RIP, Christopher Alexander - Architect and Theorist

In 1977, Christopher Alexander–an British mathematician-turned-architect teaching at UC Berkeley at the time–released the book A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, co-authored with several colleagues and students. The book is a catalog of 253 so-called “patterns” that according to the authors make for good, pleasing, useful, and “timeless” cities and buildings.

The patterns start at the broadest scope: Pattern #1 is “Independent Regions,” summarized as “Metropolitan regions will not come to balance until each one is small and autonomous enough to be an independent sphere of culture.” The patterns end with the smallest and most intimate elements of one’s environment: Warm Colors (250), Different Chairs (251), Pools of Light (252), and Things From Your Life (253).

One pattern (#21) declares that no buildings used for work or habitation should ever exceed four stories. “There is abundant evidence to show that high buildings make people crazy.” Christopher Alexander did not shy away from bold statements.

The book is still one of the best-selling books on architecture, and has been enormously influential. But not, for the most part, in the field of architecture.

Alexander thought of himself as a scientist, performing experiments to learn what makes environments that human beings thrive in. But many of his insights sound much more like zen koans than scientific dicta. He would analyze the “wholenesses” of the shapes on a Persian rug, or the “deep interlock” formed between built-up spaces in a town and parkland. He continued for the rest of his career to try to describe such patterns more thoroughly, all of it with the creative goal of making spaces with a thing he sometimes called “the quality without a name” and other times simply called “life.”

Unfortunately for him, the architectural establishment for the entire 20th century had been practically obsessed with making spaces that, in Alexander’s estimation, were decidedly “dead.” The differences between Alexander’s goals and those of prestige architects and firms was explicated when Alexander debated Peter Eisenman at Harvard in 1982. Eisenman declared that sometimes disharmony and alienation might be the point of a building, to which Alexander responded, “You’re fucking up the world.”

Premier Modern and Postmodern architecture (where the money is) have gone on their way without absorbing much of Alexander’s work–in fact, they mostly continued to reject it or anything like it, with a few exceptions.

But his influence has flourished elsewhere.

  • In computer science, A Pattern Language inspired the invention of agile development, the wiki, and numerous programming languages and strategies.
  • In environmental circles, Alexander’s work has resonated within new urbanism, smart growth, and sustainability movements. (Stewart Brand tweeted about his death.)
  • Alexander contributed to research into algorithms for morphogenesis, the emergence of adaptive efficiencies in nature that might be applied to building human environments.
  • In video games, A Pattern Language got Will Wright thinking about architecture and resulted in The Sims.
  • Apparently Brian Eno is a fan.
  • In his later work, Alexander described how his empirical search for good principles of architecture revealed to him theological realities, effectively a proof of the existence of God.

Christopher Alexander died last week at the age of 85. He didn’t change architecture much, but he changed a whole lot else.

Thanks for the obit. Sounds like a fascinating guy, that I probably would have strongly disagreed with.

Fascinating. I had no idea. Thanks for writing this.

I’ll miss the man. My favorite book of his is The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth where he walks through building the Eishin Gakuen campus near Tokyo and how difficult it was to fight all the businesses (and Yakuza!) that depend on passive decisions leading to cost overruns and ugliness to stay in business. Photos here: Eishin Campus designed by Christopher Alexander | Flickr

Building and shaping the world beautifully and economically is lonely work, even with all the “Strong Towns” advocates and pattern-using software engineers running around.

Oh! This is apparently has last major work, and I honestly didn’t know there was anything after Nature of Order (despite having skimmed his (dreadfully written, it must be said) wikipedia page after I heard about his death. I’ll have to see if I can get my hands on a copy!