The quality without a name

In his book, ‘The Timeless Way of Building’, Christopher Alexander introduces the idea of ‘the quality without a name’.

There is a central quality which is the root criterion of life and spirit in a person, a town, a building or a wilderness. This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named”.

Alexander refers to those moments ‘when we feel alive’, those moments ‘which we live for’. He suggests that this should be the starting point of architecture and buildings, and of how and where we live.

This is brilliant.

The thousands of PR and marketing people who work for the volume house builders (the likes of Barratt, Persimmon, Taylor Wimpey) simply cannot deal with this. Because this is a quality without a name, it cannot be monetised, financialised or commodified. No amount of glossy pixelated brochures can illustrate it.

The quality without a name however, is something we all know. A good conversation, meeting a friend, a summer rain shower, swimming in the sea, walking through a meadow full of wild flowers, becoming absorbed in a painting, film, book, music.

Quality is one of those keywords. We understand its precision but find it difficult to articulate it precisely. It is multifaceted and comes with many colours, sensations, tastes, smells and sounds.

Starting with the idea of the quality without a name completely changes how housing might be built.

Compare that starting point with that of the volume house builders. They build nothing without a guarantee of 20 percent profits. Even new housing is often full of snags and defects and long term problems including highly dangerous inflammable cladding. That can certainly be named. It’s called putting profits before people. And that’s one of the reasons housing is now such an expensive mess for many people in Britain.

We have yet to have much housing which is created on the basis of ‘the quality without a name’. But it’s a very good starting point for change.

Duncan Island, Reefer – Sailing to Nouakchott, Mauritania from St Petersburg
Parana, vehicle carrier – Emden, Germany to Dublin

While I was taking stones out of my shoes a lorry pulled up with a Czech Republic registration (not the one pictured here). The first thing the driver did when he switched off the engine was to take a photograph of the sea.

It’s around 680 miles from Prague to Calais. A drive of 13 hours.

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