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More Christopher Alexander

I’ve been reading a couple more books by Christopher Alexander that happen to be available at the New York Public Library, The Timeless Way of Building (1979) and A New Theory of Urban Design (1987). They’re altogether consistent with the more recent book of his I’ve read, the first volume of The Nature of Order.

Like all his books, apparently, they were a number of years in the making, so the views he expresses in them tend to be settled and systematic. The first book provides the background and motivation for A Pattern Language (1977): if you want a good building, town or whatnot you don’t get an expert or bureaucratic committee to design it all at once, you let it grow up in the minds and then actions of users with the aid of a hierarchical system or “language” of patterns that suggests to them what sorts of things to include and strive for as they specify the desired result in increasingly detailed ways. He likens the system to the genetic code that governs the growth of an organism from fertilized egg to mature adult, or to a vernacular language that enables any native speaker to say, clearly and expressively, whatever he wants to say. The second book documents a test of concept for his approach as applied by a group of students developing a plan for rebuilding part of San Francisco.

Both books can be read rather quickly, especially if you already know something about his thought. They’re really quite inspirational. Alexander is beyond ardent, and Emerson says that nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. Mentioning Emerson seems rather to the point. For better or for worse, Emerson was the great American thinker, and in some ways Alexander seems to have Emersonized, Americanized and even Berkeleyized (that’s where he mostly taught and practiced architecture). He has nonetheless escaped our national vices of slovenliness, superficiality, intellectual cluelessness and mindless self-indulgence. Reading him makes me wonder what the ’60s might have been if the hippies etc. had been civilized human beings instead of spoiled children, and if they had been in love with the good, beautiful and true instead of impulse and whatever silly idea occurred to them.

Here’s some 60s-ish stuff in The Timeless Way of Building:

  • He’s against The Establishment and wants Power to the People, the latter taking the form of widespread competence in the local pattern language. Also, he’s bummed out by the way society lays its plastic trips on us. That’s not quite the way he puts it, of course, and his take on what’s happened is a bit different from that of the average pot-smoking social dropout. What he actually says is that “we have been taught that there is no objective difference between good buildings and bad, good towns and bad.” (p. 25) He disagrees.
  • He’s totally into Zen and Taoism and stuff. He talks about the Way, and says it’s a method that frees us from method so we can do what comes wholly from within. He dedicates the book “To you, mind of no mind, in whom the timeless way was born.” He calls the quality he’s aiming at, the goodness of the built environment, “the quality without a name.” (ch. 2) What’s notable about his work, though, is that he says that quality and how to get it is objective, precise, and susceptible to disciplined analysis and investigation that he actually carries out.
  • He sounds quite Whitmanesque at times, and like the Living Theatre will settle for nothing less than Paradise Now: “you can make any building in the world as beautiful as any place that you have ever seen .. hundreds of people together can create a town, which is alive and vibrant, peaceful and relaxed, a town as beautiful as any town in history .. the power to make buildings beautiful lies in each of us already … this seeming chaos which is in us is a rich, rolling, swelling, dying, lilting, singing, laughing, shouting, crying, sleeping order.” (pp. 7, 8, 14, 15) His concrete approach seems much more solid though than singing of himself or complaining that he’s not allowed to take his clothes off and proceding to do so.

He seems, then, to have naturalized himself in his environment and shown how to turn it in a far better direction. For that reason, perhaps, his books have become underground classics that continue to inspire and be found useful by people in all walks of life. Just read the readers’ reviews on Amazon for A Pattern Language or The Timeless Way of Building to see what I mean. As I suggest in my earlier discussion of his work I think there are some points that need to be developed, like the ultimate basis of order and the sort of society and cosmos in which order has its place. It appears he does so in his own way in the later volumes of The Nature of Order. He seems to like East Asian thought, though, while I think our own, at its non-Cartesian best, is more adequate. Also, he seems more optimistic than I am about what can actually be done here and now. That’s not such a great sin, though. His achievement is very great, and the importance of the issues remaining shows the extent and fertility of the new ground he’s broken.