Architecture's Irascible Reformer
RUNDEL, England Moss grows from the steep, pitched roof of the West Dean Gardens visitors' center. Carefully trained grape vines hug its walls. And the facade, approached by a curving gravel path, is a pleasing tapestry of flint, brick, concrete and Portland stone.
Over all, the effect is quaint. The center, which houses a gift shop
and a cafeteria for the 35-acre gardens next door, could have been plucked
from the pages of a fairy tale a primmer English version of
But to Christopher Alexander, the architect who designed it, the center represents something much less whimsical: a small social revolution.
For nearly four decades, Mr. Alexander, 66, an emeritus professor of architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, has been waging a quixotic campaign of messianic ambition: to heal the world by reforming the way it builds.
Humanity, he says, is ailing. And the built world is both source and symptom of its disease. Where there should be beautiful buildings in harmony with nature, he says, there is mostly "architecture which is against life" instead, "insane, image-ridden, hollow."
By this, Mr. Alexander means not only strip malls, office parks and tract homes, but also much of what is fawned over these days by highbrow critics. In his view, the recent spate of flashy confections by big-name stars from Frank Gehry's glittering Guggenheim Bilbao to Rem Koolhaas's interactive Prada boutique in SoHo is not just pretentious and sterile. It is actually making us ill.
"Architecture is a very strange field," Mr. Alexander said over lunch here in the medieval town not far from West Dean Gardens where he grew up and has lately been spending much of his time. "It's almost as though they've induced a mass psychosis in society by introducing a point of view that has no common sense and no bearing on any deeper feeling."
But Mr. Alexander, a bearlike, weather-beaten man with doleful blue eyes and rumpled khakis, is no mere curmudgeon. Having made his diagnosis years ago, he has dedicated himself to propounding the cure: an architecture based on what he calls an objective science of beauty.
It's a mission that has put him starkly at odds with most of his profession, where he is variously described as a reactionary, a mystic or a Lear-like madman ranting on the moors. It doesn't help matters that, like Shakespeare's prickly king, Mr. Alexander is, as he apologetically put it, "an excitable person": brilliant but conflict-prone.
"He's a self-proclaimed outsider," said the architect Peter Eisenman, who famously debated him at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard in 1982. "I think Chris unfortunately fell off the radar screen some time ago. He got off into being cranky."
But even his detractors concede him a grudging respect. After all, Mr.
Better known for his writings than his buildings, he is the principal author of "A Pattern Language" (Oxford University Press, 1977), one of the best-selling architectural treatises of all time, still selling 10,000 copies annually more than 25 years after it first appeared. His devotees range from amateur home builders and community activist groups to the Prince of Wales, who invited him to serve as a trustee of his Institute for Architecture in London and helped recruit him to design the visitors' center at West Dean Gardens.
Among computer programmers, he has attained near-guru status. Will Wright, the creator of "The Sims," the nation's most popular computer game, routinely cites him as a major influence. And he's an unlikely inspiration behind a powerful movement in software design known as object-oriented programming.
Now Mr. Alexander's iconoclastic reputation is likely to grow some
more. This spring, he finally completed his four-volume, 2,150-page magnum
opus: "The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature
of the Universe." After laboring over it for 27 years, Mr. Alexander had a
falling out with his editors at Oxford University Press and is now
publishing the work himself through his Center for Environmental
Structure, a nonprofit organization in Berkeley dedicated to promoting his
Much more than a do-it-yourself construction manual (though it is that, too), "The Nature of Order" is a grandiose, polemical, sumptuously illustrated and utterly singular inquiry into what Mr. Alexander calls "first principles": the essence of life itself. Available since May for $75, the first volume, "The Phenomenon of Life," has already sold 4,000 copies. In it, he lays out his view that beauty is a matter neither of taste nor opinion but rather an inherent attribute of living things. But Mr. Alexander's definition of life is hardly the standard one.
"Life is not a limited mechanical concept which applies to self-reproducing biological machines," he declares in the introduction (which, like the rest of the volume, appears to have been only lightly copy-edited). "It is a quality which inheres in space itself, and applies to every brick, every stone, every person, every physical structure of any kind at all, that appears in space. Each thing has life."
He describes 15 "structural features" fundamental geometries of order that signal vitality in plants, animals and objects. If respected by architects and developers, he argues, these features which include "strong centers," "alternating repetition" and "levels of scale" would result in a built world that is both beautiful and alive. To the untrained eye, however, the concepts are not necessarily intuitive. It may not be obvious that to take just a few of the book's hundreds of examples the Great Mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia has "strong centers," while a 1971 Minnesota house by Bruce Goff does not. Or that a Shaker cabinet radiates "the most beautiful inner calm," while a pair of carved wood Italian chairs from the 1920's are "gross and utterly lacking in inner calm."
Reviewing a galley of "The Phenomenon of Life" in the journal
Architectural Record in May 2002, William S. Saunders, the editor of The
Harvard Design Magazine and an admirer of Mr. Alexander's early work,
called the book "full of contradictions, foggy generalities and extreme
and unsupported assertions." He compared Mr. Alexander to Casaubon, the
deluded scholar in
The architect Moshe Safdie, a close friend of Mr. Alexander's for 40 years, worries that some readers may be put off by the book's mystical tone. "This sense that there are intrinsic qualities, difficult to explain, but which you somehow feel when you are in the presence of great beauty," he said. "He wants you to accept it, grasp it and follow it almost as a religious teaching."
Another stumbling block for architects is Mr. Alexander's idiosyncratic building style, he continued, adding: "People go from the ideas, which they could interpret freely, to the solutions, which they see as somewhat anachronistic, somewhat craft-related, stylistically somewhat Victorian. They see him as a reactionary."
It wasn't always this way. Mr. Alexander once ranked among the profession's vanguard. Born Wolfgang Christian Johann Alexander to Austrian parents who were archaeologists in Vienna, he fled with his family to England during the Anschluss. They eventually settled in Arundel, where his mother and father taught high school. Mr. Alexander graduated from Cambridge University with degrees in math and architecture.
Asked as part of one assignment to design a house, he instead submitted a spoof of the formalist theory he had been taught: a glass box slashed by giant brick walls. "A completely abstract, pointless notion," he said. To his amazement, the head of the department called him into his office to congratulate him. "He said, 'Christopher, my boy, this is exactly what we want,' " Mr. Alexander recalled. "I thought, Oh my God, I've walked into the nut house."
In 1958, he left England for what he rightly guessed would be the more open, experimental culture of Harvard. For his Ph.D. dissertation in architecture, published in 1964 as "Notes on the Synthesis of Form," he proposed a rigorous and for the decade technologically precocious approach to architectural design involving algorithms and computer analysis. It earned him instant renown.
He also spent time living in India. When the Indian government asked him to help rebuild a village that had been displaced by a dam, he reluctantly declined.
"I knew that the village would be meaningless if it weren't generated by the people in the village," he explained. "And I didn't know how to harness the energy and thought of the people to create their village. I thought: I've got to figure out how that is done."
His solution was "A Pattern Language," written over nearly a decade with the help of five collaborators, colleagues and students at Berkeley, where, in 1963, Mr. Alexander had become a professor. Printed on nearly 1,200 pages of wafer-thin paper, the book had the look, weight and commanding moral tone of a Bible.
Arguing that homes, neighborhoods and towns should be designed not by professionals but by the people who live in them, the authors presented the book as an all-purpose how-to guide for creating a global utopia: the built world boiled down to 253 patterns. From "country towns" (pattern 6) and "green streets" (pattern 51) to "six-foot balcony" (pattern 167), no design feature was too big or too small to merit detailed consideration.
Buildings should be no more than four stories high (pattern 21), the authors stipulated. Town squares should include paved surfaces for dancing in the street (pattern 63). And people should sleep facing east (pattern 138), for optimal well-being.
These were not arbitrary rules, Mr. Alexander and his collaborators insisted. Rather, they were "archetypal" patterns, "so deeply rooted in the nature of things, that it seems likely that they will be a part of human nature, and human action, as much in 500 years, as they are today."
Melding a 1960's feel-good social philosophy with a rigorous structuralism, the book had broad appeal. Like Jane Jacobs's "Life and Death of Great American Cities" (1961), "A Pattern Language" offered a promising alternative to the sterility and exhaustion of modernist architecture.
By the early 1980's, computer scientists were eagerly discussing the book as well. In Mr. Alexander's patterns, programmers saw the solution to a software design problem that had long plagued the field. According to the dominant approach at the time, whenever a program was needed, one would be written from scratch, a method that tended to produce unwieldy and bug-ridden software. Inspired by "A Pattern Language," computer scientists discovered they could get more efficient and reliable results if they thought of programs as assemblies of predefined code patterns instead. To the thousands of programmers who use this approach today, said Richard Gabriel, a computer scientist at Sun Microsystems and a leading advocate of the software patterns approach, "Chris is a revered cult figure."
In his own field, his reputation has proved more fickle. By the 1980's, structuralist theory had given way on American campuses to the more playful and rule-free dispensations of deconstruction and postmodernism. At Berkeley, Mr. Alexander came into increasing conflict with colleagues. He says he and and his students were victims of intellectual harassment. In 1985 he filed a formal complaint against the university, charging it with violating his academic freedom. Seven years later, the matter was quietly settled, and in 1998, he retired.
But the embattled life seems to agree with Mr. Alexander, who has been getting up at 2 a.m. to work on a new book, "Deep Adaptation." Skeptics, he said cheerfully, would do well to recall the success of "A Pattern Language." As he put it: "Even the cautiously skeptical reader might say: 'He did it once. Maybe it's possible that he's done it again.' "