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August 21, 2008

The Alexander Effect

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

James Kunstler confesses that it didn't all come together for him until he read Christopher Alexander and Andres Duany.

I've run into professional architects who have told me similar things -- that they were out there, practicing architecture for a living, yet they didn't really "get it" until they stumbled across Alexander's great "A Pattern Language" and / or his equally-great "The Timeless Way of Building." "Suburban Nation" -- by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck -- is pretty damn mind-opening too.



posted by Michael at August 21, 2008


Perhaps I shouldn't say this, but about 20 years ago, upon the recommendation of an architectural colleague (who was responding to a question of mine about who else out there is like Jane Jacobs or Oscar Newman?), I tried reading Christopher Alexander's "A Pattern Language," -- and I didn't care for it (and didn't wind up reading very much of it).

Since then, I've read that Jane Jacobs herself liked the book, and I've looked through similar "catalog" books that I have, in fact, liked (at least to some degree) like "The Street Book," "The Boulevard Book" (or something like that) by Allan Jacobs, and David Sucher's "City Comforts." So I suppose I should give "A Pattern Language" a try again.

But it's interesting that MB should link James Kunstler with Christopher Alexander, Andres Duany and New [Sub-]Urbanism, because part of what bothered me about what I did see of "A Pattern Language" has some relationship to part of what bothers me about Kunstler and New [Sub-]Urbanism:

A) All of them really seem geared mostly to Garden City suburbs, to small towns, to trolley car suburbs, etc. and seem to be disinterested -- seemingly to the point of hostility -- in real cities (e.g., like Paris, London, Boston, Philadelphia, New York, etc.) or even the outer edges of real cities (e.g., like the quasi-urban or semi-suburban sections of New York like Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, etc.). (And they seem to be spiritual cousins, at least, to those who fight against increased densities in low-density urban neighborhoods -- making cities both more expensive and not as walkable as they could be.)

B) All seem to be concerned primarily with aesthetics. (I think of New [Sub-]Urbanists as being essentially frou-frou-type "exterior decorators.")

C) Unlike Jane Jacobs, for instance, all seem to have only a superficial interest (or maybe, in certain instances, a narrow "polemical-only" interest) in how cities work economically, politically, sociology, etc.

I should mention that I also noticed the above to some degree with the Allan Jacobs books (even with the big city "Boulevard Book") and with "City Comforts" -- but to a lesser degree. Since, it's been a while since I looked at "A Pattern Language," let me give you an example of what I mean from "The Boulevard Book."

This book looks at wonderful boulevards from around the world (including the famous ones in Paris) and examines them in detail -- but mostly in terms of their "beauty" rather than their "functionality." *

It also examines a number of "outer borough" boulevards in New York City (e.g., Ocean Parkway, the Grand Concourse, Queens Boulevard [?]) and talks about what the authors feel is successful or unsuccessful about them. But even in these detailed analyses of the New York boulevards, there seem to be some gigantic blind spots in the discussion because the book is so aesthetics oriented. For instance, it doesn't really discuss the implications of the fact that only Queens Boulevard really has much in the way of commerce on it -- commerce is forbidden on much of the other "boulevards" -- which to me is one of the biggest facts of all about these outer borough "boulevards" (especially with regard to their success or failure.) What would the Champs Elysee be without sidewalk cafes and shops and businesses? And how would commerce-free boulevards have affected the everday economy and even walkability of Paris?

(*To be fair, a good portion of the "Boulevard Book" is also devoted to traffic patterns and traffic safety -- and this is excellent.)

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on August 21, 2008 8:28 PM

Reading the first and fourth volumes of Christopher Alexander's The Nature of Order was profoundly moving, and indeed changed me in ways that I've yet to understand. I would go so far as to say that Alexander confirmed for me that I believe in God. And yet...

How do you actually build buildings using his principles? It's not clear that anyone but Alexander builds Alexander buildings, and even he doesn't claim to have equalled anything like say the Yellow Tower, or Turkish carpets at their finest, or the great Zen monasteries like Tofuku-ji.

To crib from Benjamin Hemric (with apologies to BH), the question is how to build cities, not how to manifest a philosophy in buildings. When Alexander goes, he will leave IMO no movement behind, will have succeeded in changing next to nothing about architecture, but will instead be remembered as a hero of object-oriented computer programming. Not a bad thing to be, but still...

And New Urbanism towns give me the wig. They look like "wax museums with a pulse". They're dead the way some almost-human computer animation is. They should call some NU towns what animators call the place where computer animation looks creepiest, i.e., when it's almost but not quite convincingly human and therefore well and truly alien: Uncanny Valley.

Somehow, we're not there yet. Not with CA, not with JHK, not with the NU people. Not a helpful insight I'm sure...but without some recovery of the ability to experience what CA calls the "quality without a name" and what I call God, I mean really experience it, we won't have the guidance to do what needs to be done: to find the way out that's through. We can't go back, we can't go around. Through is it. ALL OTHER ROUTES ARE DEAD ENDS, says the road sign I just put up. Wish I could be happier, but it's late.

So there. I'm going to bed.

Posted by: PatrickH on August 21, 2008 11:48 PM

This comment is a bit off-topic, but maybe it contains a relevant caution.

The two cities I've lived in for longest are Sydney and Rome. Each is an unplanned and unplannable mess whose inhabitants have reason to curse every day. Yet these are two cities that attract, and for all threats of imminent implosion etc, continue to attract. They exude the right pheremones.

Sometimes you plan very deliberately with the best of intentions and information, guided by a humane outlook and philosophy...

And you get Adelaide!

Posted by: Robert Townshend on August 22, 2008 3:44 AM

As a member of the Alexander/Duany/Plater-Zyberk team, I would like to insist that Alexander has indeed created a legacy. There is more than enough published material to define a movement, which, as correctly pointed out, goes far beyond architecture and urbanism, helping us to understand the reasons we connect to the universe. Hence the religious overtones of Alexander's latest work -- quite justified.

Critics like to pick out the weakest points, and dwell on the incomplete pieces, but those are really of minor importance. Either you agree that Alexander has pulled it all together, or you can wait for the rest of the team (my friends and myself) to strengthen the coherence of the body of work that defines this movement. It only needs a little more work to get the basic overall shape.

I especially mean to emphasize the PRACTICAL side of the movement. It helps us to build new cities and buildings that are far more human-oriented than anything we have seen here in the US for a long time (but which is built every day in traditional, including marginalized, cultures). It also enables us to repair (to a limited extent) some older urban fabric. The methodology is here, right now, and is developing and getting better as we speak. You don't see it in the glossy architectural magazines -- that is all.

Best wishes,

Posted by: Nikos Salingaros on August 22, 2008 10:03 AM

And I could not resist copying this post by Rebecca from Hawaii. It follows a new interview of Christopher on NPR:

August 16, 2008.

"I discovered A Pattern Language quite by accident in a bookstore while travelling. When I read it I was stunned. Without being overly dramatic, it changed my life.

It wasn't available, however, at my university's architecture library. When I asked my architecture professors about it, they scoffed at the book and didn't think it worthy of discussion much less that it be present in the Architecture Library.

Ah well, never mind. The censorship failed.
I've bought the book many times (probably 30 or more) and given it as gifts and even as required reading to clients prior to working with them."

Thank you, Rebecca.
Best wishes,

Posted by: Nikos Salingaros on August 22, 2008 10:11 AM

Benjamin, Robert,
I hope you can both comment on this:

What do you think about the role that Governments have played in building/laying streets? I can not speak for how London or Rome were created, but, for at least most major American cities, I believe that it was up to the developers to build and maintain the streets that accompanied the buildings/homes/hospitals/offices that they built.

I know that as late as the 1910's, developers in Baltimore were complaining that NYC and Philly the gov't had taken over that responsibility and, therefore, the developers no longer needed to worry about it.

My point is this: when developers needed to build and maintain the streets, which were expensive, they seemed to
1.) Get as much in per square foot of street as possible (i.e. keep it very urban)
2.) Cared about how the street actually looked. That is, how the face of the building butt up against the sidewalk, sidewalk to street, flowers, small row gardens, trees, etc.

Any thoughts on what change or effect this had?


Posted by: Usually Lurking on August 22, 2008 10:16 AM

Sorry, but the link to Christopher's recent talk did not work out. Here it is again. He is interviewed by Studio 360's Lu Olkowski, and the program was broadcast on August 15, 2008. Also included is a bit by Wiki founder Ward Cunningham.

Christopher Alexander Interview

This is a co-production of Public Radio International and WNYC New York Public Radio. The interview could have been deeper, but it sort of skims on the superficial level. Pity, since they evidently put some effort into it. Still, there is a great line about the "QWAN Cookie".

Best wishes,

Posted by: Nikos Salingaros on August 22, 2008 6:12 PM

UL wrote:

I can not speak for how London or Rome were created, but, for at least most major American cities, I believe that it was up to the developers to build and maintain the streets that accompanied the buildings / homes / hospitals / offices that they built.

BH writes:

I've recently been trying to find out more about this topic myself. But it seems to me that this statement is not correct -- at least as far as the New York City area is concerned.

My understanding is that, generally speaking, municipal governments plan the layout of streets (e.g., the famous NYC "Commissioners' Plan of 1811") and then go about buying up the necessary land when it's time to actually put the streets through (and resorting to eminent domain, if need be to do it -- one of the few legitimate uses of eminent domain, in my opinion).

The exceptions to the rule in the NYC area usually seem to be residential communities (usually high-end) like Forest Hills Gardens, Fieldston, etc.

By the way, there's an interesting bend in the road of Broadway in MB's neck of the woods and, if I remember correctly, legend has it (and I'm always suspicious of these legends) that the landowner prevailed upon the city to change the planned course of Broadway in this area in order to spare a special feature of his property (a prized tree or orchard?). Subsequently a very beautiful church was built on this site and as a result it has a really special prominent site.

- - - - - - -

UL wrote:

I know that as late as the 1910's, developers in Baltimore were complaining that NYC and Philly the gov't had taken over that responsibility and, therefore, the developers no longer needed to worry about it.

BH writes:

If you have the reference, I'd be interested for two reasons: 1) it might shed an interesting new light on the topic; 2) I once did an urban planning project on Baltimore and really enjoyed learning what little I did about its history. Would be interested in learning more.

- - - - - - -

UL wrote:

My point is this: when developers needed to build and maintain the streets, which were expensive, they seemed to

1.) Get as much in per square foot of street as possible (i.e. keep it very urban)

2.) Cared about how the street actually looked. That is, how the face of the building butt up against the sidewalk, sidewalk to street, flowers, small row gardens, trees, etc.

BH writes:

I believe this is true -- but not with regard to streets, but with regard to lots and buildings instead. It seems to me that the most intensively developed land is land where land prices are highest and the landowner is not getting any kind of government subsidy or aid. And it seems to me that the least intensively (and most wastefully) developed land is land (e.g., an urban renewal project) where the landowner is getting some kind of government subsidy or aid (e.g., a zoning bonus for a "plaza") that allows for (or even encourages) him/her to create a wasteful, de-vitalized streetscape.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on August 22, 2008 9:35 PM

If you have the reference, I'd be interested for two reasons: 1) it might shed an interesting new light on the topic; 2) I once did an urban planning project on Baltimore and really enjoyed learning what little I did about its history. Would be interested in learning more.

The reference for that came from a pretty good book called "Baltimore Rowhouse by Mary Ellen Hayward".

If I remember correctly, she stated that the developers were still responsible for building the streets for their developments as late as the early 1900's. And at least one developer was quoted as saying, basically, that the developers in Philly and NYC no longer needed to build the streets because the gov't had taken over that role.

That was sorta my point. I don't know when the gov't took complete control over that function, but, the implication was that, at one time, the developer in all the major cities had to build the streets themselves.

My guess is, that for the more "village"-like parts of any city, that was true.

It seems to me that the most intensively developed land is land where land prices are highest and the landowner is not getting any kind of government subsidy or aid.

Yes, you (the developer) are forced to do the most with the least. Very efficient and very "tasty" (you could easily make an analogy to traditional foods and cooking as well...using the "whole beast" and making the most of what you have. Which is different from what we do today, through away most of the animal and only cook the most expensive parts.)

Posted by: Usually Lurking on August 23, 2008 2:20 PM

I don't know much about Alexander in architecture, but I do know that his ideas formed the basis of a very interesting part of computer science called Design Patterns. Design patterns are well understood and named patterns of oft-used software code and ways of putting that code together. The idea is that these patterns are the "best" ways of accomplishing common tasks in any software application.

Not going anywhere with this - just thought it interesting that Alexander seems to have had more influence outside his immediate area of interest.


Posted by: Girish on August 23, 2008 10:04 PM

I haven't gotten a chance yet to take a fresh look at "A Pattern Language," but I did look up the reviews of it on the Amazon website. While most of the reviews are overwhelmingly positive, the few that are negative (and even some of those that are actually positive!) seem to me -- at least so far -- to confirm my original highly negative impressions of the book. (And they make me wonder further, what could Jane Jacobs -- and MB -- have been thinking?!)

In a way, I'm glad that MB has posted on "A Pattern Language," Kunstler, New [Sub-]Urbanism, etc. because mostly I've been just vaguely disenchanted with what I've read and heard so far; so I haven't been paying them that much attention to them; but MB's posts have been a wake up call! While I can see the wisdom and appeal of some of the stuff about individual structures (if one's interests and values are along those lines in the first place -- but, then again, maybe a lot of people care more about a great variety of vocational, cultura opportunities, etc. than the light coming into their bedroom windows), the "insights" and recommendations about the larger built world, like cities, seem actually insidious and scary. If I ever get the time, I hope to take a closer look (to see if it is really as awful as some of the reviews -- even the positive ones -- make it out to be) and then, perhaps, do a more detailed critique.

In the meantime, I hope I am not breaking any rules of internet etiquette (or overdoing my welcome on MB's website) by posting some illustrative excerpts from the Amazon reviews. (Any additional emphasis is mine -- BH).

- - - - - - - - -

12/26/07 review by essetesse (3 out of 5 stars)

I bought this book after reading the glowing reviews on amazon. It was also an inspiration for Will Wright to make SimCity and the SIMS..... so I had high expectations.

I was shocked to find how opinionated and philosophical the book is. I expected the book to look at the history of cities, towns, etc. and describe [successful] patterns that already exist (much like the GoF's software design patterns book talks about patterns that people actually use). Instead the book presents a series of ideals about how the world SHOULD be structured.

If these ideals came from concerns I could identify with, I would take it more seriously. But instead they attack "problems" which I do not perceive to exist. For example, on p. 43 "The homogeneous and undifferentiated character of modern cities kills all variety of life styles and arrest the growth of individual character." This statement is contrary to my experience. I have met many great characters from cities, and seen profound cultural differentiation emerge from cities (e.g. jazz, abstract painting, hippie culture, punk, you name it). But the authors proceed as if cities killing character is axiomatic. I agree that there is a rural character that is not present in cities. But citydwellers have another type of character which is equally valid. [If true, this aspect of Alexander's work is in direct contradiction to virtually the whole body of the work of Jane Jacobs, which is why I'm surprised that she seemed to praise the book without any qualifications that I'm aware of.]

- - - - - -

10/21/03 review by misterbeets (3 out of 5 stars)

Not quite the research it pretends to be, more a polemic against Modernism in its final days [which is why I think it appeals to MB], basically summarizing the emerging consensus that Government-built monolithic concrete housing was a failure [which I would agree with]. [But then, however, Alexander goes on to say, basically] Better we should all [sarcasm alert] live in rustic cottages set amidst fields of wildflowers, eat our meals at tables with mismatched chairs, and spend our idle time basking in sunlit public squares. Just what the public was clamoring for in 1975.

- - - - - -

9/24/02 review by Audrey the librarian (5 stars out of 5)

. . . . Having made the case for his system of architectural and social design in his earlier work [A Timeless Way of Building], the author here goes on to formalize a system of 253 patterns, ranging in scale from towns down to benches. Patterns 1 through 94 define a town or community; numbers 95 through 204 define (groups of) buildings; and numbers 205-253 define a "buildable building". . . .

. . . To say, obviously, there is [also] a Pattern Language at work in the larger world in which we live [including many successful and beloved urban districts], and it is decidedly in opposition to what Mr. Alexander and others, including myself, believe is [or should be] preferred. [However,] What are the rules of THAT language? What is the context within which those elements operate? The author [of this book] codifies a desirable Pattern Language [that HE prefers]. I'd like to see his principles used to turn an eye toward decodifying our own milieu [what has worked for a great many other people with different beliefs, different life circumstances, different priorities, etc.] . . . .

- - - - - -

5/22/00 review by James DeRossitt (5 stars out of 5)

Alexander and his co-authors present us with over two hundred (roughly 250) "patterns" that they believe must be present in order for an environment to be pleasing, comfortable, or in their words, "alive." The patterns start at the most general level -- the first pattern, "Independent Regions," describes THE IDEAL POLITICAL ENTITY, while another of my favorite patterns, "Mosaic of Subcultures," described THE PROPER DISTRIBUTION OF DIFFERENT GROUPS WITHIN A CITY [I wonder, does he really do this? If so, Ack!!!]. The patterns gradually become more specific -- you'll read arguments about how universities should relate to the community, the proper placement of parks, the role of cafes in a city's life. If you wonder about the BEST design for a home, the authors will describe everything from how roofs and walls SHOULD be built, down to how light SHOULD fall within the home, where your windows SHOULD be placed, and EVEN THE MOST PLEASANT VARIETY OF CHAIRS IN THE HOME [but what if you have different interests and priorities from Alexander?]. An underlying theme of all the patterns is that architecture, at its BEST, can be used to foster MEANINGFUL [to whom] human interaction, and the authors URGE US to be aware of how the houses we build can help us balance needs for intimacy and privacy.

- - - - - -

4/29/00 review by Philip Greenspan (5 stars out of 5)

In a section entitled "Four-Story Limit" [ah ha! -- the smoking gun!], Alexander notes that "there is abundant evidence to show that high buildings MAKE PEOPLE CRAZY" . . . . Alexander BACKS UP [?!]this polemic with convincing ARGUMENTS that high-rise living removes people too far from the casual society of the street, from children playing in the yard, and that apartment-dwellers therefore become isolated. [Oscar Newman made this, and other similar, observations earlier i believe and, I suspect, with much, much better research backing it up. However, he was talking in terms of housing projects for economically disadvantaged families -- not for people and cities in general, as Alexander, Salingaros and other New [Sub-]Urbanists seem to be doing.]

(This quote and others seem to confirm to me that there are both anti-city and anti-high rise feelings that seem to eminate from the writings of Salingros, Krier (?), etc. and that they aren't just isolated idiosyncratic statements, but a "core" [?] aspect of the "program.")

. . . .What if you like the depredations of modernity and aren't interested in a utopian world where basic human needs are met? Can you learn anything about architecture from this guy? Absolutely. You'll learn that light is everything. Your bedroom has to have eastern light so that the sun wakes you up. Your best living quarters should have southern light. All the rooms should have light from at least two sides, otherwise there will be too much contrast and you'll just have to draw the shades. If you've got kids, make them sleep and play in their own wing of the house. Build a realm for yourself and your wife on a different floor. Meet the kids in the kitchen.

(If this is an accurate description of what's in the book, the book seems to contain OK observations for certain people having certain life circumstances, but there also seems to be a totalitarian "must" "should" edge to them -- which is what people also seem to criticize about New [Sub-]Urban communities. Co-incidence?]

[A "funny" twist to the sunlight recommendations: I now get a VERY INTENSE BLAST of sunlight every morning from my western facing bedroom windows -- because of the reflective glass facade of the new Trump building two blocks away on Varick St.!!!]

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on August 24, 2008 1:16 PM

Come on, Benjamin;

Reprinting some reviews of "A Pattern Language" by those who did not fully catch its significance does not help to produce human-scaled architecture or urbanism. If you really wish to contribute to a better world, then please talk about "Biophilic Design", and Christopher's "The Nature of Order". Those more recent books make clear exactly why the Pattern Language is valid, and show that it was years ahead of its time.

Best wishes

Posted by: Nikos Salingaros on August 25, 2008 3:31 PM

I don't think it's really relevant whether the readers of "A Pattern Language" who posted on Amazon (most of whom had mostly positive things to say about the book -- so they don’t seem to be "trashers") are correctly understanding what Alexander "really" means in his multi-book, OVERALL philosophy. What I do think is relevant is whether the specific features of "A Pattern Language" that are mentioned (e.g., an apparent criticism of high rise – over four-stories tall -- structures; criticisms of city living -- meaning big city living; etc., etc.) are truly part of "A Pattern Language" or not.

Since I haven't gotten a hold of the book yet, I don't know if they are, but I will be looking for these features in the book when I take a second look at it. (I was kind of hoping that, by mentioning these features, people who ARE familiar with the book would contribute some kind of evidence, e.g., page numbers of relevant paragraphs, as to whether these understandings ABOUT THE BOOK are really accurate or not.)

However these understandings of the book do, in fact, seem to be reflected in what prominent New [Sub-]Urbanists say and do and, thus, might be the philosophical underpinnings of apparently similar features of New [Sub-]Urbanism -- whether or not this is what Alexander, in fact, "really" meant when he wrote, "A Pattern Language."

So the real question, so it seems to me, is whether these features, as described by the Amazon reviewers, are really a part of "A Pattern Language" and, also, whether, these features are really a part of New [Sub-]Urbanism.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on August 26, 2008 1:48 PM

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