Christopher Alexander (1936–2022)
He was a rare and genuinely rebellious voice in a field increasingly teeming with ever more specialized consultants and highbrow academics.
Quick note first. Living abroad is strange in the internet age. I read most news about as instantly as everyone else does these days. But because of awkward schedules or who knows what I still sense that some information doesn’t reach me with the same timeliness. Such was the case when I learned of the passing of Christopher Alexander. That happened in March, but I didn’t know until I recently came across an article on New York Review of Architecture’s Substack page. So, I realize it’s a little weird to be writing such a belated tribute — since I guess these kinds of things are supposed to be a little more…punctual? Well better late than never, so here it is anyway, in early June.
~ 1,700 words, a nine-minute read
Recently, I was talking with someone on a city street. This individual was mystified by something. Substantial sums of money, they said, are being spent on “environmental study reports” that make simplistic architectural design recommendations like “add shading” or “increase passive or active airflow”. How could it be, they wondered, that tens of thousands of dollars are being spent for consultants to make proclamations that any lay person could realize after simply spending a few minutes in the place?
Christopher Alexander, a professor, writer, and architect who thought that buildings should be designed and built by their end-users rather than trained experts, would have sympathized. I know this not because I met the man (I never did) but because the words and images in one of his bestsellers – A Pattern Language – have lingered more vividly in my mind than most words and images tend to. This despite the fact that his work was not formally part of any curriculum during the course of my architectural education.
My sense is that for many in my generation, Alexander’s ideas are of the kind that are discovered, usually randomly, during moments of unstructured time between classes.
I remember a scene from grad school several years ago. A classmate of mine, breathless from running up the stairs from the basement library, came to tell some of us he had discovered something spectacular in the archives. Well, grad school was a nerdy time, full of nerdy people. It turns out he had just watched a recording of a 1982 debate between Alexander and another architect by the name of Peter Eisenman.
I came to learn that particular debate is somewhat legendary for those who closely follow the insular world of architecture theory. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find — in that world anyway — a showdown of minds in such contrast with each other. I’m generalizing here, but Eisenman could be described as an extremely theoretical, highly intellectual, and (self labeled) thinking-over-feeling academic. Throughout their exchanges, he says things like: “It is not a typology of sameness or wholeness; it's a typology of differences. It is a typology which transgresses wholeness and contaminates it.”
Thanks for reading Plans in Perspective! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
In the debate, Alexander is having none of this. He presents his view: that spaces should be “physically, emotionally, practically, and absolutely” comfortable. He is alarmed by what he feels is Eisenman’s high-brow approach to design that is not simply incomprehensible but borderline evil; his buildings are actually “screwing up the world.”
The exchanges are fascinating to read. At one point, Alexander exclaims that they must at least agree that Chartres Cathedral (a gothic church in France) is a great building. Eisenman disagrees. It’s a boring building, he says, and while he’s enjoyed fine wine at a restaurant across the street from it, he declares that he’s never been inside the cathedral. Eisenman instead points to a renaissance-era building in Italy that makes him feel high in the “mind”, rather than the “gut”. Alexander is genuinely disturbed by all this. He thinks Eisenman’s ideas are so absurd that he eventually portrays his counterpart as someone who, when tasked with making a table, would “introduce some kind of little edge” as if it was “a comment on nuclear warfare.”
This not to say that Alexander was not an intellectual himself, just one of a very different sort of cut. Born in Austria, he would move to England to escape the Nazi regime in the late 30’s. After studying architecture and mathematics, he would then come to the United States to complete his PhD in Architecture at Harvard. He would spend the most prolific decades of his life as a professor at UC Berkeley, during which time he would publish numerous books. Most were tours-de-force, concerned with wide-ranging, cerebral explorations into ideas like the objective nature of beauty, cosmological harmony, and some abstract quality in all things which he termed “aliveness”. His writing also regularly refers to a mystical aspiration he literally termed “the quality without a name”. Often, he would ultimately ground all of this in some sort of design idea about a spatially or architecturally definable entity: a bedroom, a door knob, a market, a country town.
On occasion, he would lead building design and construction, during the process of which he would guide lengthy workshops with the future inhabitants. Examples include a campus in Tokyo, a visitors center in England, a homeless shelter in California, and a handful of houses. Each does indeed have a “quality without a name”.
Following his passing in March, a handful of thoughtful tributes and obituaries published in The New York Times, The Guardian, and the New York Review of Architecture have outlined other facets of his impressively diverse career. Alexander’s recurring notion of “patterns”, for instance, has roots in his background in mathematics and computer science. His early work in these areas is recognized as being highly influential in the embryonic development of now-household-name software technology like Wikipedia, the Sims, and (of course) Sim City, as well as a computer programming concept called object-oriented programming.
By contrast, and as foreshadowed by the exchange with Eisenman, his longer-term relationship with the field of architecture would be more tumultuous. He once told a New York Times reporter:
Architecture is a very strange field. It's almost as though they've induced a mass psychosis in society by introducing a point of view that has no common sense and no bearing on any deeper feeling.
I suppose excitable statements like this may partly explain why my own knowledge of Christopher Alexander’s work comes from young, motivated colleagues searching the depths of dusty library shelves, rather than from crisply delivered PowerPoint presentations in lecture halls.
In any case, what did he think would bear on “deeper feeling”? Let’s return to the book I mentioned at the beginning, because A Pattern Language lays it all out. It’s a large, 1,200 pages deep, thin-papered, best-selling, hyperlinked (sound familiar?), philosophy-major approved guidebook of sorts. It covers a hefty range of humanly relevant aspects of the built world. Written in a jargon-free, common-sense sort of manner, it aimed to put practical design and construction knowledge into the hands of anyone curious enough read it. No fancy expertise or consultant report needed, apparently, to build everything from “country towns” to “open shelves”.
A Pattern Language is (as of 6/8/22) #2 on Amazon’s list of best-selling architecture textbooks. #1 is Building Construction Illustrated by the legendary Francis Ching, but of that book I would think twice before recommending to anyone other than students in the field. Not so with A Pattern Language. This is a book that anyone with a spark of interest in design should find deeply enjoyable. It’s super readable. Practical too. Take, for example, a three-page chapter that I’m fond of referencing. It’s called “Different Chairs”, and says things like this:
People are different sizes; they sit in different ways. And yet there is a tendency in modern times to make all chairs alike.
…Never furnish any place with chairs that are identically the same. Choose a variety of different chairs, some big, some small, some softer than others, some rockers, some very old, some new, with arms, without arms, some wicker, some wood, some cloth.
“Different Chairs” is one of 283 chapters or “patterns” that each get a handful of pages in the book. Quirky and sort of kid-like, they each have evocative descriptions. Organized by scale, they start with big geographies, like: “Lace of Country Streets”. Eventually it turns to features of individual buildings, like: “Light on Two Sides of Every Room”. What’s the last pattern, at the smallest end of the scale spectrum? “Things From Your Life”.
The patterns were obviously not generated from big-data sets or computer model simulations. Instead, they stem from Alexander’s peculiar scholarship, based on the theory that (to quote the jacket description) “most of the wonderful places of the world were not made by architects but by people”. The pages are supplemented with hundreds of small, humble black-and-white photographs, taken by Alexander, his coauthors, and dozens of individuals who are cited at the end of the book. All of his work was deeply influenced by his travels where he observed traditional and indigenous methods of construction in countries like India, Japan, Australia, Borneo, and Cameroon.
Lurking beneath cute passages, though, lie the raw convictions of a man who wanted his ideas to literally change the entire world. In this regard, perhaps he had more in common with fellow egos in architecture than one might think after reading his musings about chairs. Here is Alexander writing in the forward to a 1983 book by Stephen Grabow, Christopher Alexander: The Search for a New Paradigm in Architecture:
I believe it is not only architecture itself which requires change — but that our picture of the nature of the physical world itself, will have to be modified altogether — so that what we know as physics, biology, chemistry…and other related fields, will all have to take on a different cast.
That implies nothing less than a revolution in at least three branches of science. A big leap from the folksy appreciation of diversity in seating options. Never short of ambition, Alexander’s near-planetary-scale vision would periodically shine through over the years. Take the tagline of one of his websites, for instance:
WE ARE REBUILDING OUR NEIGHBORHOODS
SLOWLY REBUILDING THE EARTH
Yet however skeptical I might be about rearranging the world according to one individual’s big ideas, I find it nearly impossible to think of Alexander as some sort of tyrant. After all, the practical nature of the design guidance in A Pattern Language reads more like wisdom passed down from a sage relative rather than as insidious instructions meant to stir the world order.
So if you’re about to embark on a renovation, or attending a community engagement event at a local planning meeting, or simply redecorating your bedroom, consider checking out Christopher Alexander’s books. They’re refreshingly humanist counterpoints to the mountains of reports, documents, and slide decks that otherwise define how the world is designed. And it’s heartening to remember that things like chairs can too shape the world. Slowly.
© 2022 James Carrico