Christopher Alexander on design

Somewhat surprisingly, a lot of architects don’t know who Christopher Alexander is. Those who do, are frequently uneasy with his message. Yet, Alexander is arguably one of the more influential architects to have emerged in the space of the last fifty odd years…with a lasting impact on planners, urbanists, and, interestingly, computer programmers.

Perhaps the reason for this tension, is that Alexander is quite upfront (as he demonstrates in this debate with Peter Eisenman) about his disdain for the pretentious fanfare that often enshrouds architecture schools. What he has zeroed-in on, is that this approach to architecture is frequently driven by highly abstract gobbledygook to the point that buildings often alienate people and generate contextually inappropriate design.

Yet, it is important to note that whereas Alexander is anti architecture establishment, he is not necessarily anti-architecture. His thesis is essentially that we can’t use reductionist approaches to resolve complex design problems. And in this sense, he, along with Jane Jacobs, heralded the emergence of a complex systems view of architecture and urbanism.

As he originally argued in his book, Notes on the Synthesis of Form (an adaptation of his PhD thesis) all too often, design requirements are so varied and complex that we cannot fully define or even comprehend what they are. He therefore presents the case that modern-day architects are at a disadvantage compared to traditional cultures where design was the result of incremental and iterative feedback processes that embedded successful design solutions in the form of time-tested traditions. He paints a picture of modern-day architects as somewhat befuddled by the immensity and complexity of design challenges. And hapless; frequently resorting to creative redefinition of the design problem as a means of skirting the real issues, or shoehorning the design context into half-baked reductionist constructs.

He proceeds to present a methodology for defining design problems in a ‘decomposable’ manner that makes design complexity more manageable. But while I find his analysis quite interesting, I also think that it was inevitable that his solutions would find more acceptance with computer programmers and planners than architects. And I suspect the reason is that programmers and planners – arguably – deal with objectives that can be more clearly decomposed than the more nuanced design problems faced in architecture. Architecture deals with a grey area between quantitative and qualitative considerations that, by their nature, are often too diffuse to be clearly decomposable, and where meaning is often the most profound when the issues at hand are subtle, interwoven, and complex.

And this is where some of Alexander’s supporters tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater. (One of whom I once heard refer to contemporary architecture as a “substitute religion of inhuman geometry”.) It becomes an issue when people automatically assume that contemporary architects and architecture are evil unless a historic style is summoned. This is probably driven by a general lack of awareness of the complexities that architects deal with, as well as the nature of the design process, contemporary materials, and contemporary construction techniques. And it is therefore important that we don’t discredit the value and difficulty of what contemporary practising architects do, nor the immense accomplishment of a design task well resolved.

While I think that Christopher Alexander’s thesis has to be applied judiciously at the scale of individual buildings, the core of his message holds true. In that incremental, bottom-up, and distributed problem solving approaches are profoundly powerful and resilient. His approach becomes especially valid when doing participatory, community-focused work, and could ironically prove powerful in parametric design for complex design tasks. However, as encapsulated in his article A City Is Not A Tree, it is at the urban scale where his ideas become truly profound.

PS - If you are interested in Christopher Alexander’s technique for “decomposing” complex design challenges, then I recommend also taking a look at Mike Batty’s latest work A New Science of Cities, in which several chapters are devoted to exploring and expanding Alexander’s ideas as applied to planning and committee decision making processes. (Including the use of “Markovian Design Machines”.)