top of page
  • Michael Mehaffy

IMCL 2023 will explore Christopher Alexander's legacy and a "post-Alexandrian agenda"

Updated: Jul 8, 2023

The Cambridge-educated physicist and mathematician later studied architecture, and made seminal contributions in many fields

The title still from the film Christopher Alexander: Life in Buildings, available on YouTube.

Among other topics, the 59th International Making Cities Livable conference will explore the legacy of one of the most fascinating figures in 20th and 21st century architecture, Christopher Alexander, who died last year. His long career spanned from the 1950s Harvard of Walter Gropius (with whom he was acquainted), to the 21st century world of cutting-edge computer science, in which he played a perhaps surprising role. In that and other fields, Alexander wielded outsize if often unrecognized influence.

Alexander's 1964 Harvard Ph.D. thesis, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, was already widely influential, described at the time as “one of the most important contemporary books about the art of design, what it is, and how to go about it” by Industrial Design magazine. His later paper, "A city is not a tree," was hailed as "one of the classic references in the literature of the built environment" by the Resource for Urban Design Information. Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Robert Campbell said that the paper "really blew away what were the foundational principles of the education at Harvard in those days, and it established... an interest in actually looking at the world – not looking at set of preconceived abstract mechanical ideas that were supposed to replace the existing world."

Alexander's best-known work was the perennially bestselling A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, and its companion volume, The Timeless Way of Building. (A Pattern Language is even today ranked #1 on Amazon in "Architectural Criticism," and #2 "Urban and Land Use Planning" and "Architectural Drafting and Presentation.") The pattern methodology grew out of Alexander's earlier work on the part-whole relations of a design problem, and the essential web-network structure that, Alexander noted, was too often missing in contemporary approaches. Alexander's alternative was a process-based, people-centered, web-networked methodology for producing coherent designs, which he modeled closely on the "timeless" methods that produced the great places of human history.

One of many who were influenced was the then-Prince of Wales, who expressed admiration for Alexander's ideas and work, and who appointed Alexander to the board of his Institute of Architecture in the 1990s. The Prince particularly admired Alexander's understanding of the importance of harmony or wholeness in human environments, and his analysis of the degradations of modern habitats, their causes, and potential remedies.

Alexander's work with pattern language methodology also found an unlikely home in the software world. Among its direct descendants was wiki (and Wikipedia), Agile Methodology, and the ubiquitous software design methodology called "pattern languages of programming," more commonly known as "design patterns." Software designers, like other designers, were dealing with the same problems of overly mechanical, disordered, malfunctioning designs, and they quickly found great usefulness in the pattern ideas. In so doing, they demonstrated -- perhaps better than architects did -- the usefulness of Alexander's insights.

Less well known, Alexander was also himself a prolific designer and builder, creating some 200 buildings across the globe. (A few of his structures are shown at the top of this post.) His work was also applied in fascinating ways an astonishing number of other fields, from engineering to law to business management to biology and beyond - even one remarkable paper that developed a pattern language model for the evolution of multicellular life. Perhaps pattern languages were not just human inventions, but tapped into something deeper about the structure of nature and life -- as Alexander himself came to believe.

After completing his major work in pattern languages, Alexander turned closer attention to the processes of creating form in both the human and non-human worlds. He felt that the problem of creating human habitat required a deeper understanding of the "nature of order" -- the title of a four-volume magnum opus that he published beginning in 2003.

The Nature of Order was a grand synthesis of modern science, timeless designs, and the beauty of nature, illustrated beautifully across four volumes. The books gave an overview of the great processes of order-formation in nature, a picture that is slowly emerging from the sciences, and its application to human architectures. The book also explored the complex evolutionary patterns of our own human history, and the useful contributions they might still make to our understanding and action.

Alexander believed firmly that humanity is on the verge of a new understanding of the generation of form, and the ways that we can do so more sustainably and with greater vitality. There is a relationship to the work of the former Prince of Wales (for example, in his book Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World). For both authors, much is at stake, including the sustainability of our human societies. If we are to meet our challenges, we must change the ways we plan and build our communities -- along with other issues of resource use, habitat, and technological systems.

We will explore these fascinating and potentially important topics at the 59th International Making Cities Livable conference in Poundbury, October 10-13, 2023. Long-time colleagues of Alexander will join with researchers, designers and planners, builders, and institutional leaders, to confront the challenges of human habitat, and the tools and strategies to build a better generation of more livable, equitable, ecological cities, towns and suburbs. The conference will certainly have a practical, hands-on dimension, as we share concrete methods for translating understanding into action. But we will also look at the larger historical trends, opportunities and challenges, and explore the visionary ideas of Alexander and others. We will assess where we are at this moment in history, and where we must go, in order to be well in the future.

Here is an excerpt from The Nature of Order that discusses this challenge:

People used to say that just as the 20th century had been the century of physics, the 21st century would be the century of biology. The origin of this thought was that while the process of physics that dominated our 20th-century technology were fascinating and unusual, they were often one-dimensional, linear, monochromatic, involving fairly small numbers of variables. The creation of life, on the other hand, is a highly complex process, involving thousands or millions of variables, working in subtle cooperation. It was felt that, as understanding of biology increased, so our mental world, and our ability to understand and control biological process by subtle means, would increase, so that we would gradually move into a world whose prevailing paradigm was one of complexity, and whose techniques sought the co-adapted harmony of hundreds, or thousands of variables. This would, inevitably, involve new technique, new vision, new models of thought, and new models of action.

I believe that such a transformation is starting to occur. I also believe the repeated application of the fundamental process to the built world will inevitably have to be part of such a transformative society. In saying this, I must underline my belief that living processes belong to the future, not to the past. Although 20th-century social processes were so different from what I contemplate, and did not yet contain the wherewithal to create living structure (except for the small islands of exception I have cited) – there is now a natural swell in people’s minds, a sea-change, and a change of intention, so that the turn towards generation of living process is, perhaps, one of the signal marks of the turn of the millennium, of people’s changed awareness, or their hope.

Our future, as we begin to see it now, contains a vision of an entirely new kind of human process: A process, like the process of biology, which is attuned to human nature, makes more sense of human feeling and human common sense. In this process – and it applies to every step that is taken in society, whatever people are doing – you move forward in small, tiny steps. Each step accomplishes something concrete and good – one center at a time. Each step is taken forward, judged, by the impact it has on the whole. We are continuously evaluating the whole for its deep feeling, for its usefulness, for the support it gives to human experience.

This process, then, is potentially remarkable. As versions of such processes are worked out for different situations in society, they may, ultimately, replace bureaucracy and the machinelike organization of large corporations and government. It is a process in which individuals do what is necessary, and what they can do, moving everything forward one satisfying step at a time.

You may wish to say that this is dreaming, even impossible. But that, I think, would only be the echo of the dying 20th century that talks, still, in our heads. It is possible. A few examples I have given in this book begin to make that clear. Other more extensive examples in book 3 make it far more clear, and show how this process can, indeed, generate an entire living world.

Above all, we know that it must be possible on theoretical grounds. We know it because this is the process by which the biological world of plants and animals has already been created. Late 20th-century research on complex systems by Holland, Kaufmann, and others, showed how very complex systems with enormously rich and complex state-space have been built up, repeatedly, throughout biological history, by the process of unfolding, and by small structure-preserving processes, which go step by step, yet reach astounding results in the whole.

I believe that structure-preserving processes of the general type I have defined will be extended far beyond the bounds of architecture. Other preliminary demonstrations in the sphere of complex systems lead to the same conclusion. What I’m pointing to makes sense as a way forward in the complex world of computer-programming and software development, where the intricacy and internal architecture of systems has been shown to develop best under these kinds of impetus. It works in the world of biology. It works in the world of technology. And it will work in the world of architecture itself.

A world made this way is truly a new kind of world. I do not know, for sure, that traditional society reached its goals by these means. What I do know, and am certain of, is that the society of the future, the long future of men and women on our planet, will – must – inevitably be carried forward by this kind of process which allows the nourishment of the individual to happen at the same time that vast, and highly technical developments occur.

The small, step-by-step process is not only the best way to build the architecture of a complex system, from the point of view of adaption. It is also the most satisfying, the most nourishing – because it creates, at each step, something that makes us – the makers – feel more wholesome, something that makes us feel alive while we are doing it. It is nourishing, it is fun, it is productive, it is efficient. And, of course – best of all – a similar healing effect also takes place in the whole. Since it is the whole we are always looking to at each step, the whole which is transformed and made to have a deeper feeling, a lovely feeling consistent with everyday longings – then the whole, the great architecture of the whole, will in the end serve us, give us a kind of world (born of just such a process) which is the world in which we want to live.

In certain respects, some of the processes I have described in this book have something in common with ancient process. My respect for the language, and buildings, and processes of ancient society, is a respect for ancient wisdom. But far more essentially, these things – the processes and building forms that I describe belong to the future. Indeed, in most respects, they belong more to the far-distant future than to the past or to the present.

The fundamental process and the structure-preserving unfolding process – these are things that belong to a visionary future for humankind – a future in which complex structure of the built world, its daily re-creation, its daily nurture, will be considered normal. It is this far-distant future – hardly yet contemplated – which I have been looking for the last thirty years. To be well, we must set our sight on such a future, and recognize that complex processes of the kind that are needed to generate and sustain life in our surroundings will, structurally, be processes of the kind that I have been describing. That is so for the reasons that are akin to the reasoning of biology, to the reasoning of complex system theory, and to the reasoning of ultramodern physics and computer science.

It is the vision of a future living Earth, which draws me on. Inspired by a thoroughly new view of structure, fueled by a view which sees living process as the origin of all life, this allows us to contemplate, for the first time, the idea that one day such living process will cover and completely generate, in biological fashion, the natural and human-made and built environment that we ultimately learn to call our living Earth.

- The Nature of Order, Book Two, pp. 568-570



bottom of page