[I have tried here to put together a summary of Christopher Alexander’s wide-ranging contributions, utilizing what is already posted on the Web. In-text links are usually to external pages by other authors, which can be looked up on a second reading. Additional pages, listed at the end, explore some topics in greater detail.]
Christopher Alexander was born in Vienna, Austria, and raised in Oxford and Chichester, England. He graduated from Cambridge University, where he studied Mathematics and Architecture. He then obtained a Ph. D. in Architecture at Harvard University. For his Ph. D. Thesis, later published as the book Notes on the Synthesis of Form, he was awarded the first Gold Medal for Research by the American Institute of Architects. Since 1963 he has been Professor of Architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, and Director of the Center for Environmental Structure. In 1980, Professor Alexander was elected member of the Swedish Royal Academy; and in 1996 he was elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Christopher Alexander is a Trustee of the Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture.
Dr. Alexander is the author of numerous books and papers. He has initiated a new approach to architectural thinking, in which the same set of laws determines the structure of a city; a building; or a single room. He has spent most of his life in searching for these laws. His approach to solving this universal problem takes advantage of scientific reasoning, and totally opposes other, unscientific approaches based on fashion, ideology, or arbitrary personal preferences. This is so different from the way architecture has been taught since the second world war that it causes conflicts with established architectural schools.
Alexander offers definitive solutions to the problems of urban architecture and design. It is a great pity that these were not adopted when first published. Fortunately, a small number of his ideas have been incorporated into the “New Urbanism”. Nevertheless, this very recent movement by no means represents a wholesale application of his results. Alexander has actually abstracted the process by which organic and inorganic forms evolve — which is the same process that governs the growth of a city. These results lie at the basis of how matter organizes itself coherently, and are the opposite of the modern planning approach in which grids, zones, roads, and buildings, based on some preconceived design on paper, are imposed on human activity. These results will be expounded at length in the four-volume The Nature of Order, which is now ready for publication [see Alexander’s Nature of Order webpage].
A comprehensive bibliography up to 1982 is listed in the biography by Stephen Grabow: Christopher Alexander: The Search for a New Paradigm in Architecture, Oriel Press, Stocksfield, England, 1983. Some of Alexander’s key publications are:
- Christopher Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1964).
- Christopher Alexander, A city is not tree, Architectural Forum 122 April (1965): No. 1, pages 58-61 and No. 2, pages 58-62. Reprinted in: Design After Modernism, Edited by John Thackara, Thames and Hudson, London, 1988; and in: Human Identity in the Urban Environment, Edited by G. Bell and J. Tyrwhitt, Penguin, 1992.
- C. Alexander, S. Ishikawa, M. Silverstein, M. Jacobson, I. Fiksdahl-King and S. Angel, A Pattern Language (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977). [Review by Nikos Salingaros; Review by Stewart Brand].
- C. Alexander, H. Neis, A. Anninou and I. King, A New Theory of Urban Design (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).
- Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). (in press). [Salingaros’s Nature of Order webpage; Alexander’s Nature of Order webpage, which is set up for ordering the book online].
A Pattern Language was originally expected to enable every citizen to design and construct their own home. While that ambitious objective was not entirely realized, it did result in a liberation from empty architectural dogma. Armed with this book, a client can evolve and express his or her own desires for a building. An architect is no longer the absolute and sole source of design ideas and solutions. On a larger scale, mistakes in urban design and planning can be detected and corrected. I believe that this remarkable shift in power, which enables ordinary people to understand their environment — often better than the professionals — is responsible for the harsh suppression of this monumental work by certain short-sighted members of the architectural profession.
For a general discussion of Pattern Languages, see “The Structure of Pattern Languages”, by Nikos Salingaros. Another recent paper is “Lingua Franca for Design: Sacred Places and Pattern Languages”, by Tom Erickson.
A flavor of Alexander’s writings may be obtained from his presentation entitled Domestic Architecture at the 1994 DOORS 2 Conference in Amsterdam. Brief extracts from the Pattern Language are posted by Heather Duggan, and by Sunlight Homes Company. The Pattern Language is now available on-line for a subscription fee from Alexander’s company patternlanguage.com. The notes of a review talk given by Jim Coplien on the Nature of Order, with commentary by Brad Appleton, are highly recommended. Finally, there is an appreciation of Alexander’s work by John Miller.
Remarkably, even though Alexander is recognized as one of the most important architects of the twentieth century, and has built many projects in several countries, his buildings are not well documented. (See the web page in German maintained at the University of Weimar, for some graphics). Alexander’s website patternlanguage.com promises to eventually put up a comprehensive set of pictures.
A 30-minute film on the work of Christopher Alexander was made by an independent filmmaker and highlights Alexander’s approach to building, entitled Places for the Soul: The Architecture of Christopher Alexander. One can rent or purchase this video. Alexander is himself preparing a comprehensive exposition of his major projects, in a new book entitled Sketches of a New Architecture , but it is unfortunately not yet ready for publication. In the meantime, readers can find some photographs in the following works:
- Christopher Alexander, The Linz Cafe (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981)
- Christopher Alexander, “Sketches of a New Architecture”, in Denys Lasdun, Ed., Architecture in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984) pp. 8-27.
- Christopher Alexander, “Battle: The history of a Crucial Clash between World-System A and World-System B”, The Japan Architect 8508 (1985) No. 8, pages 15-35.
- Thomas Fisher and Pilar Viladas, “Harmony and Wholeness”, Progressive Architecture 6:86 June (1986), pages 92-103.
- Christopher Alexander, Thomas Fisher and Ziva Freiman, “The Real Meaning of Architecture”, Progressive Architecture 7.91 July (1991), pages 100-112.
- Ingrid Fiksdahl-King, “Christopher Alexander and Contemporary Architecture”, a+u Architecture and Urbanism: Special Issue, August (1993)
- Kenneth Baker and Mark Darley, “New American Craftsman House”, American Homestyle & Gardening, April/May 1996, pages 43-47.
- Alan Powers, “West Dean: a Radical Building in a Rural Guise”, Perspectives on Architecture No. 24 August/September (1996), pages 44-47.
Alexander has developed a practical method of construction, which combines the responsibilities of architect and contractor. Although this differs markedly from current practice, it does, in his estimation, enable the whole form to evolve in a way that is not possible under the current system. For sample contracts, and a description of how this method works in an actual project, see The Mary Rose Museum, by C. Alexander, G. Black, and M. Tsutsui (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).
Alexander’s thoughts on interior design, and especially for the office environment and furniture, are discussed on a separate webpage.
INFLUENCE ON COMPUTER SCIENCE
Christopher Alexander is perhaps having a greater impact on computer science than on architecture. Alexander’s Pattern Language is being applied to Object Oriented Programming, and is inspiring innovative techniques that go beyond it. Theoretical structures that he defined are now recognized as general frameworks in which to link objects in programs together in a co-operative and sequential manner. Already for several years now, the topic of Pattern Languages is established in software, and possesses a rapidly growing bibliography. There is a yearly conference called Pattern Languages of Programming (PLoP). Christopher Alexander was invited to give the keynote address at the 1996 Object Oriented Programming Conference OOPSLA. (PHOTO). (It is now available on video). An assessment of this talk by several attendees was that “this marks the beginning of a new era in computer science” — see the interesting essay by Linda Rising.
The Patterns Home Page is a useful repository of information about the application of Pattern Languages to Computer Science. Here, one can find a comprehensive bibliography on the subject, which is constantly being updated. Another compendium posted by Manfred Schneider and Georg Odenthal contains an updated list of links on Object-Oriented Patterns. Three books that apply Alexander’s ideas to programming are:
- James Coplien and Douglas Schmidt (Editors), Pattern Languages of Program Design (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1995).
- Erich Gamma, Richard Helm, Ralph Johnson, and John Vlissides, Design Patterns (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1995). [Description].
- Richard Gabriel, Patterns of Software (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996). With a foreword by Christopher Alexander.
We include links to the first web sites that presented more extensive information on the impact of Christopher Alexander’s ideas on computer science; by now there are many others.
- Brad Appleton gives a lengthy essay on the development and definition of Pattern Languages.
- Doug Lea provides a detailed overview of the Pattern Language approach to Object-Oriented programming. He has also posted a general patterns discussion from the programmer’s viewpoint.
- Un sommario de los Patrones en Español, por Pablo Figueroa.
The paper by Nikos Salingaros The Structure of Pattern Languages is more architectural. Another recent paper is Lingua Franca for Design: Sacred Places and Pattern Languages, by Tom Erickson.
One of the persons influential in the “Patterns Movement”, James Coplien, has posted a History of Patterns, and is applying patterns to human organizations (see next section). A search for the deep geometrical structures in software that correlate with “beauty” and “order” in Alexander’s The Nature of Order, is being documented in a series of articles published in the C++ Report.
Pattern languages have been developed for many diverse specific disciplines that relate to computer science, such as individual applications and computer-human interfaces. Tom Erickson has collected links to Pattern Languages for Interaction Design. These include user-interface pattern languages. The pattern language developed by Jenifer Tidwell is especially comprehensive, and addresses the problems inherent in the design of any complex or interactive artifact. Although, as in all links in this section, this is written by a computer scientist, it in fact answers questions about general design first raised in the 1960’s (by people such as B. Archer, C. Jones, H. Rittel, and H. Simon) that were judged to be too complex to solve.
INFLUENCE ON INFORMATION STRUCTURES AND ORGANIZATIONS
Some computer scientists have taken Alexander’s ideas beyond their initial application to the internal organization of computer programs, into the software development process itself. Alexander’s results are entirely general, and also apply to the internal structure of organizations and corporations. This is a very exciting development in business. Such an innovative (and entirely logical) application of Alexander’s results points to a new approach for organizations in the commercial and government sectors. An Alexandrine analysis and application of organizational patterns could redesign corporations. This work may be followed on several web sites:
James Coplien’s A Generative Development-Process Pattern Language provides a blueprint for the design of software organizations. This is a major, carefully thought-out, and detailed work. A paper version of this article appears as Chapter 13 of Pattern Languages of Program Design, Edited by J. O. Coplien and D. C. Schmidt, Addison-Wesley, Reading, Massachusetts, 1995. Coplien continues to write very interesting articles, such as Idioms and Patterns as Architectural Literature, detailing the application of patterns to software, and their extension to other fields beyond. Many of those patterns, originally derived from software organizations, do in fact scale up to larger, more general organizations. The next step, towards a complete redesign of corporations, is being taken by Coplien, as well as by other authors.
- Mike Beedle has been writing a pattern language for enterprise architectures.
- M G Taylor Corporation is investigating how patterns can help to reorganize corporations. They are offering commercially a general pattern language for efficient organizations (unfortunately, the details are proprietary).
- Nick Laudato explains how organizations and information flow can be optimized by applying Alexander’s ideas.
- Several people in the patterns community (including Mike Beedle and Jim Coplien) have started to work on a project to combine existing organizational pattern languages into a single common pattern language.
What is not widely known is how some of the most exciting new developments in organizational ideas today — such as the best-selling “quantum management”, systems thinking, and the “self-organizing corporation” — are already implicitly included in Alexander’s work. Moreover, they are evolved far beyond their original application. Although not written with business applications in mind, the Pattern Language and The Nature of Order may well become essential reading for managers in the new millennium.
INFLUENCE ON ORIENTAL CARPET STUDIES
The rules for putting matter together to form a building are universal, and apply to all man-made objects. In particular, they apply to two-dimensional designs such as paintings and textile patterns. The simplification of having only two dimensions and a single material (knots of wool) makes carpets an interesting application of the rules for organized complexity. Alexander establishes the connection between architectural design and Oriental Carpets in his fascinating book: A Foreshadowing of 21st Century Art: The Color and Geometry of Very Early Turkish Carpets (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). The point is that he has obtained insight into architectural design from very early carpets (15th century and earlier).
Alexander’s carpet book is of immediate interest to architects, even those who are not particularly interested in oriental carpets. The reason is that the first section summarizes results that form the core of the The Nature of Order, whose publication has been delayed. Here, the “Fifteen Fundamental Properties” and the “Field of Centers” are outlined (if only very briefly). Carpets as examples of human creations that have some measure of “life” are discussed in the following articles:
- Christopher Alexander, “A New Way of Looking”, HALI: The International Magazine of Antique Carpet and Textile Art 56 (1991): pages 115-125.
- Nikos A. Salingaros, “In Defense of Alexander”, HALI: The International Magazine of Antique Carpet and Textile Art 78 (1994): pages 67-69.
- Nikos A. Salingaros, “The Life of a Carpet: An Application of the Alexander Rules”, paper presented at the 8th International Conference on Oriental Carpets. Oriental Carpet and Textile Studies V, 1999.
This work is generating a considerable amount of controversy in the oriental carpet community. Some people are disturbed that a mathematical theory can successfully measure the degree of “life” in a carpet. But that is precisely what happens, and the results agree to a remarkable extent with our deepest intuitions. Also, the very use of the word “life” is misunderstood — it represents design steps that are taken to achieve a coherent design. The same steps are followed whenever organic forms develop. Life in a man-made object is achieved by following the same rules (though in a vastly more intricate setting) that nature follows in creating biological life. The direction is the same, and that is the beauty of the theoretical result.
Christopher Alexander has put together a collection of very early Turkish carpets in which he finds a large degree of life. All the carpets are illustrated in his book, which serves as a catalog of the collection; and some of them appear in his article. His carpet collection was exhibited at the de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco during the 6th International Conference on Oriental Carpets, 1990. Many persons who attended this show described it as a very moving experience. Even those in the Oriental Carpet community who disagree with Alexander’s analytic approach to carpet designs praise him for being among the first to see the extraordinary power of Seljuk and other very early carpets, and for having the courage to collect them.
Alexander’s architectural writings at the same time develop a philosophy of nature and life. He proposes a more profound connection between nature and the human mind than is presently allowed either in science, or in architecture. Alexander sees the universe as a coherent whole, encompassing feelings as well as inanimate matter. This strongly Taoist viewpoint was first developed in his book The Timeless Way of Building (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979). To some readers, this is a book on architecture written in a philosophical style; to many others, it is a book on philosophy with architectural examples. A large number of people have embraced the philosophy of the Timeless Way of Building, finding in it universal truths on how man interacts with the world. Brief extracts from the Timeless Way are posted by Heather Duggan. Towards the end of his life, the philosopher and teacher J. J. Krishnamurti enjoyed having sections from the Timeless Way read to him each evening.
In both the Timeless Way and the Pattern Language, there are sections of text in which the language itself assumes a peculiarly imprecise, poetic quality. It is exactly at those instances, when Alexander the mathematician appears to be abandoning his customary precision, that Alexander the philosopher is communicating on an entirely different and more fundamentally emotional level. The unconventional syntax he employs is merely a means of conveying deeper philosophical meanings. (It helps to read those passages aloud). Some people readily find a spiritual content in his works. From such people, who may be otherwise indifferent to either architecture, or computer science, Alexander has won a deep and lasting respect.
Many of the patterns in the Pattern Language provide guiding points for Alexander’s philosophy. There is an emphasis throughout on the potential of the individual; the importance of a spiritual connection to the built world; the need for cooperation among people; the empowerment of individuals or small groups of people to shape their environment. All of this is elaborated further in the forthcoming The Nature of Order, and has far-reaching social and political implications which may be alarming to some and inspiring to others.
Alexander insists that his philosophy is inseparable from his architectural theories. This point worries architects used to doing things in a certain way, as it does potential clients who think conservatively. Some of Alexander’s staunchest supporters argue that, in order to facilitate their adoption, his architectural method ought to be decoupled from the accompanying philosophy. After all, in an imperfect world, every architectural project represents a series of compromises. Alexander warns against a superficial application of his method that misses the fundamental point. He has stressed repeatedly in his writings that achieving coherence between built forms and people has to be accompanied by changes in our basic outlook.