2018/10/26 17:40 David Seamon, “Ways of Understanding Wholeness: Place, Christopher Alexander and Synergistic Relationality”, PUARL Conference

Plenary Christopher Alexander Lecture by #DavidSeamon of Kansas State University at @PUARLuo 2018 Conference.

This digest was created in real-time during the meeting, based on the speaker’s presentation(s) and comments from the audience. The content should not be viewed as an official transcript of the meeting, but only as an interpretation by a single individual. Lapses, grammatical errors, and typing mistakes may not have been corrected. Questions about content should be directed to the originator. The digest has been made available for purposes of scholarship, posted by David Ing.

Introduction by Howard Davis:

  • Gary Coates:  Experience comes first.
  • Learned from Chris Alexander, human experience has to come first, then relationships to places we make.
  • David Seamon has this idea central to his work

David Seamon, Department of Architecture, Kansas State University, since 1983

PUARL 2018
David Seamon, PUARL 10th Anniversary Conference

[David Seamon]

Honoured to be the first Christopher Alexander lecture

  • Hope people won’t leave because of word “phenomenology”

First found Alexander work in 1981, teaching class

  • Tom Fellon brought the pattern language book
  • Immediately understood what Alexander was trying to do:  which is something that Seamon was trying to do in doctoral work
  • Since then, have kept track of Alexander’s career
  • EDRA Environmental Design Research Association

Offer a different point of view

  • Artemis, earlier today, said how Alexander’s perspective has shifted
  • However, there is a commonality in work

Will start talking about wholeness, where the whole remains whole.

  • Have been writing about this as synergistic relationality
  • Alexander could be called a phenomenologist

Alexander, Nature of Order, vol. 1, p. 98:

  • Reproduces 4 self-drawings by Henri Matisse had generated over time, with photographs of Matisse
  • Even though we see differences, there is something in common
  • Wholeness is the overall vector, the overall qualitative structure …  Wholeness is a global thing, easy to feel, hard to define.

Phrasing of wholeness, over time

  • Quality without a name
  • Wholeness extending transformations
  • Relates with density, comfort, robustness … life
  • Life of the material, through good design, that enables place, robustness, healing

Phenomenology for Alexander

  • Description of phenomena
  • Careful description and interpretation of human experience
  • Phenomology of homeness, homelessness, …

Phenonemological attitude

  • Lifeworld

Last 2 decades, movement in looking at environmental and architectural phenomenology

Defining wholeness

  • A system of parts and connections
  • An ensemble of relatedness
  • A gathering grouped in belong
  • The gathering together of what already belongs together even apart
  • (The last three move towards phenomenology)

Different understandings

  • Analytic relationality:  whole as interconnected parts and relationships
  • Synergistic relationship:  whole is an integrated, generative field sustaining and sustained by collective belonging

Analytic relationality:  in General Systems Theory, from von Bertalanffy, reductive and piecemeal

Henri Bortoft is leading in trying to understand wholeness

  • The key weakness of analytical relational is that it loses sight of how parts already belong together

Synergistic relationality:  Whole is self-organizing in that each part enters into the constitution of every other part

  • Integral mutuality between part and whole
  • J. Malpas 2012, p. 239:  The relation is itself dependent on what it relates, but also in the relation…

How do we do this?

  • e.g. reading a poem, don’t understand it, and then there’s a single word where the meaning of the poem lights up

Place as synergistic relationality

  • Place:  any environmental locus in and through which individual or group actions, experiences, intentions and meaning are drawn together spatially and temporally.

Some important works on phenomenology of place that resonate with Alexander

  • Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976, most approachable
  • Robert Mugerauer, Interpretations on Behalf of Place 1994
  • Edward Casey, Getting Back into Place 1993/2009
  • Jeff Malpas, Place and Experience 1999/2018

Lived emplacement, from Ed Casey

Can place be described generatively?

  • Places do change over time
  • Question:  are there a set of integrated, underlying processes that might help us see?

Six place patterns, a different view of Christopher Alexander

  • Place interaction
  • Place identity
  • Place release (place serendipity, unexpected encounters)
  • Place realization
  • Place intensification:  by 1985, Alexander moved beyond pattern language towards geometric, less towards human world, with centers
  • Place creation
  • All of the six feed or weaken the others

Eishen School:  students and teachers could see what is possible

Seamon has trouble with this:  generalizes from Turkish carpet patterns to place patterns

  • Place may be unremarkable geometrically
  • Still, trying to balance human world with physical world, in intimacy of relationships

Centers are strong in scale, a criticism of postmodernism

The place processes can also undermine

Processes link through temporal and spatial limits (place tubes) David Bohm


  • Belonging together as analytic relationality
  • Belonging together as synergistic relationality

Alexander’s “real kindness”


Speculate on implications for practice in architectural and urban?

  • Don’t start with practice
  • How do we facilitate the whole?
  • Goethe way of science, student of the natural world, theory of colours (phenomenology of light and colours)
  • Need to find educational ways to find other ways of looking and seeing
  • Our current system emphasizes the analytic, so much
  • Ian McGilchrist, The Master and the Emissary — right brain and left brain

#pattern-language, #puarl2018