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.