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Christopher Alexander is a practicing architect, builder, and Emeritus Professor of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley; and the author of The Nature of Order: an essay on the art of building and the nature of the Universe, The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. The Nature of Order is a four volume set that represents 40 years of work in many different countries and setting, and puts forth his ideas in a coherent and compelling way: Book 1 (The Phenomenon of Life), Book 2 (The Process of Creating Life), Book 3 (A Vision of A Living World) and Book 4 (The Luminous Ground) are all currently available.
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.
“[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 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, and also of the pattern movement in computer science; and the principal author of the 1977 book A Pattern Language, a seminal work that was perhaps the first complete book written in hypertext fashion. 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.
Alexander 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 gold medal for research from the American Institute of Architects, awarded in 1970.
Alexander’s biography, Christopher Alexander: The Evolution of a New Paradigm in Architecture, by Stephen Grabow, was published in London and Boston in 1983 and in Japan in 1989. A film biography, Places for the Soul: The Architecture of Christopher Alexander, was released in 1990.
The Nature of Order, Book 1- The Phenomenon of Life
The four books of the Nature of Order consider three vital perspectives on our world:
- A scientific perspective
- A perspective based on beauty and grace
- A commonsense perspective based on our intuitions about everyday life
Neither scientists, nor mystics, nor architects, nor politicians have so far found a single view of the world in which the three are united. These books allow us to form one picture of the world in which all three perspectives are interlaced. They open the door to 21st-century science and cosmology. Alexander explores the properties of life itself, highlighting a set of well-defined structures present in all order — and in all life — from micro-organisms and mountain ranges to good houses and vibrant communities.
In The Phenomenon of Life, the first volume in this four volume masterwork, 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.
Taken as a whole the four books create a sweeping new conception of the nature of things which is both objective, structural (hence part of science) and personal (in that it shows how and why things have the power to touch the human heart). A step has been taken, through which these two domains — the domain of geometrical structure and the feeling it creates — kept separate during four centuries of scientific thought from 1600 to 2000, have finally been united. The four volumes can be read separately, independently, and in any order. However, it is together that they have their greatest impact as each one informs and illuminates the others.
The Nature of Order, Book 2 – The Process of Creating Life
Scientifically, this is perhaps the most exciting of the four books. How do beautiful creations come into being? Nature can make an infinite number of human faces, each one unique, each one beautiful. The same is true for daffodils, streams, and stars. But man-made creations – especially the towns and buildings of the 20th century – have only occasionally been really good, more often mediocre, and in the last 50 years have most often been deadly. What is the reason for the difference? It hinges on the deep nature of the processes we use.
Merely understanding the geometry of beautiful and living form (the topic of Book 1) is not enough to help us create such a living geometry. In the 20th century our society was locked into deadly processes which created our current built environment, processes that most people were not really aware of and did not question. Despite their best efforts and intentions, architects and planners working within these processes, could not achieve a living built environment.
Life and beauty in the built world arise only from processes which allow living structure to unfold. The secret lies in knowing, as nature does, what must happen in what order: what sequence of events allows a living form to unfold successfully. In Book 2, 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.
Structure-preserving transformations provide the means for any step-by-step process – social, biological, architectural, or technical – to reach configurations which are most profound, most capable of supporting life. The process of creation – whether in the formation of a single object, or in the piecemeal aggregation of a town – requires this sort of generative process, a careful and deliberate sequence of steps in which each step creates the context for the next one, and each next wholeness is derived from the previous wholeness.
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.
The Nature of Order, Book 3 – A Vision of a Living World
From a practical point of view, this is the most compelling of the four books. Hundreds of photographs and plans of new buildings that have living structure, and the processes which gave them life, demonstrate, for the first time, what the concept of living structure can mean in buildings of our time and of the future.
The really good building. The really good space. Places that reach an archetypal level of human experience, reaching across centuries, across continents, across cultures, across technology, across building materials and climates. They connect to us all. They connect us to our feelings. What is more, as we study them, we realise that they all share a similar geometry. How are they made? The practical task of making beauty is the principal subject of A Vision of a Living World.
In the four books of The Nature of Order we have been given a new framework for perceiving and interacting with our world, a methodology for creating beautiful spaces, a cosmology where art, architecture, science, religion and secular life all work comfortably together. The third book shows us — visually, technically, and artistically — what a world built in this cosmology and framework is likely to be like for us.
Hundreds of examples of buildings and places are shown. New forms for large buildings, public spaces, communities, neighborhoods, lead to discussions about the equally important small scale of detail and ornament and color. Many of the examples are built by Alexander and his colleagues, other buildings explored take us around the world and through time. In all instances, it is the uniqueness and adaptation of each place and its parts, and their comfort, which hold attention: the uniqueness coupled with simplicity and beauty of form and color.
With these examples, lay people, architects, builders, artists, students are able to make this new framework real for themselves, for their own lives, understand how it works and its significance. Alexander gives us a feast for the eyes, and mind, and heart. Places created by living process (Book 2) have living structure (Book 1); and they connect us to our essence as people (Book 4). The seven hundred pictures of his stunning buildings and works of art shown in this book demonstrate in detail what he means.
The Nature of Order, Book 4 – The Luminous Ground
The foundations of modern scientific thought, four centuries old, are firmly rooted in a conception that the universe is a machinelike entity, a play of baubles, machines, trinkets. To this day, our real daily experience of ourselves has no clear place in science. It is little wonder that a machinelike world-view has supported the deadly architecture of the last century.
This mechanistic thinking and the consequent investment-oriented tracts of houses, condominiums and offices 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?
The Luminous Ground contains what is, perhaps, the deepest revelation in the four-volume work. Here is a geometrical view of space and matter seamlessly connected to our own private, personal, experience as sentient and knowing creatures. This is not merely an emotional appendix to the scientific theory of the other books. It is at the core of the entire work, and is rooted in the fact that our two sides — our analytical thinking selves, and our vulnerable emotional personalities as human beings — are coterminous, and must be harnessed at one and the same time, if we are ever to really make sense of what is around us, and be able to create a living world.
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. His stunning buildings and works of art demonstrate in detail what he means. And then, in the middle of the book, comes the linchpin of the work; a one-hundred-page chapter on color, which lavishly illustrates and dramatically conveys the way that consciousness and spirit can make their appearance in the world.
Present throughout this fourth and final book is a new cosmology uniting matter and consciousness: consciousness inextricably joined to the substrate of matter, present in all matter, and providing all wholeness with its material, cognitive, and spiritual underpinnings. This view, though radical, conforms 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
Starting with an analysis of the arbitrariness of present-day architecture and going to the root of functional order in the world, Alexander proposes a scientific basis for looking at life as an objective concept, rooted in specific structure and available for empirical investigation. A Pattern Language explores the living structure in good and bad buildings, human artifacts, and natural systems, discussing the presence of the same living order in all systems. Alexander proposes that the living order depends on features which make a close connection 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.
Alexander examines the kinds of processes that are capable of generating living structure. He compares biological processes in nature to cultural processes that have created human environments and buildings. This comparison reveals fundamental problems that pervade the standard planning and construction of buildings. He describes the detailed character of living process needed to generate, design, plan, and build buildings with living structure. The character of living process is contrasted, repeatedly, with the character of present-day professional process. He argues that present-day professional process departs from the living process necessary to create an environment with the capacity to nurture human growth and well-being.
The City is Not a Tree: The Overlapping Organization of Cities
In his classic text, “The City is Not a Tree,” Alexander develops a convincing argument for why separate functions have come to dominate the world of urban planning, and why this is an unhealthy way of building our cities.
Alexander explains that city-building 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.
Alexander characterizes this non-overlapping structure as a “tree” and argues that the complex organization of cities is in fact more suited to a “semilattice.” While planned cities resemble trees, naturally grown cities and those that break free from the “tree” are semilattices. Alexander argues that semilattices are healthy places, while extreme compartmentalization and dissociation of internal elements can lead to destruction. He explains that in a person, dissociation marks schizophrenia, and in a society it marks anarchy. For a city to remain receptive for 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 discusses how the two can function as a pair. The relationship between pedestrians and cars has always been an uneasy one, but Alexander explains that simply separating cars from pedestrians is not a universal solution to making cities livable. He has instead developed a pattern for analyzing and improving the interactions between cars and people.
Alexander argues that in the ideal interactions of pedestrians and cars, cars are vibrant and pedestrians 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.
In Alexander’s most recent writings, he has taken the position that pedestrian space must always come first, conceptually, and in time, and that vehicular space must always come afterwards (in conception, layout, and construction), so that cars and trucks are well served but always in the context of a pedestrian structure which is primary. Pedestrian space must always be given priority of position and connectivity.
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. Alexander explains that designing places in the right order has a major impact on the quality of community life. He acknowledges that the right order for a place is often unexpected, but asserts that there are such things as right, as well as many wrong orders. Through his research and writing, Alexander proposes right orders in which different aspects of a design sequence should be implemented for particular types of places.
Alexander suggests that to discover the right order of a 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, according to Alexander. 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.
Alexander’s current work (post The Nature of Order), is focused on creation of an entirely new kind of urban plan, dynamic in nature, and focused on the dynamic generation of structure, and on the successful adaptation of one part to another. His first plan of this type is currently in press, for the new community of Harbor Peak in Brookings, Oregon. As soon as it is ready, the plan will be posted on the PatternLanguage.com website.
He is also focused on the creation of computer tools that make real time adaptation possible, and put the emphasis of planning and architecture away from drawings (which he considers too abstract), and towards a land-based system in which people genuinely understand the actions, decisions and forms that emerge when changes are introduced into the urban structure.
“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?”
For recent articles by Christopher Alexander, please visit www.natureoforder.com and click Library of Reviews and Articles.
“The Architect of Life,” Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, Institute of Science In Society, November 2003, www.i-sis.org.uk/ArchitectofLife.php.
The Nature of Order: an essay on the art of building and the nature of the universe (four books), Center for Environmental Structure, 2003. Available from Amazon.com and www.natureoforder.com.
Sketches of a New Architecture, Oxford University Press, New York, in preparation.
Battle: the story of a historic clash between world system A and world system B, with Hajo Neis, Gary Black and Ingrid King, Oxford University Press, New York, in preparation.
The Mary Rose Museum, with Gary Black, Miyoko Tsutsui, Oxford University Press, New York, 1995.
A New Theory of Urban Design, with Hajo Neis, Artemis Anninou, Ingrid King, Oxford University Press, New York, 1985.
The Production of Houses, with Howard Davis, Julio Martinez, Don Corner, Oxford University Press, New York, 1985.
The Linz Cafe, Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.
Rebirth of the Inner City, the North Omaha Plan, with Howard Davis, Center for Environmental Structure, Berkeley, California, 1981.
The Timeless Way of Building, Oxford University Press, New York, 1979.
A Pattern Language, with S. Ishikawa, M. Silverstein, M. Jacobson, I. Fiksdahl-King, S. Angel, Oxford University Press, New York, 1977.
The Oregon Experiment, Oxford University Press, 1975.
People Rebuilding Berkeley: The Self-creating Life of Neighborhoods, with Howard Davis and Halim Abdelhalim, Center for Environmental Structure, 1975. Reprinted by New Communities Development Group, Berkeley, California, 1985.
A Human City, with Ronald Walkey, Murray Silverstein, and others, Kajima Publishing Company, Tokyo, 1970.
Houses Generated by Patterns, with Sanford Hirshen, Sara Ishikawa, Christie Coffin and Shlomo Angel, Center for Environmental Structure, Berkeley, California, 1969.
A Pattern Language which Generates Multi-service Centers, with Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein, Center for Environmental Structure, Berkeley, California, 1968.
Systems Generating Systems, booklet published by Inland Steel, 1967.
Notes on the Synthesis of Form, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964.
Community and Privacy, with Serge Chermayeff, New York: Doubleday, 1963.
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