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Christopher Alexander

Posted by acdtest on June 19, 2003

Christopher Alexander — Another View

ome time ago, I read a passionately enthusiastic encomium of A Pattern Language, a best-selling 1977 book on architectural design by architectural theorist Christopher Alexander. I’ve not read the book, but one thing makes its worth instantly suspect: The book was (and apparently is still) a best-seller; “among the most widely read architectural books of all time.” That the book was (is) a best-seller makes its worth instantly suspect because, well, that should be obvious. A best-seller means mass-market acceptance, and we all know what that means: Populist gibberish, more likely than not.

Reading the at-length overview of Alexander’s ideas in the balanced and fair-minded article written by Wendy Kohn for The Wilson Quarterly amply confirms that suspicion.

[Alexander’s] fame rests on A Pattern Language — a book that appeared 25 years ago–and a stream of subsequent writings. Translated into six languages and often one of the 1,000 top-selling titles on Amazon.com, A Pattern Language is among the most widely read architectural books of all time, and is commonly called a design “bible.” When it appeared in 1977, Architectural Design magazine [not an architectural journal] declared that “every library, every school, every environmental action group, every architect, and every first-year student should have a copy.” Today, it has legions of devotees, some of whom simply value its practical advice, while others savor its New Age speculations. The enthusiasts include yuppies fixing up their country houses in Vermont, gray-haired do-it-yourselfers in comfortable shoes, and ponytailed counterculturalists. Real-estate agents proudly present copies to their clients once the deal is done and renovations are about to begin.

[…]

In 253 individual lessons, or “patterns,” A Pattern Language shows how to weave together a “language” of patterns to form everything from window seats to cities in ways that satisfy the human need for functionality and beauty. It breaks places down into component parts, such as fronts and backs, stairs and floors and windowsills, or roads and parking lots and stores. It then describes how to make a good rendition of each particular part and how to assemble the parts into a whole. The text speaks directly to “you,” in plain language, about where closets should go in your house (between rooms, on interior walls) and where sports facilities should go in your town (scattered throughout, easily visible from the street). It’s a book of architectural recipes.

Uh-huh. Got it. Architecture by Lego™ — architecture Of The People, For The People, By The People.

And then there’s this from Alexander himself:

It [Alexander’s way of building, called by him, and the title of one of his popular books, The Timeless Way of Building] is so powerful and fundamental that with its help you can make any building in the world as beautiful as any place that you have ever seen.

It is so powerful, that with its help hundreds of people together can create a town, which is alive and vibrant, peaceful and relaxed, a town as beautiful as any town in history.

Without the help of architects or planners, if you are working in the timeless way, the idea is that a town will grow under your hands, as naturally as the flowers in your garden.

There you have it, folks. We don’t need no steeenkin architects. And no steeenkin artists, either. We’re all architects and artists, we just don’t realize it — that is, until Alexander shows us the way.

In other words, what one is dealing with here is a refugee from the quasi-Marxist, Utopian, rabidly (and hypocritically) equalitarian Age of Aquarius, complete with “mystic crystal revelation, and the mind’s true liberation,” as the ’60s song hit had it.

In short, and as I’ve already intuited, a panderer of New Age populist gibberish.

Want to see what results when putting Alexander’s “timeless way of building” into practice?

Here y’go (this one in California):

House, Berkeley, CA, C. Alexander

What’s that you say? Looks like something European from a few hundred years ago?

Gee. Fancy that.

If that’s not enough for you, there’s more, and even worse, of this cozily familiar retro stuff. Just take a look here.

And if one has any doubts concerning Alexander’s ’60s demagogic-fascist proclivities and provenance, one has only to read this by Ms. Kohn:

It comes as no surprise [to learn from Alexander’s friends, acquaintances, and I daresay, enemies] that Alexander is not tolerant of others’ ideas. He has a reputation for fits of anger, showers of insults, and storming from rooms when opposed.

and this from one of Alexander’s former students:

“Chris’s answer to my doubts about The Timeless Way of Building was to say ‘Find out your psychological problem that prevents you from agreeing.’ His technique is to attack one’s motivation for questioning.”

to dissolve any doubts.

What’s that? Where did Alexander teach?

Why, at the University of California, Berkeley.

Imagine that. Who woulda guessed.

Not uninterestingly, after reading some dozens of reader comments on Amazon.com concerning the two above mentioned books by Alexander, I discovered that some of the books’ biggest fans are not those looking to build a house, but designers of computer software.

Sounds crazy, yes?

Well, no, actually. Wendy Kohn made note of the fact in her above referenced piece, and after Googling a fair number of articles describing the sorts of design problems and their solutions dealt with in these books (and do keep in mind, please, I’ve read neither book), and as a one-time dabbler in object-oriented programming, it very much sounds to me not so crazy. It would seem rules that result in the sort of retro-design houses Alexander trumpets on his website are nevertheless capable of producing superior software code.

There’s a lesson to be learned there somewhere, but I can’t quite put my finger on just what it might be.

Finally, it might be asked how I can make critical comment as I have in this article without ever having read Alexander’s two books.

About like this:

I once publicly savaged a new production of Wagner’s Parsifal by declaring it a “grotesque perversion,” and suggested the Konzept director be very slowly boiled in oil, then drawn and quartered (also slowly) for perpetrating such an outrage on a paying public. I stated clearly and up front that I hadn’t seen the production, but had relied merely on a description of its physical features (mise en scène, costuming, stage action, etc.), act by act, from several sources that could be trusted to straightforwardly report what they’d seen in reliable physical detail. I was, of course, immediately accused of blowing hot air (to phrase it genteelly).

My answer to my accusers was that one does not have to actually attend a production of Parsifal where the Grail Knights are clothed in WWI uniforms, celebrate the third act ritual of the unveiling of the grail in a 20th-century railroad shed complete with steel tracks and a choo-choo train cum steam locomotive, and where, at opera’s end, Parsifal walks off along those tracks out of the shed and into the sunrise hand in hand with Kundry, to know with absolute certainty that the production was precisely as I had declared it sight unseen.

Similarly with Alexander’s two books. No matter how valuable and on-target — even surpassingly brilliant — his design principles may be per se, his categorical assertion that utilization of those principles cannot do less than produce a genuinely beautiful piece of architecture, and his further assertion — nay, insistence — that those principles in the hands of ordinary people is a viable alternative — is in fact preferable — to the design work of gifted architects, is nothing other than what I declared it text unread: New Age populist gibberish. And I need know nothing more about his design principles to know that with absolute certainty.

Had Alexander instead suggested, for instance, that gifted architects might benefit in terms of, say, clearer aesthetic vision and/or efficiency in developing their designs by use of his principles, that would have been something quite different, and would not have called forth so much as a word from me pro or con without my first having made a detailed study of those principles, and perhaps not even then, depending on how well I understood them and could relate them to contemporary architectural practice.

See how that works?

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