Do You See a Pattern?

An architectural theorist who has inspired smart-growth advocates, counterculture DIY-ers, and computer programmers.

Christopher Alexander

Last month, the architect and author Christopher Alexander received the Vincent Scully Prize, given annually by the National Building Museum “to recognize exemplary practice, scholarship or criticism in architecture, historic preservation and urban design.” For the last 45 years, Alexander has been a controversial figure on the architectural scene, both revered and reviled; yet in an period burdened by flocks of architectural theorists, I would guess that he is one of very few whose work will endure.

If Alexander often irritates his critics, it is in part because he is so obviously gifted. Born in Vienna in 1936, he was raised in England; won a prestigious scholarship to Cambridge, where he studied architecture and mathematics; and went on to receive Harvard’s first architecture Ph.D. Not yet 30, he published his doctoral thesis as book, on the strength of which he received the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal, the first ever awarded for research.

Most people discover Alexander through his classic, A Pattern Language, which appeared in 1977. Small and fat (more than 1,000 pages), printed on fine paper, and bound in a plain maroon cover embossed with a gold escutcheon, it resembles a Latin breviary. Its author’s ambitious goal was nothing less than to catalog the entire built environment—from towns to bedrooms—as a collection of discrete “patterns,” 253 of them. Each pattern was explained, supported by research, and illustrated by sketches and photographs. The patterns were linked to one another, showing which ones worked well together, and arranged hierarchically from large to small. “Neighborhood Boundaries,” for example, suggests that strong neighborhoods require clear edges and restricted access. At the other end of the scale, “Ceiling Height Variety” observes that buildings with uniform ceilings are uncomfortable and recommends varying ceiling heights between large and small rooms to create different degrees of intimacy. In other words, the breviary is a designer’s handbook.

A Pattern Language proved invaluable to nonarchitects building their own homes, and by 1980 Alexander, who was based in Berkeley, Calif., and leavened a mathematician’s precision with Zen-like pronouncements, had become something of a guru in the youthful Whole Earth Catalog-influenced counterculture. His fellow architects, on the other hand, who didn’t like seeing their art reduced to a formula, were ambivalent. There was also the question of style. The pattern language calls for architectural features such as sheltering roofs and small window panes, while Modernist design favors flat roofs and large sheets of glass. This anti-Modernist bias was confirmed by Alexander’s next book, The Timeless Way of Building(1979), which was an overt and often devastating attack on modern construction techniques in general and on contemporary architecture in particular.

Eishin Campus Central Building, Japan

Alexander argued that the standardized, mass-produced way in which buildings are designed and built today is wrongheaded, and to demonstrate an alternative he started to build himself—houses in Mexico, institutional buildings in Northern California, eventually an entire university campus in Japan —to date more than 200 projects. Alexander often uses decorative patterns derived from his intimate familiarity with Oriental carpets, which gives his buildings a handmade quality. While quite beautiful, his built work has received less attention than his books. Traditional in appearance—some of it reminds me of the Swedish painter/builder Carl Larsson —it is not witty enough for Postmodernists, not historic enough for die-hard Classicists, and too traditional for the architectural mainstream.

Alexander’s ideas have taken root in unexpected places. His early books, especially Notes on the Synthesis of Form and A Pattern Language, influenced computer scientists, who found useful parallels between building design and software design. The New Urbanism movement also owes him a debt, as a new book by Andres Duany and Jeff Speck makes clear. The Smart Growth Manual consists of 148 principles—patterns, really—that add up to a language for community design, from entire regions to neighborhood streets. “We believe that new places should be designed in the manner of existing places that work,” the authors write, a concept straight out of Alexander. Curiously, the one place that Alexander, a lifelong professor, has had the least influence is in academia. The theories that are taught in architecture schools today are of a different sort, and in the belief that the field of architecture should be grounded in intellectual speculation, rather than pragmatic observation, students are more likely to be assigned French post-structuralist texts than A Pattern Language. Which is a shame.