make good sense in terms of explaining why the feeling of beauty or life – or our inner world – can be triggered by the living structure of the physical outer world.

The new cosmology put forward by Alexander has its philosophical and religious roots. For example, Whitehead (1920) believed that we cannot have a proper grasp of the universe and our place in it until two worlds – the physical world and our experienced inner world, which are called “bifurcation of nature” – can be united in a single picture. This is exactly what Alexander did to get these two worlds united through the hypothesized “I”, and based on the powerful notion of living structure. Alexander felt strongly that to build great buildings, and make great arts, one must keep the creation or design as a worship to the “I” or God. According to Alexander, the weavers wanted to be united with God through the carpet as a living center. Places for the Soul is a 30-minute film on the work of Christopher Alexander by an independent filmmaker, which highlighted Alexander’s approach to building. In it, Alexander remarked that his approach to architecture was “to make God appear in the middle of field”. In the first paragraph of the book on carpets (Alexander 1993), as mentioned above, he began with the sentence “A carpet is a picture of God”, while in his essay, The long path thatleads from the making of our world to God (Alexander 2007a), he made an explicit link between the built environment and God. All these point to the fact that his thoughts are pretty religious. If we thought anything we make or create is to sense and to see the “I”, would our daily life not become more meaningful?

It should be noted that the new organic world picture is not about abandoning the current mechanistic world view, but about the hypothesized “I” to make the current world picture complete and integrated. Human beings are not separated from the physical world, as is currently conceived, but united with the outer world through the ubiquitous hypothesized “I”. This new world makes better sense as to why our consciousness comes from the human brain, which is the most living center in the body, and enables us to sense or see the ground “I”.

5.3 Making sense of living structure in our inner world

Let’s see how the I-hypothesis makes better sense of living structure in our inner worlds than the purely psychological view. According to Alexander (2002−2005), space is neither lifeless nor neutral, but a living structure capable of being more living or less living. This living space view includes everything in the physical world, as large as the universe (1027), as small as the Planck size (10-35), and sizes in between the largest and the smallest. This living space view is very much like extending the picture of Figure 5 at its two ends: beyond the Earth toward the entire universe, and further down from the building façade toward the smallest. In this living space, according to the I-hypothesis, the “I” exists everywhere. Therefore, any human being is part of this living space, and he – the human body – is also fused or tunneled with the “I”. Like any space, the human body is not uniform in terms of living centers; some parts are more living and some parts are less so. For example, the human brain is the most living center in the human body. This explains why we have consciousness or why we have the feeling of beauty or life, and why great architecture and works of art are religious, and why ancient carpets are religious. This is because the human brain is the most living center, through which one can sense or see the “I”. In other words, the living center acts like a window, through which one sees the “I”: the more living a center is, the higher the possibility one sees the “I” through the center. Whether the I-hypothesis is true may never be verified. However, this physical or metaphysical view of the universe seems better than the psychological explanation about beauty and life.

A living structure – or a living façade in particular – is full of hundreds or thousands of living centers, which Alexander (1993) called “beings”. A being is the most beautiful or most living center in a living structure. It is autonomous, capable of uplifting the human spirit. For example, the front gate of the Taj Mahal façade is such a being or beinglike center (Figure 6b). One could also say that the upper dome is being-like because it contains many elaborate and intricate sub-structures. As Alexander (2002–2005) gazed at the humble yet beautiful tile (Figure 10a), he felt clearly as though he was looking through to heaven. This expression of his own feeling may seem far-fetched or romantic under the current mechanistic mode of thought, but it should be understood as something literal under the new world view, a nonmaterial view of space and matter. To mimic how Alexander expressed his own feeling, we could say that by gazing at any picture of Figures 5, 6 and 10, our spirit is uplifted. Through contemplation, we develop a deep sense of feeling that we are part of Earth, part of the building, or part of the city, and eventually part of the universe. In the same fashion, any picture of Figure 6 enables us to see the “I” or the luminous ground, or we can become united with the luminous ground and our spirit is uplifted. In a secular tone or in the current mechanistic mode of thought, we feel at ease emotionally, as our personal feeling, or our true feeling.

6. Conclusion

This paper is intended to defend living structure as a physical phenomenon and mathematical concept for people to understand objective or structural nature of beauty, or to setup a dialogue with those who are skeptical about Alexander’s profound design thoughts. Living structure is a mathematical structure of physical space, which is able to be reflected in our minds psychologically: the more living the structure is, the more beautiful one feels. By drawing evidence from Alexander’s work and through our own case studies, this paper has shown that beauty is essentially objective or structural. In other words, beauty exists in the deep structure of details, or in the scaling hierarchy of “far more smalls than larges”. Beauty and ugliness can be clearly defined by scaling law; that is, a structure with a flat scaling hierarchy – with maximum two levels of scale only – is objectively considered to be ugly, whereas a structure with a steep scaling hierarchy – with at least three levels of scale – is objectively considered to be beautiful.

Armed with the kind of simple analysis on scaling hierarchy, people can understand why beautiful buildings are beautiful, and why ugly buildings are ugly. Simply put, a building is beautiful because of its steep scaling hierarchy, or ugly because of its flat scaling hierarchy. By claiming objective or structural beauty, our intention is not to deny idiosyncratic aspects of beauty, which account for only a small proportion of our feeling. This dominance of the objective over the subjective can be compared to any statistical regularity with a majority of agreement, such as an r square value of 0.75 instead of 1.0. In addition to the scaling hierarchy or scaling law, Tobler’s law plays an important role in the objective or structural beauty as well. As one of the two laws of living structure, Tobler’s law – or the notion of “more or less similar” – recurs on each level of scale. The true meaning of “more or less similar” is neither “completely same” nor “completely unique”, but something between the same and the unique. These two complementary laws work together, governing living structures, with the scaling law being primary, and Tobler’s law being secondary.

The I-hypothesis is a powerful concept that makes better sense of the inner meaning of living structure than purely psychological or cognitive explanations. The third view of space provides a fresh look at our surroundings, whereby everything is a living structure, and should become more living or more beautiful through our daily makings. The new cosmology solves the problem of the bifurcation of nature (Whitehead 1920), for we human beings are not separate from, but are part of the universe, thus making our daily lives more meaningful. Human beings can be uplifted by good space, reflected by good architecture, and eventually united and re-united to the hypothesized “I”. To end this paper, we would like to claim that living structure may actually be the “bead game conjecture” (Alexander 1968, cited from Gabriel 1998, and Grabow 1983), a mechanism that unites all structures or forms in mathematics, science, art, philosophy, and religion. This claim requires further research on living structure from these multiple disciplines or contexts, and implies that living structure is not a dogma, and can instead be further discussed, argued and even challenged.


This paper is a reprint of the openaccess paper (Jiang 2019c) with a slight revision in Table 2, originally published by the journal Urban Science (MDPI: This research was funded by the Swedish Research Council FORMAS through the ALEXANDER project with grant number FR-2017/0009. I would like to thank the three anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments. I would also like to thank Yodan Rofé, Michael Mehaffy, Pierre Frankhauser, Ina Fang Sjöberg, Thorbjoern Mann, Jenny Quillien, Chayn Sun, and Helmut Leitner for reading and commenting on an earlier version of this paper. My special thanks go to Richard Gabriel for his many critical, yet constructive comments. My students Ju- Tze Huang, Chris de Rijke, and Zheng Ren offered substantial help in some of the figures, so thank you all. Last but not least, Celine Hedin deserves my special thanks for creating the opera house sketch.


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