Christopher Alexander is a practicing architect, builder, and Emeritus Professor of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also the author of numerous articles and books, including The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe (2004) — a four-volume compilation representing 30 years of work and offering three vital perspectives on our world: (1) A scientific perspective; (2) a perspective based on beauty and grace; and (3) a commonsense perspective based on our intuitions about everyday life. The four books in the series include The Phenomenon of LifeThe Process of Creating Life; A Vision of the Living Worldand The Luminous Ground. This series provides a new framework for perceiving and interacting with the world, a methodology for creating beautiful spaces, and a cosmology where art, architecture, science, religion and secular life all work comfortably together

Through these books and the PatternLanguage.com website, Alexander and his colleagues at the Center for Environmental Structure have built a movement which, in their words, “lays the basis for an entirely new approach to architecture, building and planning, which will replace existing ideas and practices entirely.”

At the core of this movement is the idea that people should design houses, streets, and communities for themselves. This idea may imply a radical transformation of the architectural profession, but it emerges quite simply from the observation that most of the beautiful places of the world were not made by architects but by the people. In 2002-2003 Alexander has pursued his interest in the community development through two projects in particular: the revitalization (redevelopment) of downtown Duncanville, Texas, and the creation of a new community in the hills near Brookings, Oregon.

Biography

Christopher Alexander was born in Vienna, Austria in 1936. He was raised in England, and he holds a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture and Master’s Degree in Mathematics from Cambridge University, and a PhD in Architecture from Harvard University. In 1958 he moved to the United States, and he has lived in Berkeley, California since 1963. Alexander taught architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is now an Emeritus Professor of Architecture. In 1967 he founded the Center for Environmental Structure, and he remains its President.

He is the father of the Pattern Language movement in architecture as well as the pattern movement in computer science, and he is  principal author of the 1977 book A Pattern Language, a seminal work that was perhaps the first complete book written in hypertext. In 2000, he founded the website PatternLanguage.com, and he now serves as its Chairman of the Board.

Alexander has designed and built more than two hundred buildings on five continents, laying the groundwork for a new form of architecture, one that looks far into the future yet has roots in ancient traditions. Much of his work has heavily utilized technological innovations designed to build a living architecture, especially for the use of concrete, shell design, and contracting procedures. He has served as a consultant to city, county, and national governments on every continent, and has advised corporations, government agencies, and architects and planners throughout the world.

He was elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1996, is a fellow of the Swedish Royal Society, and has received innumerable architectural prizes and honors, including the first gold medal for research from the American Institute of Architects, awarded in 1970.

His biography, Christopher Alexander: The Evolution of a New Paradigm in Architecture, by Stephen Grabow, was published in London and Boston in 1983, and his film biography, Places for the Soul: The Architecture of Christopher Alexander, was released in 1990.

Perspectives

The Phenomenon of Life (Nature of Order Book One). Alexander proposes a scientific view of the world in which all space-matter has perceptible degrees of life and sets this understanding of order as an intellectual basis for a new architecture. With this view as a foundation, we can ask precise questions about what must be done to create more life in our world — whether in a room, a humble doorknob, a neighborhood, or even in a vast region. He introduces the concept of living structure, basing it upon his theories of centers and of wholeness, and defines the fifteen properties from which, according to his observations, all wholeness is built. Alexander argues that living structure is at once both personal and structural.

The Process of Creating Life (Nature of Order Book Two). In the 20th century our society was locked into deadly processes which created our current built environment, processes of which most people were not really aware and did not question. Despite their best efforts and intentions, architects and planners working within these processes, could not achieve a living built environment. In this book, Alexander puts forward a fully developed theory of living process. He defines conditions for a process to be living: that is, capable of generating living structure. He shows how such processes work, and how they may be created. At the core of the new theory is the theory of structure-preserving transformations. This concept, new in scientific thinking, is based on the concept of wholeness defined in Book 1: A structure-preserving transformation is one which preserves, extends, and enhances the wholeness of a system. Making changes in society, so that streets, buildings, rooms, gardens, towns may be generated by hundreds of such sequences, requires massive transformations. This book is the first blueprint of those transformations.

A Vision of a Living World (Nature of Order Book Three). Providing hundreds of examples of buildings and places, this volume demonstrates proposes forms for large buildings, public spaces, communities, neighborhoods, which then lead to discussions about the equally important small scale of detail and ornament and color. With these examples, laypeople, architects, builders, artists, and students are able to make this new framework real for themselves, for their own lives, and understand how it works and its significance.

The Luminous Ground (Nature of Order Book Four). The mechanistic thinking and the consequent investment-oriented tracts of houses, condominiums and offices in the 20th century have dehumanized our cities and our lives. How are spirit, soul, emotion, feeling to be introduced into a building, or a street, or a development project, in modern times? In this final text, Alexander breaks away completely from the one-sided mechanical model of buildings or neighborhoods as mere assemblages of technically generated interchangeable parts. He shows us conclusively that a spiritual, emotional, and personal basis must underlie every act of building. This radical view can conform to our most ordinary, daily intuitions. It may provide a path for those contemporary scientists who are beginning to see consciousness as the underpinning of all matter, and thus as a proper object of scientific study. And it will change, forever, our conception of what buildings are.

A Pattern Language: The Living Structure of Places. Looking closely at the living structure in good and bad buildings, human artifacts, and natural systems, Alexander proposes that the living order depends on those features that closely connect with the human self. The quality of works of art, artifacts, and buildings is defined not merely in terms of living structure, but also in their capacity to affect human growth and human well-being.

The Overlapping Organization of Cities. In his classic essay, “A City is Not a Tree,”(1965) Alexander explains why separate functions have come to dominate the world of urban planning, and why this is an unhealthy way of building our cities. City-building, he holds, has become dominated by narrowly focused professions, mainly because human beings do not seem to possess the mental capacity to holistically perceive the complex social, environmental, and economic processes that collectively shape urban life. Referring to a variety of experiments, Alexander demonstrates how the human mind tends to separate elements and arrange them in categories and visually separate spaces. When people are faced with complex organization, they reorganize natural overlap into non-overlapping units. He refers to this non-overlapping structure as a “tree,” and argues that the complex organization of cities is in fact more suited to “semi-lattices”– which are healthy places, although extreme compartmentalization and dissociation of internal elements can lead to destruction. In a human, dissociation marks schizophrenia, and in a society it marks anarchy. For a city to remain receptive to life, social interaction, and human prosperity, it must unite the different strands of life within it. Planners and designers must therefore allow for a mix of functions and be open-minded to organic change.

Interactions between Cars and Pedestrians. While most people are either for cars or for pedestrians, Alexander believes the two can function as a pair. While the relationship between pedestrians and cars has always been an uneasy one, their simple separation is not a sustainable solution for making cities livable. He has instead developed a pattern for analyzing and improving the interactions between cars and people. In the ideal interaction between pedestrians and cars, both are vibrant, and the two zones are separate but touch everywhere. He describes five ways in which this can happen:

  • Where cars are moving slowly, people and cars can mix up, meaning that at very low density traffic, there do not necessarily need to be sidewalks.
  • Creating quiet places with good space for pedestrians and narrow slow space for cars.
  • Wide, densely traveled pedestrian streets may cross densely traveled roads with cars and buses, best at a right angle.
  • Pedestrian lanes can be designed to be internal to a block. According to Alexander’s observations, most points on pedestrian paths should be within 150 feet of the nearest road.
  • Where cars dominate there should be easy access to beautiful and pure pedestrian space.

Starting with What is Beautiful Now. By beginning with spaces that are already beautiful, Alexander shows how we can adopt an organic process of city-building and discover the “right” order of places. Designing places in the right order has a major impact on the quality of community life. The right order for a place is often unexpected. To discover the right order of a particular place, we should begin by implementing any tiny improvements that are feasible now. Specific spots or segments in a city that work well do so for a reason, and because they are naturally used by the community, these spaces form the “spine” of the area and making good starting points for wider improvements. According to Alexander, small incremental changes will enhance the spirit of the place and encourage the accumulation of further changes. Using this approach, we can connect new spaces to already beautiful ones while allowing for change and adaptation through lived experience.

Harmonizing the Shape of Public Buildings. The quality of public buildings depends on how they harmonize with their surrounding environment. A great public building makes the environment better, but its construction must draw upon the existing positive patterns in that environment. Alexander emphasizes that great buildings emerge without artifice and without egos, and that the volume and space around the building site must inspire the building’s construction. His pattern language provides guidelines for how to proceed through such a process of inspiration in a logical but also emotional way.

Triangulation: Arranging Overlapping Functions in Small Spaces. Although he was not the first to use the term, Alexander has greatly enriched our understanding of how triangulation fits into larger patterns of urban life. Triangulation occurs when a space allows for two or more overlapping functions and thus facilitates additional activity and interaction between people. It often occurs in small spaces through the precise positioning of an object or two around a key location, such as a street corner, a bus stop, a newsstand. Such objects might serve a necessary activity, or might simply engage or entertain the passer by. Alexander explains how triangulation works, and also how it can create great public spaces.

Quotable

“In the past century, architecture has always been a minor science — if it has been a science at all. Present day architects who want to be scientific, try to incorporate the ideas of physics, psychology, anthropology in their work . . . in the hope of keeping in tune with the “scientific” times. I believe we are on the threshold of a new era, when this relation between architecture and the physical sciences may be reversed — when the proper understanding of the deep questions of space, as they are embodied in architecture will play a revolutionary role in the way we see the world and will do for the world view of the 21st and 22nd centuries, what physics did for the 19th and 20th.”

“Every building, every room, every garden is better when all the patterns which it needs are compressed as far as it is possible for them to be. The building will be cheaper; the meaning in it will be denser.”

“Above all, the shapes of the building must spring from the land, and buildings around, like a tree springing from a coppice — it fits perfectly, the moment of inception.”

“Good languages are in harmony with geography, climate and culture.”

“I’ll tell you a story. I was in India in 1961. I was living in a village most of the time. I studied that village, tried to understand what village life was all about. And I got back to Harvard, a few months later, and I got a letter from the government of [the town in India], saying ‘We’ve got to re-locate our village because of the dam construction. Would you like to build it?’. I think about 2000 people were being moved. And I thought about it. And then I was very sad. And I wrote back, and I said, ‘You know, I don’t know enough about how to do it. Because I don’t want to come in and simply build a village, because I don’t think that will make life. I know that the life has got to come from the people, as well as what’s going on physically, geometrically. My experience of living in the village is that I do not know enough about how to actually make that happen. And therefore I very very regretfully decline your kind offer.’ And I was actually chagrined beyond measure, that I had to give that reply. But it was honest, and in fact, it was because of that letter that I wrote A Pattern Language. Because, I thought and thought, and I said, ‘You know, this is crazy. What would I have to do, to put in people’s hands the thing with which they could do this, so that it would be like a real village and not like an architect’s fantasy?”

Accolades

“[Alexander is] one of the most influential people who has ever been in the design world. His influence on us, operationally, has been enormous.”  – Andres Duany, Founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism

“Alexander’s approach presents a fundamental challenge to us and our style-obsessed age. It suggests that a beautiful form can come about only through a process that is meaningful to people. It also implies that certain types of processes, regardless of when they occur or who does them, can lead to certain types of forms.” – Thomas Fisher, Progressive Architecture

“In these postmodern times of distortional post-structural theories and cynical deconstructivist designs, Alexander’s work is a beacon illuminating a way to make the world more robust, beautiful, and kind… this vision and work may well inspire a new generation of practitioners and thinkers, and so a virtuous circle may proceed.” – David Seamon, Professor in the Department of Architecture, Kansas State University

“Five hundred years is a long time, and I don’t expect many of the people I interview will be known in the year 2500. Christopher Alexander may be an exception.” – David Creelman, Editor of HR Magazine

“[Alexander] is single-handedly trying to destroy the trillion dollar construction industry.” – Joel Garreau, Author of Edge City: Life on the New Frontier

 

Christopher Alexander was last modified: April 8th, 2015 by Project for Public Spaces
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