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  • Michael Mehaffy

New journal issue assesses Christopher Alexander's "complex contributions"

The continuing influence of the seminal theorist, author and architect will also be explored at the IMCL 2023 Poundbury conference


ABOVE: Screenshot of the journal's web page for this special issue.


The journal Urban Planning has just released a special issue co-edited by IMCL Executive Director Michael Mehaffy, titled "Assessing the Complex Contributions of Christopher Alexander." The full issue can be accessed at no cost from the journal's page for this special issue.


The issue documents not only Alexander's past influence, but ongoing work carried forward by a network of researchers. Some of those researchers are part of the Environmental Structure Research Group, which will hold a symposium at the Poundbury conference (specific day and time TBA). Indeed, Alexander leaves a rich body of work ripe for further development, as evidenced by the astonishing progress in fields like software, wiki, organization management, biology, and other fields.


Mehaffy and his co-editor Tigran Haas, Professor at Stockholm's KTH Royal Institute of Technology, provide an introduction to the special issue:


Although this thematic issue is titled “Assessing the Complex Contributions of Christopher Alexander,” it might well have been titled “Further Developing the Complex Contributions of Christopher Alexander: An Introduction.” Each of the 11 authors herein takes forward some of Alexander’s ideas into new topics exploring new connections, and each thereby lays out parts of a potential “post‐Alexandrian” agenda for further research and development. In so doing, they give us tantalizing glimpses of much more that can be done.


Already we have seen an astonishing range of further developments of Alexander’s ideas: into the realm of software and pattern languages of programming; into open‐source technology, wiki, and Wikipedia (built on an innovation to share pattern languages of program‐ ming); into organization theory and Agile project management (whose founders acknowledged an explicit debt to Alexander); and into a dizzying number of other fields. It seems very likely that such innovations will continue apace.


Curiously, the one field where innovations have lagged conspicuously has been Alexander’s own field of architecture and urban planning. The reasons for that are surely varied: the iconoclasm of Alexander’s work, off‐putting to more mainstream practitioners; the “classic” status of the books and their cult‐like veneration by some, suggesting that further work would be “tampering”; the unwillingness of adherents (even Alexander himself) to see potential relationships with other investigators, and potential cross‐fertilizing collaborations; the hubris of architects, whose “creation” mystique forecloses the possibility of sharable normative structures; and the rapacious nature of the modern real estate development system.


Alexander himself offered some tantalizing ideas about how to change this state of affairs. In his last book, The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth, he confronted the current “business‐as‐usual” system of urban development, which he termed “System B,” and he argued that it is fundamentally incapable of creat‐ ing human environments that are truly supportive of life and human flourishing, in any enduring or sustainable way. As an alternative way forward, he proposed nine “ways of working” that are more consistent with what he termed “System A”—a more adaptive, evolutionary process of growth that is more aligned with biological dynamics, and more able to produce the richly complex characteristics of human history and cultural traditions (Alexander et al., 2012). However, his recommendation was not at all to “go back” in any sense. On the contrary, he proposed to go forward, into another kind of future: one that has more fully integrated the lessons of nature and evolution into its systems.


In his magnum opus of 2003, The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe, Alexander outlined this hopeful future:


People used to say that just as the twentieth century had been the century of physics, the twenty‐first century would be the century of biology....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....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....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....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.... (Alexander, 2003, pp. 568–570)


This, then, is Alexander’s agenda: to realign our systems to produce more adaptive, more coherent, more whole environmental structures. But the reconfiguring of our planning, design, financial, legal, and other myriad systems that together determine what is built and where—what we might call our “operating system for growth”—will surely be an immense task. It will require large numbers of people working on a wide range of problems, doing research and development, implementation, experimentation, adaptation, and transformation— exactly the kind of process that Alexander described. And that is the process described in part by the authors of this volume...


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