L'École Marchutz

Sneak Peek: The Quality Without a Name

Marchutz Fellow

The following is a post from the personal blog of one of our alumni fellows:

The search which we make for this quality, in our own lives, is the central search of any person, and the crux of any individual person’s story. It is the search for those moments and situations when we are most alive.
— Christopher Alexander

Well, our walk through town (read about it!) was cut short due to the cold. Because of this I am still not quite ready to delve fully into writing about "the quality," but I want to give you a sneak peak. The concept comes out of the American architect Christopher Alexander's book, The Timeless Way of Building. He starts one chapter by explaining that there exists a quality that cannot be named; it is "objective and precise," and it "is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building or a wilderness." Or, as I have discovered, a work of art.

He begins his discussion by saying that most people don't believe that there is a difference between a good building and a bad building. He says that this is not because a difference does not exist, but rather because we have no name for it. I believe it is the same with art, another thing that people are hesitant to label as being objectively "good" or "bad."

"It is never twice the same," he continues, "because it always takes its shape from the particular place in which it occurs." Each building, city, wilderness, has the potential to be beautiful. A desert canyon, for example, can be beautiful in Arizona, but would be horrific to discover in Vermont. It is the same with art. The strokes that make a Van Gogh live would be as torturous as a desert canyon in Vermont if placed on a Raphael painting.

Alexander goes on. "It is a subtle kind of freedom from inner contradiction," he writes. "In physics and chemistry there is no sense in which one system can be more at one with itself than another... This subtle and complex freedom from inner contradictions is just the very quality which makes things live." Just as the Arizona desert is free from contradictions (outside the absurd suburban obsession with planting lawns in the middle of the desert) when it includes a beautiful red dirt canyon, a Van Gogh is free from contradictions when it includes the bold color strokes that give it its sometimes initially jarring effect. These strokes are the harmony of the canvas. They bring it to life.

Alexander goes through a list of words, all of which approximate, and yet fall short of the meaning of the nameless quality. Among them are alive, whole, comfortable, free, exact, egoless, and eternal. One can see, from the contradictions within this list, that he is describing a very difficult concept to pin down, and yet he is very insistent upon the existence of the quality. And so am I. I have experienced it, and I am sure that you have as well. All you must do is think of a physical space you love, not for its personal significance to you (such as an elementary school, or a vacation home) but for reasons that were apparent and yet fleeting immediately upon entering it. It could be a bog in New England, or a tiny village in Europe. A place whose own harmony takes over. This is what exists in art too.

Alexander outlines what is happening in terms of a concept he calls "Centers," another idea that cannot be expressed without being self-referential. Centers are specific physical attributes that make up a consistent whole. Take an apple tree for example. An apple tree, according to Alexander, is a whole. It is a complete entity, consistent, working as one, but made up of definable parts. These parts are centers. The trunk is a center, each branch and fruit is a center. Each center is strong by itself, but made stronger by the other centers with which it makes the whole.

Here's where it gets tricky. Each center is made up of centers. Twigs, flowers, leaves, apples, seeds; each of these things helps the other, and in doing so, helps the larger center, makes it stronger, and it helps to support the whole, the tree.

It's the same in art. In a strong work, each form works harmoniously with each other form. The ground is defined by the sky and the sky by the ground. Without one, there would not be the other. And each shadow, each stroke, each piece of pigment, is working with every other element in the painting, making each other stronger. This is wholeness. When we have this we have life. When we have this, we have the quality without a name. This is good art.

The trick is identifying it.