Building as if Life Mattered

Christopher Alexander puts the capstone on his masterwork: a program for a humane architecture

| November / December 2004

What if the purpose of architecture were not primarily to surprise with unexpected shapes, awe the viewer with the genius of the architect, or keep up with glamorous trends -- but rather to add life to our environment by finding and using patterns that are charged with the spirit of life?

That, in a nutshell, is the aim of the humanistic, holistic, integrative approach to building called organic architecture. It's an emerging worldwide movement that traces its origins to the prophetic American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the Spanish advocate of organic form Antonio Gaudi, philosopher and educational theorist Rudolf Steiner, and others, and it's rapidly gaining recognition and momentum. (The first exhibition of organic architecture opened at the Berlage Museum in Amsterdam in April 2003.)

Its prime prophet and theorist is the Berkeley-based American architect Christopher Alexander, and he's just completed a four-volume magnum opus that is both a manifesto and an exhaustive demonstration of how and why organic architecture works. With the September publication of Book Three of The Nature of Order (Oxford) (the first, second, and fourth volumes appeared in 2003), organic architecture has an eloquent theory to go with its practice.

Alexander helped pioneer the practice of organic architecture 30 years ago with the publication of A Pattern Language. He and his colleagues at the University of California School of Architecture rocked the architectural academy with this revolutionary design tool -- a compendium of some 253 'patterns' that people from every era and every corner of the world love to see and experience in architecture. The patterns, which address architecture at all scales from a town to the details of individual houses, enable anyone to pick and choose time-tested, possibly even archetypal configurations on which to base the design of whatever they are building.

Alexander and crew's demystification and democratization of the design process challenged the whole idea of architecture as the vehicle for idiosyncratic architects to express their idiosyncratic visions. The modernist and postmodernist orthodoxy dismissed Alexander's ideas as derivative, sentimental romanticism. But critic Tony Ward, in a review for Architecture Design, wrote that A Pattern Language 'allows any lay person or group of persons to design any part of the environment for themselves. . . . Every library, every school, every environmental action group, every architect, and every first-year student should have a copy.'

Now comes the completion of The Nature of Order, the long-awaited and much-delayed 2,150-page treatise on 'the art of building and the nature of the universe' that Alexander calls a single, if very long, essay. In it he provides the theoretical basis for the selection of the patterns in A Pattern Language, and for the creation of new patterns. Alexander claims that the art of building began going awry in the 16th century with the rise of mechanistic scientific thinking. One consequence is that there is now no consensus about which values are most important in making buildings. For Alexander, however, the choice is clear. The criterion that trumps all others is how much life the building has. He acknowledges that aliveness is hard to measure objectively, but he asserts that most people know it when they see it. When, as part of his research, Alexander set photos of two objects -- say, a salt shaker and a ketchup bottle, or a Bangkok slum and a postmodern residence in Massachusetts -- side by side and asked people to comment on the juxtaposition, more than 90 percent agreed on which photos had more life.

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