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Christopher Alexander (1) (1936–2022)

Author of A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction

For other authors named Christopher Alexander, see the disambiguation page.

25+ Works 5,763 Members 46 Reviews 6 Favorited

About the Author

Christopher Alexander, Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, winner of the first medal for research ever awarded by the American Institute of Architects, is an architect, scientist and builder who has built in many countries. After thirty-eight years in the Department of Architecture show more at the University of California, Berkeley, he is now Emeritus Professor at the University, Director of the Center for Environmental Structure, and Chairman of the Board at PatternLanguage.com show less

Series

Works by Christopher Alexander

The Timeless Way of Building (1978) 1,152 copies
The Oregon Experiment (1978) 195 copies
The Production of Houses (1985) 141 copies
A New Theory of Urban Design (1987) 134 copies
The Linz Cafe (1981) 34 copies

Associated Works

The Man-Made Object (Vision + Value Series) (1966) — Contributor — 46 copies

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Common Knowledge

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Reviews

A singular multidisciplinary text that offers models for something like urban planning components of different scales and scope. Really an extremely interesting model of metadesign guidelines that are driven by humanist outcomes.

Anyone dealing with complex nultiscale systems and design should at least review the approach taken with this text.

Problems with the specifix approach are:
- overly culturally “western”
- many big decisions are made without detailed evidence
- there is an assumption of shared values that are not a given
- the book leaves open contextual problems that can emerge from bad application of these patterns

Extremely interesting text..
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yates9 | 26 other reviews | Feb 28, 2024 |
You may enjoy this quite technical manual if you are an architect, planner, builder, or otherwise want our private buildings to be improved. Otherwise it is a long and highly detailed manifesto of what a more deliberate take on building could be, and I can't guarantee that laypeople would enjoy it.

When I first started graduate studies in urban planning, the challenges of daylighting, shadows, and sun glare felt easy to handle. Best practices were well laid out and it seemed like a straightforward set of challenges. Of course, I quickly learned that the context of every site changed these considerations, and it was important to proceed with caution to work through them. This is a book that gives mostly timeless advice on these fronts and it was helpful for that purpose.

The downsides are a handful of claims that border on superstitions, chiefly the supposed negative mental health aspects of living in high-rise buildings. I don't know how ubiquitous this thought was at the time of publication, but it stands out as an odd idea within more solid recommendations.
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½
 
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jonerthon | 26 other reviews | Dec 27, 2023 |
Sets out to convince the reader that there is a quality called wholeness (sometimes life), that is objectively and quantifiably present in different degrees in different buildings. It was worthwhile to read, to see the arguments he made and how exhaustively he'd thought about it. However, because I was not convinced by the argument, I doubt I will go on to the other volumes due to the time commitment required.
 
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adamhindman | 4 other reviews | Jan 16, 2023 |
In 2002, architect Christopher Alexander published the first volume of his magnum opus, "The Nature of Order." It is a book that endeavors to answer the question: what is aliveness, and how can cultivate it in our built environment? Here's the review on the dust jacket: "Five hundred years is a long time, and I don't expect that many of the people I interview will be known in the year 2500. Alexander may be an exception," attributed to David Creeman.

Alexander begins by asking the question, why is contemporary architecture so terrible? "In the 20th century we have passed through a unique period, one in which architecture as a discipline has been in a state that is almost unimaginably bad." I too find myself musing on this question as I sit in the waiting room at a doctor's office, park my car in a garage, or go though airport security. How did we end up with a built environment that actively degrades our lives? Does it have to be this way? Alexander would suggest: no. Throughout history, cultures have established methods of architecture that enrich the human experience. He posits that this has been caused by a loss of the ability and desire to discern aliveness.

Alexander has a degree in mathematics, and approaches his subject matter systematically. When looking at aliveness, he establishes that aliveness is a property of space and matter, not only of biological organisms. Next, he establishes that aliveness exists on a spectrum: anything can be more or less alive. In the built environment, we have agency to influence where something—a door nob, and window, a room, and village, a region—falls on this spectrum.

So how do we discern aliveness? After decades of experimentation, Alexander has found that it is an objective property. Although it is a discipline requiring practice, the basic tenet is the somatic question, "which of these things, manifestations, etc. brings me more aliveness?" He describes this as the Mirror of the Self test; "which of the two things generates, in the observer, the most wholesome feeling?" It should be noted that this question is fundamentally different and divergent from the question, "which do I like better?" Alexander contextualizes this as a second kind of science. Whereas the first kind of science was Cartesian, founded by Descartes, was focused on mechanisms, this second kind of science is focused on wholeness. I’ve just reviewed another book, by Andrea Wulf, documenting the rich heritage in this second science of wholeness including the likes of Goethe, Humboldt, Jefferson, Thoreau, Marsh, Haekel, and Muir.

The core of Alexander's text is organized around fifteen Principles of Wholeness:

1. Levels of Scale: "the centers these objects are made of tend to have a beautiful range of sizes, and that these sizes exist at a series of well-marked levels, with definite jumps between them."
2. Strong Centers: "The field effect and the power of 'the' center are created by the sequence of other nearby centers leading up to it."
3. Boundaries: "focuses attention on the center... by forming the field of force which creates and intensified the center... [and] it unites the center which is being bounded with the world beyond the boundary."
4. Alternating Repetition: "focuses attention on the center... by forming the field of force which creates and intensified the center... [and] it unites the center which is being bounded with the world beyond the boundary."
5. Positive Space "occurs when every bit of space swells outward, is substantial in itself, is never the leftovers from an adjacent shape."
6. Good Shape: "a shape we see as good is a shape which is itself, as a shape, made up from multiple coherent centers."
7. Local Symmetries: "local symmetries work to create coherent, while overall symmetry rarely does... Indeed, perfect symmetry is often a mark of death in things, rather than life."
8. Deep Interlock & Ambiguity: "situations where centers are 'hooked' into their surroundings"
9. Contrast: "every center is made from discernible opposites, and intensified when the not-center, against which it is opposed, is clarified, and itself becomes a center."
10. Gradients: "must arise in the world when the world is in harmony with itself simply because conditions vary."
11. Roughness: "seemingly rough arrangement is more precise because it comes from a much more careful guarding of the essential centers in the design... roughness is always the product of abandon—it is created whenever a person is truly free... doing only whatever is essential."
12. Echoes: "there is a deep underlying similarity—a family resemblance—among the elements, so deep that everything seems to be related."
13. The Void: “in the most profound centers which have perfect wholeness, there is at the heart a void which is like water, infinite in depth, surrounded by and contrasted with the clutter of the stuff and fabric all around it."
14. Simplicity and Inner Calm: "the quality comes about when everything unnecessary is removed... It is essential that the great beauty and intricacy of the ornament go only just far enough to bring this calm into being, and not so far that it destroys it."
15. Not-Seperateness: "we experience a living whole as being at one with the world, and not separate from it.”

So these are Alexander's fifteen Principles of Wholeness. He then goes on to document these principles as they arise in nature, followed be a segment of case studies, illustrating how these principles have informed the design work of Alexander's firm. This culminates in a story of Alexander’s experience designing the Eishin school campus in Tokyo. For the 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese National Television company produced a program showing five examples of Japanese-American collaboration since the war. The Eishin campus was one of the five. When beginning the project, Alexander asked the teachers at the school, "image a most wonderful place where you could dream of being a teacher... You are walking about there... What is it like, where you are walking?" At first, the teachers were frustrated, having trouble envisioning a campus in Tokyo being a place they could love being, but eventually they humored Alexander. "I am walking along by a stream, quietly thinking." Themes of water and quiet kept emerging. When building the school, they were able to turn a wetland in the middle of the site into a lake. A few years after the new campus opened, the students created a film about their experience at the school. It began with them running through the streets of Tokyo, panting like dogs. Eventually they run through the campus gates, find the lake, and dive in, clothes and all. Joy pervades their galavanting. Back in the documentary, they interviewed one of the students: "I grew up in Tokyo... I felt like I was in prison... When I came to... this campus... For the first time in my life, I felt that I was free." So this is one anecdote about Alexander's Principles of Wholeness in practice.

In reflecting on the book, I'm struck by the way in which the principles and practices he describes can be applied in any discipline—of course in the aesthetic fields of music, art, and writing—but also in fields like entrepreneurship. I have some sadness that Alexander—who was quite well-read—describes his objective somatic science of discerning wholeness as "new," and that he failed to realize the rich and storied heritage leading up to his authorship of this book. (Although, implicitly he acknowledges this heritage, by the wealth of imagery and cultures he cites in his illustrations of wholeness and aliveness.)

If you're curious to explore the somatic science described herein further, you might read the works of Andreas Weber and David Abram, as well as Charles Eisenstein's "The More Beautiful World Your Heart Knows Is Possible."

This review just covers the first ("The Phenomenon of Life") of four volumes in Alexander's series, "The Nature of Order." In coming months, I may write subsequent reviews documenting the three other volumes.
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willszal | 4 other reviews | Jul 25, 2022 |

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