I would like to talk a little about the idea promoted by Christopher Alexander, where “making wholeness heals the maker.” This has to do with the act of creation and, in particular, its application in art and the production of artifacts and architecture. It is a fundamental concept in creating small items, but I want to suggest how it applies at every scale.
Today we’re talking on an international level of sustainable cities, zoning, urban plans, designs for housing, etc., in order to form our cities in a healthier manner in the new millennium. But while urbanism works on a legislative base that defines what you can or can’t do, another dimension requires human consciousness to arrange interventions on the minor (smaller than urban) scales. I mean small on the architectural scale of a room, an extension of a balcony, a window, down to the ornament around the door. How can we succeed in achieving this in a coherent manner? We have finally become aware that the human-scale city is the result of an infinite number of small interventions. Some of these acts are coordinated among themselves, but many are not. Urban coherence becomes the product of human consciousness acting through the existing culture of place, which is a manifestation of self-organization.
There is a very serious problem, however, because our society’s conscience has been destroyed to mold a “new man”, a strictly mechanical entity with very few human qualities. The ruling elite convinced us to sever our ties with the creative act, an age-old source of health for human beings. Nowadays we no longer access this source; we let ourselves lose it, convinced that whatever is manufactured must necessarily be an industrial product, fruit of the philosophy of collectivization of the individual. The hand of man no longer enters into this process; the iron law of “Economy of the Industrial Scale” governs our entire life. Who among us actually creates something? Who among us paints, makes a sculpture, weaves some fibers into patterns, or performs a craft with his or her own hands? Who indeed is still cooking their own meals today? A person in “contemporary” society does not create anything with wholeness, and consequently gets sick because he or she cannot benefit from the regenerative and nutritious effect of creating.
The creative act, a gift that comes from God because it is a human act that mimics exactly what God does, was cut off by the propaganda of industrial consumption. The creation of wholeness was rigorously prohibited by the power of the media, which became more absolute and intolerant than any traditional religion ever did. Instead, what beautiful words from the Bible describe the creation of Man made with earth by the hand of God! Especially for a staunch evolutionist like the author, this story illustrates the act of creating mankind better than any scientific notion of the origin of life from organic molecules. But why did God create life in the first place? The Bible does not explain this, but it is easy to understand: because the act of creation gives great pleasure to God. We can also imagine that the act of creating wholeness adds a consistency to the divinity of God, otherwise there would be no need to create anything. Without creation, we would have an empty, cold universe, without us to observe and experience it. Therefore, we must respect the creation of wholeness as a sacred act, even if we don’t understand it.
We humans are constructed with the creative instinct, the need to create wholeness or coherence because it nourishes us, and we practiced this to nourish our bodies and souls for millennia, until “modern” times. Because of propaganda promoting consumerism we have ceased to create, and to generate life. We only consume, i.e., destroy: this is a severe symptom of global unsustainability. In the past the human species managed to balance these two opposite processes: creation and destruction. Today, however, we pursue only the second. In addition to the environment that is being destroyed with alarming rapidity, it is, in fact, the human soul that is being damaged unless we personally create something. Today you need to buy everything, everything is an industrial product, the possibility to create doesn’t exist; it was forgotten in recent decades. Those “contemporary” folk have only words of condemnation and fear for the past, convinced as they are that any backward look is a betrayal of civilizing development.
A person who finds emotional nourishment by creating coherent objects, artifacts, dwellings, or parts of a city doesn’t have a place in today’s society. In the ideologically totalitarian system in which we live, such a person will be excluded because he or she is retrograde, or maybe at best placed on the sidelines as an eccentric and somewhat dangerous being who is grudgingly entitled to this strange behavior. The “modern” folk look at this person with a mixture of contempt and curiosity, but never as an example to follow, and certainly never as an example from whom to learn, and then possibly improve their lives. A true creator, who could be an artist (in the traditional sense), a sculptor, someone who works in stone, a master of architectural ornamentation, is worth nothing in our society. Let us not forget that ornamentation was condemned as a serious crime a century ago. This sentence has never been revoked, and schools of architecture continue even today to teach students to protect themselves from the great “crime” that ornament represents. The taboo against craftsmanship and ornament has never been abolished.
We who see things differently are forced to be rather tough with people. Why did they crave to destroy the timeless ties with nature, with the human soul, and with the existence of a higher order? The men and women of today severed their ties with the nourishment generated by the creative act, because they are no longer creating wholeness. On the contrary, for some time now, they confuse genuine rubbish with true art, and are convinced that a museum filled with hideous and disgusting objects represents a record of artistic creation. They value objects and buildings that embody everything that was traditionally forbidden: representing excrement, trash, and disease, while they praise manufacturers of this noxious junk as great artists. With the creation of these objects, so-called “artists” have become financially rich but morally sick at the same time.
How could someone make such a fundamental mistake, confusing creation with destruction? Haven’t they read anything from humanistic philosophy and traditional religions that speak of this deception? Actually, most people haven’t read anything except the media propaganda. We unfortunately have an indoctrinated people, a population subject to massive, almost universal brainwashing. They are prepared as robots for one goal only: unsustainable consumption. As in any civilization of the past, however, those who have acted against nature have disappeared. Is this our fate?
Rarely do we find a person today who is a creator, who works with materials with his or her own hands to develop an object, in order to release a form from the formless material, who dares to imitate the divine act that creates order from disorder. This individual takes great pleasure in the creative act, even when the product is modest, and it nourishes the creator’s soul and helps the body become healthier. As Alexander affirms: “making wholeness heals the maker.” When we find one of these persons we need to treat them as a kind of prophet, as a teacher from whom to learn core values for our lives. Not necessarily to do the same thing that they are doing, but to discover the pleasure in the creative act so as to then apply it in our daily life and make it richer, more complete. Unfortunately, our society knows nothing else but to mistreat these individuals, and to praise all the impostors offering us a so-called “modernity”. It is therefore extremely important to make every effort today to recognize and support the real creators.
Finally, how can we judge whether a creation is an expression of integrity and wholeness rather than a shallow copy of an image promoted by the media? It’s very easy! Alexander gives us the instrument, reversing the sequence of his rule: if the creative act makes you healthier, if it gives your soul some coherence, if it nourishes you unequivocally, the result is good. The form you create doesn’t matter: it is the impact on our emotions that matters. This is a criterion based strictly on the idea of increasing the wholeness of our own body, of increasing the feeling of coherence in one’s own mind. A craftsman knows this instinctively, because it is the principle of creating. There exists a biological reference that depends upon the human neuro-physiological system; far from abstract concepts, which are often twisted to serve some deliberate manipulation. No relation here with trendy designs, fashions, or with those objects praised by “experts” that you see in the magazines, no criterion that bows to political correctness. The individual is freed from the stifling oppression of the media, which have denied human nature, and which have deviously concealed the human ability to create wholeness in every act of life. So there’s still hope: that every citizen can create a bit of wholeness, and that together we can re-generate the built environment.
This essay was first published on April 15, 2009 in the Italian journal Il Covile (No. 507). It appears here for the first time in English and is translated from the Italian by the author.
Author’s note: For a more detailed discussion of “making wholeness heals the maker, ” see pages 262-270 of Book 4 in Christopher Alexander (2001-2005), The Nature of Order, 4 Vol. (Center for Environmental Structure, Berkeley, California). For a recent article that develops some of the themes touched upon here, see Mark Anthony Signorelli and Nikos A. Salingaros, “The Tyranny of Artistic Modernism,” New English Review, (1 August, 2012).