Perhaps surprisingly, many architects don’t seem to know who Christopher Alexander is. Moreover, 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.
One of the reasons for this tension is that Alexander is upfront about his disdain for the pretentious fanfare that seems to permeate many an architecture school. His thesis is that reductionist approaches cannot resolve complex design problems. For background, architecture schools have a tendency to reward big, bold, and brash over subtle, considered, and respectful. Starchitects and their fans seemingly spare little thought for flattening blocks of buildings; paving an expanse to flatter a hegemonic creation; or mashing, tearing, and contorting the urban fabric to underscore a marvellously contrived point. And this is the problem; shoehorning complex issues into simple solutions is called reductionism, and theoretical abstractions invoked in the name of inspired design often serve little more than to glorify some or another vision while alienating citizens and scarring the urban fabric in the process. In Notes on the Synthesis of Form (Alexander 1964) (adapted from his PhD thesis), Alexander argues that design problems are sufficiently varied and complex to confound the best-intentioned reductionist solutions. As such, reductionist approaches fall short against time-tested methods that have evolved through incremental and iterative feedback processes. These evolutionary feedback loops can engender clever responses to contextual issues such as the climate while respecting community needs such as access to walkable mixed-uses and essential services. He paints a picture of modern-day architects as somewhat befuddled by the immensity and complexity of design challenges. Or hapless, frequently resorting to the creative redefinition of the design problem as a means of skirting the real issues.
Alexander proceeds to present a methodology for defining design problems in a decomposable manner that makes design complexity more manageable. 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. I suspect that the reason is that programmers and planners — arguably — deal with objectives that can be more clearly decomposed than the fuzzy design problems oft encountered in architecture. The grey area between quantitative and qualitative considerations can be too diffuse to be clearly decomposable. It is precisely at this intersection where meaning can be the most profound or that issues can be the most elegantly expressed. Unfortunately, this is where some of Alexander’s supporters tend to lose the plot, one of whom I once heard refer to contemporary architecture as a “substitute religion of inhuman geometry”. I fear that some of these more ardent adherents have perhaps co-opted his message to advance their own agendas and to further alienate Christopher Alexander’s legacy from those that should probably know more about it. Put differently, it is an issue when people assume that contemporary architects and architecture are evil unless a historical style is summoned. This is probably driven by a lack of awareness of the complexities that architects deal with, the nature of the design process, contemporary materials, and contemporary construction techniques. Therefore, we mustn’t discredit the value and difficulty of what 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 remains steadfast in that incremental, bottom-up, and distributed problem-solving approaches are profoundly robust and resilient. His thinking becomes especially important when doing participatory and community-focused work and could ironically prove potent in parametric design for complex design tasks. However, as encapsulated in his article A City Is Not A Tree(Alexander 1967), it is at the urban scale where his ideas become particularly profound.