In the book The Timeless Way of Building, Christopher Alexander makes a claim about our perception of buildings. He says that we instinctively know what a good building is, and is not. That we all have an ability to sense it if we are paying attention.
“We have been taught that there is no objective difference between good buildings and bad, good towns and bad.
The fact is that the difference between a good building and a bad building, between a good town and a bad town, is an objective matter. It is the difference between health and sickness, wholeness and divided-ness, self-maintenance and self-destruction.”
If we are willing to exercise our judgment, we can see and feel the difference between good and bad buildings. You don’t need to go to architecture school; you don’t need to study urban planning. You just need to understand your instincts and the incompleteness of language.
“it is easy to see why people believe so firmly that there is no single, solid basis for the difference between good buildings and bad.
It happens because the single central quality which makes the difference cannot be named.”
It is hard to name an objective standard, so a certain type of “expert” tells people that it doesn’t exist. They tell laypeople that only an expert can know the difference between good and bad. That it is a power beyond the reach of the ordinary citizen.
In reality, there is a standard; we just don’t have the language to describe it.
Reality and Language
Just because our language is incomplete does not mean that our reality is subjective.
Because something is hard to describe, does not mean that it does not exist.
Take for example your intuition about people.
You meet someone for the first time, and you leave feeling like something is off.
What was it about the interaction?
It’s hard to say.
You reach for the word creepy, but when you think back, that’s not it. There was no one thing that was scary.
It wasn’t boring.
It wasn’t anything that you can easily decipher.
You think to yourself, “maybe I’m being irrational.” Maybe I need to give this person another chance. But that is often not the correct approach.
There is a good reason to trust your instinct even if you can’t fully explain the instinct yet. Often your conscious understanding will come in the future once you develop the language, concepts, and frameworks to make sense of the feeling.
Interpreting Your Gut Feelings
For buildings, Alexander makes sense of the feeling with The Quality Without a Name.
While there is not one word to describe a good building, there are a number of words that approach this quality.
These words are close, alone they don’t do the job, but together they approach it:
Your people instinct
Christopher Alexander is talking about buildings and towns, but this quality without a name extends to many areas.
The Quality is a framework you can use to understand the “weird’ feeling about your first meeting with someone or the magnetic pull of charisma.
People with The Quality are alive. Energetic, but not frenetic.
They are whole. Not conflicted. Not at odds with themselves, but they still contain depth and mystery.
They are comfortable. At ease, but not sloppy. Relaxed, but respectful.
They are free. They live their own lives. They do what they set out to do because they want to. But they are not “free spirits.” They are responsible and live with purpose.
They are exact. They don’t waste words. They don’t hide behind passive language, but they don’t bore you with analytic language.
They are egoless. They don’t care what you think of them. They are confident in themselves, and not burdened by a false ego and self-conscious worry.
They are eternal. At the same time, they seem to be both older and younger than they actually are. They contain the unburdened spirit of a child and the undistracted purposefulness of an old man.
When you put all these qualities together, in balance, you get a feeling of someone you want to be around. When they are out of balance, you can’t put your finger on it, but you don’t feel excited to spend more time with that person.
The value of “the quality without a name” is that it puts into words to a vague feeling. It helps us to understand consciously something we experience as an instinct. That understanding builds trust and allows us to operate more decisively.
Instincts are not perfect. Cognitive biases are real and you need to be aware of them to think critically. But too often when people encounter a situation they feel uncomfortable with, but cannot explain, they throw away their judgment. They take a “who am I to know attitude” and allow people in positions of authority to decide for them.
Exercising judgment is an important part of doing anything with your life. Trusting and understanding your feelings is a crucial part of good judgment. New frameworks and a nuanced understanding of language are key to understanding and trusting your emotions.
Books like The Timeless way of Building, may on the surface having nothing to do with your field, but they improve your vocabulary and deepen your understanding of reality. They create the lightbulb moments that allow you to explain your first impressions. They allow you to become a person more in line with the quality without a name.