The Sense of “Belonging”

I believe process, deeply changed process, is the only real way for us to recapture our sense of belonging to the earth.

In the course of the last thirty years of designing and building, and recording my failures and successes, it has seemed to me, more and more, that what governs the life in buildings – in any part of the environment – is something, some character, which can hardly at all be put there by the present-day processes which most of us in society today consider normal.

For our gardens, streets, houses, places of work, the shops where we buy, the places where we work, the cities where we meet – we may describe the best situations in all these places, when they are working well, as the situation where we – any of us, you, I, the next person – experience emotional possession of the world, where we experience “belonging.”

This belonging is a state in which the fine adaptation between people and their buildings and gardens and streets is so subtle, and goes so deeply to the ordinary core of human experience, that the people who then live and work and play in the garden or that street feel as if they are supposed to be there, as if it belongs to them, as if they are part of it, as if, like an old shoe, it is completely and fully theirs.

Of course, since we are social creatures this belonging is almost never individual or idiosyncratic. It is a state in which the world, as we create it, has this quality of seeming to belong to us collectively, It belongs to our own self, the self in which we are united with the world. It is a state in which we recognize, with joy, each gate, and field, and road, and tree; each window, and roof and nook and cranny, as a friend.

Historically, this quality has come about as a result of a long process – often lasting, sometimes even centuries. They are processes in which minute adaptations, carried out gradually, created this mutual sense of belonging, between people and their buildings.

In our present world, the opportunity for this very long time span, though it was needed in history to create such a sense of belonging, is simply not available. We live in a time where things move very quickly; where society evolves at very great speed; where people are highly mobile; where everything can change, daily faster than an eyeblink. Whatever process is needed to create this sense of belonging in our time must therefore be something entirely new. The historical forms of process, which created belongingness in historical society, will not do for us, and we must work to invent new kinds of process which may do it, again, in a new form and be entirely different means.

The problem is aggravated for architecture, too, by the fact that those social processes which now exist, our familiar processes of design, building, bidding, construction, financing, have all reached a state where they work together to produce an environment in which this lost state of belonging quite conspicuously does not occur.

It is this problem, above all, which is responsible for the callous, mercenary, and indifferent environment which we experience around us most of the time.

And it is this problem, which, slowly, my colleagues and I hope that we can begin to solve, together with all of you, during the next years, by offering entirely new kinds of processes that can begin to help us repair the living thing.

Christopher Alexander
patternlanguage.com website, 2001