Katarxis Nº 3
A Conversation with
Notes on the Synthesis of Form, A City is Not A Tree,
and - just released - The Nature of Order
Michael Mehaffy: We’re seeing some astonishing things
coming out of the sciences just now.
Geometry seems to be the hot topic - the complex structure of proteins, the
unfolding processes of embryology, the distribution of large-scale structures in
the cosmos, and so on. And there
has been more confirmation of the fantastic notion that life itself is a certain
kind of geometric structure. From
there it does not seem too big a leap to the assertion that consciousness, and
the conscious experience of quality and value, are rooted in geometric structure
as well. Certainly recent
work in the neurosciences seems to suggest this.
Of course, you have been
arguing something like this for years, and developing it
as the basis for a more advanced architecture.
You have criticized the kind of abstract expressionism
that has bogged down modernism at the level of
sculpture, and you have argued for a much broader and
more adaptive architecture, one more rooted in the
geometries of human life.
The new sciences seem to us to provide a lot of fresh
evidence for your assertions, and to point the way to
some very promising new tools for evaluating and
perfecting the qualities of a built environment, along
the lines you have suggested.
You recently said you find these new geometrical
insights of science very promising and exciting.
What is it that you think is most exciting about these
new developments from your point of view?
Christopher Alexander: It's the idea that, instead of talking about
architecture in traditional terms, which invite all the criticism about
romanticism and about being buried in the past - all of this actually just
being replaced by an emerging body of fact which establishes the substantial
nature of these claims.
You know, up until about 1600 it was essentially
religious authority that held sway, and one did what
that tradition said to do. And people were comfortable
with that, and there wasn't much need to be questioning
Around the time of Descartes and Newton, something else
happens - the authority that comes from things is the
observations of our own senses. We're going to pay
attention to what we can see and what we can identify
and what we can know. And the criterion for knowing it
is, that whatever we hold to be true can be put in some
kind of experimental form, that another person can then
be convinced of. And that unless something meets the
standard of being sharable in that kind of sense, it
isn't going to pass muster.
Now that's an incredibly powerful thing that's been
running now for about 400 years. It's really swept the
world. And it has made the world what we know it to be
today. But the thing is,
has not been included in this approach.
So you've got all this stuff which has this wonderful
way of being shared, by observation, experiment, you own
eyes, your own fingers, and so forth. But all the
matters of value that we're fundamentally concerned with
as architects - they slip through the net, they're just
not dealt with. They're all seen as arbitrary.
Now, if we successfully put forth the idea that value can be discovered through an experimental procedure which gets
results, which helps people to reach agreement, and
therefore is sharable, this suddenly puts value in and
among that huge movement that began around 1600. Where
suddenly, we're looking at an understanding of things
that can come from fairly simple experiments that we do
by examining ourselves, and our reactions to things, but
in a very special way.
So I do think that the new scientific developments which
have occurred, the whole slew of things in computer
science, simulations, generativity, complexity theory,
of course - all fascinating, all very important,
because it provides foundations for those sorts of
things as well. But the real crux of it is arriving at a
And so I think this issue about the scientific cauldron
which is capable of giving birth to this material is a
phenomenally powerful thing.
MM: And historic?
CA: And it is historic, yes.
speak in a very direct and personal way, and as you said recently, that is the
essence of science -
the ideas and the discoveries of what works.
You can put all the window-dressing
and the other parts on it, but that's not the science.
My interest is in buildings. And I'm a scientist insofar as I try to
understand what's going on in buildings, in a
reproducible, accurate fashion, and try to tell the
truth about it.
I'd say that the principal thing that has helped me to
thread my way through this rather incredible briar patch
is trying to tell the truth about what is really going
on - when you're in a building, when you go into a
building, when you come out of a building, when you use
a building, when you look at a building, when you look
out the window of the building, and so forth.
And I'd say that the
biggest problem with 20th
century architecture was that architects became involved
in a huge lie. Essentially what happened at the
beginning of the 20th century was really a
legacy of the 19th. New forms of production began to be
And in some fashion artists and architects were invited
to become front men for this very serious economic and
I don't think they knew
what was happening. That is, I don't think in most cases
there was anything cynical about this.
But they were actually in effect bought out.
So that the heroes of, let's say, the first half of the 20th
century - Le Corbusier, Mies Van Der Rohe, Gropius even
- a very nice man, by the way - were brought on board in
effect to say, OK, here's all this stuff happening, what
can you do with it?
Let's prove that it's really a wonderful world we're going towards. And instead of reflecting on questions
about, well, what was it that was going to be wonderful
about this world - from the very beginning, the
architects became visual spokesmen, in a way to try to
prove that everything was really OK.
Not only that it was really OK, but somehow magic.
You know, there was this
phrase, elan vital, which was bandied about a
lot in the middle years of the century, and in the early
years of the century as well - of, there's something
incredible happening here, we're part of it, we're
But all of this was really image factory stuff.
And what they didn't know about the late 20th
century was only known to a few visionaries like Orwell
and others who could actually see really what was going
I don't think this is a
very flattering view, and I suppose architects would
reject it, angrily.
But I do think it's true.
MM: It's essentially a program of apology
Glorification, of something that is inherently
not glorifiable. And it's really very very similar to
the ads we see on TV every day now, except this was
being done with architectural imagery, and with
buildings. And the architects are busy, right to this
day, still trying to perpetuate that process that they
successfully did in the 20th Century.
In the book you speak about the Cartesian world view,
the mechanistic world view, and how it is, at least for
you - and you've made parallels to others - giving way
to another world view, a world view of process and of
complexity. Are your critics trying to understand
you in terms of one world view, and you're speaking from
I actually don't think it's as deep as that.
I think they know they're not doing very good work -
especially the mainstream architects.
And they don't really know what to do about it.
Going back to your other
question - you know, I'm still really working at the
question you asked me about science. The first rule of any scientific effort
You know, you have to see what's going on and tell the
truth about it, and not get hoodwinked by
And so in that sense of course what I did was very
deeply rooted in science, and in my scientific training.
And it was the intellectual struggle that I have had to
go through over these 25 or 27 years of writing this
book [The Nature
of Order], because the things that it seems to me
necessary to conclude as one studies what is really true
I mean they are completely inconsistent with the
scientific world picture that we have believed in
certainly the 20th century. And so especially for me, given the fact
that I came from a scientific background at Cambridge, I
had the most incredible difficulty actually writing this
So gradually then, things
arose out of that which I suppose people may claim
kinship of all sorts.
There are so many major
unsolved problems, which have reached similar conclusions for parallel reasons. Wholeness in quantum mechanics, for example, or unfolding of
geometry in embryology. So you have
lots and lots of things which have reached surprisingly similar conclusions, for
very different reasons, just because people facing scientific problems in these
different fields somehow seem to be coming up against a brick wall. Same one.
And that I think is due to the fact that the world picture we've had
doesn't support reality very well.
MM: And do you think that those people in
those other fields are also changing their world view,
in a parallel way to what you have discovered?
I think so, yes, I think that's quite true.
And I think that actually very similar problems have
arisen in physics. [David] Bohm1
faced tremendous difficulties - I mean, even though he
probably was the person who made the single biggest
contribution to understanding of what's really going on
in some of the perennial puzzles of quantum mechanics -
they wouldn't even let him lecture at Berkeley the last
time they tried to get him here. And Brian Goodwin for instance, in
biology - absolutely on the forefront of this kind of
I think there are dangers
in all this - I don't like "woo-woo" land at all.
MM: And you have been accused of being
"new age" and so on.
Yes, for example, right.
And so in some ways I quite deeply regret having had to
write the book that I've written. You know, because it has a taint,
Simply because it's against the current world picture?
It's partly that, for sure - but the ground is so
treacherous. If you just take the subject of wholeness,
for example - good lord, it is difficult. It's really difficult to get a strong
firm grip on the concept, on the structure that it has,
even how to talk about it clearly.
There are peculiar things like self-reference in the
logic of how you have to talk about it, that are very
uncomfortable, for somebody who is used to normal
If we're just talking as
architects, and we're talking about a particular room, let's say, and we're
trying to figure out how to build the windows in that room, so as to make the
room as good as possible... Now, the thing that's going to get us
furthest in making that attempt is painstaking observation of our feelings as we
are in the room, whether let's say the room is unfinished or something, whatever
state it's in, and we're trying to guess what kind of window is going to have
this effect. And whether we do it
through mockups in the full size or whether we make models or we even try little
sketches or whatever it is we're doing.
But what we're trying to read is what depth of feeling comes into being
because of the window being such and such a size, shape, position, and so forth.
Now, this is hard work, very hard work.
MM: The core task is to figure out how to
make beautiful places.
And the other parallels in science are a supplement to
the core task, more a reinforcement, or an echo if you
will, of what that is?
Right, yes exactly.
It's partially even - you might almost call it a
Because I think that this very bad form of architecture that has existed
is vulnerable to this particular attack. And the reason
is quite simple. You see, the thing is, the modernists
really - because they've got their head in the sand to
cover up the traces of what was begun so many decades
ago, and was essentially founded in really untruths,
they have to keep saying, "I don't want to know the
facts, I've just got to keep going with this thing that
we're all supposed to be doing." So they're all very vulnerable to the
question about, well look, there actually are scientific
ways of asking about these things and studying them.
But if an architect of the modernistic persuasion is so
vulnerable in his actions or his thoughts or his work
that he can't dare to consider this possibility, then
that will very quickly become very visible as a huge
MM: One of the goals of this issue of
Katarxis is to explore the relationship with the
Classicists. As we were talking before about alliances, is there a way
that we could have an alliance,
in spite of whatever
differences there might be?
Well, by an odd coincidence, I wrote
about this for the [TradArch, U. Miami] listserv.
I agree with you that it is a necessary alliance. I really agree with that completely. I don't have any doubt about it. And I think the same goes for the New
Andres Duany, who you know very well, said that Leon Krier's influence
was a revelation for him, a formative moment.
And I know that Andres is also sympathetic to the idea of "organic"
he once told me
that something you said to him
was the basis for "everything we're doing
So that was one of the questions I wanted to ask you too
- what's your advice
for the New Urbanists? It
relates to the one about Classicism, because that's such
a strong strain within the New Urbanism.
Right. I think that many of the people who are involved
in the CNU actually have not understood the problems
that the developer represents, and what has got to be
done in order to change that situation.
It's very very serious.
I find that one actually
much easier to talk about than the Classical issue.
I feel emotional sympathy
for the Classicists. You know, in reading the pages of
TradArch, there's something so nice about the way they
talk to each other and the way they like to talk about
There's something very warm-hearted about it, which I find extremely
I get off the bus when I have to start thinking about
well, I don't want to put Doric columns in the jungle,
You know, in the history
of modern architecture, there was a refrain that kept
coming back, which was such and such is not honest
copying things from other times and places is not
honest. And you may be surprised to hear that I
completely agree with that.
Although I think what architects did with this idea was
crazy, because or course it became a mad rush toward
newness for its own sake.
But it is undoubtedly
true that in each era, forms must arise that come from
the technology and economics and social circumstances of
So that if one sets out a program where you're
essentially sort of copying old forms in any version,
you're liable to be in a hell of a lot of trouble. And I think that trouble is evident. I think that to some extent it explains the slight smirk of
discomfort that people have when they're looking at not
only Classicist buildings, but what you might call
developer kitsch. I mean, there's a lot of developers who certainly clearly
understand that people do not want glass and aluminum
houses. But they don't know what to do about it,
so you get your - whatever - your Cape Cod, you know, lookalike, and all these different things.
So what I'm really saying is, developers have in effect
got this problem, just like Classicists have got this
problem. I mean, developers have other problems
too, but I'm just saying this is not peculiar to people
with a classical bent.
And I think that it is
necessary to spend time - I would say major amounts of time - thinking only
about form and geometry. Thinking about the language of form that
is appropriate now. That we can
use. And this doesn't merely mean, OK, we're
going to have some generating system which is magically going to put things in
our hands. I think that's a fallacy
actually. Because although
certainly nobody believes in generating systems more strongly than I do, but
some aspects of the generating system actually have to specify geometrical
And if we're not
constantly thinking about, OK, here's such and such kind
of a building, and here we are in 2004, what is a really
comfortable and right kind of form for such a building. And how do we do it? And then of course, what's the
generative process which will produce endless buildings
of that kind, in that sort of sensible manner.
interestingly, have absolutely no problem doing those
kind of exercises.
That is, they spend a huge amount of time teaching people simply how to
draw buildings that are good, in organization, shape,
proportion and so on and so forth.
And actually I don't believe it can be done any other
way - except that I don't believe one wants to be using
only classical forms for that purpose.
But when I say, I don't
think one can do it any other way - you know, I think
there's a lot of
very intelligent people, who would love it if somehow
one didn't actually have to make that artistic
commitment, or take on that artistic act. And if somehow, from some sort of
scrambled mélange of systems or dynamic variables, or
whatever, that the form is going to give itself.
And sort of come without the artistic commitment to it.
And I don't have any problem with that thesis if it was
true. That is, if you could do it. But I don't think one can do it. I don't think it works.
MM: No matter what system, don't you need
the human being there to say what is their feeling at
any given point in time, and whether that is true for
Oh, certainly, absolutely you need that.
No question about that.
I mean a very significant
and interesting issue has to do with roofs.
You know, 1965, 1970 it was completely taboo to use a
pitched roof. There was quite a struggle - I played
some role in that struggle myself, and I remember all
the humorous episodes involved in trying to get students
to say, yes, actually I can make a pitched roof, and
think well of myself.
But in fact I think that the pendulum has swung too far in that
direction. I mean, it's one thing in a snow and ice
climate, where you've got real problems with large
amounts of snow sitting on roofs, causing snow load and
all other kinds of problems.
But in many of the world's climates, that's really not a
fundamental problem. And also the waterproofing methods that
we have now are so incredible compared with those from
earlier times, that you don't necessarily have to have a
roof that will literally let the water run off and shed
So I don't think
there's anything wrong with building pitched roofs. But actually what
I've gradually come to find is that the buildings with
flat roofs is a bit more comfortable in terms of seeming to reflect
the ordinariness of everyday life.
And pitched roofs are OK, they're sometimes unbelievably
beautiful - but also sometimes, a little bit on the
And it's not that easy to avoid that. And I find it curious that in an
odd sense, a flat roof may be more suitable - leave
things alone a little better, and so forth.
It's very difficult to
define this, but there's something there that makes
sense out of technology, that makes sense out of very
vague, large-scale feeling of a certain kind of site, or
certain kinds of neighborhoods, and leaves things alone
better, and is actually, in an odd sense, more
structure-preserving to the earth.4
Now this is not a universal rule by any means, but I'm
MM: It's an exception to the usual
Well, definitely that. And it means that you're actually on your mettle, if you can
even get an answer to this problem.
You know, because you're thinking about stuff - my
gosh, there certainly is no pre-cooked answer in history
to be found to this. And it's a hell of a tough question.
Or another example, it's
in Book 3 of The Nature of Order.
We were suddenly faced with the issue of building marble
floors for the Megaron in Athens, which is a huge
And the floors we were asked to do were about two acres
Very large concourses. And to do the kinds of intricate patterns of the
kind that [the
owner] specifically wanted in two acres, it looked as though
there were likely to be 400,000 pieces.
Now, just to cut 400,000 pieces of marble is an incredible problem in
itself - let alone assembling it.
On top of all that, we had to put that floor in - we
were given two months to do it.
So we set out a way of using a water jet cutter,
prefabricating pieces, creating circumstances where you
could both do mockups while you were developing the
floor, then you could do them again in the actual place.
All of this sort of thing.
5 Well, it really changes the result. That is, if you compare that with the
kind of floors that were built in Italy in the 12th
century, they're really different.
And it's not, I don't think, all that helpful to say
it's vaguely classical in feeling - actually it's not.
But I mean somebody who is persuaded by Classicism might
say, "well anyway, you know, the reason these floors are
nice is because they vaguely resemble that sort of
actually I think the reason that they're nice is that
they have that living structure which I've written so
much about, in a demonstrable fashion.
And that that's really
what the people who have immersed themselves in
classicism - that's really why they're doing it,
because they have a passion for buildings, they don't
know how to get that result, without emulating those
It really is not a harmful thing to do, but it isn't the best way to do
I thought your paper [“Classicism and the Many Cultures”]6
did a good job
of discussing the fact that tradition is really a much
wider thing than Classicism, and you have different
all over the
planet, and you have, you know, us in our day, able to
make our own tradition.
And tradition isn't at all something that's frozen in time.
Right. This business about finding a language of form
which comes out of a technology, out of a technique, and
out of the feelings that exist in our environment, is
really the core of the matter.
And although the modernists have – it's weird, because
actually they would probably subscribe to a great deal
of what I've just said. But what they actually do with it is so peculiar and often
MM: And they were embracing a form of
industrialization that was - how would you characterize
Well, it was really limited.
It really was the first few decades of
And the things that were being mass-produced, and what could be done by
mass production, were very limited.
But more important, you know, all of that mass
production stuff came from Taylor.
And there are serious social problems.
In other words, it came from something that's actually
quite gruesome, humanly speaking. I'm just talking about the production
MM: I wanted to ask you what you think is
happening to technology today, particularly computers,
and the potential to create a more human kind of
technology at this point.
Well, it's positive.
You know there's all these kind of one-off assembly
Special purpose, car manufacturer, furniture manufacturer, and so forth.
MM: Cabbage patch dolls, where each doll is
different, to take a trivial example.
Yes, that's right.
But still, nevertheless it's interesting.
But the trouble is that even the people that I think are
the most far-sighted and the most intelligent in dealing
with that stuff are completely, I'd say almost 100
percent trapped in the notion of combinations. Of recombination and recombination of components.
MM: The reductive technology in the early
industrial period which still very much grips us? Pulling things apart and putting them together in little
bitty pieces instead of trying to create wholes?
Right. And of course what
happens in the biological world is that the wholes come
about by differentiation - not by assembly.
And that's an entirely different class of things.
MM: That's a crucial point, isn't it?
Yes, very very - absolutely crucial.
And probably - it's probably the single most serious
issue, because without that you just cannot get there.
And yet so much of the definition of an architect, the
definition of a contractor and of a subcontractor, and
all these things - they're all virtually assumed to be
playing some role in the assembly process.
And the idea that all these folks might be playing roles in a
differentiation process, and that it really and truly
was that, is just I think almost out of reach at the
And I think it's one of my biggest aims in the Nature of
Order is to show what this means, that it is feasible,
to set it up as a model of our profession, what we must
MM: Something else I wanted to ask you
is that in our current view, everything is personal
And anyone who suggests otherwise is a dictator.
And you certainly have had that allegation.
CA: Oh, yes!
And so, to go down the path of saying, well wait a minute, everything
isn't personal taste, is very frightening.
Are we heading towards, you know, something where our freedom is going to
be taken away?
I mean it's terra incognita.
Yes, it's a complex subject.
Actually, it's ironic - in a way, it's quite peculiar,
because probably of all living architects, I'm probably
the one who's most catholic.
So, it's quite a stretch to do that, and yet it's very
MM: And there's a related concept I wanted
to ask you about, and that is that tradition implies
Tradition in the broad
sense, not just tradition in the Classicist sense of
following a historic pattern.
Right. One of the things which I am trying to do
in Book 3
8 is, in effect, say look, there's this family of forms,
this idea of living structure.
It does seem to me quite plain that we must draw our material from that
if you go outside that family, you're going to continue
to devastate the earth.
OK, so now let's just
think about some numbers for a minute.
Because that statement can have a lot of different
One interpretation, an
extreme one, is that for any given problem, there's only
I mean, I've been accused of saying that, which I've certainly never
second, slightly more sophisticated version of that is,
that as you're wending your way through the path of a
design process or a building process, there's only one
best step to take at any given moment.
Also not something I've said.
But of course if those things were actually said, it
would indeed be frightening, because it would have a
sort of deterministic quality which would be actually
quite strange and I think uncomfortable, for anybody
that was doing anything.
The real situation is
quite different from that. I've got an appendix in Book 3, where I discuss the number of possible
configurations, how many of those are living structures. And all of this is quite difficult to
make estimates of.
But the numbers are fascinating because they're so
utterly, absurdly gigantic.
If you take a sort of middle-size building, a few stories high, and you
say, OK, how many possible arrangements are there within
the volume of that building and its immediately
surrounding open space. Now the number that you come up with is one of those numbers
that looks deceptive, it's something like 10 to the 10th
I mean, it is a number so utterly insanely huge, that's the number of all possible configurations within that
sort of volume.
So then you say, alright,
well now how many of those are probably living
Can one make an estimate?
And that number is an infinitely small fraction of the
first number that I just told you. But even though you have to divide that
number by 10 to the godzillion, to get down to the
living structures, when you try to estimate this out
the number of living structures is still utterly
gigantic beyond measure.
Far, far larger than the number of seconds since the
universe began, or the number of particles in the
So that what you have to
realize as an architect, thinking about generative
theories, and thinking about unfolding... suppose that
you're in a process and at a given moment, there might
be, let's say a thousand things that you could do, and
let's say that there's a hundred sensible things to do. And you're going to take steps over and
over and over again over a period of a year, let's say. So you're going to make these kinds of choices, and you're
going to have the opportunity for a hundred choices,
twenty thousand times.
So that any idea that
this is deterministic, or that this really putting you
in a bind because it's authoritarian or it's under
control, or it's whatever - is just actually the
You know, I've known
quite a few traditional craftsmen, in real traditions,
in different societies and different cultures.
I've never met a person who was in one of those
traditions, who felt themselves to be in a bind, who
felt themselves to be locked into something, who felt
themselves to be under authority.
Of course what they actually feel is free.
Because they know what to do, and therefore they can do
whatever they want.11
So that this whole
discussion about totalitarianism - what it really boils
down to is the contrast between freedom to be arbitrary,
as opposed to freedom to be appropriate.
And if - of course if you want to have freedom to be arbitrary, that's
And much of what we've got going on in the world of
architecture today is based on that supposition. If you want to be appropriate, you can
still do a million different things, but being
appropriate is going to guide you, and that is what is
going to tell you what to do.
MM: We talked a little bit about tradition
and traditional cultures, and you addressed that in your
paper on TradArch.12
And I wanted to touch on what you think is
happening globally right now, with other traditions, and
where that's all heading and should be heading. I'm thinking in particular of the idea
that there is a huge reaction to the western modernist
tradition around the world.
And some of it is obviously murderous and horrendous and
evil, and some of it is understandable, and something
that we should perhaps pay more attention to.
You mean 9/11?
Oh, I think so. I think that there are two, kind of
Of course, one of them is, that we've got this really
incredible economic dichotomy. We've got five billion people who have a
small income, and about one billion people who have what
we consider a normal income, but it's actually a huge
income by comparison. And of course it's absolutely inevitable
that that is going to lead to consequences - which I've
actually been waiting for since the middle of the
So I wasn't particularly surprised by this event.
But I think that there's
a second aspect which you essentially just alluded to
And that that of course is people feel that their birthright is being
taken away from them.
And that provokes a lot more anger than just being poor.
Actually it's far more serious.
And I don't think it's exaggerating at all to say that these things are
manifest in what is called terrorism. And they need to
be dealt with. I've done my best to build in a number of
different cultures, and to try to get somewhere close to
cultural reality, in a pretty wide range of places. And occasionally, I've been successful.
I remember, when we did
the project in Peru. I think there were 15 architects from different
countries in the UN, site of the competition, and then
there were 15 Peruvian architects, designing these
houses for Peruvian families of low income. And the judges, who were largely
Peruvian, actually concluded that we had done a better
job than the Peruvian architects, by - you know, I
don't know if you know the history –
MM: I recall that you studied very
carefully the way those people lived.
Well, yeah, we - absolutely, we became members of
families. And so, you know, we really immersed
ourselves in it.
MM: And isn't that the distinguishing
feature of a human architecture? It isn't simply a form
that is a piece of art that everyone should admire, it's
something that addresses everything about a culture and
their lives and the way they live?
Yes, I think so.
Actually one of the things I'm very proud of is that
during the 70's and 80's I had students coming, you
know, from India, from Japan, from Latin America, from
the Soviet Union, every country you can imagine almost.
And what was incredible was, they came to me to find out
what it meant to be Chinese, or Indian, or Alaskan, or
Greek. And what was so incredible was that because this
process that you're talking about has gone so far, that
there's - at least at that time - relatively little
sympathy for it quite often at home.
So for instance, in Greece, they don't
want to know what it means to be Greek.
Or in China, in fact, by the time the 80's rolled around, they started
dismantling their respect for ancient Chinese culture
completely, and trying to build - trying or actually
succeeding, in building western monstrosities.
The towers in the park, the Radiant City all over.
Yes. Right. I think it has begun to change.
And of course one of the parts of the world where it has actually changed
most dramatically is in the Islamic countries - partly
as the result of the Aga Khan's program.
And partly for reasons I think that are different from
that, possibly related to the whole apparent conflict
between Islam and Christianity. You know, whether it's
in Turkey or Iran or Jordan or Egypt, people have begun
to repudiate the stuff that has been thrown at them.
And I'd say it's probably made more progress in those
countries than anywhere else on earth.
And that's a very very important thing.
MM: In talking about what is happening
around the world today and about human culture, of
course one cannot separate what is happening in the
How do you think architecture must address the problem of the natural
I believe that the whole idea about the natural
environment has been turned on its head actually in a
very strange way. For about a quarter of a century, people
have been in effect obsessed with saving the environment
- which is of course a very sensible thing to do when
it's being ravaged and destroyed.
But the real problem is
that we won't be OK, in terms of building or in terms of
nature or anything else, until we learn how to make nature.
irreverent about saying that. What we think of as nature is a
particular kind of structure.
We feel tuned to it and we love it, and I think if one
has a sort of romantic feeling about it, or a historical
feeling about it, or emotional feeling about it, it kind
of gets focused on bushes, water, sky, trees, the animal
kingdom and so forth. And no one really stops to say, well,
what is it about that stuff - why do we love that so? Why are we singling it out in that way?
Now all of what we call
nature is marked by the way that the whole system keeps
on differentiating itself and unfolding and adapting, so
that every piece of it is adapted in some utterly
incredible way to the things that are immediately near
it or the things that are somewhat further away.
It sounds a bit abstract
when I say that. But really that is the crux of the
Because in the artifacts that we produce - and I'm not
only speaking of buildings here - we have no clue how
to do this.
We don't know how to do
it actually any longer even on a farm.
At one time farmers took it for granted that they knew
how to create versions of nature-structure. But the farms that have grown up in the
last 50 or 60 years have really abandoned that, and have
essentially been commercialized - going to massive
production techniques which are very largely damaging.
And the key thing again is that even these farmers no
longer know how to create this intricately beautiful,
infinite adaptive system, which gives us joy, pleasure,
comfort, relaxation, wisdom, and so on, even when we
rarely come in contact with it.
So, people who built
buildings certainly used to know how to do this kind of
thing at one time.
There really was an era when buildings were very gently inserted into
nature, and whether people were making towns, or
villages, or fields, or simply looking after the forest
or the ocean, they were always making nature.
Today, if you say to
somebody, we should be making nature, it has a
completely zany kind of ring.
Because starting around 1970 there was this - I wouldn't call it a movement, really, it was just an
inclination of people, who were so sick of Skidmore
Owings and Merrill and things like that, that they
started wanting to make organic shapes. And so one started to see hexagonal
houses - god knows why people thought that was organic,
maybe because of bees or something - Buckminster Fuller
domes, hippie buildings, made of earth and sticks, that
kind of thing.
I think the majority of people didn't really like the
products of this kind of thinking.
And in fact it never really went anywhere.
But when you talk about nature, and trying to make
things that are related to nature, that stuff is one of
the things that comes to mind.
Making nature is really
an incredibly different thing.
At the Monterey Aquarium,
there's an artificial beach. It's very very amazing.
It's entirely indoors; it's like a cross-section through
a beach, it has the water, they have a wave-making
then it has the sand going up and the little dunes and
then the big dunes and all that.
The fascinating thing is
that all the animals stay there.
I mean they actually can escape.
But it's so perfectly tuned to the realities of what
such a beach is and what it does for its inhabitants and
so on, that all of the various creatures - of course
they vary across the cross-section -
are basically OK, and want to be there, and recognize it
and are part of it. I remember when I first saw that thing,
I was absolutely staggered that anybody knew enough to do that. And
in fact I visited again a few months ago, and I had
exactly the same feeling.
So going back to the
question - because your question as you first posed it
has to do with, well what do you think about forests and
animals and whatever, all being desecrated,
But the idea that one has
to actually be in the position of those people who made
that tiny little beach in Monterey aquarium -
I think that penny has really not dropped.
But it is beginning to drop among what let's call
ecological souls - people who like dealing with water
and plants and natural cycle and that sort of thing. And that's becoming quite good, and there's a lot of careful
attention to it.
But the thing is, that
what has not happened, is that people understand that
the same attitude precisely goes, must go, into the
making of buildings, or a wall, or a window, or anything
And if you say, well that
sounds fine, but what does it really mean, how do you
actually do that?
- the whole of architecture opens up before you.
Now earlier we talked
about the traditional architecture enthusiasts,
Classicists and all of that. And I told you then that I was somewhat
uncomfortable with that.
The reason is that
although I think for the very very large part their
hearts are in the right place, and so indeed are the New
Urbanists, and various other kinds of people... all
doing their best to think about better ways of building
and so forth....
But the idea that a
building when correctly made is going to be given the
kind of structure that makes us practically fall on our
knees when we see it in a fir tree or in a bit of moss
- that has actually not materialized.
Because of course the processes needed to do it are so
remote from the processes that are currently available,
in contracts, and in production of materials, and in -
well every aspect, almost, of the way that architecture
is done. So that it is a very far reach indeed to reach towards that,
very difficult to think about.
But as we now are
beginning to have this genuinely scientific theory of
what architecture is and what to do, then that will be obvious to us, and
that's what we'll be doing.
And we won't have to worry about Doric columns, or
classically proportioned windows, or any of a very many
many other kinds of things that are like that.
the idea that it's actually possible to make a building or parts of a building
that really and truly have that sort of resonance, is stunning and fascinating
and fabulous. It does require
paying attention to absolutely different sorts of structures. It does not require getting into weird
kinds of geometry, which is what I alluded to a moment ago - which is what people think of when they start talking about
"well we've got to make buildings like nature." Because it doesn't mean "like nature" in
some simple-minded geometric way - it has curvy shapes, and therefore we should
have curvy buildings, or any of that.
It has to do with the
grain of the adaptation. All the different structures.
And I am quite certain
that as one learns how to do that, discovers how to
do it, discovers what it really means, the so-called
"classical" shapes - and I'm now using it in a very
much more embracing sense, I'm not just talking about
sort of Greco-Roman heritage, I'm talking about all of
what we know as traditional shapes - will turn out to
be the kinds of things that you have to do to make
So that all of it has to do with nature. All of it has to do with "being-nature". Of course once one has that perspective,
there's no need to seek union between buildings - i.e. bricks, mortar, concrete, wood, glass, and so on - and
on the other hand, chlorophyll, cell structures, flowing
sap, hydrology and so on. Because it is actually all governed in
the same way.
So really, in a way the
answer to your question that I would like to give is, it
isn't a question of finding a union. The union will follow automatically, if
we get inside from underneath and come up inside the
glove. And actually know what it is. Then we'll be doing it. Whether we're doing it, you know, in
planting a rose bush outside a window, or in dealing
with a patch of grass, or in laying up a
certain kind of wall in a completely new and previously
MM: We were talking before about the idea of
what happened around 1600;
we've had this historic period for 400 years that has
been marvelous in many ways, it's created this incredible abundance
and so on.
But it's also done something rather horrendous, in
creating a relationship with nature - "nature" in the
broadest scientific sense - that nature is something that's
That's been a very powerful illusion, a very productive
and useful illusion, but still an illusion.
The thing that I'm struggling with is, trying to
elucidate what it really means to make nature when, for
example, you're building a bbuilding. I mean it is of course connected with what you just said. What I'm concerned about is that this
can so easily become a kind of mantra without having a
substantial enough content.
Let me give an example of
an exercise one might give to a student, perhaps.
If you say to a student, OK, I want you now to draw an abstract drawing which
has the character of nature. An
abstract drawing of - actually could be almost anything.
So it might be a frieze running around a room.
It might be of a plan of a couple of rooms in a very small house. It could be a wall with a bottom and a
top, or whatever. And if you simply
say to that student, please draw this so that it has the character of nature,
and can you do that, and do you know how to do that - my experience is that
students have a very great difficulty doing that kind of things. Because essentially they don't
understand what the question really means.
And so there'll be various attempts, different things will be tried. It'll be - OK, what about organic
shapes, will that get what the professor wants?
Or it could be tried, what about integrating it with rock gardens and
water, is that what he's talking about?
Or, it could be is it sustainable in it's, you know, a piece of
sustainable ecology? Or then
we can obviously go in for the weird shape thing.
But of course all of
these will be wrong. And actually even the better of them
will have only a little bit that is actually true and
worth holding onto, in guiding the students' pencil as
this person who is trying to draw something which
actually is a part of nature, which has the character of
This is something that is
actually really quite clear, and if we were sitting
I could draw you something in a couple of moments that
would be like that. But its main feature would be that it
has this peculiar and distinguishable structure.
And that gradually, what happens is, you learn, somehow in your bones, to
do that - that is to shape things that way, and not
some other way. And it really is a morphological
You know, the Bauhaus had
as part of their original curriculum, exercises which
had to do with just drawing the shape of certain things.
And one later I think began to be a bit doubtful about
those, that they were too formalistic, and so on. But actually this activity that I am
describing might be taken also as very formal,
formalistic even, because it does have to do with, well
what kind of shapes are actually, recognizably, natural in that sense. And it's a knack about how to do that. It's a knack of course that can be
can be learned, and it must be learned by observation.
You have to try to do it, and then find out what it is
about it that you can't do and then try again and keep
on until actually you are drawing stuff that is like
I remember when I was
about 30, I began to notice that some of Wright's plans
had this quality in them. I didn't know what it was at that time, I just noticed that
they had a very soft and gentle quality, in the bones of
the drawing. And that was actually probably about as
close as any of the so-called modern group of architects
ever actually came.
But it was fascinating, because I realized that I was
looking at something that I could recognize, didn't
really know how to produce, didn't even have a name for
it, had never in my studies ever been given by anybody
some sort of notion that would enable me to name it,
recognize it, talk about it, emulate it.
And unfortunately, for
example, with CNU - which I think is fascinating,
because this is such a powerful movement, and it's just
sort of taken hold in a good way, I mean it's great
really that so many people are enthusiastic.
So I'm proud of them, because they've really done
something to help change things. But when you say, well, what are the
rules that they actually live by?
I'm talking about "live by" when they're shaping
something, modeling it, drawing it, planning it, things
like that - building it, and so forth
- the concepts
that they are living by there are not those which I've
just been speaking about, having to do with whether
you're making part of nature. They're actually something highly
artificial, and in fact, some of those folks I think
pride themselves on being quite deliberate creators of
Because they almost enjoy the fact that the man-made artifice is
something in its own right and of wonder and so on, and
then they say, well, that's what we are trying to do.
And we're trying to discover the old rules about that
But this knowledge about
making something so that it is nature, is a much deeper
thing than that.
And it needs to be understood differently, and it needs to be practiced
And once you can do it, you don't make that many
So I think that if we recognize that it is primarily a
morphological issue, and that it is not the morphology
that has been traditionally associated with nature by
architects - you know, all those examples I gave a
minute ago. But it is a morphological awareness that we need to develop,
and it could be developed.
MM: One of the criticisms of new urbanism is
that it does not account enough for process.
It tends to be designed all-of-a-piece, and as you put it, master planned
through the conventional developer process. And that process is the characteristic of the natural
morphology you spoke of?
That's how it arises - through the process?
Completely, and that is the fundamental aspect of it.
And it actually cannot be faked. You cannot produce it any other way.
I remember when I was at
Berkeley, sometimes my colleagues would get mad at me
because I said I didn't want to come to juries, I didn't
like them, and I thought that they were the work of the
Of course the reason is that if you believe in what
you're seeing or attempting to do in a typical jury and
so on, that's completely at odds with those sort of
processes, so you will never be able to get it by that
form of teaching. So it actually is a very bad thing to do, and a very
unfortunate thing that has been inculcated in schools.
And yet for instance, they have, you know, all the vocabulary about the
parti - and the very terminology there is dead wrong,
and supports just the whimsicalities of the Beaux Arts,
not that they were terribly bad, but they're certainly
not about nature in the sense that we're talking about.
But it is a really
massive task to replace those concepts with concepts
that are nature-oriented and that are profound.
One of the difficulties,
I think, in these last decades, has been that the people who liked ecology or
who wanted to take seriously those sort of things, were always in a funny sense
on the periphery in architecture schools.
And they were always vaguely looked down on by the people who had all this stuff
about the Beaux Arts and so forth, because it wasn't sufficiently morphological. Now, you see, it's funny there because
actually I think that criticism was correct.
But I don't believe that what the Beaux Arts had to offer was correct. But the more general statement that the
morphology is the foundation of the whole thing - it has to be.
MM: The result was incorrect. But it so happens that the process that
the Beaux Arts people were assuming was also incorrect?
Absolutely. The Beaux Arts
people were right in saying, "look, really, morphology
is everything. Don't try to be an architect and not
deal with morphology."
As you say they had a very peculiar and very narrow view
of morphology. But the problem is that the ecologically
minded people of our time, even though one might want to
embrace them and say, you're brethren, you're trying to
do the same thing I'm trying to do and so on, but
actually they are not dealing with morphology
sufficiently. Therefore, in a certain sense they're
not even allowed into the dialogue very much.
So that if there's a
group which is sort of NU based, and then ecologists
come along, and say we like you, we like what you're doing and so forth - but actually the
ecologically minded person hasn't got the vocabulary of
morphs, of shapes and forms and the generation of shapes
and forms, just happens to know a great deal about
plants and animals and insects and water and so forth. But that isn't far enough to
achieve the kind of thing I'm speaking about at all.
Because until you can say, no, look, let me hold your hand and show you
how to move the pencil here - and this is the kind of
thing which is for real, and is actually making nature
when one is in the sphere of buildings, this is a
And once that becomes crystal clear, then everything
And I am extremely much
hoping that these interviews and what this interview is
about will help to make that change. Are there things you would like me to
speak about that I haven't gone to?
MM: I would like to relate this idea back to
the idea that nature is something much broader than the
woods and the foxes and so on and so forth.
It is the structure of things, in the broadest sense.
And we have an understanding of that structure of things
that is really revolutionizing the way we've looked at
the world in the last 400 years.
I personally think, and I think the other three [editors of Katarxis]
feel the same way, that this is an incredibly powerful
tool to use as a critique of what's been happening, and
a recognition that there has to be that process, that
hand, that goes through the iterations, goes through the
process of creating the structure.
Instead of taking an abstract structure - as you put it
in A City is Not A Tree so beautifully - a simple
mental structure that you begin with, and you pretty
much end with.
If one takes seriously the idea that it all
resides in process - and that that's not just an empty
phrase, but really, the kind of morphology that we're
referring to here as nature, is produced only when
certain kinds of processes go forward, they've got
definite sequences, they unfold in certain ways, and so
on - if you take all that seriously, then you would
expect in a sense never again to see an architectural
studio where students try to lay out an entire urban
design project or a subdivision.
Instead what would be
mandatory and natural, is that every student would be
struggling with a generative process, the class would be
struggling with simulations, where everything is going
forward step by step.
And the question is whether the regulation of those
processes that go forward step by step leads to coherent
and beautiful results.
And that's a very concrete thing.
It just at one stroke
would say, OK, we're going to stop 500 classes in
different architecture schools in the world today, and
we're going to replace them with that today.
Of course the same thing can be said about engineering structure, about
the plan of a house, it can be said about anything. But it's particularly vivid and clear, because one can
certainly imagine simulations in which step-by-step
processes can be tackled by a group of students, and you
can either get chaos or you can get good results, you
can get in-between results.
And to get really profound results, and to ask, well,
what processes will achieve that, then you say, well,
we've got this class, and these people are putting
buildings one by one, bringing them in balsa wood or in
cardboard or in whatever, on this group model.
And we're going to keep doing this class until they've
come up with something which is as good as the Piazza
del Duomo in Florence.
And then you've finally
got a process which is actually going somewhere.
The late David Bohm, whose work is being
carried on by Basil Hiley at Birkbeck College, U. of London, among others
Duany told this author that
Alexander told him "we both know what the correct appliance is; now you have
to design the plugs to go into the existing power grid." See the separate interview with
Duany, also in Katarxis 3.
See the gallery of Alexander’s
work, also in Katarxis 3, for examples of this.
Alexander discusses these ideas
extensively in Book 2 of
Alexander has claimed that he is a
modernist in the sense that he believes in using contemporary technologies
in a unique expression of unique conditions; in this respect he differs
significantly from the so-called “classicists” who believe in a faithful
return to classical architectural forms.
"Classicism and the Many World
Cultures", posted to the TradArch listServ.
was one of a number of 1960's-era architects - a group that included
Charles Eames - who examined exhaustively the implications of standard
Nature of Order, Book 3:
A Vision of a Living World
There is an interesting parallel in
Steven Wolfram’s book
A New Kind of Science, to which Alexander’s
has been compared.
Wolfram’s book describes the totality of irreducible algorithms as a better
explanation of reality. But
taken to its extreme, this logic leads to a kind of Laplacean demon,
creating a deterministic (though unknowably complex) reality.
This is equivalent to 1 with 100 quadrillion
zeroes after it.
The apparently paradoxical argument
goes like this: because these craftsmen have a vast range of
possibilities defined within a structured tradition, the can choose between
the possibilities; whereas a person outside of a tradition has far fewer
options available, hence is actually less "free.".
"Classicism and the Many Cultures", posted to the TradArch ListServ
See "Additional Links and References."
Center for Environmental Structure, Housing
Project for the Poor,
Lima, Peru, 1968.