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February 19, 2003

Free Reads -- Wendy Kohn on Christopher Alexander

Friedrich --

The subject matter of Christopher Alexander's 1977 A Pattern Language (here) and its followup The Timeless Way of Building (here) is architecture, but they're also among the most provocative and useful books about the arts generally I've ever read. I'm far from alone in feeling this way. "A Pattern Language" especially has been phenomenally popular, outselling almost all other books on architecture year after year since its publication. I've talked to poets who found the book eye-opening; software designers have conferences where they discuss Alexander's concept of "patterns"; I've even met architects who have told me they didn't really "get" architecture until they read the book. I once gave a copy of Alexander's perfectly amazing book on Turkish rugs to a theater-critic friend, and it blew his mind; he was babbling about it (and about the new thoughts it was making him have about the theater!) for weeks afterwards. A visit to Alexander's website, here, will give you an OK taste of his mind, but it's probably more fun to sample what reader/reviewers on Amazon have had to say. Here's a typical Reader's Comment: "The book's main idea is much more powerful than that. It applies to almost every aspect of life, not just to architecture. This is definitely one of the best books on my shelf. It has really changed the way I look at...everything."

Great stuff, and stuff that hits many brainy and interested people on a deep level. Yet neither book -- both of them concerned with what you might think of as harmless and useful topics such as beauty, usability, and evolved form and knowledge -- is used in architecture schools. Why? As far as I can tell, quite simply because the official architecture world is demented. Alexander (along with such thinkers and writers as Tom Wolfe, Jane Jacobs, Nikos Salingaros, Lucien Steil, Leon Krier, Philip Langdon, and William Whyte) is part of a dissident strain in architecture that's trying to bring the building crafts (and, yes, arts) back to their senses. Why should the academic (ie., "avant-garde") establishment be open to this?

Christopher Alexander

It'll be fun to see what gets made of his next publication, The Nature of Order, which is due out in July. This is his magnum opus, a four-volume, several-thousand-page-long monster in which he's summing it all up -- beauty, science, order, nature, pattern itself. (The book's publication has been put off several times before, so let's see if it actually is published on time. Its Amazon page, in any case, is here.) On this occasion, Wendy Kohn has written a good introduction to Alexander and his work for The Wilson Quarterly. It's readable here.

Sample passage:

Yet Alexander’s own colleagues in the American architectural establishment will have nothing to do with him. After warmly embracing Alexander early in his career, his most natural audience has effectively airbrushed him out of its current canon. In the past 15 years, few undergraduate or graduate architecture programs have included A Pattern Language--or any of his other writings--in their syllabuses, and even those architects who have been influenced by his ideas are rarely willing to say so out loud. His critics dismiss him as a utopian, a messianic crank, and a contrarian who produces words instead of buildings.

Alexander and his work are one of those art-history flash points. People who think that art and architecture have wandered off down a wrongheaded path can point to Alexander and say, See, he thinks so too, and he makes a great case! People in the official fields can point to his prophet-like pose and argue that he's nothing but a crank.

My opinion? They're both right. Alexander does view and treat his own utterances as revealed truth; on the other hand, a lot of what he says really is brilliant. And it's brilliant not in a dizzy, showing-off-ego way, but in a truthful, earthbound-yet-spiritual, this-is-bigger-than-all-of-us way. (His ideas are immediately useful, too, which to me is the most important thing.) How are his own buildings? I like 'em. They have a comfy, somber, timeless quality, as well as a Zen-monastery gravitas that's inarguably present yet hard to put a finger on. I'd be delighted to live or work in one. Yet, despite his talents as a builder, there's no question that Alexander's significance lies in his writing and thinking.

Alexander's Julian Street Homeless Shelter; house in Berkeley

He may be an example of a genuine mad genius. I read a version of "The Nature of Order" that was circulating five years ago, and it struck me as both loony and magnificent, one of the great visionary, cosmic works, something like "The City of God."

What's going to drive people nuts about the new book is that, in it, Alexander is attempting to put beauty and pleasure on an objective and scientific basis. As far as he's concerned, he's licked the problem -- he's determined that the presence or absence of beauty and what he calls "life" can be objectively ascertained. He makes an amazingly good and exciting (and again useful) case for this, yet even as I was nodding my head happily I was thinking, "'Scientific'? Really? And why should that even be so important to him?" He'll be attacked, perhaps justifiably, as an absolutist and an aesthetic authoritarian. Yet, gee, an awful lot of the points he makes, and the examples he gives, are mind-bendingly good, and much more convincing and compelling than the arguments of the people who would like to dismiss him ...

It couldn't be easier to go about half of the way to where Alexander wants to take you. To that extent, he's simply trying to put architecture (and the other arts) back on a somewhat more empirical basis. How wide does a porch have to be in order for people to find it pleasant and usable? Why are people drawn to certain kinds of spaces? What makes some parks work and others fail? And what are the principles that underlie all this?

Huzzah to that. But in "The Nature of Order," Alexander makes a leap that's going to make a lot of people uneasy, to argue that matters of beauty and taste can be put on a truly scientific basis. Now that's audacious! How do you feel about such a case? For what little it's worth, I'm made nervous yet titillated by it. Part of me recoils from, or at least is a little wary of, the use of the words "objective" and "scientific" where the arts are concerned. Yet if I let my mind run alongside his for a bit, I find myself shedding a few of my misgivings. After all, evolutionary biology, brain modules, the relationships between genetics, language, metaphor and storytelling -- I'm drawn to all this, find it convincing, and stand up for its validity and usefulness. Art and art-history do seem to grow out of some general notion of "what works" -- and what it means for something to "work" must be at least semi-definable. Plus, if the allure of beauty isn't rooted in biology, and if beauty itself isn't the result of evolutionary processes, then how to account for them at all?

So there's something science-y and objective that I'm happy to welcome. Yet can science ever explain our experience of beauty, let alone life? (If beauty isn't at least partly a personal experience, I'd be very disappointed. Yet who should care about that?) It worries yet thrills me that perhaps Alexander is entirely right; at the same time, it worries me that he's making this extreme a case at all. Yet why should it? Perhaps I'm just being a liberal-arts hysteric -- always a strong possibility.

I'm blissfully happy, in any case, chewing over such thoughts; I suspect it'll be a long time before another book comes along that'll get my mind churning and seething about the arts quite so happily. And, damn it, it's about time for architecture schools to start giving "A Pattern Language" out to students in their very first class.

Not that I get too worked up about this, or anything...



UPDATE: Thanks to Nikos Salingaros for pointing out that the unedited transcript of Wendy Kohn's interview with Alexander is available online. It's readable here.

UPDATE #2: Aaron Haspel packs a lot of first-rate thinking and writing into a posting about Christopher Alexander here.

posted by Michael at February 19, 2003


Looking forward to delving into these monstrously large tomes! I see that these 2 titles you write about are the second and third volumes of a trilogy, the first being THE OREGON EXPERIMENT. What about *that* book?

Posted by: Michael Serafin on February 19, 2003 2:10 PM

Thrilled to hear you're tempted to give Alexander a try! "Oregon Experiment" is one of the least interesting of his books. "Pattern Language" and "Timeless Way of Building" are the ones to start with. And maybe end with too, unless you get super-fascinated (as I obviously did).

"Pattern Language" is made up of small chunks -- it's very long, but has pictures and is kind of hypertexty. You bounce around in it in a nonlinear way. It's kind of like surfing a Web of ideas. "Timeless Way" is much shorter and more concise, but is meant to be read straight through. They're both great.

Please let me know how you react if you do give 'em a whirl. Before buying (they're both pretty expensive, 30ish bucks) you might want to take a look at the Amazon Readers Comments, which really do give you a pretty good taste of what's going on in the books.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 19, 2003 2:22 PM

Dear Colleagues;

I just read the interesting article on my friend Christopher. I urge everyone to read Wendy Kohn's original transcripts from the interview, which are in my mind immensely more informative than the published version. It's here.

Indeed, I have heard that the Editor cut and changed the interview so that the final form doesn't reflect Kohn's own editing.

Best wishes to all,
Nikos Salingaros

Posted by: Nikos Salingaros on February 19, 2003 3:37 PM

Great post. I am not bothered the least bit by Alexander’s efforts to “put beauty and pleasure on an objective and scientific basis.”

I’m not sure, but this analogy might work: Ludwig Mises and Friedrich Hayek showed, as a matter of science, that socialism fails, and capitalism succeeds. But this does not mean that a few smart scientists can directly create a vibrant economy.

In architecture, it can be shown as a matter of science, that modernistic buildings fail, and that traditional building styles succeed. This does not mean that a scientist can create architecture.

At the root of both is, of course, the presence or the absence of the process of spontaneous order.

Posted by: Paul Mansour on February 19, 2003 4:07 PM

Has anyone read Stephen Wolfram's new book? From reading the reviews and some articles, it seems to me that he might be "scientifically proving" Alexander right!

Posted by: Paul Mansour on February 19, 2003 4:16 PM

Michael, thanks for this post, and Nikos, thanks for the pointer to the interview transcript.

Frederick Turner had some ideas on the neural basis of poetry some years back, you can find it here. 2Blowhards has introduced me to the work of Mark Turner, linked on the sidebar.

Posted by: MNike Snider on February 20, 2003 12:05 PM

I am not an "all traditionalist/good!" or an "all mo/pomo-bad!" kind of guy. Perhaps it's a generational thing. Those of us born in 1960 and after, who grew up watching the Gemini/Apollo programs and STAR TREK, perhaps have more appreciation for the mo/pomo architecture than others. That, and those alluring covers of science fiction novels, with depictions of buildings with scrupulously clean and sharp lines and curves. I delight in seeing late afternoon sunlight gleaming off of a glass-and-steel skyscraper, set against a flawless blue sky. I also like Richard Neutra's designs. I equally like seeing late afternoon, or early morning sunlight, glinting off of 18th and 19th century country houses, with the sun trailing off into the lush meadows and greenery beyond them, perhaps catching some neo-classical statuary and fountain(s) along the way. The only things missing from that scene are naked nymphs cavorting! But, that's another story.......

Posted by: Michael Serafin on February 20, 2003 2:03 PM

I am not an "all traditionalist/good!" or an "all mo/pomo-bad!" kind of guy. Perhaps it's a generational thing. Those of us born in 1960 and after, who grew up watching the Gemini/Apollo programs and STAR TREK, perhaps have more appreciation for the mo/pomo architecture than others. That, and those alluring covers of science fiction novels, with depictions of buildings with scrupulously clean and sharp lines and curves. I delight in seeing late afternoon sunlight gleaming off of a glass-and-steel skyscraper, set against a flawless blue sky. I also like Richard Neutra's designs. I equally like seeing late afternoon, or early morning sunlight, glinting off of 18th and 19th century country houses, with the sun trailing off into the lush meadows and greenery beyond them, perhaps catching some neo-classical statuary and fountain(s) along the way. The only things missing from that scene are naked nymphs cavorting! But, that's another story.......

Posted by: Michael Serafin on February 20, 2003 2:03 PM

Hey Michael

You might especially enjoy Alexander in that case -- he's no new-traditionalist. Instead, he's a mathematician whose thinking parallels in many ways the kinds of thinking you run across from spacey people who think about the 'net, or self-organized systems, or people like, as Paul Mansour points out, Mises and Hayek. It's pretty far-out stuff. As many have said, "A Pattern Language" might be the very first hypertext, and as several have noted, Alexander's ideas have been very important and inspiring to progressive elements in the computer-programming world (not that I know squat about this).

To stand up for the new traditionalists just for a sec -- I can't resist, and hope you'll indulge me -- their argument has less to do with traditional-is-good/modern-is-bad than with a couple of larger issues. The larger one is that these are buildings being talked about, not (say) poems, or desk lamps -- ie., they are things that are lived and worked in, and that also have public presences people have no choice but to interact with. If a desk lamp has a groovy po-mo design, well, why not? No one has to buy it, use it, or live with it. If a poem is a mind-bender, well, why not? But a house has occupants and neighbors and passersby, and a public building has many, many people who are obliged to interact with it whether they want to or not. The new traditionalists argue that it's an act of immense egotism for a designer to impose idiosyncratic, weirdo design on unwilling people, rather like forcing people to eat avant-garde food. (Ie.,not offering it to them as an option, but forcing them to eat it.) Private objects voluntarily interacted-with? Go wild. But public objects that impose a presence? Show some respect for the general will and taste. Which tends to the traditional.

The other larger argument the new traditionalists make is one that overlaps with one of Alexander's. It's that what we think of as "traditional forms" (whether in building or other art forms) evolved for good reason -- there's something about them that serves human needs, desires and pleasures. There's a lot of practicality, beauty and wisdom built right into (say) the classical system, in other words. You don't have to come up with everything all on your own -- it does a lot of the work for you. You get a lot that comes standard, where with modern/po-mo you're forever having to invent the wheel all over again, and no individual can hope to solve as many problems as well as the work of many thousands over many centuries has already done. So why not work with what's already given?

Alexander argues quite explicitly that what modernism did was, in its lust for revolutionary excitement and starting over anew, push all experience and knowledge off the table and try to begin all over again. There was a terrific rush at the outset as people felt they could cut loose; it felt like "freedom." But pretty soon the traditional crafts were lost, things got absurd, and it has turned out to be a nightmare, as over and over again elementary problems crop up, an example in architecture being the front door. Ever notice how hard it can be to find where the entryway to a modern or po-mo building is? Over there? Or over there? Under that thingee? Is this the front? Etc. Every modern/po-mo building seems to have its own logic and rules. The problem simply doesn't exist with traditional buildings -- you don't have to figure each one out, over and over again. You just go straight to the front door. Why? Because builders over the centuries had evolved ways of guiding you into the building and making the transition from outside to inside.

The new traditionalists say, hey, why not renew our acquaintance with the wisdom of the ages and then, working with it, learn how to add to it and extend it. Alexander is more into re-learning all that stuff quite consciously in the present tense -- that's pretty much what "A Pattern Language" is, a recipe book of practical knowledge, a kind of hypertext, 21st-century version of what in the 19th century were called "pattern books." His view is that we can't simply return to old ways, though we do need to reacquire the old knowledge and wisdom, let alone the old respect for human needs and pleasures.

Hey, me? I like a lot of groovy, far-out design. But -- maybe I'm an art wimp, maybe I'm just respectful of other people -- I'd never try to impose my far-out tastes (such as they are) on the general public. I'll make suggestions to friends, but I'd never lay my "vision" on the general public in a way that they have no choice but to interact with. That way lies Richard Serra's "Tilted Arc," and much of what passes for "progressive architecture" these days.

Oakeshott: "I'm a conservative in politics because I'm a radical in everything else."

But I do gas on.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 20, 2003 3:02 PM

Excellent piece Michael. I have some thoughts on Alexander here:

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on February 20, 2003 7:51 PM

Thanks for bringing Alexander to my attention. Evidently he's thought a great deal about design. So why is it that I find his website rather lacking in beauty and usability? Am I being non-objective?

Posted by: Sporkadelic on February 21, 2003 2:51 PM

It's a pretty poor site, isn't it. Which is bizarre, given how ideally well Alexander's brain and ideas should adapt to the web.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 22, 2003 2:01 PM

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