Saying the Obvious All the Time: A Tribute to Christopher Alexander
As a teenager at Cambridge University in the 1950s, Christopher Alexander (1936–2022) became fascinated by the question “What makes something beautiful?” To his surprise, he found that no serious scholars offered answers he found compelling; many didn’t even seem interested in taking up the question. When the young Alexander went to see the famous analytic philosopher A.J. Ayer, Ayer dismissed his question, seeing it as some kind of “verbal problem” to be resolved by analyzing language use.
Alexander came to feel that there was something deeply wrong with contemporary architecture, whose practitioners didn’t care about the question of how to make places with “beauty” and “life.” Architects and designers, Alexander said, saw beauty as something subjective, a matter of purely personal taste that could not be meaningfully discussed—there was no possibility of adjudicating rationally among differing aesthetic preferences. Yet Alexander felt that centuries-old buildings like the Alhambra were more beautiful than anything built since World War II. Alexander wanted to discover whether there was a set of rules that architects and designers could use to create places that, in his words, truly came alive.
At Cambridge, Alexander originally studied mathematics— his father had insisted he get a practical degree first, claiming that “architects were disreputable and idiotic.” As Alexander told biographer Stephen Grabow for the 1983 book Christopher Alexander: The Search for a New Paradigm in Architecture, when Alexander got to the architecture program, he thought it was a “lunatic asylum,” an observation confirmed when he drew a house he felt was absurd and hideous and was told by his instructor that it was “exactly what we’re looking for.”
That alienation from his peers in the discipline would follow him for his entire life. Though Alexander received the first-ever PhD in architecture at Harvard and spent decades as a professor at Berkeley in the department of architecture, he always remained an outsider among architects. (His magnum opus, The Nature of Order, even thanks his Berkeley colleagues for their “unrelenting hostility” to his work, saying it “gave me strength.”)
Alexander believed that nearly all buildings designed in the last century were ugly and lifeless. In an acrimonious debate with Yale’s Peter Eisenman in 1982, Alexander accused Eisenman and his colleagues of “fucking up the world” by building places that are prickly, inhuman, discomforting, and arbitrary. Alexander believed that an architect’s job was to be the “custodian of harmony in the world,” to create buildings with “that sleepy, awkward grace that comes from perfect ease.” His “Hippocratic Oath for Architects” commanded that architects should have “a commitment to make only buildings which are deeply and genuinely liked” by the people who live in them. For a building to be beautiful it must be felt to be beautiful by those people who live or work in it, and so they must be intimately involved in the process by which it unfolded. Alexander’s books—including the four-volume Nature of Order, The Timeless Way of Building, The Battle For The Life and Beauty of the Earth, and, most famously, A Pattern Language—attempt to articulate criteria for building places with what he variously described as wholeness, harmony, life, and even “the quality without a name.”
A Pattern Language, which Alexander coauthored with colleagues from the Center for Environmental Structure, is one of the most unconventional works on design ever published. Across more than a thousand pages, it lays out 253 “patterns,” each of which is a kind of solution or suggestion of how to improve a building or city. They range from the macro level (e.g., no. 2, the distribution of towns) to the extremely micro level (e.g., no. 253, decorating walls with “things from your life”). There are amusing suggestions, such as Alexander et al.’s recommendation for “child caves”:
“Children love to be in tiny, cave-like places.… Wherever children play, around the house, in the neighborhood, in schools, they make small ‘caves.’ Tuck these caves away in natural leftover spaces, under stairs, under kitchen counters. Keep the ceiling height low—2 feet 6 inches to 4 feet—and the entrance tiny.”
Other ideas for patterns for architects and planners to use include “adventure playgrounds,” “still water,” “street cafés,” “dancing in the street,” and even “old people everywhere.” These patterns can seem eccentric and strange to those expecting more straightforward tips on design and construction, but each is an attempt to identify something that makes a place worth living in. Alexander believed that good architecture was not about the ideas or intentions of the architect, but the experiences of the users and that designing a successful place for humans to live and work in part a matter of aesthetics, but also about ensuring that children had places to hide and old people interacted with young people.
Alexander defended ideas unfashionable among his professional colleagues, like the necessity of handmade ornamentation, and can easily be seen as advocating the same return to tradition that New Classicists advocate. Indeed, he thought classical architecture was vastly superior to anything built today. But he had contempt for those who mindlessly recreated the architecture of the past. He once sent a critical message to a listserv for classicists, arguing that by giving priority to European architecture over the ancient building practices of other cultures, they were engaging in a kind of aesthetic colonialism and missing the beauty to be found around the world:
“I have joy in the paintings of aborigines in Australia, and in the starry friezes of Islamic buildings, and in the beasts of Persepolis, and the long houses of Borneo, and the mud houses of the Cameroon.… All traditional architecture—that is, almost all the architecture built in Indonesia, Japan, Russia, Africa, Turkey, Iran, India, China—this dazzling wealth of forms, representing building, and art, and design for several millennia, is our heritage.… It would perhaps be helpful for us to spend a little more time discussing the rules of deep structure which create life in buildings in general.”
Alexander was not quite at home anywhere. As with the New Classicists, he shared many ideas with the New Urbanists but still was not exactly in their camp. The communities that emerge from following the recipes in A Pattern Language would be walkable, leafy, and free of both cars and skyscrapers. But Alexander believed that in addition to new designs, there needed to be a whole new design-and-build process that intimately involved the users of a building in its creation and, crucially, excluded corporate developers. In this sort of process, buildings would not be designed on paper and then constructed, but would rather unfold in an iterative process with many participants, particularly those who would use the building on a day-to-day basis—students and teachers should help design and build a school, for instance.
A certain political radicalism undergirded Alexander’s work: it was anticorporate and included the advocacy of new kinds of participatory democracy. One of the patterns in A Pattern Language is “self-governing workshops and offices,” and coauthor Murray Silverstein called the work a “20th century neo-romantic, community-anarchist structuralist vision for a human city.” Alexander recognized that these ideas would be useless if they were merely theoretical, so he tried to demonstrate what he meant through a number of real-world projects. The most ambitious of these was a combined high school and college campus outside of Tokyo, the construction of which is documented in The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth. Alexander began the project by spending weeks talking to teachers and students “to get a feeling for their hopes and dreams.” A teacher admitted wanting to walk across a bridge, or by a stream, gathering their thoughts before class. To Alexander and his team, the teacher’s dream was important, and indeed the resulting campus has a wooden bridge over a tranquil lake with ducks. Alexander’s built projects tended to be modest— a homeless shelter, a farmers’ market, a café, half a dozen houses. They are not as dazzling as one might expect from an architect who wanted to transcend contemporary architecture and achieve beauty. (“Each building should be offered as a gift to God,” his oath says, an example of Alexander’s frequent use of religious language to describe his intent. He believed there was some underlying force in the universe with which great art was in tune.) But Alexander was not aiming to impress architecture critics. He was aiming to create places that felt right, that perfectly served human needs. They might be simple places, but they would be magical. As a 2018 Berkeleyside article observes of a house he built in the Bay Area, Alexander appears to have done what he set out to do:
“In fact, this house does have a magical feel to it: you don’t know what to expect when you turn a corner. It is akin to navigating a dreamscape that is whimsical, unexpected and playful. It’s a great house for children to grow up in because it’s easy to get lost in that fantasy quality. There are so many levels and nooks and crannies.”
Words like “dreamscape” and “playful” could lead us to think Alexander was doing something frivolous, but his project was a very serious attempt to give people the built environment they deserved and desired. Beneath all his talk of things mystical and magical lay a deeply democratic principle, a belief that buildings are for everybody and that the subjective experiences the students and teachers will have in a school, or the children in a home, should guide its design. This seemingly obvious idea does not appear to have been absorbed by the mainstream of the architectural profession, as we can see through blunders like the the Hunters Point Library in Queens, which was hailed as a masterpiece by the New York Times architectural critic, but which was a disaster for actual library patrons: noisy, cramped, and unsafe. One librarian “said she wished the building was designed less like a museum or gallery—and more like a library.” This would never have happened in an Alexander project, because for Alexander the design of a library begins with the wishes of librarians and library patrons.
Alexander’s works are rich with ideas that challenge received wisdom or force us to think hard about what we believe. He proposed a novel approach to “sustainability” in his lecture “Sustainability and Morphogenesis,” showing how environmentally friendly design needed to emulate the way natural life-forms grew. In his essay “A City Is Not a Tree,” he explains how certain kinds of underlying structures made cities that were artificial rather than organic. Nature of Order not only contains full explanations of his building principles, with hundreds of photos of examples, but is an ambitious attempt to overthrow the entire mechanistic cosmology of the last three centuries and create a wholly new view of philosophy and science.
Alexander was both influential and controversial, with a devoted following outside the “mainstream” of his field. A profile in Architect Magazine noted that he influenced many architects and planners—New Urbanist Andrés Duany called him “one of the most influential people who has ever been in the design world” and tiny-house pioneer Sarah Susanka said he “put forth a completely new paradigm in architecture.” Fundamentals of Building Construction author Edward Allen called him “probably the most important theoretician on architectural design of the present day.” But the magazine also reported that critics “dismissed him as a nostalgist whose work has no contemporary relevance,” and in an article for The Side View, Nikos Salingaros writes that “practitioners who try to implement Alexander’s toolkit for adaptive design find themselves marginalized in the architecture profession and shunned by academia.” Alexander himself said he attracted strong hostility from many of his colleagues, including fellow members of his Berkeley department. In Nature of Order, he recounts that the Cambridge University architecture faculty treated him as some kind of bizarre crank when, during a tense job interview, he told them they should employ carpenters and masons as well as architecture professors. (He didn’t get the position.)
It’s easy to see why Alexander’s ideas aren’t widely taught in architecture schools. If accepted, his theories lead to the conclusion that nearly everything done by architects today is inhuman, ugly, and even undemocratic. Alexander’s ideas around patterns have been more well-received in computer science than in architecture—they influenced the computer game SimCity and the development of the wiki. The Building Beauty program at the Sant’Anna Insitute in Sorrento, Italy, aims to teach architecture using Alexander’s ideas and methods, and he inspired generations of DIY enthusiasts, craftspeople, and the tiny-house movement. There are undoubtedly huge numbers of small projects around the world that owe their existence to Alexander’s thinking. Long after I wrote an article in Current Affairs inspired by him, I received an email from a reader who had been partly inspired by it to quit his office job and take up carpentry and was carving decorative doorframes for a public housing project. They were sublime; I felt that they they possessed that intangible quality Alexander called “life” or “harmony.” Yet for the most part mainstream architectural education has not yet taken seriously Alexander’s theory of the beautiful or his radical, childlike questions such as “whether a place feels nice” and “whether there are animals and old people there.”
Alexander believed that sooner or later, people would see he was right. He thought that deep down, most everybody knew that new construction was ugly and that we were all afraid to admit the truth about what we wanted: “I really find myself to be saying the obvious all the time, and indeed, everyone knows the obvious but dare not admit it.” In his debate with Eisenman, Alexander predicted that people would soon wake up and start demanding beautiful places, overflowing with life. It has not happened yet. Biographer Stephen Grabow said that someday Alexander’s ideas “will appear almost as tradition-shattering to modern architecture as the Copernican revolution did to medieval astronomy.” Whether or not this is so, it is nourishing to the imagination to picture what it would be like to inhabit a world that unfolded in accordance with Alexander’s patterns, a world of hand-painted ornament, lush gardens, eclectic traditions, walkable neighborhoods, cozy dens, cheerful colors, enchanting caves, lively street cafés, tranquil lakes, hidden passages, windy staircases, trellised walks, sunlit window seats, and, of course, animals and old people everywhere. ⬤
NATHAN ROBINSON is a writer on politics whose forays into architectural criticism tend to land him in hot water on the internet.
Patterns courtesy Christopher Alexander and the Center for Environmental Structure
This article appeared in our May 2022 Issue, #29. Click here to purchase a copy. Click here to receive the current and future issues.