Roughness Part 1 — Roughness as Life-Affirming Element

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(I am indebted to Donald Schell for introducing me to Christopher Alexander, and to Tom Kubla, who has posted extensively about Alexander’s theories on, where I found some of the following quotes from Alexander.)

The architect/theorist/philosopher Christopher Alexander postulates that life comes from wholeness.  In his schema, wholeness has fifteen basic properties.  One of them is roughness:

“Things which have real life always have a certain ease, a morphological roughness. This is not an accidental property”   

“The seemingly rough arrangement is more precise because it comes from a much more careful guarding of the essential centers of the design.”

Christopher Alexander, Book One, The Nature of Order, p. 210, 211

An example of roughness and its place within Alexander’s schema of wholeness might be the stripes on a zebra, as Shierry Weber Nicholsen explains:

A zebra’s stripes may be regular in their tendency, but they must fit around the various parts of the zebra’s body, which are only roughly symmetrical.  The resulting combination of local symmetry and roughness, Alexander suggests, is the product of forces tending toward a larger order and integration . . .

Shierry Weber Nicholsen
The Love of Nature and the End of the World p. 191

And thus, the irregularity of the stripes are what give us the sense of the zebra’s aliveness.  As Alexander explains . . .

“It is certainly noticeable that all great buildings do have various small irregularities in them, even though they often conform to approximate overall symmetries and configurations. By contrast, buildings which are perfectly regular seem dead.”

Christopher Alexander, Book One, The Nature of Order, p.214

So for instance, one can consider the difference between a handmade bookshelf and one purchased from Ikea.  The handmade shelf—by way of its roughness, its inexact cuts and its acute/obtuse angles—speaks of life, especially when contrasted with the mechanized, soulless precision of Ikea. 

Musical examples abound.


Stevie Wonder’s groove is irresistible, but it is important to note that it is also inexact.  Furthermore, the inexact nature of the groove is essential to the liveliness of his sound.  His drumming exudes a slightly warped sense of time, as if we are hearing a drumbeat that was left out in the sun, and the result is something that sounds more alive.  As Shierry Weber Nicholsen’s noted about wholeness . . .

The resulting combination of local symmetry and roughness . . . is the product of forces tending toward a larger order and integration . . .

This description captures an essential quality of Stevie Wonder’s solo albums of the early 1970s, the way in which the handmade sound of the performances with their various quirks and imperfections all point towards a larger and integrated whole, one that overflows with life.

Thank you for reading.