Christopher Alexander (born October 4, 1936 in Vienna, Austria) is an architect noted for his theories about design, and for more than 200 building projects in California, Japan, Mexico and around the world. Reasoning that users know more about the buildings they need than any architect could, he produced and validated (in collaboration with Sarah Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein) a "pattern language" designed to empower any human being to design and build at any scale. Alexander was a licensed contractor and architect in England. In 1958 he moved to the United States, and lived in Berkeley, California from 1963 until 2001. At the present, he lives near Arundel, England, where he spent his early years. He is professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley.
Alexander grew up in England and started his education in sciences. In 1954, he was awarded the top open scholarship to Trinity College, University of Cambridge in chemistry and physics, and went on to read mathematics. He earned a Bachelor's degree in Architecture and a Master's degree in Mathematics. He took his doctorate at Harvard (the first Ph.D. in Architecture ever awarded at Harvard University), and was elected fellow at Harvard. During the same period he worked at MIT in transportation theory and in computer science, and worked at Harvard in cognition and cognitive studies. He became professor of Architecture at Berkeley in 1963, taught there continuously for 38 years, and is now Professor Emeritus at the University of California.
In 1972 Alexander was awarded the first Gold Medal for Research by the American Institute of Architects AIA. He is widely recognized as the father of the pattern language movement in computer science. He was awarded the Seaside Prize in 1994. He was elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1996 for his contributions to architecture. In 2006 he was one of the two inaugural recipients of the Athena Award, given by the Congress for the New Urbanism CNU.
The Timeless Way of Building described the perfection of use to which buildings could aspire:
|“||There is one timeless way of building. It is a thousand years old, and the same today as it has ever been. The great traditional buildings of the past, the villages and tents and temples in which man feels at home, have always been made by people who were very close to the center of this way. It is not possible to make great buildings, or great towns, beautiful places, places where you feel yourself, places where you feel alive, except by following this way. And, as you will see, this way will lead anyone who looks for it to buildings which are themselves as ancient in their form, as the trees and hills, and as our faces are.||”|
A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction described a practical architectural system in a form that a theoretical mathematician or computer scientist might call a generative grammar.
The work originated from an observation that many medieval cities are attractive and harmonious. The authors said that this occurs because they were built to local regulations that required specific features, but freed the architect to adapt them to particular situations.
The book provides rules and pictures, and leaves decisions to be taken from the precise environment of the project. It describes exact methods for constructing practical, safe and attractive designs at every scale, from entire regions, through cities, neighborhoods, gardens, buildings, rooms, built-in furniture, and fixtures down to the level of doorknobs.
A notable value is that the architectural system consists only of classic patterns tested in the real world and reviewed by multiple architects for beauty and practicality.
The book includes all needed surveying and structural calculations, and a novel simplified building system that copes with regional shortages of wood and steel, uses easily-stored inexpensive materials, and produces long-lasting classic buildings with small amounts of materials, design and labor. It first has users prototype a structure on-site in temporary materials. Once accepted, these are finished by filling them with very-low-density concrete. It uses vaulted construction to build as high as three stories, permitting very high densities.
This book's method was adopted by the University of Oregon, as described in The Oregon Experiment, and remains the official planning instrument. It has also been adopted in part by some cities as a building code.
The idea of a pattern language appears to apply to any complex engineering task, and has been applied to some of them. It has been especially influential in software engineering where patterns have been used to document collective knowledge in the field.
The Nature of Order
The four-volume monograph The Nature of Order was in preparation for over thirty years, and encapsulates all of Christopher Alexander's theories. In this monumental book, Alexander develops a comprehensive theory of how matter comes together to form coherent structures. Paralleling, but not copying, recent results from complexity theory, he argues that the same laws apply to all structures in the universe; from atoms, to crystals, to living forms, to galaxies. Human beings apparently have a built-in (though subconscious) understanding of these laws. Human creations have the option of following the same laws, or violating them. Those that follow them result in our greatest achievements, either as artifacts, as buildings, or as cities.
In the words of some enthusiasts, this book could define "a new paradigm for programming". This is remarkable, since the book is written primarily in the interest of architects (of buildings, not software). It turns out, however, that the same organizing principles apply to computer programs as to buildings. This connection was made recently by several visionary programmers, and is being pursued in the patterns movement. A good overview is the book by Richard Gabriel, Patterns of Software (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996; with a foreword by Christopher Alexander).
The Nature of Order puts forth a new theory about the nature of space and describes how this theory influences thinking about architecture, building, planning, and the way in which we view the world in general. The mostly static patterns from A Pattern Language have been amended by more dynamic sequences, which describe how to work towards patterns (which can roughly be seen as the end result of sequences). Sequences, like patterns, promise to be tools of wider scope than building (just as his theory of space goes beyond architecture).
Among Alexander's most notable built works are the Eishin Campus near Tokyo; The West Dean Visitors Centre in Sussex, England; the Julian Street Inn (a homeless shelter) in San Jose, California (both described in Nature of Order); the Martinez House (an experimental house in Martinez, California made of lightweight concrete); and the low-cost housing in Mexicali, Mexico (described in The Production of Houses).
Alexander's Notes on the Synthesis of Form was required reading for researchers in computer science throughout the 1960s. Marvin Minsky, founder of MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab, recommended it to students and colleagues. It had an influence in the 1960s and 1970s on programming language design, modular programming, object-oriented programming, software engineering and other design methodologies. Alexander's mathematical concepts and orientation were similar to Edsger Dijkstra's influential A Discipline of Programming.
A Pattern Language‘s greatest influence in computer science is the design patterns movement. Alexander's philosophy of incremental, organic, coherent design influenced also the extreme programming (movement. The Wiki was invented to allow the Hillside Group to work on design patterns.
Environmental Structure Research Group
The Environmental Structure Research Group ESRG has brought together prominent researchers from diverse fields such as architecture, urbanism, planning, biology, ecology, medicine, mathematics, computer science and other fields. Its goal is formulating a new approach to design and the built environment. Initiated by Michael Mehaffy (a former student of Alexander) in 2006, most of its original members were close associates of Christopher Alexander. This effort, in fact, is precisely what Alexander has envisioned over many years, and which is the underlying topic of The Nature of Order. This effort is finally coming together as a way of joining Science and Design in a symbiotic relationship. New members are all in some way either followers of Alexander's contributions, or highly respectful of his pioneering achievements.
The fourth volume of The Nature of Order approaches religious questions from a scientific rather than mystical direction. In it, Alexander describes deep ties between the nature of matter, human perception of the universe, and the geometries people construct in buildings, cities, and artifacts, and he suggests a crucial link between traditional beliefs and recent scientific advances.
Alexander's published works include:
- The Production of Houses
- A New Theory of Urban Design
- A Foreshadowing of 21st Century Art, The Geometry of Very Early Turkish Carpets
- The Mary Rose Museum
- Notes on the Synthesis of Form (1964)
- The Oregon Experiment (1975)
- A Pattern Language (1977)
- The Timeless Way of Building (1979)
- The Linz Cafe
- Community and Privacy, with Serge Chermayeff
- The Nature of Order Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life
- The Nature of Order Book 2: The Process of Creating Life
- The Nature of Order Book 3: A Vision of a Living World
- The Nature of Order Book 4: The Luminous Ground
- Official website for Alexander's Pattern Language
- Christopher Alexander's website on "The Nature of Order"
- Christopher Alexander's website on "Living Neighborhoods"
- Katarxis No. 3 features an interview with Alexander, plus many of his buildings
- Introduction to Christopher Alexander
- Review of The Nature of Order
- NPR radio interview with Christopher Alexander
- Nikos Salingaros' page on Christopher Alexander