Seeing the divine in exterior design

The Nature of Order - Book One - Book Two - Book Three - Book Four

November 25, 2005

When Christopher Alexander's A Pattern Language was published in 1977, it looked like a copy of the Bible: small, heavy and printed on thin paper between flexible boards. It was the second volume of an irregular series which now extends to 12 titles; a 13th is on the way. If A Pattern Language took on the appearance - and, to many architects and designers, particularly in America, the role - of the Bible, The Timeless Way of Building (1979), The Oregon Experim ent (1975), and the other early volumes, appeared, in their identical bindings, like the off-prints of the New Testament or individual Gospels. Now we are told that "Alexander is likely to be remembered... for having produced the first credible proof of the existence of God."

The ideas contained here have been seen before, most memorably, perhaps, in Stephen Grabow's analytical homage, Chri stopher Alexander: The Search for a New Paradigm in Architecture (1983). What Grabow emphasised in Alexander's work was the search for a certain "it", that quality without a name, that enters into the soul or spirit of the designer when creating something. Fresh from reading Grabow, I once suggested to Alexander that this could be Ruskin's quality of savageness, described in the second volume of The Stones of Venice . Was it a coincidence that Ruskin had called this memorable chapter "The nature of Gothic" and how knowingly does Alexander now reflect that famous title?

Alexander believes that architecture has lost its way because its pre-intellectual traditions have been forgotten. The various "isms" of 20th-century architecture are, to him, no more profound than clothing fashions and lack the basic qualities associated with human feeling. The result, as he says, is "an architecture ruled by money, power and images".

Such observations are not new, although the remedies offered are generally developed from a particular historicist (postmodern) or moral (green) position. Alexander's solution is far more dependent upon the realisation of a wholeness in life, the world and the universe.

This wholeness can be seen as the interdependence of parts. A house, for example, cannot exist outside its context which, in turn, generates other contextual responses. Alexander previously iterated this simple, organic argument as A City is not a Tree (1965): rather than being a linear progression of root and branch, he saw the city as a semi-lattice of interrelated responses. These he now identifies in 15 simple design fundamentals, such as strong centres and local symmetries, contrasts, gradations and alternating repetition. They are found also in nature in, respectively, a lump of coral and a crystal growth, the Purple Emperor butterfly, a spider's web and water ripples. This is what he calls "living structure" and it provides the building blocks of past and future architectures and something innate in our own selves as individuals. This is the thesis offered in Book One: The Phenomenon of Life , and Books Two, Three and Four describe an architecture based on "a new physical conception of how the world is made and how it must be understood".

As well as being a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Alexander is a licensed architect and building contractor. This multiplicity of roles is not surprising, for Alexander regards the architect, as perceived at the end of the 20th century, to be redundant.

His own experience of teaching at Berkeley, and the "unrelenting hostility"

of his colleagues, demonstrates this. For his process, as described in his writing and particularly in these four volumes, involve a paradigm shift for which many are not ready.

In California, Alexander explains, the legal definition of the architect is the administrator of a contract between owner and builder, a procedural straitjacket determined by lawyers. In the UK, the situation is little different. The Architects Registration Board exists to protect title, but it could, as in some other countries, work to protect process, thereby ensuring a greater involvement by the architect in the breadth of building procurement. Thus, in everyday work, the architect could meet Alexander's criteria of making, designing, building and helping. As it is, modern professionals have almost cut themselves out of the creative process, with the result that modern architecture is largely perceived as alien and unwanted.

It is Alexander's hands-on, user-friendly approach that makes his paradigm different. As a teacher, he takes the student out of the lecture room and into the community and building site; as an architect and builder, he employs a process of experimentation, full-scale mock-ups and craftwork.

Thus it is a surprise to see, in Book Two, conventional architectural drawings for the Julian Street Inn, a centre for the homeless in San Jose, California. For these rather belie the empirical, onsite design processes that Alexander advocates. Yet the notation on these drawings, references to building services and Pacific Gas and Electricity, the supplier, would suggest that the utility companies as well as the city of San Jose were not yet ready for the paradigm shift. Indeed, the city planning department refused permission for benches to be built along the sunny exterior of the building and, during the construction process, the mayor issued an edict saying that the homeless were not to be allowed to sit in public where they could be seen. The benches, disguised as a plinth along the colonnaded facade, were built anyway.

What the mayor of San Jose did not recognise was the sense of place that benches would bring to this busy and unattractive road junction: it was a question of belonging or not belonging. Another home for the homeless, Filippo Brunelleschi's Spedali degli Innocenti in Florence, provides steps beneath a long arcade where tourists sit in the sun and look across the piazza. It is not theirs, but they belong. In Book Three, Alexander addresses "what is perhaps the most important human issue in the built environment: our sense of ownership, participation, and belonging to the world". For it is that sense of belonging, he argues, which is the goal of our existence, for it makes us free, harmonious beings. Here, with many illustrations of his own work - communities, buildings, paintings, furniture, glassware - Alexander shows how we need not lose our birthright and sense of self, or give in to crass, insensitive developments and become inured to ugliness. His designs are joyous and colourful, made with thought and reflection.

In the final, slimmest book, Alexander becomes his most metaphysical. In explaining the generative basis of the other three books, he identifies a quality without a name, the "I-myself, lying within all things... that shining something which draws me on, which I feel in the bones of the world, which comes out of the earth and makes our existence luminous." That Alexander believes this to be the actual presence of God, spirit made manifest as opposed to proof incontrovertible, is almost inevitable. It is a realisation to which he has come, not through religious belief but, as a hard-bitten scientist, through scepticism. If, as many architects would say, God is in the details, then he is right. But what separates Alexander's work from so much of the profession today is the making of those details.

At the Visitors' Centre at West Dean College, West Sussex, which he built with John Hewitt in 1996, the polychromatic herringbone brick, knapped flint and concrete banding recall both a South Downs craft tradition and the buildings of Ruskin's contemporaries. Here, where the Arts and Crafts Movement had its roots, is surely the foundation of Alexander's essentially organic thinking. For he was brought up and educated in towns steeped in such imagery, Oxford, Oundle and Cambridge, before moving to the closest America can offer to old England; Cambridge (and, across the river, Boston) and Berkeley. Had Alexander first built in England, rather than California and then elsewhere around the world, his architecture might have appeared less curious than the handmade, coloured concrete buildings that, with their heavy timberwork and painted-tile decoration, bear the impress of India, Mexico, Jordan, Japan and Peru.

If these four volumes finally explain the meaning of life, what then of the 13th in the series? Entitled Battle: The Story of a Historic Clash Between World System A and World System B , it surely promises Armageddon.

Neil Jackson is chair in architecture, Liverpool University.

The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and The Nature of the Universe

Author - Christopher Alexander
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 476
Price - Four-volume set £150.00
ISBN - 9726529 0 6

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs