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Quillien – Delight’s Muse

Delight’s Muse is a blessedly short, accessible, and thoughtfully illustrated summary of Christopher Alexander’s four volume work The Nature of Order. It rescues readers from the massive effort required to navigate Alexander’s 2000-page labyrinth without map or compass.

Famous (and infamous) architect and author Christopher Alexander is an iconoclast both revered and despised. But in this overview of his recent and ever-so-ambitious magnum opus Jenny Quillien (a former colleague of Alexander) suggests that we eschew those conventional judgments and simply recognize that Alexander is ‘on to something’ novel, useful, and important. Alexander aims not only to examine the how and why of true success in built environments, but pushes on to far-reaching discussions about order and process in the natural and man-made worlds, questioning the very character of beauty, wholeness, and spirituality.

Quillien’s synopsis and interpretative commentaries foreground what can be called Alexander’s ‘General Theory of Everything’ with the goal of promoting critical discussion and thoughtful implementation. She argues that we need not be wedded to the products of Alexander’s thought but can benefit greatly by courting its process. Winning an audience over to innovative ideas is a ‘high-stakes’ proposition for all parties. Listening sympathetically—the only way really to truly ‘hear’ what a new point of view is proposing—is to risk changing one’s mind. In turn, a new perspective, if openly engaged, will be transformed by those listening. On offer is a restructuring of the attending mind.

Delight’s Muse will interest not only fans of Alexander’s earlier books (the best known being A Pattern Language from 1977, and The Timeless Way of Building from 1979) but everyone willing to entertain a fresh and stimulating way to observe the world and the variety of things we place in it.

Reviews of the Book

From THE PALO ALTO REVIEW
Page Allen
Santa Fe, New Mexico

September 8, 2008

A Modest Map of the Universe

Delight’s Muse: on Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order, 2008

ISBN 978-1-4303-1317-5

Author: Jenny Quillien. Publisher: Culicidae Architectural Press, Ames, Iowa

How many books seem destined for the at-hand reference shelf, the visual treat of the coffee table, the bedside reflection pile and the bathroom inspirational moment all at once?  Delight’s Muse is such a book. I have finally stopped trying to encompass it in one read and am keeping it handy for further slow revelations.

The title says it all. In this deeply engaging book, Jenny Quillien explores the character, the very structure, of our experience of delight in the physical ― and metaphysical ― world. She then persists beyond those realms to their mysterious source, the inexhaustible and eternal muse NATURE. This is one woman’s intelligent, sensitive reflection, extracting the essence of one man’s life endeavor: Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order, a lengthy, courageous effort to articulate the heart of nature and to weigh, in comparison, the successes and failures of man’s own built environments.

The welcome sense that there is an order yet to be comprehended, hidden in plain sight, is the entrancing concept at the core of Alexander’s work. It manifests in such familiar ways as a favorite kitchen pan or a well-placed garden bench, but requires terms like “symmetries, simplicities and deep interlock” to question the ineffable. Why do some places feel just right and others less than right? How may the man-made environment be an enhancement, a shelter and a subtle tuning? We are inclined to imagine all our doings as blights upon the environment, and mostly we are right. Is anything left but the utilitarian and flimsy for the grandchildren of Levittown? In this profoundly hopeful and inspiring book, Quillien offers her mentor’s answers, tempered by her own wisdom and humor.

In another’s hands, homage to the maître could be as ponderous as the source. But Quillien has an adept mind and the fine ability to preserve reverence for Alexander’s ideas. She drives at the essence of Alexander’s work and adds a great deal of personal insight. She can be irreverent and this makes for good reading. And good looking. The book is filled with illustrations that illuminate the do’s and don’ts of world architectural history, from a medieval French village to a mall in Anywhere, USA to an island community in Maine.

The why and wherefore of buildings, rooms, gardens and cities as places that bring us home or cast us forever upon strange, cold shores are considered in wonderfully new ways. But it would be hard to say, in the end, whether the content of this book is metaphysics, ethics, or esthetics. It is indeed all of the above, just as Alexander’s work always crisscrossed the border lands of religion, science, and design.

One lovely aspect of Quillien’s book ― and implicitly Alexander’s work ― is its tolerance for the unknown. If this is a map, it enlists the modest caveat of the Medieval mapmakers, who at coming to the edge of the unknown would elegantly inscribe, “Here There be Dragons.” Quillien has an omnivorous mind, well-versed in contemporary sciences, but she also has a happy inclination to gesture towards dragons of thought yet-to-be-explored and great principles yet-to-be-understood. For example:

New views on the evolving system of genetic material suggest that evolution may follow certain pathways, not because of extraneous pressure, but by virtue of ordering tendencies of internal dynamics and the requirements of geometry.

It is exciting and comforting to have the frontiers so inspected and so articulated.

Another charming quality is the ever present wit that leavens potentially dense prose:

A key lesson for all! Abandon your ego. For Heaven’s Sake, abandon your ego. It’s not about you. Work in such a way that it is the artifact you are creating which evokes deep personal feeling.

An informal tone blends with the rigorously academic and the gently rhapsodic. Her style, she admits, tends towards the “scruffy” as opposed to the “neaty.” She is comfortable with loose ends and mystery, though she has little patience for flabby thinking. Thus, Delight’s Muse invites skimming, choice grazing, and then deftly serves up substantial concepts to reread and ponder. Interlaced with quotes from poetry to physics and images from both macro- and microcosms, it enhances one’s vision of the world, natural and built, as it attunes one’s place within it. This is a book for architects, yes, for those who take the daily fabric of our lives into their hands, but also for artists, home-makers, gardeners, thinkers…in short, for anyone who lives here and wonders how to do it better.

Buy the Book

delightsMuseSpecial pricing available for students and faculty with .edu email addresses. Go to our online store to order the book, then enter an .edu email under billing information and at the Checkout panel enter CPRESSEDU20 by clicking on the Add promotional discount. We will verify all .edu addresses.

Alternatively, if you work for a library or a bookstore, use the code CPRESSLIB50 to buy the book at 50% off of the retail price. Again, we’ll verify the origin of each purchase.

You can also order directly from Amazon at the normal retail price.

Product Details

ISBN 978-1-4303-1317-5
Copyright: Jenny Quillien (Standard Copyright License)
Edition: First Edition
Publisher: Jenny Quillien
Published November 4, 2010
Language: English
Pages: 186, 220 color illustrations
Binding: Perfect-bound Paperback
Interior Ink: Full color
Dimensions (inches): 8.5 wide × 11.0 tall

About the Author

quillienJenny Quillien is a Professor of Management with New Mexico Highlands University. She can be reached at jquillien@cybermesa.com or by phone at 1 505 983 7129.