Chris Alexander’s cosmos

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A scene at Christopher Alexander’s Eishin Campus, in Japan. (Pinterest)

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Chistopher Alexander

Christopher Alexander has been an enigma to me for a long time. He is famous not just for his architectural theories but for his work in computer technology, and how its patterns resemble the patterns of biological life. Common/Edge, the quirky website that features essays on both sides of the style wars, has just run a piece on Alexander and his thinking by Nikos Salingaros, one of my favorite architectural theorists.

I’m not sure what to make of “The Legacy of Christopher Alexander and a New Conception of the Universe.” It is beautifully written, and I cannot say that it is not perfectly and indeed ringingly clear. Still, I’m not really sure I quite understand it. I’m afraid it may be above my pay grade. I invite readers to dive in. I will quote a couple of what I thought were the most interesting passages. In the first, he suggests that designers who want to create “living” architecture should:

Evolve and shape what you’re making so that it is connected to everything else it can possibly connect to. But this idea underlines the basic incompatibility with current architectural culture, where each design shouts “look at me.” This is the opposite of life, where something blends in perfectly well with the world. The desire to be separate sabotages the creation of life.

Coincidentally, this passage reverberates with a quote in my last post, “Why 15 CPW makes moola,” in which a writer shows his dislike for new classical architecture by contrasting it with modern architecture, which, he says, is “often meant to stand out with striking designs, [while] 15 CPW and its ilk are meant to blend in.” (The “of its ilk” is a dead giveaway.) Blending in is exactly what Salingaros says Alexander is talking about, although I think Alexander’s conception of what that means hovers way above my own.

Soon after, Salingaros expresses Alexander’s sense of the unity of ornament and function. Modernists condemn ornament as the opposite of utility, but I (and Alexander, apparently) think that gets it wrong. In addition to being functional in the usual sense (such as a gargoyle guiding rainwater away from a façade), ornament is useful in a deeper sense because it creates affection for a building, so that it is more likely to be maintained and repaired and hence “live” longer. I think that is something like what Salingaros and Alexander have in mind:

Of immediate and profound relevance to architecture is the unity of ornament and function. Ornament connects us viscerally to a structure or surface, helping to establish an inclusive overall wholeness. This effect is just as important as our connection to this place, object, or space through using it. Therefore, there is no distinction in living structure between ornament and function. Creating art and life is essential to our spiritual development. We have something like a religious obligation to create life whenever we make something.

Someday I expect to read Alexander’s four-part magnum opus, The Nature of Order, though first I should read the book he’s most famous for, A Pattern Language, in which I have grazed with pleasure and edification without reading it from first page to last. Maybe then I will understand better.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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19 Responses to Chris Alexander’s cosmos

  1. Bin Jiang says:

    Very interesting discussion on Alexander and his thinking. Herewith my take. Why ornament is essential simply because of two fundamental laws of living structure: scaling law and Tobler’s law. Scaling law states that there are far more smalls than larges, whereas Tobler’s law indicates things are more or less similar. In particular, ornaments make a space more differentiated with far more smalls than larges. https://twitter.com/binjiangxp/status/1022192487815958528

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  2. Fwiw, Alexander’s “The Traditional Way of Building” seems to me to be the best way for a person to treat himself to a decent wrestle with Alexander, or at least earlyish Alexander. It’s short and clear and, though the ideas have a lot of larger-world resonance, the book mostly deals directly with questions of building, process and design. “The Nature of Order” books expand Alexander’s thinking ‘way out to the edge of the known universe. I think the “Nature of Order” series are one of the great spiritual works of our age, but there’s a lot of metaphysics and resonance in them to wrestle with. Which is a fab achievement and I think much of it is genius-level stuff, but they may not be the books to read if your interest is strictly in buildings and neighborhoods.

    One thing that I think sometimes gets overlooked in discussions about Alexander is that his buildings aren’t so much meant to be looked at but to be experienced. Photographs of them convey about 2% of what exploring them in person feels like. I’ve had the chance to explore some of his Berkeley-area buildings as well as a few others, and — whether or not you like their strictly visual-design dimension — it really is remarkable what a feeling of nourishment, warmth, situatedness, etc they create. They embody and convey “life” in quite amazing ways, or so I found.

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  3. Several comments talk about ornament, which was the subject of my master’s thesis, “Architectural Ornament and the Visual Frame,” in which I argued that ornament is necessary for the brain to sort out parts of a building in relation to other objects in the environment. All ornament is intended to reinforce framing elements and surfaces, occluding edges, so that the brain can figure out what is in front and what is in back. My new book on neuroscience explains some of these things, if I could only find a publisher (Nikos understands my dilemma).

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  4. Pingback: Fine wrinkles on Alexander | Architecture Here and There

  5. kenorenstein@gmail.com says:

    Dave,

    Alexander was born in Vienna before WWII and fled with family to Britain. He studied sciences and math at Oxford before he came to the US to study architecture & planning at both Harvard & MIT then spent his entire prof career as a arch/planning professor at Berkeley. His thesis about cities (and key source/theoretical basis behind New Urbanism) is derived from his science/math background is laid out in the attached 2 part paper. It and Pattern Language, which derives therefrom, was taught to me in an advanced architecture school studio (It informed and was applied by me in my work for the city, Prov Fndtn. and since.) by a student and disciple of is.

    Enjoy.

    Ken

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  6. Hi all – enjoying this discussion very much. David, one of the points about ornament is that it helps to “glue” space together, which is a real function. An obvious example of that is where “half-inch trim” (one of the patterns in APL) makes the connection between two panels that may not be super-precise in alignment. (Which is expensive to correct – and a problem for modernism.) But in a broader sense, ornament glues together the parts of our experience of space, the ways we feel wholes in relation to the parts. It is a way of geometrically linking larger scales to smaller ones (an essential task).

    Regarding traditional and Classical, I don’t think Chris was ever opposed to their revival — quite the contrary, but he wanted to make it clear that there are also other form languages in the world, and in the world of possibility — lest we be accused of imposing our own culture’s “one size fits all” language on the entirety of the world (for that is another sin of modernism, its imperial “internationalism”). So he explored alternatives, one could say in an elementary and even primitive way — but at the same time, in a deliberate exploratory way. Some (especially non-architects) find the results charming and satisfying, and yes, beautiful, while some (especially architects) find it naïve. But I think we need to understand it as an essential part of Alexander’s critique and his own exploration of alternatives. I also think we need to make room for it, and for other reformist approaches that may bear more fruit in time. (To take a peripheral example, who could have predicted that A Pattern Language and Notes on the Synthesis of Form would lead directly to Wikipedia, The Sims, and the Apple operating system? But they did…) Best, m

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    • Thank you, Michael. You’ve explained very well why I should give Alexander some slack for not simply returning to the classical-traditional-vernacualr (western) continuum that society left behind in the 1940s. It is all to the good that we should have a multiplicity of forms that all derive from “the natural” in ways that modernism does not. And I’ve always considered the use of ornament (whether quoins or stringcourses or cornices, etc.; even statuary might be seen as coy distraction of the eye from flaws) as a means of relieving carpenters and other craftsmen of the need to perform to perfection in alignment that modernists must because they have no fig-leaf to cover up errors. Trad is brilliant in so many overlapping ways!

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  7. Nikos Angelos Salingaros says:

    David,

    An important point of discussion arises out of your analysis, quite separate from Christopher’s ideas for creating “life” in architecture. In my book “Anti-architecture and Deconstruction”, James Kalb mentions another book, and the paradoxical need to explain the obvious in an era of cultural disorientation.

    “A bothersome feature of the Salingaros book I just commented on briefly (A Theory of Architecture) is that it’s necessary. Basically, he’s saying that buildings should look normal to normal people, and fit in with the way normal people normally act and feel. Nobody’s ever had to say that before. Up to 80-100 years ago such things could not have become an issue. To make those points in a world in which normality has officially been abolished as oppressive and fraudulent, and everyone’s been trained to be clueless, he has to go into complicated stuff involving fractal hierarchies, information content, self-similarity at different levels of scale, Darwinian evolution, and what not else.”

    Of course, Steven Semes also explains the need for the “forgotten obvious”, and understands all too well how our society has reversed common sense. He faces this contradiction every day in his own teaching and professional work. All of us do — it’s the most impossibly frustrating experience!

    Best wishes,
    Nikos

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    • That encapsulates the main problem so well, Nikos. A return to normalcy and common sense, which a child could lead better than an adult because a child has not been taught to disregard his senses.

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  8. I like Nikos’s writing on architecture even more than Alexander’s because he brings things closer to the ground, to what common folks appreciate about good buildings. What puzzles me about Alexander is his antipathy toward the classical language of architecture and to Neo Platonic aesthetics specifically. His own buildings are often ungainly, badly proportioned, and almost deliberately homely. With more attention to the things that classicism cares about (and I don’t mean just the orders or their ornamental systems), Alexander’s work would simply be more beautiful and meaningful for its users.

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    • Mark, I have the same feelings, which I have expressed in other posts. Alexander’s theories attempt to describe life in the realm of architecture, and they do so very very well, but I do not think we need to develop a new architecture – the combination of classicism, tradition and vernacular that society abandoned after more than two millennia of evolution is sitting there waiting to be used again, as perfectly valid today as it was. Pick it up again, crank it up and set it in motion to engage in stasis or change as need inspires. What could possibly be wrong about that? The extent to which we are doing things, important things, all wrong today, and that this profound wrongheadedness is the establishment, is depressing and curious in the extreme. A child could lead us out of it.

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  9. Steven Semes says:

    David, I think you understand perfectly. What Nikos is describing in perhaps more specialized language is precisely what you and most people intuitively understand about architecture and the built world. First, no individual building can be designed or judged in isolation, but must connect with whatever is around it or preceded it. Buildings must compose cities and landscapes, not be individual works of sculpture. Secondly, ornament is functional because it draws our attention to other connections, not physical ones but cultural and spiritual ones. Ornament connects us with the things we use, draws us in, and (not to be undervalued) gives us pleasure. I think what Nikos and Alexander are doing is making a more intellectual case for our participation in what Alexander calls “Life”–and that term should be a give-away that it is not an elitist concept but something fundamental in the way the world and our own brains work. In this case, the theory is something we have to invent when we’ve forgotten how to do automatically what the theory describes.

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    • I think your last line is very perceptive by way of linking theory to the way people (and architects) actually operate. Of course theory is good only to the extent that it describes life itself.

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    • Daniel Morales says:

      Your last statement is incredibly concise. The beauty of traditional architecture is that it can be picked up at any time and improved with love and patience. Good architecture need only be pleasing, as such, it’s been intellectually suspect ever since Plato.

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      • You refer of course to Steve Semes’s last line, just above your comment. Michael Mehaffy also sent in some interesting thoughts on Alexander and his built work. Proceeding from what he points out, yes, classicism is the true international style, picking up not on time but on place as architecture ought to do. Can you please, Dan, explain to me how Plato fits into this? Thanks!

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