Feb 202003

My tiny corner of the blogosphere is abuzz with Christopher Alexander. Michael of the Blowhards has an excellent brief essay on him, with a link to Wendy Kohn’s more detailed treatment. AC Douglas also has a few remarks.

Alexander is a (now ex-) professor of architecture at Berkeley whose most famous books, The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language, have inspired a sort of cult. He believes that the key to architecture lies in rules, or recipes, which he calls patterns. The same problems occur over and over, and the patterns, which he claims not to invent but to discover, are well-known ways of solving them. A Pattern Language consists of 253 of these, with photographs and descriptions. Alexander maintains that if you simply follow the patterns, beauty will come. He aims to demystify all of architecture, and to a great extent he succeeds.

His patterns range in breadth from city planning to room decor, and many of them are alarming in their specificity. Cities should contain no more than 9% parking space; political communities should be around 7,000 people (this is reminiscent of the 19th century socialist crackpot Charles Fourier, who recommended 500 as ideal); no urban downtowns should serve more than 300,000 people; most buildings should be no more than four stories high; terraces should be at least six feet deep; every room should have light on at least two sides. Sometimes Alexander buttresses his rather ex cathedra pronouncements with studies and arguments; sometimes not. “Nine Percent Parking” gives a fair taste of his style:

We [he has co-authors] suspect that when the density of cars passes a certain limit, and people experience the feeling that there are too many cars, what is really happening is that subconsciously they feel that the cars are overwhelming the environment, that the environment is no longer “theirs,” that they have no right to be there, and so on… Instead of inviting them out, the environment starts giving them the message that the outdoors is not meant for them, that they should stay indoors, that they should stay in their own buildings, that social communion is no longer permitted or encouraged.

We have not yet tested this suspicion. However, if it turns out to be true, it may be that this pattern, which seems to be based on such slender evidence, is in fact one of the most crucial patterns there is, and that it plays a key role in determining the difference between environments which are socially and psychologically healthy and those which are unhealthy. [Italics his.]

To begin with, nine percent parking is based not on “slender evidence,” but on no evidence. It is a “suspicion,” which becomes a pattern, which becomes a dictum. Here you catch a faint whiff of the crank.

Yet it is a very plausible suspicion, even if the particular number is bogus. Urban landscapes full of cars, like Los Angeles, are depressing. Most of Alexander’s patterns are very plausible, even the ones that never would have occurred to me, like “Zen View”: “If there is a beautiful view, don’t spoil it by building huge windows that gape incessantly at it. Instead, put the windows which look onto the view at places of transition — along paths, in hallways, in entry ways, on stairs, between rooms.” The man who writes this has meditated long and profoundly about why some buildings succeed and others fail.

Alexander generally begins with what people want. You might think that most architects would begin there, but in fact very few of them do. Instead they talk a great deal about form, function, structure, “machines for living,” and the like. Alexander’s solicitude is one of the sources of his unpopularity within his profession and his popularity in the world at large. The photographs in A Pattern Language are of warm, inviting, pleasant places, places that would be fun to live or play or work in. They are not of monuments, large buildings, or what one has been taught to regard as architectural masterpieces.

In Alexander’s cosmology, beauty in architecture consists of satisfying people’s desires, and those desires are immutable. He uses words like “healthy” and “alive” with abandon. As Michael Blowhard notes, it follows that architectural standards are objective, and artistic standards as well. There is a human nature, to which buildings will appeal more or less successfully. It follows further that Alexander is in on the secret. It is this assurance, more than anything, that infuriates his fellow architects, who fancy themselves artists and resent the suggestion that someone has not only encountered their problem, but solved it.

Now I’m all for normative thinking, provided it’s kept far away from the police power. Jane Jacobs, with whom Alexander is frequently grouped, takes pains to show how livable cities grow organically from people’s natural behavior, while top-down planning leads to disaster after disaster. This concerns Alexander not at all: only ends interest him. Some of his grander patterns must be enforced by law, and he does not shrink from doing so. In “The Magic of the City” he writes:

Put the magic of the city within reach of everyone in a metropolitan area. Do this by means of a collective regional policies which restrict the growth of downtown areas so strongly that no one downtown can grow to serve more than 300,000 people. With this population base, the downtowns will be between two and nine miles apart.

He thinks people ought to own their homes. Arranging this is a simple matter: “Do everything possible to make the traditional forms of rental impossible, indeed, illegal.” So you’re not surprised to read this testimonial from one of his former students in Kohn’s article: “Chriss answer to my doubts about The Timeless Way of Building was to say ‘Find out your psychological problem that prevents you from agreeing.'”

Alexander’s biggest fans are not architects but computer programmers. Unless you are a professional, you don’t have a clue how vast his influence is in the field. The most important book written about software in the last thirty years, Design Patterns, takes its form explicitly from A Pattern Language. The authors enumerate thirty “patterns” that make for elegant, robust, even beautiful software. (The mark of a successful new technology today is the appearance of a book on it called Patterns in ...) Software design patterns are very like Alexander’s: solutions for recurring problems in software development. Cities and software applications are both complex systems that must be broken down into components to be understood. Alexander’s ideas lend themselves more readily to software than architecture because a software architect can control every aspect of a project. He need not rule the world to enforce his chosen patterns.

So we’re left with an inhumane humanist, a brilliant crank, an immodest prophet of modesty. Even so, A Pattern Language is one of the most interesting books about architecture, and the world, that you’re ever likely to read.

(Update: AC Douglas comments. I also posted a slightly different version of this to BlogCritics, where there are a couple more comments.)

(Another: Chris Bertram discusses Alexander and kindly mentions me.)

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>