Christopher Alexander lectures at Berkeley
May 9, 2012 4:46 PM   Subscribe

Legendary architect-philosopher Christopher Alexander delivers a fascinating lecture at Berkeley, in which he criticizes "modular" design and offers a radical new vision of architecture's relation to nature. Alexander is best known for A Pattern Language, which aimed to make buildings and towns more "alive" through a series of pleasing and comfortable patterns (five sample patterns can be found here). His most recent work, the four-part The Nature of Order, theorizes that life, whether organic or inorganic, emerges from a single simple process, which can be found on page 4 of Amazon's preview of the third volume. In the first volume Alexander lists fifteen properties that make a structure whole. Also worth reading: Alexander's classic essay A City is not a Tree.
posted by Rory Marinich (28 comments total) 78 users marked this as a favorite

 
People revere him, but sweeping, absolutist statements like this get my hackles up: "People will not feel comfortable in their houses unless a group of houses forms a cluster, with the public land between them jointly owned by all the householders."
posted by twsf at 5:06 PM on May 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


twsf, I think Alexander would agree with you. If you follow the sweep of his work, from his doctoral thesis Notes on the Synthesis of Form to his modern work, you can see that from the start he's obsessed with this idea of "living process", that is, the way that structure permits growth, and how such structure would grow itself. His ideas have developed gradually from his early work, each time trying to express his thoughts in more universal terms.

I've read that Alexander was dismayed at how architects managed to use A Pattern Language to create ugly, uncomfortable buildings, and that The Nature of Order was his attempt to express his philosophy so clearly that it couldn't be misused. A Pattern Language gets at some fascinating ideas, but it's still using the vocabulary of architecture to address those ideas; the standalone philosophy is still struggling to emerge.
posted by Rory Marinich at 5:14 PM on May 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


A bit of trivia for any fellow software-folks in the house: all that talk about "design patterns" you keep hearing about? All the borrowed terminology of "software architects"? Yeah, that's from this guy.
posted by felixc at 5:57 PM on May 9, 2012 [8 favorites]


"People will not feel comfortable in their houses unless a group of houses forms a cluster, with the public land between them jointly owned by all the householders."

I don't know how "absolutist" that is. That statement (like his 'pattern language' work) broadly describes an infinite number of possible specific scenarios, and is important in the principles it relates - shared ownership of and investment in common areas, adjacent to private spaces but permitting communities to exist - than the specifics of the architecture.

"A Pattern Language" is, in addition to being one of the most important, in my opinion one of the most widely misunderstood and misapplied books of the last century.
posted by mhoye at 5:58 PM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


If there is one thing I have learned about utopian architects, it is that unscrupulous developers always pervert their utopians ideas, creating a walled compound called Radiant City whose design flaws are actually driving the residents mad, forcing the architect to return in a trenchcoat, shaved head, and dark sunglasses to try to right the wrong by traveling silently through the city in a series of vacuum tubes he had secretly hidden in the city's design.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 5:58 PM on May 9, 2012 [12 favorites]




That always happens when Eldritch-Haroken supervises construction! Why do we keep hiring them?
posted by The Whelk at 6:07 PM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Rory Marinich: "in which he criticizes "modular" design"

when the agile folks hear this, they will rush to use gotos and malloced bitbuffers again, I am sure
posted by idiopath at 6:16 PM on May 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


That slide show illustrates so much. It shows that architecture can be both functional and enriching. That campus fits the site so well in scale; everything is consistent and yet totally different. It has an organic, yet detailed, feel that feeds the soul as well as serves a purpose.

I totally get where he is coming from, as quixotic as he may be. The commodification of building materials and processes has made architecture less expensive, much faster, and probably more democratic. But it has come at the price of "soul"; permanence and evolution and community don't seem to have a role anymore.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:19 PM on May 9, 2012


Bunny Ultramod: Yeah, but then he'll forget what he's about and become involved in a series of convoluted plots that don't really go anywhere.
posted by Grimgrin at 6:36 PM on May 9, 2012


Oh, for chrissakes! There is someone to introduce the introducer to the speaker. It's like wrapping a gift twice with tape you have to cut with scissors. By five minutes in and no guest speaker, I didn't care about architecture anymore.
posted by Foam Pants at 6:54 PM on May 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


Sorry for the FTFY, but …

"If there is one thing I have learned about utopian architects, it is that unscrupulous developers they always pervert their utopians ideas, creating a walled compound called Radiant City Paradise Towers whose design flaws are actually driving the residents mad, forcing the architect to return in a trenchcoat, shaved stolen head, and dark sunglasses to try to right the wrong by traveling silently noisily through the city in a series of vacuum tubes he had secretly hidden in the city's design robotic chair."
posted by Pinback at 8:05 PM on May 9, 2012


his talk to the Urban Design Group in London on the 23rd of November 2011 begins here

the scully prize symposium is still the best video introduction to alexander and the paper randy schmidt presents for him shows glimpses of recent developments in his ideas

in the future he will be remembered in the same breath as galileo and rene descartes for having demonstrated the empirical connection between the physical matter and the human soul

the new alexandrian cosmology presented in the nature of order will transform the world but it will take time for the old paradigm to die
posted by paradise at 9:49 PM on May 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Would you like to come up and see my Couple's Realm?
posted by rhizome at 10:01 PM on May 9, 2012


Why, do you a Marriage Bed?
posted by paradise at 10:14 PM on May 9, 2012


"have" and - "the" earlier

i seem to be failing at typing today
posted by paradise at 10:20 PM on May 9, 2012


i seem to be failing at typing today
posted by paradise


It seems like there's

[dons sunglasses]

trouble in paradise.

YEAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!

posted by zippy at 10:38 PM on May 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


26. LIFE CYCLE

40. OLD PEOPLE EVERYWHERE
63- DANCING IN THE STREET

84. TEENAGE SOCIETY
94- SLEEPING IN PUBLIC

I87. MARRIAGE BED
208. GRADUAL STIFFENING

253- THINGS FROM YOUR LIFE

posted by problemspace at 12:31 AM on May 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


OMG THIS VIDEO IS MADDENING... They are unable to work the projector, He's wobbly, so he needs to sit, he is parched so he cannot think, his speech is sooooo agonizingly slow and broken.

"This children's erector set from the 1950s has destroyed architecture forever. Modular architecture "doesn't work" because I say so... every single building is complete crap. cost of materials and labor and land be damned. Every building is crap... and this causes poor mental health."

But "I am not a crack pot, I assure you of that."

It's fine, he's an idealist, i get it.. but he's so hyperbolic

"Unless one turns the methods, processes and production methods around, there is no way that human life on earth can maintain itself or be a success, this is a colossal problem, um, (60 second pause to drink some water) the methods by which the human environment are built, have been damaged to extreme and extraordinary limits."

TLDW; Architecture sucks
posted by j03 at 3:58 AM on May 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


the new alexandrian cosmology presented in the nature of order will transform the world but it will take time for the old paradigm to die
posted by paradise at 12:49 AM on May 10


Eponyhysterical
posted by dragonsi55 at 4:13 AM on May 10, 2012


... and yet he builds, with his own two hands. He builds a school for the Japanese, and gosh do they ever need it. Their old one is an ugly box of a thing, you'll have seen it if you've watched any anime.

... and yet computer scientists listen. The grizzled weary warriors of abstract nonsense, surely the darkest priesthood of System B, listen. Are actually practitioners System A whenever they actually achieve something new, despite all their aspirations. Isn't that very odd?

Yes operating at this level of abstraction is inherently suspect, but when Christopher Alexander does it, pay attention.

"People will not feel comfortable in their houses unless a group of houses forms a cluster, with the public land between them jointly owned by all the householders." ... This is a useful sentence: It is testable. The reasons for it being true (or false) can be studied and understood. It can be implemented. It is applicable to many situations.
posted by pfh at 4:41 AM on May 10, 2012


unfortunately alexander is diabetic. the talk at the urban design group is much more coherent and he only slows a little as he tires

this work is of immense importance and would repay your study and i assure you it is science

if you will forgive the self link, this was the narrative for my nomination of alexander for the templeton prize
posted by paradise at 4:56 AM on May 10, 2012


I agree with j03. The video is unwatchable.

Try these: http://www.youtube.com/user/islandshrine
posted by jkolko at 8:41 AM on May 10, 2012


in the future he will be remembered in the same breath as galileo and rene descartes for having demonstrated the empirical connection between the physical matter and the human soul


He has good ideas. But sorry. No.
posted by ocschwar at 10:20 AM on May 10, 2012


i am guessing that you may not have read the nature of order yet
posted by paradise at 10:46 AM on May 10, 2012


A bit of trivia for any fellow software-folks in the house: all that talk about "design patterns" you keep hearing about? All the borrowed terminology of "software architects"? Yeah, that's from this guy.
True. And here's Christopher Alexander in the updated intro to Notes on the Synthesis of Form:
Indeed, since the book was published, a whole academic field has grown up around the idea of "design methods"-and I have been hailed as one of the leading exponents of these so-called design methods. I am very sorry that this has happened, and want to state, publicly, that I reject the whole idea of design methods as a subject of study, since I think it is absurd to separate the study of designing from the practice of design. In fact, people who study design methods without also practicing design are almost always frustrated designers who have no sap in them, who have lost, or never had, the urge to shape things. Such a person will never be able to say anything sensible about "how" to shape things either.
Suck on that 'design methods' guy from my old job.
posted by mike_bling at 2:56 PM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


i am guessing that you may not have read the nature of order yet


Nor the Kuran, nor the Book of Mormon.
posted by ocschwar at 3:25 PM on May 10, 2012


ocschwar, it's possible to be skeptical without being a jerk about it.

Everybody else, I just found a nice little interactive thingie by Alexander about the evolution of St. Mark's Square.
posted by Rory Marinich at 4:02 PM on May 10, 2012


While we're on architectural theory, Nikos Salingaros has been putting out some truly amazing stuff on the ideas of complexity, planting seeds in the soil tilled by Chris Alexander.

His Website

and one of my favorites,

Darwinian Processes and Memes in Architecture
posted by daniel striped tiger at 9:55 PM on May 10, 2012


« Older Filipaj worked as a custodian for 20 years to fina...  |  I went to the PUNCH Puppet Sla... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments