Christopher Alexander

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Christopher Alexander

Christopher Wolfgang Alexander (born 4 October 1936 in Vienna, Austria) is an architect noted for his theories about design as well as over 200 building projects around the world. Reasoning that users know more about the buildings they need than any architect could, he produced and validated (in collaboration with Sarah Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein) a "pattern language" to empower anyone to design and build at any scale. He moved from England to the United States in 1958, living and teaching in Berkeley, California from 1963. Currently an emeritus professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Alexander lives in Arundel, England.

Alexander is often overlooked by texts in the history and theory of architecture because his work intentionally disregards contemporary architectural discourse.[1] However, Alexander's polyvalent[clarification needed] approach to the discipline of architecture has had enormous ramifications through his vast corpus of essays and books. He is regarded as the father of the Pattern Language movement, and various contemporary architectural practices such as the New Urbanist movement have resulted from Alexander's ideas, which seek to help normal people reclaim control over their built environments.


Alexander grew up in England and started his education in sciences. In 1954, he was awarded the top open scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge University in chemistry and physics, and went on to read mathematics. He earned a Bachelor's degree in Architecture and a Master's degree in Mathematics. He took his doctorate at Harvard (the first Ph.D. in Architecture ever awarded at Harvard University), and was elected fellow at Harvard. During the same period he worked at MIT in transportation theory and in computer science, and worked at Harvard in cognition and cognitive studies.


Alexander was awarded the First Gold Medal for Research by the American Institute of Architects in 1972. The ACSA (Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture) honored Alexander with the ACSA Distinguished Professor Award in 1986 and 1987.[2] He was awarded the Seaside Prize in 1994. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1996.[3] In 2006, he was one of the two inaugural recipients of the Athena Award, given by the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). On 5 November 2009, at a ceremony in Washington D.C., he was awarded (in absentia) the Vincent Scully Prize by the National Building Museum. In 2011, he was awarded the lifetime achievement award by the Urban Design Group.



The Timeless Way of Building (1979) described the perfection of use to which buildings could aspire:

There is one timeless way of building. It is a thousand years old, and the same today as it has ever been. The great traditional buildings of the past, the villages and tents and temples in which man feels at home, have always been made by people who were very close to the center of this way. It is not possible to make great buildings, or great towns, beautiful places, places where you feel yourself, places where you feel alive, except by following this way. And, as you will see, this way will lead anyone who looks for it to buildings which are themselves as ancient in their form, as the trees and hills, and as our faces are.

A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (1977) described a practical architectural system in a form that a theoretical mathematician or computer scientist might call a generative grammar.

The work originated from an observation that many medieval cities are attractive and harmonious. The authors said that this occurs because they were built to local regulations that required specific features, but freed the architect to adapt them to particular situations.

The book provides rules and pictures, and leaves decisions to be taken from the precise environment of the project. It describes exact methods for constructing practical, safe and attractive designs at every scale, from entire regions, through cities, neighborhoods, gardens, buildings, rooms, built-in furniture, and fixtures down to the level of doorknobs.

A notable value is that the architectural system consists only of classic patterns tested in the real world and reviewed by multiple architects for beauty and practicality.

The book includes all needed surveying and structural calculations, and a novel simplified building system that copes with regional shortages of wood and steel, uses easily stored inexpensive materials, and produces long-lasting classic buildings with small amounts of materials, design and labor. It first has users prototype a structure on-site in temporary materials. Once accepted, these are finished by filling them with very-low-density concrete. It uses vaulted construction to build as high as three stories, permitting very high densities.

This book's method was adopted by the University of Oregon, as described in The Oregon Experiment (1975), and remains the official planning instrument. It has also been adopted in part by some cities as a building code.

The idea of a pattern language appears to apply to any complex engineering task, and has been applied to some of them. It has been especially influential in software engineering where patterns have been used to document collective knowledge in the field.

A New Theory of Urban Design (1987) coincided with a renewal of interest in urbanism among architects, but stood apart from most other expressions of this by assuming a distinctly anti-masterplanning stance. An account of a design studio conducted with Berkeley students, it shows how convincing urban networks can be generated by requiring individual actors to respect only local rules, in relation to neighbours. A vastly undervalued part of the Alexander canon, A New Theory is important in understanding the generative processes which give rise to the shanty towns latterly championed by Stewart Brand,[4] Robert Neuwirth,[5] and the Prince of Wales.[6]

The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe (2003–04), which includes The Phenomenon of Life, The Process of Creating Life, A Vision of a Living World and The Luminous Ground, is Alexander's most comprehensive and elaborate work. In it, he puts forth a new theory about the nature of space and describes how this theory influences thinking about architecture, building, planning, and the way in which we view the world in general. The mostly static patterns from A Pattern Language have been amended by more dynamic sequences, which describe how to work towards patterns (which can roughly be seen as the end result of sequences). Sequences, like patterns, promise to be tools of wider scope than building (just as his theory of space goes beyond architecture).

The online publication "Katarxis 3" (September 2004) includes several essays by Christopher Alexander, as well as the legendary debate between Alexander and Peter Eisenman from 1982.

Alexander's latest book, The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth: A Struggle Between Two World-Systems (2012), is the story of the largest project he and his colleagues had ever tackled, the construction of a new High School/College campus in Japan. He also uses the project to connect with themes in his four-volume series. He contrasts his approach, (System A) with the construction processes endemic in the US and Japanese economies (System B). As Alexander describes it, System A is focused on enhancing the life/spirit of spaces within given constraints (land, budget, client needs, etc.) (drawings are sketches - decisions on placing buildings, materials used, finish and such are made in the field as construction proceeds, with adjustments as needed to meet overall budget); System B ignores, and tends to diminish or destroy that quality (architect responsible for drawings which the builder uses to build structures at the lowest possible cost). In the last few chapters he describes "centers" as a way of thinking about the connections among spaces, and about what brings more wholeness and life to a space.


Among Alexander's most notable built works are the Eishin Campus near Tokyo (the building process of which is outlined in his 2012 book The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth); the West Dean Visitors Centre [7] in West Sussex, England; the Julian Street Inn (a homeless shelter) in San Jose, California (both described in Nature of Order); the Sala House and the Martinez House (experimental houses in Albany and Martinez, California made of lightweight concrete); the low-cost housing in Mexicali, Mexico (described in The Production of Houses); and several private houses (described and illustrated in The Nature of Order). Alexander's built work is characterized by a special quality (which he used to call "the quality without a name", but named "wholeness" in Nature of Order) that relates to human beings and induces feelings of belonging to the place and structure. This quality is found in the most loved traditional and historic buildings and urban spaces, and is precisely what Alexander has tried to capture with his sophisticated mathematical design theories. Paradoxically, achieving this connective human quality has also moved his buildings away from the abstract imageability valued in contemporary architecture, and this is one reason why his buildings are under-appreciated at present.[1]

Michael Mehaffy wrote an introductory essay on Christopher Alexander's built work in the online publication "Katarxis 3", which includes a gallery of Alexander's major built projects to date (September 2004).


In addition to his lengthy teaching career at Berkeley (during which a number of international students began to appreciate and apply his methods), Alexander was a key faculty member at both The Prince of Wales's Summer Schools in Civil Architecture (1990–1994) and The Prince of Wales's Institute of Architecture.[6]



Alexander's work has widely influenced architects; those that acknowledge his influence include Sarah Susanka,[8] among others.

Architecture critic Peter Buchanan, in an essay for The Architectural Review's 2012 campaign The Big Rethink, depicts the challenge posed by Alexander's work as follows:

"Even architects not immune to the charms of the places depicted, are loath to pursue the folksy aesthetic they see as implied and do not want to engage with such primitive construction – although the systemic collapse now unfolding may force that upon them. The daunting challenge for architects then, if such a thing is even possible to realise, would be to recreate in a more contemporary idiom both the richness and quality of experience suggested by the pattern language."[9]

In the UK the developers Living Villages have been highly influenced by Alexander's work and used A Pattern Language as the basis for the design of The Wintles in Bishops Castle, Shropshire.

Computer science

Alexander's Notes on the Synthesis of Form was required reading for researchers in computer science throughout the 1960s. It had an influence[10] in the 1960s and 1970s on programming language design, modular programming, object-oriented programming, software engineering and other design methodologies. Alexander's mathematical concepts and orientation were similar to Edsger Dijkstra's influential A Discipline of Programming.[11]

The greatest influence of A Pattern Language in computer science is the design patterns movement.[12] Alexander's philosophy of incremental, organic, coherent design also influenced the extreme programming movement.[13] The Wiki was invented[14][15] to allow the Hillside Group to work on programming design patterns. More recently the "deep geometrical structures" as discussed in The Nature of Order have been cited as having importance for object-oriented programming, particularly in C++.[16]

Will Wright wrote that Alexander's work was influential in the origin of the SimCity computer games, and in his later game Spore.[17]

Alexander often leads his own software research, far from mainstream computing, such as the 1996 Gatemaker project with Greg Bryant.[18]


The fourth volume of The Nature of Order approaches religious questions from a scientific rather than mystical direction. In it, Alexander describes deep ties between the nature of matter, human perception of the universe, and the geometries people construct in buildings, cities, and artifacts,[vague][examples needed] and he suggests a crucial link between traditional beliefs and recent scientific advances.[vague][examples needed] Despite his leanings toward Deism,[citation needed] Alexander has retained a respect for the Catholic Church, believing it to embody a great deal of accumulated human truth within its rituals.[citation needed]

Published works

Alexander's published works include:

  • The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth: A Struggle between Two World-Systems, with HansJoachim Neis and Maggie More Alexander (2012)


  • Sustainability and Morphogenesis (working title)

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Nikos Salingaros, "A Theory of Architecture", Umbau-Verlag, Solingen, 2009
  2. *ACSA Archives, Distinguished Professor Award winners.
  3. "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter A" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 14 April 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. See Chapter 2 of his Whole Earth Discipline, 2009.
  5. Shadow Cities: a billion squatters, a new urban world, 2004.
  6. 6.0 6.1 See Brian Hanson & Samir Younés, "Reuniting Urban Form and Urban Process: The Prince of Wales’s Urban Design Task Force", Journal of Urban Design, v.6, no.2 (June 2001), pp.185-209; Charles, Prince of Wales, speech at the "Traditional Urbanism in Contemporary Practice" conference at The Prince‘s Foundation, London, 20 November 2003.
  7. England, The West Dean Visitors Centre - Project History
  8. Sarah Susanka: Not So Big House, Taunton Press, 2001, ISBN 1561583766
  9. The Big Rethink: Transcend And include The Past, 24 April 2012 (accessed 5 January 2012)
  10. Kilov, H. "Using RM-ODP to bridge communication gaps between stakeholders". Communications H Kilov. Workshop on ODP for Enterprise Computing 2004. CiteSeerX: Peter Naur proposed in 1968 to use Christopher Alexander's work…<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Dijkstra, E. (1976-10-28). A Discipline of Programming (Facsimile ed.). Prentice Hall, Inc. p. 217. ISBN 0-13-215871-X.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Nikos A. Salingaros. "Christopher's Alexander's influence on Computer Science". Retrieved 2014-02-08.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Association of C and C++ Users: Interview with Kent Beck on eXtreme Programming
  14. C2 Wiki Front Page
  15. C2 Wiki: People, Projects and Patterns
  16. Space: the Final Frontier
  17. Will Wright interview
  18. Gatemaker: or the Aspen Summit
  19. Rob Hopkins interview

Further reading

  • Grabow, Stephen: Christopher Alexander: The Search for a New Paradigm in Architecture, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London and Boston, 1983.
  • Leitner, Helmut: Pattern Theory: Introduction and Perspectives on the Tracks of Christopher Alexander, Graz, 2015, ISBN 1505637430.

External links