Some books change your world in deep and lasting ways. For me, one of those was architect, builder, and design theorist, Christopher Alexander's A Pattern Language. Published in 1977, A Pattern Language was an interactive design directory of numbered patterns of living and building that Alexander put together, much of it inspired by the world's vernacular architecture and time-tested solutions to building design challenges.
The concept behind A Pattern Language was to create a more humane and sustainable type of architecture based on how people actually interact with and use the built world around them, their houses, communities, and towns. As a young person interested in all aspects of DIY living, A Pattern Language was a revelation to me. I even got a chance to co-design a large communal workshop building in the 1980s using Pattern Language principles. No one has influenced my thinking on the built world and how its complex network of components interact than Christopher Alexander. It was that interactive network structure and a philosophy of incremental, organic design that also influenced the pattern movement in software development. Will Wright, for one, creator of The Sims and Spore, was heavily influenced by Alexander's ideas.
Christopher Alexander died this week at 85. In the Guardian obituary. Howard Davis (who worked with Alexander) writes:
He developed detailed understandings of places, activities and forms at a range of scales and in relationship to each other, and his projects always incorporated construction innovations, ranging from walls made with interlocking soil-cement blocks laid without mortar, to walls made with local flint along with concrete and brick, to digital techniques that aided the design of large timber-framed buildings in Japan.
Many of Chris's sources came from traditional and vernacular buildings, leading some people to see him as old-fashioned or nostalgic. But to him, those buildings were not to be copied, but used to bring to light principles of order that he saw as lacking in contemporary architecture. His was not a reaction against style, but a recognition of the recurrent structure of beautiful buildings and places.
To many architects and faculty colleagues at Berkeley, Chris violated the conventional wisdom that beauty is subjective and to talk about it is overly sentimental. Working with him was not always easy, but the fact that everyone's comments were always taken seriously helped make the effort worthwhile. Chris realised that the smallest hint of unease about an idea might be the sign of something important.
The office that he founded in 1967, the Center for Environmental Structure, was always small, with a half dozen or so people. Projects were taken up for the opportunity to experiment and advance the theoretical work rather than to maintain cashflow. Chris saw his most important role as that of a writer, and in an age of upheaval his ideas of simple beauty and the need to support the basic humanity of people may become even more influential.