Christopher Alexander (Mis)reading Photographs

I’ve finished the first volume of Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order, and the photographs just jumped out at me. Several of the photos showing “wholeness” in everyday life were very, very good. The photos aren’t credited in the text, so I dug through the acknowledgments in the back. Surprise! The photos are by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Eisenstadt, Andreas Feninger, André Kertész, and Eliot Porter, some of the finest photographers of the 20th century.

The central concept of The Nature of Order is wholeness, an aesthetic and mathematical order which creates good fit between things and people. There are photographs of wholeness in buildings, ceramics, and rugs, all by masters of those arts. There are also photographs of street scenes and everyday life. These photographs are are by masters of photography, but they are not examined as art in themselves, only as documentation of wholeness in something else. Oops.

Alexander looks at the teacup, but through the photograph. The discussions of wholeness are always about the photograph’s time and place, never about the creativity of the photographer who chose that time and place to make the photograph. Alexander makes an important mistake when he treats artistic photography as pure documentation.

The mistake is easier to understand when you look at the photographers he uses. Most of them are working in a narrow style, the “high mimetic” mode (using Northrup Frye’s literary term) typical of Life magazine. The photographs intentionally show a world that is clearly like us, but better in some way. Most people do take these photos as documents, without realizing the skill and art involved in making a beautiful photograph from the living, moving world.

For Alexander, these are photographs of subjects or situations which strongly show wholeness. For me, these are photographers who can create art with strong wholeness from everyday subjects and sitations. Unfortunately for him, this is a serious mistake. Is the wholeness in the world or in the photograph? Is it innate or created by observers? Is wholeness flat and black and white or three-dimensional with colors and smells? If you are espousing a theory of fundamental order and wholeness in the world using photographic evidence, this isn’t a question you can dodge. It is central. These photographs are not neutral evidence of order and wholeness, they are themselves creations.

Alexander does use a few photographs by Eliot Porter and Edward Weston, clearly not high mimetic photographers. Again adapting Northrup Frye, these are recognizably real scenes, obviously superior in degree but not in kind (Frye calls this the “romantic” mode). These photos are used to illustrate form in nature, so it is appropriate to use photos that emphasize formal composition over documentation. Still, Alexander never even mentions that Eliot Porter might have created a photograph with order and wholeness out of available bits of nature instead of merely documenting the existing order. He seems to be misreading these more formal photographs in the same way as the others.

Two glaring examples of this misreading are with a single Henri Cartier-Bresson photo and with a series of André Kertész’s photos of Paris. Both cases have extensive discussions of the wholeness of the scenes as if the photographs were pure documentation.

The first example, pages 92-95, comes with a convenient contrasting example. First, we get a discussion of what is visible in the Cartier-Bresson photo. The next photo is of Alexander’s childhood home, and most of the discussion is about things not shown in the photo. In fact, this discussion is the first one where wholeness is clearly a three-dimensional concept and even an experiential path through three dimensions (like ZEN VIEW or INTIMACY GRADIENT in A Pattern Language). Until this point, it wasn’t clear whether wholeness was purely visual or was a characteristic of human activity.

Toward the end of the volume is a short section dedicated to André Kertész’s Paris. Kertész is an especially poor choice to treat as a documentary photographer. He was deeply visual and emotional, sometimes more more surrealist than realist. His own comments on his photography make exactly this point: “The things I photograph are not at all outstanding. I make them stand out.” [from PBS video interview]. Alexander reads these photographs naively: “Can we aspire to this? To Kertész’s pictures?” [page 394].

How can it make sense for architecture to aspire to a photograph? A later Kertész photograph, Broken Bench, makes this point especially clearly. The photograph is of a park, but it certainly isn’t something we aspire to. The bench is broken! It does make sense as a symbolic portrait an emotional state, perhaps of Kertesz’s problems fitting into New York after leaving Paris. It isn’t any kind of evidence for or against the wholeness of that particular park, and there is no way for an architect to “aspire to this”. The art of that photograph has nothing to do with the design of parks and benches.

I do think there is a lot of value in Alexander’s thesis of wholeness, but it is deeply disappointing that a brilliant person working in an applied art (architecture) can’t tell the difference between a document an a work of art. Photography has been around for over 150 years. Get a clue, people.

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