Between structuralism and postmodernism, he developed an architectural language from patterns and structures: an obituary for the architectural theorist and architect Christopher Alexander, who passed away at the age of 85.
By Thomas Wagner.
Can such a complex matter as the planning and construction of buildings and cities be reduced to certain structures, to patterns and their interconnections? In books such as “A Pattern Language” (1977) and “A Timeless Way of Building” (1979), Christopher Alexander derived theoretical answers to such questions.
It is no secret that Christopher Alexander’s theoretical approaches to architecture were seen as controversial among experts. Some saw his theories, which were mainly discussed in the English-speaking world, as the most comprehensive contemporary approach to the further development of building; for others, they were considered postmodern in the reactionary sense. The discussion about a “postmodern” architecture was at its peak, if you will, in 1984, when the magazine Arch+ dedicated an issue specifically to Alexander and his “Pattern Language”. In the editorial by Nikolaus Kuhnert and Susanne Siepl it says: “If one directs the conversation among architects to Christopher Alexander, then the condemnations and insults are quickly at hand. ‘Anti-architecture’, ‘un-architecture’ are still mild. Conversely, if you look through his writings, including the discussions between him and Peter Eisenman on this issue, these prejudices are positively reinforced. Alexander is concerned with nothing more and nothing less than a fundamental alternative to so-called post-modern architecture. Can this claim be redeemed, then?”
Structuralism and Postmodernism
Alexander developed his architectural language of patterns and structures at a time when structuralism was generally flourishing and when “generative transformation grammars” were also being considered in linguistics. In both cases, the aim is to describe how an infinite number of sentences or buildings can be produced from a finite number of elements on the basis of rules. For Alexander, a “pattern language” consequently not only has the power to generate spatial dispositions, it is also “generative like natural languages”.
Beyond opposites and prejudices, many at the time were concerned with a structural justification of architecture, even if there was no agreement on what exactly structure meant, on which “patterns” should be used in which fields of application, which styles and preferences should be taken into account. And last but not least, how autonomous architecture should be and to what extent one should respond to the wishes and needs of residents.
A Pattern Language of Architecture
Every pattern is a field of relationships. While others emphasised (individual) variety, for Alexander the system idea was in the foreground. A “pattern language” for a farmhouse in the Bernese uplands contains the following elements: “North-south axis, entrance to the west and to the valley, two storeys, hayloft to the rear, bedroom to the front, garden to the south, gable roof as a cranked hip roof, balcony to the garden, carved ornaments”. He proposes numerous patterns – from the region to the city, individual quarters to buildings, constructions and furnishing details – which are connected by a “language”. As abstract as this sounds, Alexander emphasises designing on site and the importance of task- and site-specific factors.
Alexander’s theories have been received and developed beyond the circle of architecture in fields such as urban planning, planning methodology, software development, interface design, permaculture and sociology. In addition to teaching at Berkeley, he also directed the Center for Environmental Structure (CES), a hybrid between an architectural firm and a construction company, which has produced numerous projects closely intertwined with theoretical work.
Whatever one thinks of Alexander’s “pattern” approach, he pleaded against the individuality of modernist architecture and for a way of building that emerged beyond vain arbitrariness and could be accepted as a matter of course – also because of its traditional elements. To go back behind modernism through a system of generative patterns, to build “as it has always been”, to express time and place through small differences alone – can this succeed without being called anachronistic and backward-looking? In the argument with Peter Eisenman printed in Arch+, Alexander says: “It’s about whether, when you design an object, you want the user to be able to experience it and feel centred, or whether they feel catapulted out of the centre. In my work as an architect, the basic rule is to decide continuously, every minute of every hour, where exactly to place something so that it can achieve the greatest possible harmony with the evolving structure.” Christopher Alexander passed away on 17 March 2022 in Binsted, Sussex, after a long illness.
The vita and career of Christopher Wolfgang
Christopher Wolfgang John Alexander was born in Vienna on 4 October 1936. He grew up in England, in Oxford and Chichester. He studied mathematics and architecture at Cambridge and received his doctorate in architecture from Harvard University. For his dissertation, which was later published under the title “Notes on the Synthesis of Form”, he received the first gold medal for research from the American Institute of Architects. Already here, Alexander, as a mathematician, discussed the decomposition of a complex problem, a design task, into individual problems and justified that with the solution of the individual problems, the overall problem was solved. In 1963, Alexander was appointed to the University of California at Berkeley, where he founded the Center for Environmental Structure (CES). In 1980, he was appointed a member of the Swedish Royal Academy, and in 1996 he was admitted to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was also one of Prince Charles’ trustees for Wales’s Institute of Architecture. In 2009, Alexander was awarded the Vincent Scully Prize.
More about Christopher Alexander and “A Pattern Language”
More about issue 73 of ARCH+ magazine
Towns, Buildings, Construction
By Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein
with Ingrid King, Shlomo Angel and Max Jacobsen
Oxford University Press, 1977.
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