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Christopher Alexander: 2009 Vincent Scully Prize recipient

An interview with Michael Mehaffy about Christopher Alexander and his impact on the profession


The 2009 Vincent Scully Prize recipient is architect, builder, and scholar Christopher Alexander, who for nearly 40 years has challenged the architectural establishment, sometimes uncomfortably, to pay attention to the human beings at the center of design.

A number of patterns, including Gallery Surround, Staircase as a Stage, Activity Pockets, and Covered Street, are included in this drawing of a large public space in Tokyo.
On November 5, more than 250 guests attended the 11th annual Vincent Scully Prize ceremony at the National Building Museum. Sadly, recipient Christopher Alexander was unable to attend due to illness. A panel of leaders in the design field and colleagues of Alexander’s assembled to discuss the immense contributions he has made to the world of architecture and contemporary urban planning. The panel included Witold Rybczynski, past Scully Prize recipient and Martin & Margy Meyerson professor of Urbanism and professor of Real Estate at the University of Pennsylvania; Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, founding principal of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company and dean of the University of Miami’s School of Architecture; Michael Mehaffy, past director of Education, Prince’s Charitable Trust and Research Associate, the Center for Environmental Structure; and Robert Campbell, Boston Globe’s architecture critic. National Building Museum Online recently spoke with Mehaffy about Alexander and his impact on the profession.

National Building Museum Online (NBM): How would you assess Christopher Alexander’s impact on the design field?
Michael Mehaffy: Andres Duany, the pioneer of New Urbanism, described him pretty fairly, I think, as "one of the most influential people who has ever been in the design world." Duany went on to say that "His influence on us, operationally, has been enormous.” 

The trusses seen in this section of the proposed Mary Rose Museum are both efficient structures and expressive ornaments. This is a major break from the practices of architects who use structure as an invisible support for an independent veneer. For Alexander, structure and ornament are part of a larger process of transforming wholeness in the environment.
Courtesy Christopher Alexander
I think it's widely acknowledged that Chris has been one of the most important theorists of design in the last half-century, ever since his first book Notes on the Synthesis of Form in the early 1960s, which was said to be highly influential for early cybernetic theorists. It was described by Industrial Design magazine in 1964 as "one of the most important contemporary books about the art of design, what it is, and how to go about it."

His book A Pattern Language is even better known, and William Saunders, editor of Harvard Design magazine, said it "could very well be the most read architectural treatise of all time."

Saunders went on to note a paradox: "Yet in the architecture schools I know, it is as if this book did not exist." Alexander has had little effect on what may be called "high architecture," which is what captivates most schools today (or did, in the age of the icon that now seems to be ending). But judging by the perennial best-seller status of A Pattern Language, and the huge number of spinoff works, Alexander has certainly had an effect on ordinary architecture. And even more interesting, he has had a profound effect on other fields, like computer software. That seems to disprove notions that his ideas are "just theory" that isn't really useful. And of course, he has always built as well as written, with some 300 buildings now built around the world, and many more buildings by his collaborators.

NBM: Alexander has long been an educator and mentor teaching at the University of California, Berkeley for 38 years. Can you describe his innovations in teaching design?
Chris has always warned against the damage that over-abstracted projects can wreak on cities, and on people's lives. That goes for high architecture, but it also goes for the development and construction process itself, and in particular, the separation of design from building. So he has always emphasized that students should be in touch with the actual human qualities of what they build, and the rich possibilities that grow out of the building process itself. Therefore he has always given students the task of actually making things, and making places, so that students can begin to see the intimate connection between the ideas in their heads, and the evolution of real structures—and the unfolding process that can make them much richer and better adapted, from a human point of view.

This tile design by Christopher Alexander illustrates many of the 15 properties he describes as recurrent types in nature, and in many traditional designs. Here he uses motifs from the Seljuk carpet design tradition.

NBM: How has Alexander challenged the architecture field to pay more attention to human element of design?
As he has pointed out again and again—sometimes to the great discomfort of other architects—it's so easy to lose oneself in ideas, or drawings, and convince oneself that what is on…paper or in the glossy magazine shot is really a wonderful place. When the truth is, after the novelty wears off, or the cleverness of the ideas, or the profits, what it's really like to live with a place day after day, to move through it and try to function within it and be well within it…might be a different thing altogether.

So that means two things—that we have to really unite designing with building, in a single, adaptive process; and we really have to engage people in the making of their own environments. In this way they will be our reality check, our source of the human element that will tell us when we are going astray into our own dangerous fantasies, or letting insensitive technology or profit-making run roughshod over their lives.
NBM: Can you discuss how Alexander’s book A Pattern Language affected the design profession and indeed beyond, even influencing the work of computer designers?
A Pattern Language grew out of the earlier book Notes on the Synthesis of Form, and both were concerned with solving complex problems by using robust, simpler methods that worked in the interactive, poetic way that natural language does. This was enormously attractive to software designers, who were grappling with the problem that computer software is essentially sequential, which can make it overly rigid and mechanical. But you notice, words are sequential too, but that doesn't stop them from forming a network of meaning. For example, the way the words of poetry come in a sequence, but still form a delicate lace of cross-references and complexities—even ambiguities. Notes [on the Synthesis of Form] showed that this is exactly how problems in the world work too—and in effect, certain solution-patterns can convey networks of other solutions, in a kind of modular format [making] them endlessly [reconfigurable].

This technology was so appealing that it is now a part of every iPhone, every Mac operating system, every game of SimCity, and a lot more software. And Ward Cunningham, the inventor of Wiki, credits this work with inspiring that entire field too. This work is continuing, too. Chris himself is developing new ideas for patterns that incorporate more of the specific geometric properties that are included in his newer book, The Nature of Order.

The design of this column from the Eishin School illustrates a number of the 15 properties applied as ornament: alternating repetition, deep interlock, strong centers, boundaries, roughness, and levels of scale.
All of these works, spanning almost a half-century now…have the same essential concern: how the parts of a design problem are related to the whole. What Chris noted early on, was that our technology has become complex, but more than that, it has become fragmented. And this is intimately connected to the problem of sustainability, not just environmental, but also social and economic. If we want to have a more sustainable…built environment, we have to learn more about how nature does it. That means understanding how things get encoded and transformed and adapted, through stepwise processes.

This is what people have done naturally when they built the great traditional cities and buildings of our heritage. But when we get into contemporary technology, it has proven much, much harder to be sure this adaptive, differentiating process is there. In fact, we just haven't been able to figure this out yet.

So in a sense, Alexander's work, throughout his career, has been the most modern sort of project. It hasn't been about going back to some state of pre-technology, but in fact about finding a much more advanced, more life-like (or even literally living) kind of design technology. In a sense, in the world he envisions, our present difficulties will be seen as the growing pains of a crude and rather dangerous phase of technology, obsessed with the narrow advantages of mechanical methods, and running roughshod over the vital complexity of nature. In the new world, we will learn to respect that complexity, and learn to work with it. A number of people do think this will open up new possibilities for a more sustainable kind of world, a more elegantly livable one, and also a much more beautiful one. That would be a most necessary kind of renaissance.

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